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The Difference Between Marketing Email and Transactional Email

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With the recent launch of transactional email, a number of people have asked me about how this type of email is different than traditional marketing email. If you do a simple Google search on the difference, you will find blurry definitions that still leave you wondering about when it is and is not appropriate to send transactional email versus a traditional marketing email. 

Part of the reason for vague descriptions is because email sending laws vary significantly between countries and any advice given on email may apply to one country, but may get you into trouble in another. So how do we differentiate marketing email and transactional email? Let's dive in.

Definition of Marketing & Transactional Email

Before we get to differences, and what type of email you should send let's define the two email types were talking about.

Marketing Email: Any email sent that primarily contains a commercial message or content intended for a commercial purpose (i.e. nurturing leads through your funnel) is considered a marketing email and must follow local laws. Marketing email is generally sent to groups of contacts that are prospects or customers. 

Transactional Email: One-to-one emails that contain information that completes a transaction or process the recipient has started with you. A common example is in ecommerce, after purchasing an item you receive a email receipt that has information about the item, price, and shipment. Transactional email is sent to individuals rather than a large list of recipients.

Want to learn how to measure and improve your email deliverability? Check out  this lesson.

Email-Marketing-or-Transactional 

Examples of Marketing Email and Transactional Email

Now that we have definitions, let's expand on both of those cases and talk about a few examples of marketing and transactional emails. As we talked about above, a marketing email is content that is intended for a commercial purpose. A newsletter is a great example of this, because it's intended to drive the recipient towards making a purchase or downloading content that brings them further down the funnel.

Newsletter-Email

I recently received this newsletter from Men's Wearhouse which highlights a daily deal, and related items that the recipient may be interested in purchasing. In this case, it's obvious that this is considered a marketing email. But what about all of those emails you send to promote content and get visitors to download offers? 

It's more of a gray area, but it's safe to expect most of that email to also be marketing related as it's intended purpose is to educate and drive clients/customers to some expected commercial transaction, whether that's making a purchase, upgrading their subscription, or anything that is related to a commercial deal or transaction.

Here are a few emails that are likely marketing-related:

  • Email Newsletters
  • Content Promotion & Offers
  • Sales Emails & Communication

Transactional email is different and contains critical information that is relevant to each recipient. For example, after recently purchasing a new modem, Amazon let me know that the modem had shipped and enabled me to track the package.


Amazon-cross-sell-emailAs you can see this email is personalized to me and contains information that is based on my previous transactional behavior with Amazon. If you have recently purchased an item from any ecommerce store, it's likely you've seen an email very similar to this.

But wait... I'm sure you noticed in the Amazon email example there is a section on items that are related to the purchase made. Doesn't this seem like a marketing email?

Good catch.

This is where the line between marketing email and transactional email, as well as legality, gets blurred very easily. There is no one right answer that will fit every countries email sending laws, and to highlight this lets use the Amazon email as an example with U.S. CAN-SPAM laws and the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation. 

In the U.S. this Amazon email would likely be considered transactional as it's primary purpose is based on my commercial relationship with Amazon. What I mean is, the email subject is about my order, the first information I see is about my package, where it was shipped, and details of the order, and then secondary to all of that other content, are a few related items others have bought. In Canada (or if this email was being sent to someone in Canada), it's not ok to include related items within your transactional email, and the whole frequently purchased section would have to be removed.

Here are a few emails you can send that are transactional: (again, ensure any content you include within your email adheres to local email sending laws and practices before sending the email) 

  • Commerce receipts and shipment notifications
  • Account updates (i.e. you have new followers on Twitter)
  • Password changes
  • Loan reminder
  • Communication of changes to employment benefits with employees

Now that we know the difference between the intention of these emails, let's take a brief look at how they are different within HubSpot.

Transactional Email in HubSpot

There are three ways of sending transactional email with HubSpot which give you the flexibility to send any transactional messages needed. To send transactional emails, you must have first purchased the transactional email add-on. Only some companies need to send transactional emails, so it is not part of the core HubSpot package. To explore transactional email, contact your customer success manager.

  • Email Editor: Just like sending traditional marketing email, you can also send transactional email. We will describe using this transactional email type below.
  • Automated Email Workflows: You can setup triggers and conditions that utilize transactional email to deliver a relationship based message (such as the delivery of an ebook).
  • SMTP API: This is the most considered the most common method of sending transactional email, and is supported by HubSpot.

To start, login in to HubSpot and go into Content > Email. From the email interface, within the Email Type drop-down, select Transactional. By doing so you will notice that the traditional footer of your email that contains unsubscription information is removed. This is because transactional email bypasses subscription preferences, and enables you to send to recipients that you have a relationship with regardless of their subscription settings.

Transaction-Email-HubSpot

Just like a traditional marketing email, you will be able to measure the performance of a transactional email within HubSpot and also see user information about email interactions within the contact record.  

When using marketing, and transactional email together in the right ways it can be a powerful combination that delivers a remarkable experience. Transactional email should always further an existing relationship you already have and can be used in many different ways to accomplish that.

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