Holiday Email Strategy: Naughty or Nice?

The holiday shopping season begins earlier each year—and with it comes an increase in email marketing. Consider that in 2012, e-tailers sent an average of 210 promotional emails over the holidays, up from 177 a year earlier, according to email marketing solutions provider Listrak. This is an increase of 19%. Another increase is expected this holiday season.

How to stand out? “Brands have to be strategic about staying connected with customers earlier in the season without creating message saturation,” says Michelle Eichner, strategist at IBM Smarter Commerce. “To capture share of wallet, [an] email marketer’s mailing strategy must sustain relevant messaging and factor the right time to begin promotions.”

Make that list early

Deston Stephens, e-commerce manager at wholesale gift retailer burton + Burton, knows firsthand what happens to brands that get a late start. Burton sells balloons, party supplies, and various decorative products to gift retailers nationwide. These include independent florists, supermarket chains, and hospital gift shops.

“When we first got going with email marketing, we failed because we sent messages too late—when our stock was depleted,” Stephens says. “We’re starting to send messages earlier [this year].”

WWRD US LLC, the parent company of the Waterford, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, and Royal Albert brands of luxury homeware and lifestyle products, also gears up early. Its director of e-commerce, Joe Schmidt, is one of the many marketers whose holiday season begins when everyone else is on summer vacation. He maps his plan in August, a decision supported by Karen DiClemente, account director at Listrak, which works with WWRD: “It’s important to capture the customer dollar as early as you can,” she says.

However, there’s a caveat. “The consumer is getting a little saturated as far as frequency goes,” says Kristin Kleweno, director of customer strategy at Yesmail. She recommends that marketers “pull up a little [on email volume] and start seeding audiences earlier.”

Check your messages twice

Timing is important, but relevancy is, as well—even with high frequency. According to Jim Davidson, manager of marketing research at Bronto Software, which provides email tools to Burton, risks like delivery blocks and increased unsubscribe rates are heightened during the holidays.

One way to avoid these risks is to build a narrative around the holiday messages from pre-Thanksgiving through the New Year. WWRD plans to step up the narrative-building strategy, which it began last year. In September its messages focused on entertaining— high-concept email messaging that will link to social media and online creative (this consistency is an oft-overlooked component of email marketing). October will focus on decorating, with messaging about items like vases and candlesticks. November and December will focus on gift giving.

Bronto’s Davidson recommends that marketers storyboard their campaigns: Print every email sent last year, place it on a wall, and write the results next to each message to get the full picture. “If you do send multiple emails, especially if it’s to your entire list, look at how you can craft that story,” he explains. “You’re building anticipation and you can add supplementary offers to that narrative theme.”

An essential part of the narrative is tailoring messaging to specific customers. Burton used to send blanket emails, but both its products and its customers are so diverse (customers often only buy within a single product type, like balloons) it now targets messages based on buying histories.

“We know what our customers react to, we know when they react to their email, and what type of products they buy,” Stephens says. He’s noticed that some customers react perfectly well to two or three marketing messages per week. Others demonstrably prefer fewer emails. “This upcoming holiday season we’re going to leverage that information and use it to our benefit.”

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