Holiday lessons: Use e-mail to create urgency

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From an e-mail marketing perspective, what's so great about the holidays? It's the mutually agreed-upon deadline. Religious or not, most of us know that by late December, we owe our loved ones gifts.

Retailers use the occasion to sell more, gain new customers and increase loyalty. There are some lessons here for all of us - retailers and non-retailers alike - in how to build a successful e-mail marketing campaign around this deadline-driven formula.

No matter that you don't get a boost from the holidays. Create your own deadline-driven event, and structure an e-mail campaign that exploits that urgency. Identify your industry's seasons or already-existing deadlines - like natural sales spikes, industry trade shows and partner events. Travel businesses might target spring, while a technology company might time a promotion around a conference.

If nothing exists, create an artificial deadline. A vendor recently offered my company a free trial of one of its on-demand applications. We had 45 days to test it, during which time the vendor administered a drip e-mail campaign - we got offers for upgrades, reminders about time remaining and tips on using its features and functions. The company created an environment for friendly engagement, established a sense of urgency and earned our business.

One advantage of the holiday season is its inherent association with fun - the shopping activity itself has become an event. Think beyond coupons - use contests, trivia and prizes as ways to keep people engaged. Financial planners might create a quiz to test subscribers' knowledge of the markets - pitting them against each other in a playful, yet educational, competition. This reinforces the company's expertise, while highlighting the customer's need for the service.

Retailers are constantly adapting how their customers can buy from them, adding gift cards and other options to the mix. So should you. If you're selling travel, offer local overnighters along with the more expensive getaways - to capture those who don't have the time or money for a larger commitment. Give people alternative ways to begin a relationship with you, and they'll come to you when they're ready for the larger purchases.

The holidays bring retailers new customers, and the savvy businesses nurture these new relationships. Perhaps an existing subscriber forwards your seasonal e-mail to a colleague, who then clicks from the message to your Web site. Use a trigger-based system to embrace visitors - follow up with a welcome message, invite them to subscribe to a newsletter and ask about their interests. This is a great opportunity to invite them into an ongoing e-mail relationship.

It's human nature - we all seem to move faster under deadline. Use that to your advantage.

Loren McDonald is VP of corporate communications at J.L. Halsey, parent to Lyris, EmailLabs, Sparklist, ClickTracks, Hot Banana and EmailAdvisor. Reach him at lmcdonald@jlhalsey.com.

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