Is There a Difference Between Marketing Emails and Transactional Emails?

With so many varying types of email options for marketing professionals to utilize, it’s not surprising that the terms marketing emails and transactional emails are used interchangeably.

The reason they’re often confused is that they both fall under the same umbrella term of marketing email messages. Yes, while these two types of emails are similar in some respects, there’s a significant difference between marketing emails and transactional emails.

The difference between marketing emails and transactional emails

Knowing the difference between marketing emails and transactional emails is critical because you don’t want to misuse your email marketing efforts. That’s why we’ve decided to recap what each type of email message is, in terms of a traditional email marketing strategy.

Marketing emails

Marketing emails are emails that serve a specific purpose: to inform your readers and nurture them through the sales cycle.

Now, it’s important to note that marketing emails come in dozens of different forms and can include any of the following:

  • Welcome emails
  • Thank you emails
  • Lead nurturing emails
  • Listicles
  • Infographics
  • Email newsletters
  • Re-engagement emails
  • Cart abandonment emails
  • Post-transactional follow-up emails

 Example of an email newsletter

Source: Really Good Emails

What can seem confusing is the fact that transactional emails are a type of marketing email; however, it functions very differently than these other types of emails, and we’ll cover that momentarily.

Another way to help simplify the difference between marketing emails and transactional emails is to think of marketing emails as messages that are sent to prospective leads. What’s important to keep in mind here is the fact that, according to the customer lifecycle, customers are always treated as potential leads, and here’s why.

This is a visualization of the typical customer lifecycle.

Customer lifecycle journey

Source: Alexa

The red arrow indicates that the customer lifecycle never ends. So how can a repeat customer be considered a “potential” lead? It’s easy when you visualize it this way:

Customer lifecycle journey

Source: Alexa

Each of the purple arrows indicates the moves of the potential customer. The only time that the lead is not a potential customer is once they’ve entered the purchase stage.

However, once they leave the purchase stage, they, again, become a potential lead. Instead of being a “new” lead, they become a repeating lead. This helps marketing teams visualize them as a valuable, loyal customer.

To become a loyal customer, you must keep coming back for more, and that’s why the customer lifecycle never truly ends.

The idea behind marketing emails is the fact that each message is designed to keep the lead moving through this cycle, and that includes the use of transactional emails.

Now, to minimize confusion, we’re going to use the same visual, although, we’re going to highlight where transactional emails belong in this cycle:

Customer lifecycle journey

Source: Alexa

There’s only one place where transactional emails belong. These messages belong between the purchase phase and the post-purchase phase, whereas the other types of marketing emails can and should be used throughout the rest of the customer lifecycle. So what makes transactional emails so different from other marketing emails?

Transactional emails

Transactional emails are defined as email messages that are system-triggered to be sent to a subscriber who’s made the conversion to a customer.

These emails, again, are technically a type of marketing email. However, they don’t hold the same power as the other examples because you aren’t using your email platform to inform the reader.

Instead, you’re using this particular type of email to thank your subscriber for making a specific conversion (a purchase, download, signup, etc.) and then providing them with any relevant information regarding their conversion.

Now, a typical transactional email that consumers expect to see is email receipts regarding purchases they’ve made.

Ecommerce transactional email example

Source: Really Good Emails

In this example from Blue Bottle, they include all relevant information, including the customer’s order number, the items purchased, price, and shipping information. Instead of informing your reader, you’re confirming an action took place.

This is why transactional emails don’t fit in with the other typical marketing email. Those emails help to nurture the relationship between you and your subscribers, whereas transactional emails are primarily a confirmation of a transaction. Now, they can also be used as vessels to continue the conversation between you and your brand, such as a follow up to your transactional email or by including an upselling offer along with your transactional email.

Take, for example, this email message from Dollar Shave Club. Once someone has made a purchase with them, they can follow up on their transactional email with several types of emails, including a feedback email or a product review request. In this case, they used their follow-up email to announce their new service.

Subject Line: Forget something in your last box?

Transactional email follow up example

Source: Really Good Emails

This post transactional email is what moves your customers back into the customer lifecycle once they’ve made their initial conversions. This is where the informing stage begins anew.

Again, the transactional email is the confirmation of the action. The method in which you use to follow up on the transactional email is the next step in the marketing email process.

Aside from the traditional post-purchase confirmation, transactional emails can come in several different formats, including:

  • Event confirmations
  • Signup confirmations
  • Download confirmations
  • Order confirmation
  • Reactivation emails
  • Password reset requests
  • Shipping confirmations
  • Card declined messages and more

Email marketing best practices: The difference between marketing emails and transactional emails

When it comes to email marketing best practices, there’s little difference between marketing emails and transactional emails. Both follow the same best practices for addressing readers, design practices, and so on.

For example, when designing your marketing and transactional emails, you want to personalize your messages as much you possibly can. This means including as much subscriber data in creating your content as possible, including their:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Geolocation
  • Email preferences and more

This ensures that you’re sending only the most relevant content to each subscriber, no matter which stages in the customer lifecycle they’re in.

Another email best practice that’s shared by both marketing and transactional emails is designing with their readers in mind.

This means designing an email with either a responsive or mobile-friendly template and utilizing design best practices, such as utilizing images to help tell your story, sharing scannable content, and making CTAs easily visible for those who want to take a quick peek without having to go through each piece of the message.

Finally, you want to make sure that you’re A/B testing both your marketing and transactional messages to ensure that your content is suitable for your readers.

Do your readers want more newsletter-type content? Do they prefer transactional emails with a shipment tracker included in the message? No matter what type of email you plan on sending, always plan on running several A/B tests to ensure email success.

Where email marketing best practices differ for marketing emails and transactional emails

The primary difference between email marketing best practices with marketing emails and transactional emails is the type of content that you’re sending. Again, marketing messages are warm and informational, whereas transactional emails are usually very straightforward and thankful, since your reader just acted on your CTA.

The tone of each of these emails will depend heavily on the tone of the brand; however, many marketers find that transactional emails are much less professional compared to other marketing emails because transactional emails don’t have to convince readers of anything (since they’ve already made the conversion).

Marketing emails, however, depend heavily on a professional, authoritative voice to give the reader confidence in the brand and whatever it is they’re offering.

For example, let’s look at two emails from similar brands within the same niche. One is a marketing email by FromYouFlowers, and the other is a transactional email from ProFlowers.

 Comparison of a marketing email and a transactional email

The marketing email has a warm, friendly tone to it, as does the transactional email, because of the niche that both brands belong to. Now, take a look at the content the two emails include. The marketing email uses more promotional verbiage to encourage readers to click on images and learn more about the products. The transactional email, however, focuses on the customer’s purchase and what they can expect moving forward.

Wrap up

When it comes to understanding the differences between marketing emails and transactional emails, you need to understand that they both belong to the same process; however, they’re two very different types of emails.

  • Marketing emails: inform the reader and move them throughout the customer lifecycle.
  • Transactional emails: confirm that an action took place.

Ready to put your email marketing to work? Check out these 5 steps to triggered emails that generate revenue.

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