Transactional vs. Marketing Emails: What’s the Difference?


Creating a successful email campaign starts with figuring out what kind of messages you need to send to your audience. Look at your inbox and you’ll send dozens of different types of email. Some focus on sharing information on an upcoming event or product launch. Others might answer customer questions or respond to an issue in the marketplace.

The best marketers know that if you want to build a relationship with your target audience, you can’t rely on non-stop promotional emails, designed to drive sales. Instead, you need a combination of different messages.

All of those emails also need to be working together to deliver meaningful experiences for your audience.

Today, we’re going to look at 2 kinds of email that often cause confusion: marketing emails and transactional emails. If you’ve ever asked yourself: “What’s the difference between a marketing and transactional email?” you’re in the right place.

Let’s dive in.

Defining Marketing Emails and Transactional Emails

There are so many different terms that marketers need to get used to in the digital world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The confusion that surrounds the different kinds of emails gets even more significant when the concepts seem to belong to the same space. Marketing and transactional emails both have something to do with customer purchases.

So, what’s the difference?

Marketing emails are any email you send that contains a commercial message, or content intended for promotional purposes. For instance, if you send an email about a flash sale to your audience, then you’re trying to entice them to make a purchase. This is an example of a marketing email:

Marketing emails are usually sent to groups of prospects or customers.

Transactional emails, on the other hand, are any email that contains information that completes a process or transaction that the recipient already started with you. For instance, if a customer buys something from your store, and you follow up with a “thank you” message, that’s transactional.

Transactional emails are for individual customers, not groups of people.

The Difference Between Marketing and Transactional Emails

Transactional email is a one-on-one conversation between you and a customer. It’s all about building a reliable and credible relationship with a company. These emails are triggered by specific actions, like purchases, or returns.

When you send a transactional email, you’re delivering customer service, and strengthening brand relationships. When you send a marketing email, you’re encouraging future sales. An email newsletter is an example of a marketing email, because it’s intended to drive your customer towards their next purchase with information.

Marketing emails can also showcase new products that have just arrived for your company, like this message from Firebox:

The problem with transactional and marketing emails is that they can sometimes suffer from overlap.

You might have a transactional email thanking someone for a purchase that also recommends another product. It’s also possible to respond to a review from a customer with a discount, which prompts another purchase too.

See how things get confusing?

Let’s explore some of the common forms of transactional emails you might send.

Common Types of Transactional Emails

So you know that marketing emails are about pushing a purchase, and transactional emails are about responding to a purchase, or another customer interaction.

However, with so much overlap, it’s easy to get confused.

Here are some common examples of transactional emails, to provide you with more clarity.

1. Order Receipt or Confirmation

Transactional emails often contain critical information that’s specific to a unique customer. The most common example of a transactional message is an order receipt or confirmation. These messages come in the later stages of your customer journey map, after they buy something.

With an order confirmation or receipt, you let your clients know that you received their request. This reduces the worry your audience has about buying online. You can also provide useful information about how to track the package:

Amazon email

As mentioned above, there are ways that you can add marketing elements to your order receipt emails. Suggesting other products that your customers might like means you blur the line between marketing and transactional messages.

There’s nothing wrong with using every opportunity to increase your sales. However, it’s important not to make your brand seem too pushy.

2. Customer Feedback Emails

Gaining customer feedback is essential if you want to reduce cart abandonment and earn more sales. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that your customers are going to seek feedback opportunities out themselves. Transactional emails that request feedback can reduce the friction here. Just look at this option from Squarespace:

A good way to combine marketing and transactional strategies with your feedback emails, is to offer customers a discount or reward for leaving a review. Providing a reason to deliver testimonials is a great way to increase your chances of audience engagement. It also means that you could get extra sales thanks to customers wanting to use their deal.

Squarespace email

3. Account Security Emails

Customers want to buy from companies they feel they can trust. That means that you need to constantly find ways to put their mind at ease. Emails that let your customer know when someone signs in on a new device, or when someone else attempts to use their log-in will make them feel more capable of trusting you.

An example of an account security email could also be a message requesting your customer to update their password if they’ve used the same one for a while.

Account emails also apply to messages that you need to send your customers when they forget their password and need to update their credentials, like so:

Reset my password

4. Notification Emails

Some companies send their customers emails based on their individual settings and preferences. For instance, if you let your customers create accounts with your website, you could also give them the option to choose if they want to get emails when you post a blog on a certain topic.

Alternatively, if you’re an eCommerce site, you can send notifications when prices of a popular product drop. Notification emails can also include reminders. If you sell a subscription service or a software solution, your customers might need to renew their account every so often. A message reminding them that they’re running out of time is a transactional email.

However, bear in mind that notification emails that convince your customers to renew or re-buy their service can also be promotional too.

Email on acid

5. Welcome Emails

Easily one of the best-known kinds of transactional email on the market today, welcome emails are all about letting your customers know that they’re a part of your community. The welcome email is one of the most valuable messages you’ll send in your email campaign. According to campaign monitor, welcome emails have around a 91.43% open rate.

Your welcome email is a chance to set expectations for your audience and let them know they made the right decision by connecting with you.

Welcome emails can also include double opt-in requests if you’re asking your audience to confirm that they want to be a part of your community after they give their details on a form. Some companies combine welcome and opt-in emails, while others send them separately.

Here’s an example of a great welcome email from Virgin Atlantic, that also touches on becoming a marketing email, with invitations to check out deals.

Virgin atlantic welcome aboard

Best Practices for Marketing and Transactional Emails

As you can see, differentiating between marketing and transactional emails can be tricky at times. Transactional emails are a chance to build a stronger relationship with your audience. These emails give your customers crucial information and improve the perception of your brand.

However, transactional emails can also unlock opportunities for marketing too. For instance, a welcome email can also include a list of top-selling products for customers to check out. A review request can feature a discount code that encourages further sales.

Often, the best transactional emails occur when companies take advantage of the opportunity to sell, while building relationships. A few things to remember include:

  • Get the tone right: Transactional emails aren’t necessarily there to convince customers of anything. You don’t need to be persuasive. Instead, your tone should be informative, educational, and supportive.
  • Answer the right questions: In marketing emails, you need to give your customers the information they need to make an informed purchase with confidence. With transactional emails, the focus is on making your customers feel confident with a purchase or decision they already made.
  • Get the subject line right: Your customers should know whether they’re opening a transactional or marketing email immediately. Don’t confuse your audience with overwhelming subject lines.

Remember, in both marketing and transactional emails, your copy should focus on bringing value to your customers and highlighting the unique features of your brand.

Understanding Your Email Options

Knowing the difference between marketing and transactional emails helps you build a more complete strategy for connecting with customers at every stage of the buyer journey. While marketing emails and transactional emails belong to the same process (selling), they’re quite different.

Ensuring that you have the right combination of emails to promote your products and services, and the right messages to support your audience is crucial.


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