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Email Receipts and Transactional Emails: Marketing Messages Dressed in a Business Suit

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
16 August 2011

One of today's emerging retail email trends is emailing receipts to customers instead of printing them out from the cash register. Some say receipt-via-email is the future for stores of all sizes.

The travel industry has emailed receipts to time-pressed travelers for years, while Apple Stores pioneered the practice at the retail level using iPhones. Now more mainstream brick-and-mortar stores have added it or are testing it.

A recent USA Today story outlines the pros and cons of emailing receipts, which essentially boil down to convenience (no more paper receipts to lose) versus privacy (a sneaky way to add addresses to a database).

My own experience with emailed receipts has been a mixed bag. When they show up on time, are accurate and stand out in my inbox, they're great. But sometimes they don't show up. And if they do arrive, they often do nothing to enhance the brand relationship.

Email Receipts = Transactional Emails = Marketing Emails
Email receipts are essentially a different kind of transactional email, but they face the same issues. Many of these emails, whether from in-store or online transactions, are text-based, ugly and lacking in branding/marketing value.

Of course, these emails are supposed to provide an electronic record of a transaction, notify customers their orders have shipped or are out of stock, or fulfill other transaction-related purposes. But they don't have to look as outmoded as an eight-track tape.

Transactional emails are among the most relevant emails you can send because they relate to a purchase or related process. They are among the emails your recipients read and value the most.

Transactional emails can also upsell, inform, brand and market to customers just like regular promotional emails, but to more engaged recipients.

Where Receipt/Transactional Emails Fall Short
Consider my two recent experiences with emailed receipts:

  • The Missing Receipt: I bought a pair of shoes at a store in a California outlet mall and agreed to the email receipt (and promotional emails). Weeks after the sale, neither has shown up. Did the employee type my email address in wrong (I spelled it twice) or did the POS-to-email system fail somehow?
  • The Horrible Email Experience: I couldn't track down a crucial hotel receipt in my inbox. Once I finally unearthed it and got the information I needed, the message gave me little reason to engage further with the company.

Whether you’re looking to add receipts via email to your POS process or spruce up your order confirmation emails, make sure you optimize the message for everything from delivery to inbox presence to content.

Look for these opportunities to provide the best email experience for your recipients and the best benefit for your marketing program:

1. On-time inbox placement: Delivery is the single most important aspect of a transactional email. Many companies rely on homegrown transactional systems or ecommerce platforms that lack the authentication, delivery and bounce processing infrastructure common to email marketing or dedicated transactional email systems.

Make sure your email system is up to snuff. Or, consider upgrading to a dedicated transactional email system. When possible, the transaction should trigger these emails immediately.

In this instant-message age, waiting two days to get a hotel statement is unacceptable.

2. Easily recognizable "From" name: Searching for my missing hotel receipt dredged up only irrelevant emails. After scrolling one by one through hundreds of unread emails, a message from "" surfaced. (Name changed to protect the clueless). Bingo!

An email address in the "From" field instead of a name makes the message look spammy. Instead of a “gobbledygook” email address or something obscure, like "Accounting," use a logical, trusted and easily recognizable "From" name that includes your company or brand.

In this example, the "From" name could have been "Big Hotel Chain" (or "BigHotelChain" if the email software doesn't permit spaces) or "BigHotelChain Service."

3. Informative subject line: Subject lines that just say "Order Confirmation" aren't horrible, but they provide neither context nor clarity.

When possible, go beyond the basics, like this subject line from Costco: "Your Costco Photo Center Print Order Is Currently Being Processed."

4. Attractive design and clear branding: No law says transactional emails can't use HTML or images or look as sharp as your best promotional emails. Yet so many look like circa-1992 email messages sent to my AOL account.

Incorporate relevant branding in your messages. Make appropriate use of HTML and images to deliver a message that represents your brand well and packs an informational punch.

5. Value-added content: Go beyond the basic transaction or receipt information and provide additional content that provides value to the consumer. This might include delivery tracking information, loyalty program status updates or product usage tips.

For example, hotels and airlines often provide weather forecasts, "Things to do in Chicago," TSA tips and more in their confirmation emails.

My hotel receipt (screenshot below) has one line of marketing-related copy ("Please come back again") followed by an 80-word legal disclaimer. The receipt itself was a PDF attachment that looked exactly like a printed hotel bill.

Besides my bill, it listed my loyalty-point reward, pitched the hotel's branded credit card and gave me a chance to win time with a personal trainer. All or most of that copy should have been in the email’s message body.

6. Cross-promoting the company email program: Many transactional-email recipients might not have opted into your email program when they bought from your company. Use your receipts to invite these new and valuable paying customers to sign up for your email program with a link and brief benefit statement.

Transactional emails sent by Silverpop airline client BMI Baby include a dynamic content block inserted for nonsubscribers inviting them to opt in to its promotional email program.

7. Cross-selling: These emails are a great opportunity to promote related products and services. An email receipt for a camera purchase can include a promotion for a camera bag and zoom lens based on like-minded purchases.

More Information
If your transactional emails could use a facelift or overhaul, the Silverpop resources listed below will help you get started:

(Editor’s note: This post is an expanded version of my Email Insider column on the same topic.)


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