Thoughts on transactional mail


I mentioned a few weeks ago about a conversation I’d had at MAAWG about transactional email and opened up the conversation to readers here. Mike proposed a definition.

[Transactional mail is] an automated message, sent on a per-user basis, usually as the result of a direct action by the user or strongly associated with the user.

In Mike’s decision were things like sales receipts, opt-in notifications / welcome messages, social networking messages and the like.
Kelly disagreed with Mike and said she looked to the FTC and her current working definition was was mail that the user could not opt-out of.
Margaret pointed out that users should be able to unsubscribe from transactional mail.
Finally Steven posted this definition:

I think transactional email is anything which serves a functional purpose which is useful to the receiver. Shipping information is the classic example, invitations to buy are not.

I think these various comments demonstrate something I’ve been thinking for a while. Transactional email is one of the most interesting use cases of email. The traditional examples of transactional emails are those triggered by an action of the recipient; things like shipping notices and purchase receipts. Then there are transactional emails triggered by the actions of a friend of the recipient but that expect interaction or action by the recipient. Requests to connect through the various social networking sites or forward to a friend links on webpages fit into this category. Email as a command, subscription and unsubscription requests, are also a common category that fits clearly into most people’s definition of transactional email.
Then there is email as a notification. These notifications are often programatically generated and may or may not require action on the part of the recipient. Often, they are generated by monitoring scripts, and only fire when certain thresholds are crossed.
I think one of the important factors of a transactional email is that they are not generated by a person. If a mail is generated by a person then it is a one-to-one email. Of course, like most definitions, there are some exceptions, like some sales receipts are drafted and sent by hand not by an automated system.
What do you think? Are these types of messages transactional messages? Or is there some other term that would encompass this use of email?

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