Two years ago I wrote a ~3,000 word blog post on email marketing tips during the holidays.
The guide was long, detailed, and all-encompassing. And while most of the points still hold true, much has also changed. The world of online marketing, as you know, is a rapidly developing place. And things evolve quickly.
In this new and updated guide to holiday email marketing, we’ll go over the tips and tricks that continue to stand the test of time, along with some new ones.
Quick Links to Help You Navigate
This is a BIG article with TONS of useful tips, and I don’t want you to miss any of it. So use these links below to navigate and quickly reference at a later date:
- Tip #1: Plan in Advance
- Tip #2: Think Series, Not One-Off
- Tip #3: Engage Early and Often
- Tip #4: Design with Mobile in Mind
- Tip #5: Prioritize Your CTAs
- Tip #6: Incentivize the Action You Want
- Tip #7: Always Be Testing
- Tip #8: Appeal to Emotional Triggers
- Tip #9: Focus on Benefits & Outcomes
- Tip #10: Headlines, Headlines, Headlines
- Tip #11: Resend to Unopened
- Tip #12: Segment Your Users
- Tip #13: Remove Buying Friction
- Tip #14: Incorporate Viral Hooks
- Tip #15: Be Data Driven
Holiday email marketing probably isn’t anywhere close to being on the top of your to-do list during the summer months – but it probably should be.
In a recent survey, 69% of marketers surveyed start planning holiday campaigns by August with the most holiday planning happening in June (18%).
Don’t worry though– it’s not too late if you start planning now! The most popular time to launch campaigns is during the first 15 days of November (after Halloween but before Thanksgiving).
For example, if you want to increase sales and engagement over the holidays, don’t flood your social media channels with “Buy my widget now!” updates on Black Friday.
But start creating holiday content that teases and hints at upcoming promotions. Find partners to cross-promote and help you distribute this content. Then run contests to increase engagement and excitement for the upcoming holiday specials. Finally, use lead nurturing and email marketing to consistently follow-up with people when they do — or don’t — show intent to buy.
Investing in a single, well planned and executed holiday campaign will always have a higher ROI than spamming people the day before Christmas.
And with email marketing, there’s no excuse. Because you can schedule everything ahead of time.
So let’s look at some more practical, concrete ways to do this…
Most email lists only have an open rate of about 20%, if that. At 20%, a subscriber list of 1,000 people would reach around 200 individuals.
Not exactly ideal.
But after a few follow-up emails at the same open rate, you’ll likely reach closer to 400-600 people. Better, right?
The point is, you should send more emails during the holidays (within reason of course — here are a few ways to increase frequency). And if you look at the top shopping days for online sales, then you can “chunk” them into three major ranges:
- Tuesday, November 25
- Thursday, November 27 (Thanksgiving)
- Friday, November 28
- Monday, December 1 (Cyber Monday)
- Wednesday, December 3
- Friday, December 5
- Monday, December 8 (Green Monday)
- Tuesday, December 9
- Thursday, December 11
- Monday, December 16
So instead of waiting to send one email on Cyber Monday, you should build up to it. For example, over the period of a few days, you can use a sequence like this:
- Email #1: Hint or Tease at Upcoming Sale
- Email #2: Announce Sale (Limited Time Only) – to encourage people to take action
- Email #3: Last Chance – to introduce scarcity and compel people to take advantage
- Email #4: Missed It, But Here’s What’s Next… -
Now that’s a pretty aggressive sequence. If you’ve only been emailing your subscribers once or twice a month then you might see more unsubscribes.
So you might want to pick only one of those date ranges to run this type of email campaign sequence.
But learn from the best. Watch any major online retailer, and they’ll be sending you something very similar.
Engagement with your brand is the missing link between strangers and loyal customers.
Creating customer loyalty is one of the driving reasons behind using email marketing and social media in the first place. You want to stay “top-of-mind”, so when someone is in need of your product or service, you’re the first one they seek out.
One of the best ways to ignite engagement is to use a social media promotion.
Use a simple tool to run a holiday contest prior to your big email campaigns. For example, have people submit pictures of their Holiday decorations, or favorite holiday memories.
