Transactional Emails Need the UX Writing Touch: A Udemy Case Study

The UX Writing course Iโ€™m taking tasked me with creating a digital product. That entailed opting in to competitorsโ€™ communications to analyze their brandsโ€™ language. Soon, like a bad cold, email had infiltrated every nook and cranny of my inbox.

Instinctively Iโ€™ve considered most emails to be marketing content because they try to get me to buy. Or sometimes they communicate some value by providing discounts, useful tips, or helpful reminders. But many emails donโ€™t fit neatly into the marketing-message bucket.

Neither promotional nor part of a drip campaign, this other broad category of emails comes in familiar flavors:

  • Updates to products, service agreements, and privacy terms
  • Newsletter subscription confirmations
  • Welcome letters
  • Purchase receipts
  • Shipping information
  • Onboarding guidance
  • System outage alerts
  • Notifications and reminders

Little did I know that the industry has a name for these messages: transactional emails. Their job is to inform or educate customers by acknowledging their purchases or other actions, providing shipping details, alerting them to events, sharing product updates, and helping them learn to use products quickly.

Transactional Email Writing Is UX and Customer Experience (CX) Writing

Transactional emailsโ€™ focus on building, deepening, or maintaining a relationship between brand and customer. From the brandโ€™s perspective, transactional emails play a critical role in bringing customers back to the brandโ€™s platform. Because of their importance to customer experience, transactional emails increasingly are becoming the job of UX writers, especially at large companies.

At a small company, youโ€™re probably writing both types of email. If youโ€™re a marketer first, thatโ€™s great because you already practice principles in common with UX writing like:

  • Referring to personasโ€”Consulting them keeps your audience front and center.
  • Incorporating research insightsโ€”Better understand customer needs and vocabulary via interviews, observations, surveys, and conversations.
  • Following your companyโ€™s style guideโ€”This is the key to writing consistently in your brandโ€™s voice and with the tone appropriate to your target audience.

Writing for customers and prospects is a high-wire balancing act. Youโ€™re always considering your audienceโ€™s needs and your businessโ€™s goals. The critical difference in writing transactional emails is that youโ€™ll hit your mark most often if you put your thumb on the customer side of the scale.

In simplest UX terms, that means leading with empathy when writing for customers. Make sure every transactional email delivers value to customers and does not try to upsell or cross-sell.

If youโ€™re a marketing copywriter, develop a bloodhoundโ€™s nose for separating the wheat from the fluff, and when you smell fluff in what should be a transactional email, be fearless, and kill it.

Transactional Emails in Their Glory (and Warts)

Letโ€™s look at three examples of transactional emails and how they serve their recipients.

My UX writing instructor Yuval Keshtcher recommends learning the basics of todayโ€™s design tools. When I began learning Figma, I visited the popular education site udemy and signed up for two courses, one on Figma, the other on sketching the UX.

I received an order confirmation immediately.

For a purchase confirmation, this is standard but necessary and useful stuff:

  • Clear subject lineโ€”โ€œOrder Confirmation for October 1, 2019โ€ says it all.
  • Just the factsโ€”Email shows me the courses ordered, their prices, and taxes.
  • Help on the wayโ€”Prominent links direct me to udemy Help Center and support.
  • Helpful CTA buttonsโ€”With one click, I can start either course.
  • No fluffโ€”Nothing overly promotional.

But in the lower half of the email, you see more courses udemy recommends. At least the emailโ€™s composer placed this information below what I really needed. Not a major faux pas, so I give this a B+.

Next, I received a welcome email.

This email is 90 percent markety-mark:

  • Impersonalโ€”Whatโ€™s my name?
  • But wait, thereโ€™s moreโ€”Clicking the โ€œStart learningโ€ button sent me to a page to search for more udemy courses.
  • Benefits, then featuresโ€”Most of this email is a brochure.
  • Get the appโ€”This CTA button doesnโ€™t rankle me because the app could be useful for mobile learning.

The copy and visuals look to be copied from a brochure and pasted into this campaign. The marketing writer and graphic designer, hey, they did their jobs. Whoever approved this as the customer welcome email gets an F.

Then I received yet another welcome message from udemy.

Now this, this I can get on board with:

  • Personalizedโ€”Addressing me as โ€œJames Pโ€ is nice, but including my middle initial is awkward.
  • Personalโ€”Kudos to udemy for having this message come from Caleb, the instructor, along with his photo.
  • Invitations to connectโ€”Links invite me to join Calebโ€™s design-tips communities on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
  • Personal brand promiseโ€”Caleb says he will reply to all outreach in 24 hours. Nice.
  • Reply to this messageโ€”A CTA button to reach out to Caleb.

Caleb asks for a positive review if you like his course. To my eyes and ears, though, this doesnโ€™t cross any line. Itโ€™s an excellent example of providing a great CX at the welcoming a new customer touchpoint. An A- for UX writing in practice, in a transactional email.

The distinctions between transactional and marketing emails will become clearer as more businesses invest in UX writing. In the meantime, read your inbox with a more critical eye and ear.

Notice which writing techniques educate, inform, and entertain, and which clearly (or subtly) market to you. Do that, and you will hone your Spidey sense for spottingโ€”and writingโ€”transactional emails that make a great UX and CX.

Keep learning

You can also read about email copywriting in this article from Respona.

About Jim Gallant

Lifelong writer, content strategist, environmental advocate, live music fiend, and dreadful guitarist at

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