Designing the Receipt: How to Put the Trance in Transactional Emails

The following blog post was written by Mike Nelson of Really Good Emails. If you like this post, sign up for our webinar with Mike on 3/31 at 1pm EST. We’ll cover everything you need to know about designing a killer transactional email. 

I have this awesome coffee shop right next to the office. This isn’t your typical coffee place; it is one of those hipster, artisan shops where the staff are called “roasters” and the place just gives an aura of confidence.

One by one, people line up each morning to smell the newly minted coffee beans and stake a seat that will support some laptop room. You often hear people talking about projects they are working on: new websites, apps, album covers… “Move this up.” “It needs this feature.” “I would totally buy this.”

You know how many times I’ve heard someone talk about a transactional email there? Zero.

Transactional emails are, for some reason, the forgotten stepchildren of ideas. Once you acknowledge the power of the transactional email, though, you see them as wizardous youth that you’ve kept in the cupboard under the stairs (sorry for HP reference, but it just seems to fit so well here).

It is crazy how powerful these emails are and, yet, are only an afterthought in every campaign meeting I’ve been to.

Here’s what we’re talking about (though the data is a little old):

-Transactional emails are opened and clicked twice as much compared to bulk emails.

-Transactional emails bring in six times more revenue per email sent compared to bulk emails

-Transactional emails have almost seven times higher conversion rates compared to bulk emails.

What are transactional emails?

Let’s get the basics down. An email that falls under the umbrella of a “transactional email” is one which is generated when someone interacts with your site, app, customer service, etc. and that interaction triggers a response email. Given how many different types of emails these could be, we could keep this blog post going for days.

Think: Order Confirmation, Shipping Confirmation, Product Feedback, Abandoned Cart, Form Submission, and a plethora of others.

You may be required to send these (such as a proof of purchase receipt) or want to nudge the recipient along a certain path based on something they did (such as didn’t buy something, but added it to their cart). The common factor, unlike “promotional” emails, is that a customer did something that warranted a unique, timely response that is typically expected.

Promotional emails may use data based off of actions, but they differ in that they are not tied to a specific action which needs a message sent within a deadline.

The downfall of transactional emails

Because transactional emails use triggers, they are usually left to the individuals assigned to those who build and log those triggers. What most customers receive then is something that was designed by an IT person – not a designer. Sometimes these rock because the person knows what they are doing and doesn’t make it look like one super long sentence of death.

However, most of the time they do not.

Moreover, they don’t feel like much time was put into them, and could easily be discarded like a small receipt at a coffee shop – unless you are saving it for that expense report, of course.

Knowing what we know above, that seems silly. Customers are expecting these emails, opening these emails, clicking on these emails, and buying from these emails. When designers and marketers think of it that way, transactional emails should be just as important, or more important, than the promotional campaigns that they are planning so regularly.

Transactional email examples: top picks

Order Confirmation

Why it’s really good:

– Clear photograph to remind you what it is.
– Box of info with different background color to stand out
– Clear contact info if anything goes wrong, with the option to just hit reply
– Bolded amount spent
– Loyalty progress bar
– Links and colors used to stay on brand

Other order confirmation emails

Password Reset

Why it’s really good:

– Bold colors, especially the background yellow, to remind you of its importance
– Illustration that sums up the message pretty clearly
– Larger than life Reset Password button with minimum text
– Separate box of info just in case you don’t remember what you are looking at
– Icons back to social media, just in case you want to engage more

Other password reset emails

Upcoming Reminder

Why it’s really good:

– Large, personalized header text. Makes you feel welcome to read more.
– Important information put up top, with the most important in white (most contrast)
– Dynamic tiles which tell you more about what is coming up and specific tips
– Quick links at the bottom for popular actions

Other reminder emails

Shipping Confirmation

Why it’s really good:

– Background images and colors remind you what is being shipped
– Clever copywriting that makes you smile when you read it
– All the details summed up clearly and the important stuff larger (shipping address)

Other shipping confirmation emails

Subscription Updates

Why it’s really good:

– Imagery that is relatable and reminding of the service
– Bold, contrasting text (most important) with smaller supporting text below
– Clear call-to-action button
– Fade-in black background sets the idea of the service going dark

Other deactivation emails

Status Updates


Why it’s really good:

– Massive font size – extremely easy to read on mobile
– Alternating colors and images for different sections
– Instills why you use the product and encourages you to come back
– Reliably sent at the end of each month

Other status report emails

Experience Survey


Why it’s really good:

– Simple design to help you focus the task at hand
– Minimum text to support the reasons why you were sent this email
– Image of experience to remind you of the transaction
– Link to email preferences in case you don’t like these kinds of triggered emails

Other survey emails

Ideas to make your transactional emails better

Hopefully, with a little bit of explanation, some real life examples, and a lot of coffee, you are able to start hitting out your own transactional email strategy. Before you get all jacked up on caffeine though, here are some things to remember:

-Your emails are going to be opened up and saved to different devices, so make them responsive.

-It is all good and dandy to remind someone of something, but you’ll get far better results if you include a clear call-to-action button.

-Think about when you would want to receive the email you are designing. Instantly? 3 hours after? 2 weeks after? Now, how does that affect what the next step is for the user?

-If the information is really important (like an order receipt or flight information), it will be referenced often. Emails that have this info are good places to add extra tips or suggest other products, which leads me to the next point…

-CAN-SPAM treats transactional emails differently than commercial emails. If the bulk of the beginning part of the email is mostly informative about an action, it is considered to be transactional. If it is salesy at the beginning, it is considered commercial. Familiarize yourself so you don’t get in trouble.

-Transactional emails are a great time to remind your customer about your brand. Use it to differentiate yourself from your competition if you are in a competitive industry.

-Personalize the email as much as possible, so that you include as much info about that person’s action without getting too creepy or too risky.

-Buy your IT individual a drink. They’re the one who will probably be helping you out to make sure that the triggers happen the way that they should and are injecting the right information into the emails anyways. They deserve a pat on the back for their efforts.

About the author:

Mike Nelson

Despite a short claim to fame as a Clay Aiken backup singer in 2005, Mike has been working on emails for over a decade. That led him to startup ReallyGoodEmails.com with some other good email fellows as a side project in early 2015 and the site now gets over a million users per year.