As an added bonus, you can also get them to submit their email during entry, so you’ll be able to collect new last minute subscribers to add to your list.
Mobile device purchases went up 22% as a result of email marketing from 2012 to 2013 according to Campaigner’s annual Mobile Trends Survey of nationwide consumers.
And you’d be correct to assume that we’ll see an even more drastic increase in mobile device purchases as a result of email marketing this year.
So what can companies to capitalize on this trend?
For one, it’s crucial for email campaigns to have a mobile responsive design. Because if an email is difficult to read or make sense of on a mobile device, you’ve already lost. Mailchimp is great for this (one of the many reasons I use them for email marketing).
Here’s some other interesting facts from the survey:
- 20% cited subject line as the main reason they read mobile marketing emails – more info on subject lines in a bit.
- 42% primarily read promotional emails based on familiarity of the sender name (another reason to start implementing some of the points from tip #1 now).
- 22% said that text is difficult to read on mobile devices – make your message simple and concise.
- 41% said email marketing messages have more impact on holiday purchases than regular promotional emails
The best email templates, especially “transactional” ones, are simple and clear. Because you want people to ultimately click and take action (not just admire how pretty your design is).
If you have tangible products or services, then be more visual and show — don’t tell.
You can (and should) also use “visual cues” to get people to take action. The Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas does a great job by using an envelope. And what are you supposed to do with an envelope? Open it! (Or click in this case.)
Here’s a simple rule-of-thumb to remember for your emails:
In most cases, reducing the amount of actions or choices for someone to take actually increases conversions. So try to only focus on one major product, service or offer in each email if you can.
But what if you have A LOT of products or services?
Then prioritize your Call-To-Actions by visually emphasizing (or de-emphasizing) choices. Here’s a good example from Nordstrom:
They use bright, bold colors to grab your attention, large text to focus your attention, and smaller call-to-actions surrounding the main one. This attention to detail helps draw your eyes to the main “Final Clearance” box.
Visual cues (in addition to compelling text) are also great for encouraging people to take action.
Check out this email ad from lululemon. They’ve conveyed a message of comfort, warmth, and style – all by using an image of a woman wearing their clothing paired with simple and straightforward text that compels the user to want more.
But what if you’re not selling a tangible product? No problem. There’s loads of other ways to incorporate visual cues into your email marketing (and they don’t always need to include pictures).
Graphics, designs, etc. that leave the viewer wanting to find out more about your product or service can also be extremely effective.
And remember – keep your visual cues simple and clear. Because too much can be overwhelming and turn people away altogether. But if you do have a lot of products or services, prioritize their importance by emphasizing some and de-emphasizing others.
The best way to get people to take action and buy is with an incentive.
However the type of incentive you use depends on your business, products/services, and especially — your customers.
Discounts and two-for-one offers work well for commodities. But not for consultative sales.
Conversely, exclusive content and special access/ convenience work well when you have long sales cycles and complex products or services.
And be careful…
Because if you overuse and rely on the wrong incentive, it will actually hurt your company in the long run.
You’ll attract the wrong type of customer, erode your profit margins, and run your company into the ground.
The subject line of your email will determine whether or not it gets opened (potentially turning into a sale) or deleted and forgotten altogether.
And if you’re spending time and efforts to create a well-planned and orchestrated email campaign, you want – no, need – to make sure that people see it. Higher open rates lead to more clicks, which translates to more leads and sales.
But how do you make sure that your headline is good enough to make people want to read more?
Marketing is part art, part science. And the truth is that no one really knows what’s going to work best. No one can predict the future.
So you should use the scientific method instead. Come up with a few hypothesis, and then test them.
For example, if you’re going to offer a discount, how do you know what headline or subject line to use? After all, your subject line is one of the most important parts of your email (more on that later).
So should you emphasize: “30% Sale”, or “$60 Off”?
You can run a simple split test on a small percentage of your group, and then send out the offer to the majority of your list with the winning subject line.
Most major email marketing software will allow you to do this. We like (and recommend) HubSpot and Mailchimp (depending on your price point). MailChimp, for example, makes this process extremely easy.
