When you think about transactional messages you are probably thinking about the email receipt you get after a purchase or possibly a password reset email. But transactional messages really represent a much broader range of messaging. For marketers, there are a couple of great things about transactional messages. First, they are expected. Recipients often know they are coming and depend on them for important information. That means they often have a significantly higher open rate than marketing messages. Second, transactional messages take some of the chains off as they are exempt from CAN-SPAM. It’s a great opportunity for marketers, but one that should be fully understood and respected from both a legal standpoint and from the standpoint of email recipients. (If you think you are being tricky and getting away with something, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.)


What Is A Transactional Email Message?

For the best definition of what qualifies as a transactional message, let’s get it straight from the FTC.gov website FAQ:

Q: How do I know if what I’m sending is a transactional or relationship message?
A: The primary purpose of an email is transactional or relationship if it consists only of content that:

  1. facilitates or confirms a commercial transaction that the recipient already has agreed to;
  2. gives warranty, recall, safety, or security information about a product or service;
  3. gives information about a change in terms or features or account balance information regarding a membership, subscription, account, loan or other ongoing commercial relationship;
  4. provides information about an employment relationship or employee benefits; or
  5. delivers goods or services as part of a transaction that the recipient already has agreed to.

Nothing about that definition says it’s ok to include marketing content as part of a transactional message. However, it IS ok. You just need to understand a few boundaries.


Does CAN-SPAM Support Marketing Content in Transactional Emails?

Yes, CAN-SPAM supports marketing content in transactional emails under a couple of conditions. First, the subject line of the email must be about the transactional nature of the message, not the marketing content. That means that a recipient should be able to reasonably interpret from the subject line that the content will be transactional. Second, the transactional portion of the message needs to be the leading/primary content of the message, i.e. at the top of the email. In addition, the marketing content should not dominate the message through use of color, images, font sizes, etc.


Like many pieces of legislation, some of the language can be a bit vague. In particular, phrases like “reasonably interpreted as” or “the primary purpose of the message is”. While it may be tempting to push the limits of marketing content in an email, you should be aware that you’ll need to defend your position if you are ever challenged. The defense itself might not be worth the incremental reward. And, as mentioned above, it’s important to respect the nature of your brand relationship with your subscribers. Trust is a priceless thing in marketing.


If you are not already taking advantage of weaving in marketing content into your transactional messages, you should. If you are looking for ideas or inspiration, reach out to us at expert@emfluence.com.

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