The average ecommerce customer will receive hundreds of emails over the course of their “lifetime”.

These include welcome emails, confirmation and delivery emails, cart-abandonment emails, along with a host of one-off promotional emails for sales and buying holidays like Black Friday.

As a retailer, it’s easy to get confused about the different types of emails. But it’s essential to understand the differences, even if they’re only subtle.

Specifically, fully grasping the distinctions between transactional, marketing, and promotional emails will enable you to tailor your campaigns accordingly, leading to higher open and conversion rates.

In this post, we’re going to look at what separates the main email categories. We’ll also provide you with an exhaustive set of specific examples. By the end, you’ll know exactly what’s missing from your campaigns.

What will you find in this article?

What Are Transactional Emails?
What Are Marketing Emails?
What Are Promotional Emails?
Types of Transactional Emails
Types of Marketing Emails
Types of Promotional Emails

Sounds good? Let’s dive in.

What Are Transactional Emails?

Transactional emails are automated emails sent in relation to a transaction.

The primary purpose of transactional email marketing is to communicate information to the recipient or to help them complete a technical task, like reset their password. Delivery update emails, which inform a customer of the status of their order, are among the most widely-recognized transactional emails.

Transactional emails also often include marketing content alongside practical or technical information.

It’s common, for example, for retailers to include product suggestions in purchase confirmation emails to encourage recipients to add more items to their original purchase.

The key thing to remember is that transactional emails are primarily informational and relate to a transaction. They’re almost always automated and specific to the recipient.

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What Are Marketing Emails?

Marketing emails are sent primarily to encourage recipients to make a purchase.

There is an overlap between some marketing emails and transactional emails. Abandoned cart emails, for example, can be described as both transactional and marketing emails. Click To Tweet

Many marketing emails are often automated. Examples include retargeting emails sent after a customer has viewed a product without making a purchase, cart-abandonment emails which prompt would-be customers to buy the items they’ve added to their shopping basket, and discount alerts for products on recipients’ wishlists.

The important point about marketing emails is that they represent a consistent set of emails that customers will receive through their lifecycle.

Every subscriber will receive a similar set of marketing emails as part of the typical customer journey. All Amazon customers, for example, are familiar with abandoned cart emails, discounted product alerts, and promotions to join Amazon Prime.

What Are Promotional Emails?

Many marketers will use the terms “marketing” and “promotional” interchangeably when talking about emails. In a sense, promotional emails are just another type of marketing email, and the separate definitions are for the sake of clarity and utility.

As a retailer, you’ll probably find it useful to distinguish between the two.

Generally speaking, promotional emails refer to emails that advertise one-off, non-recurring promotions like Black Friday or Christmas.

Promotional emails are usually part of a dedicated campaign that has a specific timeframe.

Promotional email campaigns differ from marketing email campaigns because they only run for a specified period of time. Any future campaigns will have significant changes. Promotional emails for Black Friday 2018, for example, will be different from counterparts for the same holiday in 2019.

It’s worth separating promotional email campaigns from marketing email campaigns because both require unique approaches. Crafting a dedicated strategy for each will enable you to measure and maximize conversions and sales going forward.

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    Types of Transactional Emails

    With the definitions out of the way, let’s take a look at the different kinds of marketing, promotional, and transactional emails.

    Here are the transactional emails that every ecommerce store should send:

    1. Welcome Emails

    Customers receive welcome emails when they first make an order, register an account with your store, or sign up to your mailing list.

    Outside of any order confirmation emails, welcome messages constitute the first meaningful interaction via email that new customers will have with your store.

    For this reason, it’s essential to make a good impression. Many retailers use welcome emails as an opportunity to offer recipients a discount code for their first order, or any subsequent orders if they’ve already made a purchase.

