The fine line between good transactional email and spam

Transactional email helped build Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other companies into powerhouses by increasing user engagement, which, in turn, creates users who are more invested in the product and more likely to spread it via word-of-mouth. While transactional email is a wonderful thing, companies can and do abuse it. Good things are good only in moderation. Some companies like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, have taken it far enough that they’re now facing a backlash. In recent months the number of complaints about the email practices of companies like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn has grown fast. For instance, this PC World article references that LinkedIn’s transactional email tactics have brought about legal action against the company. The article also specifically addresses some of LinkedIn’s questionable transactional emails and tactics.

How companies send spammy transactional email #

The emails sent by these companies used to be helpful and exciting. Receiving an email notification about an endorsement on LinkedIn or a happy birthday wish on Facebook felt good. Now though, these companies and others send transactional email for everything, and people are growing tired of it.

If a connection on LinkedIn changes jobs or updates their profile, I get an email notification. If someone on Facebook posts in a group I happen to be a part of, I receive an email. If there are trending topics on Twitter that have no relevance to my life, I get an email. If someone looks at my LinkedIn profile, LinkedIn will send me an email without telling me who looked at it. While transactional emails from these large companies used to be a treat, they now feel a lot like spam because they are essentially spam emails. Email spam is email that people receive and don’t want regardless of whether it’s technically spam. Most transactional email I receive from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. are emails I don’t need or want. As Seth Godin says, “The essential truth is that spam is always in the eye of the recipient.” It doesn’t matter if you think your company’s transactional email practices are ethical. What matters is how your product’s transactional email makes users feel.

LinkedIn’s issues with transactional email #

A screenshot of an inbox overwhelmed by LinkedIn spam.

Why do companies send spammy transactional email? #

Transactional email feels like a quick win because the consequences to your reputation are difficult to quantify. Folks in the marketing and growth departments at companies like LinkedIn want to see the numbers go up and to the right forever. But, this isn’t a great thing to do because as Warren Buffett says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

One way to grow a user base as big as LinkedIn’s is to increase the engagement of current users. As the famous saying goes, it’s much easier to keep a current customer (or user) than it is to get a new one. The folks at LinkedIn likely want to get the most out of their current users, which probably influences their decision to send lots of bad transactional email.

These tactics might lead to short-term growth in usage and revenue. Yet, at some point users and customers of LinkedIn will be so tired of it that they’ll start to use the service less. Or worse, they’ll begin flagging the emails as spam.

We’re unfortunately in an age where scale and growth seem to matter more than anything else. Transactional email has the potential to be a great tool for fostering product growth and retention. But, this can only happen when it’s used judiciously. Sending users emails they don’t want or need is not the best way to use this technology. It’s unethical and not in folks’ best interest.

If you flood your users’ inboxes with transactional email for too long, they’ll either start marking emails as spam or ignore them. This means fewer people will see your transactional email, which could cause a decline in usage and engagement for your product.

Short-term growth strategies frequently backfire and hurt long-term prospects.

Questions to think about when creating a transactional email #

You’ve now seen how easy it is for good transactional email to become spammy. With that in mind, here are some questions you should consider before writing and sending transactional email to your users.

  • Would you be excited to receive the transactional email you want to send to your users? If so, then it’s probably not spam. If not, don’t send the email.

  • Did the recipient perform an action that triggered the email? If so, then your email is probably good.

  • Did someone else related to the recipient trigger the email? If so, it might be okay, but think twice before sending it.

  • Do you send more than one transactional email for the same event? If not, then your email is less likely to be spam. If yes, then stop sending multiple emails for each action. For instance, LinkedIn is in trouble for sending users multiple emails when another user asks to connect with them.

  • Do certain transactional emails have more than 10 spam complaints for every 10,000 times they’re sent ? If so, those emails might be spammy.

  • Open rates are a great way to gauge engagement with your transactional email. Are open rates trending up or down? If they’re trending up, then people are enjoying and engaging with your emails. If they’re trending down, then you may be sending too many transactional emails.

Use the above checklist before sending a transactional email. If the email satisfied all of the points on the checklist, then there’s a pretty good chance it’s valuable for users. Be a better company by only sending valuable transactional email instead of sending spammy emails to your users.

Jack Kaufman