Jun 27, 2012

What is transactional email?

Update (3/16/16): Mandrill is now an add-on for paid monthly MailChimp email marketing accounts, and is no longer available as a standalone service. Existing Mandrill users have until April 27, 2016 to merge their Mandrill account with a MailChimp account. See this article for additional details, including pricing information and instructions for merging your accounts.

Well isn’t that confusing: the first link I get from Google for "transactional email" actually contains incorrect information! It’s not really about financial transactions at all, anymore. (Though e-commerce does happen to generate a lot of this kind of email, more on that later…)

Definitions, Synonyms, Examples

So what is transactional email? Coming from a MailChimp state of mind, you might simply think of it as "anything that isn’t bulk". Basically, it is email sent to an individual based on some action. It could be:

  • an action they took directly
  • an action they were the target of or,
  • perhaps even inaction on their part
A warm welcome sets the tone
A warm welcome sets the tone

For example, if a user signs up for your website, you should probably welcome them with a lovely email. Bam! That’s a transactional email. Signing up is the "transaction" in this case. Simple, right?

An example of an action happening to a user might be the familiar "so-and-so commented on your hooza-whatsit" alerts we all receive from our favorite social networking sites. In these cases the action was taken by other users, but the recipient was the target of the action, so they receive a notification email letting them know something of interest happened.

In fact, for simplicity, many people refer to transactional emails as "triggered", "automatic", "real-time" or even "personalized". Use whatever term makes you comfortable; the goal is to make sure everyone in the organization is speaking the same language and getting the same meaning. The word "transactional" can be rather misleading to business and marketing types.

Look familiar? Lots of things can trigger an email
Look familiar? Lots of things can trigger an email

Some other worthy sources of transactional email:

  • email address confirmations
  • password resets
  • purchase receipts
  • "thank you for [some action]"
  • account balance updates
  • weekly manifests
  • auto-responders
  • support requests
  • cart abandonment
  • monthly invoices
  • app error alerts (developer tested!)
  • automated re-engagement (marketer approved!)

And many more! There’s not really a boundary as to what kinds of actions can trigger an email. The pros are set up to trigger real-time, personalized transactional emails within seconds of user interaction. You should be, too.

But MailChimp Sends Some of Those…

Looking at the above list, your left-brain has probably noticed that MailChimp actually sends quite a few transactional emails. "But how can that be?!?", I hear your right-brain exclaim, "You just said ‘transactional emails are not bulk emails’, but MailChimp is a bulk email service!"

Freddie sends his share
Freddie sends his share

While that is true, MailChimp is also itself a web application, and its users take actions that require notifications all the time. (Kind of meta, right?) These notifications are sent both directly to MailChimp’s users on its own behalf, and to MailChimp’s users’ users (aka your list subscribers) on its users’ behalf.

For instance, we send weekly updates to customers about their account status. But we also send double opt-in, welcome, and unsubscribe emails to our customers’ subscribers when they take an action relevant to our customers’ lists.

What MailChimp doesn’t do, however, is send these kinds of emails in a generic way, as a service. That’s a job best left to dedicated transactional services. (Spoiler alert: we run just such a service, Mandrill, and it’s awesome. More on that later…)

So, E-Commerce Must Be Transactional, Right?

Nope. I mean, not necessarily. This is a common misconception, but "transactional" does not imply "financial" in this. Transactional email isn’t about purchasing something from inside an email. Nor is it about treating email as a payment method or form of currency. It doesn’t even need to mention money to be transactional.

That said, and somewhat confusingly, e-commerce applications do send a lot of transactional email! Think about the lifecycle of a purchase online:

  1. sign up, confirmation email
  2. throw items in a cart, get nudged if you abandon it
  3. check out, get a receipt
  4. track the package, get shipping notifications
  5. invitation to rate the item(s) you purchased (days/weeks later)


Look at that: all the actions of an online purchase are worth sending an email about, for one reason or another. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be e-commerce to be transactional.

As for the law, the CAN-SPAM Act talks about this stuff as "transactional and relationship" messages. That’s kind of a mouthful, so the modern email industry usually just says "transactional". Check out this document and search for the phrase "transactional and relationship" for some basic guidelines if you’re worried about Johnny Law.

Okay, But What’s the Big Deal?

Now that all of the confusion is cleared up (and leave a comment if it’s not), we get to a more fundamental question: Why? Why go to all this trouble defining terms and giving examples? Why fret over using an ESP to actually deliver my triggered emails? Why give it an extra thought if this stuff is already working?

In a word: impressions!

We spend so much time polishing the user experience of our web pages, carefully drafting our copy and calls-to-action, optimizing our page load times, and even painstakingly crafting lovely templates for our newsletters. When we aren’t sure about something, we laboriously split test it and pore over the stats to choose a winner.

And why do we do all of this? Because it’s good for business.

Split-testing for fun and profit
Split-testing for fun and profit

Don’t our transactional emails deserve the same treatment? For many of us, these emails are second-class citizens: set up once and promptly forgotten.

We know exactly how many people are on our lists, how many clicks our campaigns get, and on which links. How many triggered emails do we send? For many organizations the answer is "a lot". Do we know if they are effective in doing what they’re supposed to? What ARE they supposed to do? Can they also hit secondary goals?

Your web store is gorgeous. Shouldn’t your receipts be gorgeous, too?

Your blog is masterfully written and sharp as a knife, but who’s the flunky dullard that wrote your confirmation and welcome emails?

Your designer spent weeks picking just the right color combination for your new web app; your notification emails are OMG MY EYES MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP!

This Sounds Like a Lot of Work…

Hmmm, perhaps. Better yet: "it depends". Yeah, that’s the ticket…

Amro over in our mobile lab sure had some good results, and all he did was measure clicks and rearrange his welcome email! A good transactional ESP should make the simple stuff simple, even default.

Of course, if you have a larger organization, you probably have a much larger body of triggered email to augment and analyze. That’s fine too! Start tracking things now, it’s easy; the cooler stuff can wait until you have a clearer picture of what’s working and what’s not. What gets measured gets improved, and there’s always room for improvement!

Open and click tracking, courtesy of Mandrill
Open and click tracking, courtesy of Mandrill

So you’re ready to get started, right?

What’s that? You don’t know HOW to get started? Well then, why didn’t you say something!

We Totally Made an App for That

We call it Mandrill, and we’re rather proud of it.


We’ve made the easy stuff easy, like open- and click-tracking (enabled by default, as it should be!) We’ve made the challenging stuff possible, like split-testing, templating, and even inbound email parsing. And best of all, we’ve sprinkled that stark usability and passion for experience that MailChimp is known for. Heck, you might even say we’ve made the challenging stuff fun.

At minimum, I hope I’ve cleared up some confusion and gotten us all speaking the same language. More so, I hope I’ve piqued your interest in the advanced stuff, not just because we believe it is so valuable, but because you’re going to be hearing about a lot more about it, here and on the Mandrill blog.

Don’t let that stop you from asking about it here and now, though! We want to learn what you think is valuable. Mandrill is evolving fast, and we want to build and explain the features YOU need to build YOUR business and take it to the next level.

Let’s get this conversation started!

Update: MailChimp Facebook integrations are now available with our freemium package. You can use your MailChimp list to create Facebook ads, and it’s really easy.