    Light and their transactional email

    Light and their welcome email
    Light offers a 15% discount to new customers and clearly outlines its value proposition in welcome emails. (Source)
    It’s also a good idea to communicate your value proposition. What makes your company unique? Why are you better than competitors? Which extras, like free shipping and hassle-free returns, do you offer? Customers that clearly understand your value proposition are more likely to keep coming back.

    Also, give customers an idea of what to expect in future emails. If you’re going to be sending lots of fantastic offers and bonuses, be vocal about it.

    2. Order Confirmation Emails

    When a customer makes a purchase, they’ll receive an order confirmation email, which also acts as a receipt. This is standard practice in the ecommerce space.

    Order confirmation emails aren’t just to reassure customers that their purchase has been successful. They fulfill other roles. In particular, order confirmation emails reiterate important details, like delivery dates and order numbers, and act as a point-of-reference when any issues arise.

    Crate&Barrel and their order confirmation email
    Crate & Barrel includes an order summary in its order confirmation emails, but also offers product suggestions further down. (Source)

    There are two points to keep in mind when it comes to order confirmation emails. First, it’s important to give certain pieces of information priority. Include the order number, delivery details, and a summary of the purchase (quantity, price, size, etc.) at the beginning of the email.

    Second, you should take advantage of the marketing opportunities that order confirmation emails present. Offer cross-sells and upsells, making clear that customers can receive new items with the delivery of their original purchase. Many retailers also include a referral incentive, like a discount or money-back voucher.

    3. Delivery Update Emails

    Delivery update emails keep customers notified of the delivery status of their order. Customers like to track their purchases, so it’s important to send these updates.

    The key point to bear in mind about delivery update emails that you shouldn’t provide too much information. Customers want to know that their package is on its way, but they don’t need to know about every tiny movement.

    Often, only two or three emails are required: one to let customers know the parcel has been shipped, one for when it’s out for delivery, and one for when it’s successfully arrived.

    Postmates and their delivery update email
    Postmates provides an option for more detailed tracking if recipients want to use it. (Source)
    There are two things that most retailers can do to improve shopping status emails. First, it’s good practice to include a link to a more detailed tracking page if customers want to follow a package closely. Second, show a customer support number and email in case recipients have any questions.

    Like with order confirmation emails, you can also promote related products towards the end of shipping updates, after the main information.

    4. Review and Feedback Emails

    Review and feedback emails are an essential tool in ecommerce. They enable retailers to collect high-quality reviews. And reviews on product pages have a direct link to conversions.

    Requests for feedback are usually sent a few days or weeks after a customer has received their product, when they’ve had enough time to use it.

    Airbnb and their review and feedback email
    Airbnb cleverly includes a CTA made up of five stars, which makes it seem as though the review process will be short and straightforward.
    Review emails have one purpose: to get customers to share their thoughts about a product. Don’t distract from this by including any other marketing content. Simplicity is the best strategy.

    To increase your conversion rate for these emails, make it clear to customers that the review process won’t take up too much time. It’s also good practice to offer an incentive, like a discount coupon, in exchange for leaving a review.

    After a customer has left their review, thank them. This leaves a positive feeling and makes it more likely that they'll offer their feedback in the future. Click To Tweet

    Google and their review and feedback email
    Google sends a “Thank You Email” after customers have left a review.

    5. Password Recovery and Subscription Confirmation (Technical Emails)

    Many technical tasks utilize emails, including password recovery, mailing list opt-in confirmation, customer service request acknowledgments, alerts about downtime, and so on.

    Emails like this should enable the recipient to complete the task in question as easily and quickly as possible. Including any extraneous information, especially marketing materials, can lead to frustration.

    Keep things concise and helpful as possible and customers will view your brand in a positive light. Angry customers are less likely to continue shopping at your store.

    Types of Marketing Emails

    Marketing emails encourage and persuade recipients to make a purchase. Here are the most important examples in ecommerce:

    1. Cart Abandonment Emails

    Cart abandonment emails are ubiquitous for a simple reason: they work.

