You can learn a lot from watching your peers, especially during the critical holiday season period. During the fourth quarter of last year, I tracked more than 3,300 promotional emails from the top online retailers through the Retail Email Blog. Based on that monitoring, the Email Experience Council has produced the Retail Email Guide to the Holiday Season to serve as a helpful roadmap to the email holiday season. Here are four tips from that Guide that will set you on the right track:
1. Don't wait until Black Friday to start your holiday email campaigns. If you're waiting that long, then you've abdicating at least half of the holiday email season to your competitors. Last year, retailers began their holiday campaigns 58 days before Christmas on average -- on Oct. 28. I repeat, "on average." This year I've already seen Christmas-related emails from Circuit City, Hallmark, HSN, KB Toys, Toys "R" Us and Williams-Sonoma. So while offline Black Friday is often touted as the beginning of the holiday season, online that's definitely not the case by a long shot.
2. Be careful of dramatic frequency increases. With consumers in a buying mood and actively looking for ideas, major online retailers ratchet up their send volume significantly during the holiday season. In fact, during the 2007 holiday season, retailers increased their send volumes by 45%, which was 3 percentage points higher than the increase during the 2006 holiday season. However, the peak in weekly email volume was even more pronounced, rising 73% above the pre-holiday norm, compared to a peak increase of only 66% during the 2006 holiday season. (We defined the holiday email season as the six-week period running from Nov. 10 to Dec. 21, and compared that to the 12-week period that preceded it, Aug. 18 to Nov. 9.) Overall, 88% of retailers increased their email frequency during the holidays.
The question to be asked at the end of this is: Was it worth it? Did the increase in sales from higher frequencies outweigh all the potential downsides, such as
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the cost of replacing subscribers lost to higher list churn;
the opportunity cost of lost sales due to lower deliverability caused by increased spam complaints; and
the opportunity cost of lost sales due to higher "ignore rates" as subscribers tune you out because you were oversending.
In other words, did we squander significant lifetime value in exchange for a smaller short-term boost in sales? Pay particular attention to how your best customers react to higher send volumes, and dial it back if too many of them start to bail.
One way to limit the downside of higher email frequencies during the holiday season is to offer subscribers the opportunity to opt into additional email streams, such as a holiday deal-a-day program or a "12 Days of Christmas" campaign. You'll have a smaller percentage of your base opt in, but those subscribers should be much more likely to convert, and you will have avoided stressing the rest of your list with as many extra emails.
3. Don't ignore Cyber Monday. Last year retail email marketers fully embraced Cyber Monday as an established selling occasion, with 67% of the retailers tracked by the Retail Email Blog sending at least one promotional email on Nov. 26. That was up from 44% of retailers the year before. The jump made Cyber Monday the most popular retail email marketing day of the year, eclipsing the day after Christmas, which was the biggest retail email day in 2006.
Like it or not, Cyber Monday is a real shopping holiday now, even if it's not "the biggest online shopping day of the year" as it's billed. Last year retailers were highly motivated to move sales earlier in the holiday season and Cyber Monday gave them another occasion relatively early in the season to promote sales. That scenario is likely to repeat itself this year.
4. In the days after Christmas, go after your gift card dollars. Gift card sales have become huge -- with consumers buying an estimated $26.3 billion worth last holiday season alone, according to the National Retail Federation. Retailers do a great job of promoting gift cards in their emails, including e-gift cards in the days right before Christmas. However, they've not generally done a great job of going after those gift card dollars post-Christmas.
You have to go after redemptions because gift card dollars aren't counted as sales until they're redeemed -- until then, you're just swapping currency. You want the sale, so go after your subscribers for gift card redemptions. Why target subscribers? Because they're your biggest fans and are therefore the most likely to have asked their friends and family for a gift card from you.
Last year, 23% of major online retailers sent at least one email encouraging subscribers to redeem their gift cards, with 48% of those sending more than one email that included that messaging. That's up significantly from the 2006 holiday season. There's even an emerging trend of creating incentives to accelerate redemptions further. For example, Bass Pro Shops, Foot Locker and Sports Authority each included incentives such as shipping discounts and percent-off discounts on orders that were purchased with gift cards.
I hope these tips help you have a very merry email Christmas.