Transactional writing for online copywriters

Transactional writing is writing that invites people to take action. It has a clear communication purpose in mind – to inform, persuade, progress, or help, for example. Mostly, you’ll find transactional writing in instructions, letters, applications, advice and on the web. Here’s an overview of an increasingly familiar copywriting job – transactional emails.

What is a transaction?

Transaction comes from a Latin word meaning “to drive through, accomplish”, and its deep root is “to take action”. So, in a transaction, you’re aiming to “get something done” or “achieve something”.  Nowadays, the word transaction is mostly used in business to describe buying, selling, contracts and negotiations. In essence, the practical give-and-take between people. This means that you see transactional writing most often in the worlds of jobs, administration and commerce.

Transactional writing – online shopping and email chains

If you’ve ever bought anything online, you’ve encountered transactional writing.

Let’s say you want to buy a new shirt.

First, you encounter a written product description which persuades you to click: Non-crease shantung silk.

When you click the button itself, you’re following a transactional word: Click.

Then you go to the shopping basket, which invites you to enter information: Please enter your credit card details.

At a further stage, you’re asked to confirm: Click to buy.

When you’ve paid, you’ll receive a transactional email that confirms your purchase. You may get another saying when it’ll be delivered.

Each stage of the process needs words, and these words need to be written.

Transactional writing in workflow systems

Transactional writing is often used in automated processes in online shops. So, when you buy that shirt, you’re led through a transactional chain of steps where you need to react. What you see may be adapted to suit your responses and choices.

For example, you may be offered a two-for-one bargain – a so-called “upsell”. Then, if you click yes, please, you’ll be taken in one direction. If you click no, thanks, you’ll head in another.

Designing engagement flows like this usually done by the client and web designer. If it’s a big, complex site, then they might bring in a user interface expert. However, the words still need to be written, and that’s where a copywriter comes in.

E-commerce sites often use customer flow paths, which are a science in themselves. So, with very complex sites, you may meet different customer journeys, depending on whether you’ve entered the site via a visual image or a word search. Wording and images are tested and tweaked using split testing to see which works best.

But most working copywriters won’t be involved at this stage. Rather, you’ll you’ll probably get a few standard email types and have to adapt them, for example: completed order, reminder, dispatch, refund, abandoned cart, follow-up.

If you get the tone right, these short pieces of writing can make all the difference to whether the customer buys that shirt, or has a good experience with the company.

Transactional emails and tone of voice

Transactional emails often follow standard sequences, and the language is often standard, too. However, if it’s too generic or incongruent, it will clash with the company’s brand personality, and disrupt the customer’s experience of flow.

So transactional emails need to be rewritten to suit the company’s tone of voice.

What’s more, this doesn’t just apply to long emails. Even if you’re writing short transactional phrases with identical calls to action, they can convey very different tones of voice. See, for example:

  • Click me!
  • Yes, please send
  • OK
  • Shop now

These have different registers, from casual to polite to formal, and different viewpoints – see the personified click button? One of these CTAs doesn’t even have a verb.

Transactional writing and context

Of course, no single button wording is right or wrong. It’s all about context, and what’s right for the audience or market. For example, a life insurance site is unlikely to use OK, Shop now, or Click me! A cool teen site, on the other hand, is unlikely to use Yes, please send. The site owners will choose a phrase more congruent with their audience – maybe even something niche or region-specific.

Call to action

A call to action (CTA) is a classic transactional phrase. When you use a CTA, you’re literally inviting the customer to do something, whether that be pick up the phone, click a button or send an email.

Often, in the web design process, CTA wording is an afterthought. That’s because web designers usually have favourite wordings they rely on, and don’t ask the copywriter for special input.

However, this is a missed opportunity. Usually, it’s best for copywriters to ask about CTAs at the start. Ideally, they need to be included in every page. A generic site-wide button is often fine. At other times, you may need to provide a copy line which will appear in a different font, eg

For more information, download the Hospitality Brochure.

Writing for chatbots

Chatbots (chat robots) are those automated popup windows that appear on websites. You might think that someone is waiting at the company to pounce on your chat message. But no! At least, not unless the company is very large.

Mostly, chatbots are a front for a scripted interaction. The company has anticipated frequent types of easy question, and scripted automatic answers. If the chatbot doesn’t solve your issue, a human will then come to your help.

Although I haven’t yet written for a chatbot, I can see that dialogue and scriptwriting skills are useful. The writer has to decide goals for the interaction (impulse, motivation), consider likely customer mindset (POV), identify open and closed questions (flow), and handle nonsensical or provocative answers (imagination, improv). They also need to decide a chatbot persona to suit the company brand (characterisation).

At each dialogue point, the flow can split into several branches, so it’s a complex process. If you want to explore this more, look up UX for bots. UX stands for “user interface” and is a design field that combines visual communication, psychology and analytics to create better human engagement with the digital world.

How to use this:

On your next copywriting e-commerce job, ask about calls to action (CTAs). Find out whether your client uses email automations. Include this writing in your work for the client. Usually, they’ll be happy that you’ve brought it to their attention. With just a few editorial tweaks, you can make all the different to their site engagement.

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