    Cart abandonment is a major problem for retailers. Out of every 100 visitors that come to your store and add one or more items to their cart, 70 will leave without completing their purchase.

    These potential customers have already expressed a willingness to buy. They represent a highly-profitable subset of site visitors. With the right encouragement, there’s a strong likelihood that they will complete their purchase. In fact, cart abandonment emails have one of the highest conversion rates of any type of marketing email.
    Mack Weldon and their cart abandonment email
    Mack Weldon creates a sense of urgency by reminding recipients that products they’ve added to their cart might sell out soon.
    In order to send cart abandonment emails to customers, you need to get their email addresses first. So it’s essential to get visitors to opt into your mailing list as soon as possible. Show a pop-up to new visitors the instant they arrive on your site, asking for their email address in exchange for a discount or money-off voucher.

    Equally, request an email address when shoppers start checkout (if they haven’t already signed up) so you can get in touch if they fail to complete their purchase.

    2. Loyalty Emails

    Loyalty emails reward customers for shopping with you. They’re an excellent tool for maintaining customer engagement with your brand.

    Loyalty emails are often sent as part of loyalty programs, alerting customers about redeemable rewards or reminding them how close they are to a reward. Alternatively, retailers may choose to send loyalty emails to all customers after they’ve spent a certain amount of time or money with the store.

    It’s common for retailers to give customers some kind of “reward” like a discount code or gift card. Sometimes, emails will simply express gratitude to recipients without any sort of bonus.

    Davids Tea and their loyalty email
    DAVIDs TEA sends the email above to remind customers that they’re valued.
    Loyalty emails are often overlooked in ecommerce, but they’re a powerful way of keeping customers aware of and interested in your brand. In a world where everybody’s trying to extract money from the next person, a simple “thanks” can go a long way.

    3. Re-engagement or “Win-Back” Emails

    An average email list decays by 25% each year. If you start the year with a list of one hundred people, in twelve months, twenty-five of your recipients will have unsubscribed.

    This is a problem for retailers, especially when you take into account the fact that the average customer acquisition cost can often run into hundreds of dollars.

    Re-engagement or “win-back” emails work on a simple principle. They encourage inactive customers, which are usually defined as customers that haven’t made a purchase for six or twelve months, to become active again.

    One popular strategy is to offer some kind of incentive, like a discount code or promotional voucher.

    Duolingo and their reengagement email
    Duolingo encourages customers to “get back on track” with a low-commitment action.
    Alternatively, some brands will send emails asking if customers want to stay subscribed to their mailing list. This encourages customers to make a definite commitment while allowing retailers to clean their lists.

    Framebridge and their reengagement email
    Framebridge asks customers if they want to remain on its mailing list.

    4. Cross-sell and Upsell Emails

    Cross-sell and upsell emails come in a variety of formats. Cross-selling involves pitching complementary and related items while upselling is about prompting customers to upgrade their product or buy a newer or more feature-rich model.

    Both cross-selling and upselling occur after an initial purchase has been made. Because of this, it’s common practice to include suggestions or upsell options in order confirmation emails. Alternatively, retailers may choose to send a dedicated email soon after purchase.

    In either case, the key is to allow customers to add or upgrade items as part of the same delivery.

    Dollar Shave Club and their cross-sell email
    Dollar Shave Club and their cross-sell email
    Dollar Shave Club encourages its customers to add extra products to their upcoming order.
    Retailers that offer a “premium” membership option will often send standalone emails (that aren’t tied to any previous purchase) encouraging recipients to join.
    Strava and their upsell email
    Strava sends emails describing the perks of its premium plan.

    5. Discounted Product Emails

    Sending customers emails about discounts on products they have added their cart or wishlist is an excellent strategy because it further incentivizes a section of your customer base that has already expressed interest in an item.

    Keep these emails simple and include a clear CTA that takes customers to checkout. Emphasize that discounts are time-limited.

    Uniqlo and their discounted product emails
    UNIQLO retargets customers with alerts about discounted items.