Here’s the general process you should use:
- Pick what you want to test (here, the Subject Line)
- Choose the sample size you want to test (recommend 10 – 20%)
- Select the winning criteria (here, the Open Rate)
- Choose a time frame (you’ll see a majority of the activity within 24 hours)
And here’s what it looks like:
No one cares about your company. But they DO care about what your products or services can do for them.
So instead of writing about stuff that has no personal appeal, focus on either a) what people can gain by using your product/service or b) the pain of loss.
How do you go about doing that?
With compelling content. Use your wit, creativity, and storytelling abilities to show people how your company can bring them closer to their ideal version of themselves.
For example, how does your product or service:
- Alleviate some well-known pain?
- Protect them from common threats?
- Provide them with a 10X ROI?
- Improve their self-image and confidence?
- Help them to “keep-up with the Jonses”, or better yet -
- Be an innovator and stay ahead of the pack
Once you’ve figured out what these emotional triggers are, use them to compel your audience to pay attention and take action.
That means your marketing messages, headlines, descriptions, and Calls-To-Action all need to focus on one of these two qualities:
- Immense value gained
- Pain of loss
For example, tests have shown that the word “Subscribe” is one of the worst converting words because it makes people think of commitment or purchasing something.
Instead, try focusing on the benefit someone will receive (e.g. “Get Instant Access”), or the cure for their pain (e.g. “Protect Your Family Today”).
Here’s how you identify those benefits…
Repeat after me: “People don’t care about my company — they only care about themselves”.
This might be obvious, but most companies still struggle with it.
And it’s a huge mistake because your copy (or lack-there-of) has a BIG impact on conversions.
There’s an old phrase that says, “Facts tell, stories sell”. Now apply that philosophy to your own product and service descriptions.
Sure, people want to know what they get. But more importantly, they want to know what it does for them.
For example, how does your product or service:
- Alleviate some well-known pain?
- Protect them from common threats?
- Provide them with a 10X ROI?
- Improve their self image confidence?
- Help them to “keep-up with the Jonses”, or better yet -
- Be an innovator and stay ahead of the pack?
You need to find these emotional triggers that cause people to sit-up, pay attention, and take action.
Because people pay premium dollars for results and outcomes — not widgets and commodities.
Now translate these qualities in your marketing messages. And use them liberally in your email copy.
Think about how much clutter and junk your customers receive every day. Remember that you’re not just competing against direct competition, but also for your customers attention.
Which brings us to the next tip…
Headlines are the Achilles’ Heel of the content you create.
This is especially true for your emails, because people scan the subject lines and make snap-judgments about which emails they’re going to open (and which to delete or hit Spam).
So taking the time to craft a winning headline is one of the best “low-hanging fruits” that will give you quick results.
Because a higher Open Rate means more awareness, which leads to more Click-Throughs, which means more potential revenue.
So… how do you create winning headlines?
Here’s 3 quick steps to crafting the perfect email subject line:
- Don’t be sales-ey.
- Appeal to emotional triggers (as discussed in tip #5).
- Keep it short, sweet, and accurately reflective of the content within the email (this is especially true for mobile email marketing, when overly wordy headlines can be a HUGE turn-off to potential buyers).
You can also use a URL shortener (like Bitly.com) to give you some click data. Now start testing different headlines with your Facebook or Twitter audience.
Which ones typically get more clicks, and why?
After some simple experimentation, you’ll quickly identify several different “templates” that you can reuse repeatedly in the future.
The average Open Rate for email marketing hovers somewhere between 15 – 30%.
So how do you reach the other 70 – 85% who didn’t open your email? Send it again!
Because unlike Facebook, you can repeatedly reach your email customers for free.
So copy or duplicate your existing campaign. And maybe try experimenting with different headlines that might catch people’s attention this time.
But one final point…
Open Rates actually aren’t very accurate. Email marketing tools use a tiny image pixel in each email. So if someone has images turned off, then the tracking pixel won’t open, and that person won’t register as an “open”.
So your actual Open Rate is generally under-reported. Which means there might be some overlap of customers when sending out campaigns more than once.
Sometimes it’s easier to send one email to everyone on your email list.
