Seven Holiday Email Marketing Predictions

While the jingle bells can be heard only faintly at the moment, four weeks from now email marketers will be ringing them loudly. Just days after Halloween, the majority of retail emails will include some reference to the holiday season. Here are some of my predictions on how the holiday season will go this year:

1. Recessionary messaging returns. Even if Congress manages to pass some sort of jobs bill, it will likely be watered down and too late to make any difference this holiday season. Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidates will be reminding Americans every chance they get that the economy is weak and in danger of a double-dip recession. That means that consumers will remain skittish about their holiday spending.

Just as they did during the 2009 holiday season, I expect retailers to respond to low consumer confidence by:
- Using keywords like “affordable” and “budget” frequently.
- Offering a variety of financing options like layaway and payment plans, as well as offering incentives to get folks using their store brand credit card.
- Promoting used, recertified and refurbished products, as in this Sept. 16 Newegg email.
- Sharing DIY and other money-saving ideas, as Sephora did in this Nov. 17, 2009 email, which advised subscribers “Separate these sets into multiple gifts‏.”

2. Free shipping all holiday season long. The weak economy will also accelerate the trend toward retailers offering free shipping throughout the holiday season. There’s already been a sizeable shift toward the adoption of “everyday free shipping,” with such policies in place at Target, Home Depot, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Piperlime, L.L. Bean, Sephora, Zappos, Urban Outfitters, PC Connection, Backcountry.com, Linens ’n Things… and the list goes on and on.

Free shipping has become the norm in the minds of many consumers, so its absence is becoming a bigger impediment to closing a sale. I expect to see Eddie Bauer, J&R and many other retailers return with a blanket offer of free shipping all holiday season to keep pace with all the retailers that now offer free shipping every day of the year. Free Shipping Day will be even more ridiculous a concept this year than it was last year.

3. Black November strengthens. To get a jump on holiday sales, last year some retailers began offering Black Friday pricing and deals earlier in November -- a trend that we refer to as Black November. Last year, the number of references to Black Friday between Nov. 1 and Black Friday increased 68% year-over-year, as mentioned in the 2011 Retail Email Guide to the Holiday Season. And Black November campaigns helped drive overall retail email volume up 24% in November year-over-year -- the largest monthly increase of last year.

Retailers are always trying to drive holiday sales earlier in the season, so I expect more retailers to embrace Black November this year. Holiday messaging is behind trend this year, possibly because some retailers are holding back, looking to make a bigger splash on Oct. 31 or Nov. 1 with the launch of a Black November campaign.

4. Thanksgiving Day becomes Black Thursday -- or maybe Mobile Thursday. Last year a 32% increase in Thanksgiving Day email volume translated very efficiently into a 28% increase in online sales. With several large store-based retailers including Sears and Toys “R” Us opening their stores on Thanksgiving Day last year, the day is suddenly competitive in a way that it wasn’t just a few years ago when it was treated largely as non-shopping time.

The new twist to Thanksgiving Day shopping is that mobile will be making it easier to shop from Grandma’s house. PayPal is predicting a big increase in what they’re calling “couch commerce” on Thanksgiving because of mobile. Email will continue to be a big driver of this new behavior.

5. More flash sales because of mobile. Mobile is also likely to influence the number of flash sales being held this holiday season. With many retailers seeing upwards of 20% of their emails being read on mobile devices, consumers are able to react more quickly to promotions, making short-duration sales more common in recent months. That should translate into more daily deal programs offered during the holidays, more “12 days of Christmas” campaigns, and more last-minute deals for procrastinators during the week before Christmas.

6. More Black Friday check-ins. Retailers have not rushed to roll out check-in campaigns that leverage Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places. In fact, I can only recall seeing one retail email all year that included a check-in call-to-action, this Aug. 19 email from Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Even so, I expect more retailers to run check-in campaigns on Black Friday this year, after several pioneering retailers experimented with them last year. The number of check-ins has grown rapidly over the past 12 months, but location-based services are still used by only a tiny fraction of consumers. If retailers are unimpressed yet again by their holiday experiments, 2012 could be another very quiet year for check-ins as an email call-to-action.

7. Facebook commerce remains insignificant. Over the past couple of years, a handful of intrepid major retailers have experimented with Facebook Stores, sending e-gift cards via Facebook, and other commerce-related tie-ins with Facebook. But none of this experimentation has sparked serious interest. While I expect more dabbling in F-commerce this holiday season, it’s highly unlikely to lead to any sustained efforts as it becomes increasingly evident that social networks are much more suited to driving engagement and awareness than direct sales.

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