Email Deliverability

Tackling Transactional Email Complaints

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Since transactional emails typically don’t include opt-out links, many bulk senders are worried their transactional emails will fall foul of the new complaint rate thresholds put in place at Yahoo and Gmail. This anxiety is warranted, but now is the perfect time to objectively look at your transactional sends to see if they are generating complaints and at what rate. 

In this blog, we will identify the differences between mail streams, review new bulk sender requirements at a high level, and offer recommendations on how to monitor complaints as well as proactively avoid them.    

What is a transactional email?

A transactional email is a one-to-one email sent to a customer that contains information about their recent transaction.

For example, after making a purchase, especially an e-commerce purchase, an email containing details of that purchase would be expected. Shipping updates and password reset emails are also typical of transactional sending. This type of send does not require an unsubscribe option, either in the header or in the body of the email.  

In the context of the new bulk sender requirements

Marketing emails, on the other hand, contain more commercial content like sales on products or services that you’re sending to a larger group, enticing them to make a purchase, read your newsletter, or welcome them to your program. Marketing emails are required to include the one-click unsubscribe per Gmail and Yahoo’s new bulk sender guidelines and an unsubscribe link in the body/footer of the email.

A quick note of designation: the one-click unsubscribe lives in the header of your email as outlined by RFC 8058. The unsubscribe in the body/footer can take your subscribers to a preference center that would ideally give them options to reduce the frequency or type of emails they receive or provide the ability to opt out of your program entirely.   

Making it easy for someone to unsubscribe is preferable to someone marking your email as spam or junk (aka, a complaint). In the deliverability world, unsubscribes are a neutral engagement, but marking an email as spam or junk is a negative engagement in the algorithms of mailbox providers.

The new bulk sender requirements are there to help your program as well as Gmail and Yahoo users (your subscribers) by reducing the number of complaints your emails receive. 

How does this apply to your transactional sends? Good question (it’s one we hear a lot)! Your transactional sends count toward the daily sending volume (5,000), which classifies a bulk sender, but they don’t have the requirement to include the one-click unsubscribe because of the nature of the content.   

Inevitably, we’re asked, “How do Gmail and Yahoo (and other mailbox providers) define transactional emails?” The short answer is that they don’t. You as marketers, and by extension your subscribers define this 

During our State of Email Live episode featuring the Lead Product Manager at Google, we asked this exact question. The response was mind-blowing to most of us on the call.

Essentially, senders know what is promotional vs. transactional, and your subscribers’ interactions with the messages make that determination. Sends that are considered marketing can vary by country, so it’s important to follow local laws for the definition.

For a quick read on the Q&A from our webinar, check out this blog post, which dives deeper into the burning questions that still linger around this topic. 

Reasons for transactional complaints

If transactional emails are sent because of a customer’s interaction with your brand and contain necessary information about that interaction, you might be wondering why they would generate complaints. If your transactional emails bring complaints, a good first step is to audit the mail stream.

Look at your transactional emails as if they’re arriving in your inbox.

If you’ve just made a purchase, does the additional product content support that purchase (an accessory, maybe?), or is it more of what you’ve just purchased? Is it on brand? Is the timing right? Does the additional product content feel more prominent and blur the message’s intent? If so, pare it down.   

Some senders have high complaint rates on a specific transactional message. For example, an email that confirms you’re locked out of your account. This messaging is self-evident to the subscriber. A pop-up on the log-in page would suffice. If the subscriber is having trouble logging in, they will, by default, reach out for assistance. Alternatively, you could give the subscriber the ability to opt out of this type of messaging.   

This example receipt has not one but two sections populated by a third party promoting food content unrelated to the brand’s core products or the purchased item. This could appear spammy to many subscribers, and without a way to unsubscribe, this type of communication would likely fall prey to being marked as spam or junk. When in doubt, test it out.   


Best practices recommendations

  • Use available mailbox provider tools to help you keep track of complaint rates and other metrics. Google Postmaster Tools now offers a compliance dashboard to help you understand if your program needs additional work. Yahoo has a new Sender Hub dashboard to help you keep track of complaints as well. Other providers may offer similar tools. A quick internet search will help you find them.   
  • Ensure feedback loops (FBL) are enabled and working properly. While Google doesn’t provide specific user information, it can provide insight into campaign types receiving negative feedback from subscribers.   
  • Utilize a different domain and IP for marketing vs. transactional sends. Why? In a nutshell, better deliverability. Transactional emails perform better than promotional emails since your subscriber is anticipating the email and will look for it to pop in quickly. This helps keep the IP and Domain healthy which in turn ensures these all-important messages make it to your subscriber’s inbox. Be sure you’ve implemented all authentication protocols on the IP and domain.   
  • Tell your customers why you’re collecting their email addresses—to provide the order confirmation and receipt, for example—and stick to that purpose. 
  • Automate transactional sends so they deploy in near real-time. A customer could be confused if a receipt isn’t sent right away or if it shows up a day (or more, yikes!) later.   
  • Include your business’s value statement or at least link to it. This is an opportunity to reiterate benefits such as “Satisfaction guaranteed” that build trust and loyalty to your brand.  
  • Provide additional channels for subscribers to engage. Transactional emails should include a phone number to your Support team or an option to engage in live chat with a Customer Service representative.  Customers who are frustrated but have a means of getting help are less likely to complain.   
  • Add an unsubscribe option for this specific content. The unsubscribe link for transactional sends should not be the one-click option, but rather a link explaining that they are opting out for only that message (shipping confirmation, perhaps).  
  • Analyze your frequency or number of updates. If you’re updating your subscriber at every single possible step (we’ve got your order, here’s your receipt, we’re preparing to ship, we dropped your purchase off to be shipped, here’s your tracking number, the package is two stops away, your order has been delivered, hope you like your purchase, would you take a survey about the product or service, etc.) it likely is too much for the subscriber. One major reason that people unsubscribe or complain is because they’re receiving too many emails. For information on the other reasons, check out this blog post.   

Marketers often set up transactional sends and fail to check in on them. Don’t ignore these messages. We recommend that once a quarter you ensure links are working, tone and content are on brand, and keep on top of local laws to remain compliant.

For more tips on maintaining a favorable sender reputation and diminishing spam complaints, check out our cheat sheet Top 5 Ways You’re Ruining Your Sender Reputation.