But you’ll often see better results if you can segment your subscribers and send them more targeted emails. Because the more you can personalize each email, the better response you’ll see.
This is obvious if you have different customer segments all together, that may be interested in different products and services.
But you can also take it one step further during the holidays.
If you have multiple locations, or your customers are concentrated in different areas, then use geographic segmenting to send personalized offers.
Everyone should also segment their list based on activity or engagement. So you can send different, targeted offers to people based on their engagement. Or you can simply send more to the people who’ve been clicking on your past campaigns.
If you’re sending a series of emails (like Tip #2), and you see that someone is opening and clicking on almost every single one, then you can feel more comfortable sending them follow-ups, or even special “last-chance” emails. Here’s an example using MailChimp again:
The main goal of your “transactional” emails are to increase sales. That’s it.
So the email itself needs to maximize click-throughs.
And then you need to reduce the friction that might prevent people from purchasing. Maybe that means reducing the number of steps someone needs to take to buy.
But there’s also a few common attributes that are preventing sales.
We already discussed how certain words can (and do) influence sales. Using the word “Subscribe” is bad because it has negative connotations, while using something like “Get Instant Access” will probably increase conversions.
The same holds true for increasing sales. Instead of “Buy Now”, tell your customers to “Get Started Today” or “Grab This ‘Look’ for the Holidays”.
Another hot button is shipping costs.
If you’re selling physical products, then offer free shipping. According to comScore, 47% of consumers said they would abandon a purchase if they found free shipping was not included. And in some cases, consumers actually value free shipping more than a discount.
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just make things “go viral”.
Sometimes it happens, and other times it doesn’t.
But you CAN try to manufacture virality by incorporating more viral hooks.
One of my favorite examples for tangible products are wishlists. Think about how this works…
You provide users the ability to easily save their favorite products, and then encourage them to share it via social networks or email.
For example, I never buy my wife clothes as a gift. I have a good idea of her style, but don’t feel confident enough to pick out something she would like.
But if she created a wishlist at her favorite store, and emailed it to me, then I probably would buy that because it’s easy and convenient (and men like easy and convenient gifts).
How can you incorporate viral hooks into your emails, that actually gives someone the reason to share it?
Figure that out, and you can start turning your customers into marketing ambassadors.
Finally, the best digital marketing is data-driven.
Which is refreshing, because you can put aside conventional wisdom, best practices, and political egos. All you have to focus on is what works, and discard what doesn’t.
But how do you know what’s working — or more importantly, why it’s working — if you aren’t tracking? (Or worse, tracking the wrong things.)
So… do you know:
- Which of your marketing channels are most profitable?
- Which are your best, most loyal customers?
- How much you can afford to spend to acquire new customers?
Because tracking Open Rates and Click-Throughs is a good start…
But you also need to have a firm grasp on the things that count — like what’s driving revenue.
For example, if you sell services, then you need to make sure your CRM, Sales, and Email tools integrate seamlessly. Personally, we use HubSpot because (a) it’s awesome, (b) it’s simple, and (c) it integrates extremely well with other tools. So we can automatically keep track of where my leads are coming from — and how to improve our efforts accordingly.
If you sell products online, then you can use Mailchimp’s tool called eCommerce360. With it, you can track individual visits from email, track order information, and assign values to your subscribers.
Now you know which emails are generating revenue, and which aren’t.
But it doesn’t really matter which tools you use.
What matters is that you’re using simple techniques to accurately track where you’re doing well, where you’re falling short, and how to improve.
Then you can make good, informed marketing decisions that will actually work and pay for themselves in a matter of no time.
Countless studies have shown that email marketing is the best marketing channel for repeat visitors.
But in my personal experience working with clients in a variety of industries, it’s also the most underutilized. That translates into opportunities wasted, and money thrown down the drain.
So use these 15 tips as a guide, and think about how to apply them to each and every email you send this holiday season.
Because if you can master a few of these simple techniques, then you’ll begin to quickly see HUGE improvements.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about taking action. Choose one or two of these tips, set aside one uninterrupted hour, and get down to work. Measure, rinse, and repeat.
Or invest in a team that can accelerate your business growth this holiday season.