By Matt Harris Co-Founder of Dyspatch

Back in the early days of the internet, transactional emails were hard-coded into backend systems, where a customer’s action would trigger a send. A purchase, for instance, would trigger the backend to compile, render, and send an order confirmation email. To create such an email, or to update an existing one, required a developer to write and deploy code into production.

A sad fact of life is that too many Enterprise organizations still deal with this cumbersome process today. Too often that means that creating or updating a transactional email involves many rounds of design, coding, review, and revision before an email is finally approved and deployed. The process is often compounded by inefficient localization processes that frequently include translation strings managed by spreadsheet. The result is that time-to-market for a single email can be many, many months.

But even worse than the glacial pace of getting an email into production is the fact that this overly-complex workflow also means that organizations often embarrass themselves by sending old, out-of-date transactional emails, many of which haven’t been updated in years. You know the emails I’m talking about — the ones that look like they came straight from 1999, with blunt, robotic text, links as long as your arm, and not an image or logo in sight (and when there is one, it’s from before the last two rebrands).

In the recent report, Predictions for Leading Digital Experiences in 2019, four out of six industry experts predict that experimentation will be the driving factor in improving digital customer experiences in the year ahead. In order to encompass the entire customer journey, that experimentation must extend beyond web, app, and mobile experiences to include transactional email. Yet far too few organizations have the capacity to easily create or update these critical communications, let alone innovate and experiment.

An evolution in transactional email workflows has been underway for the better part of the last decade, if not longer, fueled primarily by startups who realized early on that these emails are a powerful tool in building customer relationships. Amazing transactional emails set a business apart in an increasingly competitive marketplace. The key is to approach email creation and revision with the same creativity and agility that goes into building great products.

A modern transactional email workflow is essential to establishing that agility, introducing a level of flexibility that will allow you to test, iterate, and optimize content, so you can take your transactional emails from embarrassing to exceptional. Below are a few tips to get you started.

Code & Design

The key to an evolved workflow is getting transactional emails out of the code base, so developers are no longer required to write and deploy code every time a new email needs to be created or an existing email needs an update.

To accomplish that, simplify the complexity of these emails by having your designers and developers create reusable templates for each type of transactional email. Leverage the power and flexibility of partials to create reusable components that can be shared between templates, for things like text and image blocks, order details, personalization, etc. Common design elements, such as logos, CTA buttons, headers, footers, etc., can also be created and shared between templates, ensuring brand standards remain consistent. Once you have a library of templates and components, developers only need to be involved again when a new template or component is needed.

Build

Imagine putting the ability to create and update transactional emails into the hands of anyone, regardless of coding skill, giving non-technical users the ability to safely create and revise even the most complex email without knowing how to code or relying on developers.

To do that, find an editor that will allow users to create an email by assembling pre-coded components (or blocks), editing copy, images, links, etc., as needed, and using sample data to preview personalization. Be sure the editor you choose can handle the complexity of transactional emails (variable replacement, conditionals, and loops or iteration) with ease. That might sound like a tall order but such editors do exist.

Device Testing

Make testing the email on a wide variety of email clients and devices an essential component of your workflow. There are a variety of testing tools available and some editors include built-in testing. Make any required changes and test again.

Localize

If your business serves multiple locales, make sure localization is built into your workflow. Improve efficiency by creating an email’s localized versions at the same time you’re building the email — POT/PO file export/import is the most common method for working with translation vendors. Then whenever an email is submitted for review and approval, submit the localized versions for review at the same time.

Approve

When an email has been built and tested, notify stakeholders that it’s ready for review and approval. The beauty of creating pre-coded components from the get-go is that they can be pre-approved and locked down, so they don’t need to be looked at again every time an email is created or updated. An ‘Unsubscribe’ footer, for example, can be reviewed and approved by Legal once and doesn’t have to be reviewed again until, or unless, it needs to change. (And if it does have to change, updating that single component only needs to happen once, and deployed to all affected emails.) This will significantly speed up the approval process by reducing the number of stakeholders who need to review a particular email, since many of its components have already been approved.

Publish

The most efficient and secure way to publish approved templates, to either your production environment or your ESP, is by API. Depending on your ESP, the ability to export or copy/paste raw HTML can be a reasonable alternative. Try to establish a system that provides you with a complete history of all your revisions so you know exactly what was changed, when it was changed, and by whom. This will establish a level of accountability rarely found with transactional email. If there’s ever a problem with an email, a revision history will make it easier for you to revert to a previous, problem-free version.

Experiment

Once you’ve established a modern, streamlined transactional email creation workflow, there’s very little to prevent you from A/B or multivariate testing your transactional emails in the same way you’re already testing your promotional emails. Test subject lines, preheader text, image placement, CTAs, cross- and upsell offers… the possibilities are nearly endless. Applying a process of continuous improvement to your transactional emails will increase customer engagement, inspire loyalty, and generate revenue.

Transactional emails are key components of the customer journey. They’re emails your customers want, emails they actually open, read, and click at rates unheard of for marketing emails. Enterprise organizations who fail to evolve their transactional email workflows to take advantage of the huge growth opportunity these emails represent won’t just be left behind — they may find themselves going the way of the dinosaurs.  

Matt Harris is co-founder and CEO of Dyspatch.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in Business2Community.