    6. Happy Birthday Emails

    Birthday emails are a simple way of building engagement with customers. To take things up a notch, give recipients a “present”.
    Runtastic and their happy birthday email
    Runtastic offers its members 50% off its premium plan on their birthdays.

    7. Blog Post and Content Emails

    Blog post emails can be considered “indirect” marketing emails because they help nurture a relationship with your audience.

    Content might be included in the email or recipients will be prompted to click a link to a blog post or editorial piece.
    Mr Porter and their content email
    Mr Porter and their content email
    Mr. Porter sends its customers a roundup of the editor’s favorite picks.

    Types of Promotional Emails

    With the main types of marketing emails out of the way, let’s look at some promotional examples. Remember that promotional emails relate to one-off, short-term marketing events.

    Here are the main types:

    1. Emails for Buying Holidays like Valentine’s Day, Black Friday, and Christmas

    Buying holidays are among the most important periods for retailers. For some, they’re the most important periods. Many stores, for example, make the majority of their sales in the Christmas period.

    There are many different types of promotional emails sent during buying holidays. Here are a few of the main ones:

    • Advance Alerts – These emails build anticipation by giving customers a taste of what’s to come. When a promotion finally kicks off, they’ll be primed to buy.
    • Sale opening emails – These emails let customers know that a promotion has begun.
    • Personalized product emails – These notify customers of discounts to specific products and categories, along with any news about exciting new releases.

    Email only constitutes one part of a typical buying holiday campaign. Advertising will take place across numerous channels, including on-site, social media, and paid search ads.
    Carhartt and their Black Friday email
    This simple email from Carhartt lets recipients know that Black Friday discounts are underway.
    If you’re interested in learning what makes a great Black Friday advertising campaign, check out our comprehensive guide on the topic: How to Take Advantage of Black Friday 2019: Complete Ecommerce Guide.

    2. Seasonal Emails

    Seasonal emails advertise items tied to periods of the year. They’re very common in the fashion space.

    They’re important because many shoppers are particularly eager to buy items at the beginning of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

    Even retailers that aren’t in the fashion space will have stock that is particularly applicable to a particular season. Barbecue items, for example, are in-demand over summer, while heaters and log-burners tend to be popular winter.
    Penguin and their seasonal email
    Penguin advertises books for summer, one of the most popular buying periods.

    3. Sale Emails

    Sale emails let customers know about a sale and encourage them to buy throughout. Sales form a core part of most retailers’ marketing strategy, so this kind of email is an essential tool.

    They’re sent for both regular, long-running sales and flash sales. Flash sales are one-off promotions that run for a short time, usually only a few days.

    MeUndies and their sale email
    MeUndies hold “surprise” flash sales. In the email above, they build urgency by emphasizing the limited time period for which the sale will run.
    Here are the three main categories of sale emails that you should send:

    • Sale opening emails – Alert customers at the beginning of the sale.
    • Sale engagement emails – Encourage purchases throughout the sale period by advertising products, discounts, and one-time offers.
    • Sale end emails – Build urgency by telling customers that a sale is about to end.

    Sale emails are essential for building buzz, urgency, and excitement. In the vast majority of cases, simplicity will be the best approach. Let discounts speak for themselves and make it easy for customers to click through to a dedicated sale landing page that highlights some of the best offers.

    Oh, and make sure the designs of the email and the landing page match up! You don’t want any confused customers.


    Email marketing is still the most effective sales channel for ecommerce. As a retailer, it’s vital not to overlook it.

    And there’s one point you should always keep in mind.

    Lots of small elements add up. The key to a high-performing email strategy is ensuring that you account for all of the different types of transactional, marketing, and promotional emails.

    It’s also essential to recognize the “hidden” marketing opportunities in non-marketing emails like transactional emails. Always ask, “Is it possible to market to or retarget my customers?”

    If you do all those things, you’ll have an iron-clad email infrastructure that easily outperforms your competitors.

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