A Preview of Retailers’ Holiday Email Strategies
It’s shocking but true. Thanksgiving is a week away, to be followed by the dramatic aftershocks of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. All of which is merely a prelude to the subsequent four weeks of intense holiday selling, during which retailers must earn a disproportionately large share of their annual sales and profits.
Here are some key insights from our deep dive into last year's early holiday email activity for several major retail brands, including Amazon.com, eBay, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, and Best Buy. In addition, I've provided a quick look at what I'm seeing so far from that group in 2019.
- It starts early: “Black Friday” has become a generic reference to “Huge Sale,” no matter the time of year. However, explicit Holiday/Black Friday references begin as early as mid-October. Amazon has traditionally been an early entrant, as — this year — are eBay, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, and Macy’s.
- Timing is fluid: Black Friday subject lines persist robustly throughout the post-Thanksgiving weekend, though they do begin to taper off on that Sunday, as Cyber Monday references begin to take precedence. Those references, in turn, tend to bleed well into the following week, five or more days past Cyber Monday itself.
- In subject line language, “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” aren't the same as “Holiday.” The former two terms are much more likely than the latter to front larger average send sizes — i.e., less targeting; account for a much smaller percentage of deployed period campaigns; be purely promotional — e.g., referencing “Deals,” “Sale,” “Doorbuster”, aggressive discounting and time urgency (e.g., “Don’t wait!”; "Last call!”; “Ends today!”); have no specific product or service references; and have lower read rates.
The true heavy lifting in holiday email isn't necessarily limited to the loud, aggressive, big-send Black Friday/Cyber Monday campaigns; it also includes the more mundane “Holiday” themed campaigns that more closely observe email best practices for creating relevance and driving engagement. They're more likely to be category-specific, targeted based on customer behavior, and fronting subject lines that clearly reflect key elements of featured merchandise and incentive offers. Here are a couple of other factors to consider:
- To emoji or not to emoji? Emojis seem to be appearing more frequently in subject lines, and this early holiday crop has been no exception. They’re cute, but they don’t seem to help. This year, in fact, both Black Friday and holiday-themed subject lines with emojis drive about 5 percentage points lower read rates than subject lines without emojis.
- Don’t forget to test: Holiday strategies may be locked in by now, but email uniquely permits rapid and low-risk testing of key campaign elements, including audience, offer, creative and subject line. Take these opportunities. Holiday is too critical for flying blind.
Early Black Friday Campaigns of Note
Below are examples of typical Black Friday/holiday-themed campaigns deployed in the initial run-up periods to Black Friday for both 2018 and 2019. They illustrate the callouts we made above in terms of how the use of targeting, specificity, time urgency, and discounting may affect engagement. In the two Best Buy campaigns at the bottom of the 2019 table, note especially how the brand appears to have been testing two different types of subject line approaches with comparably sized audiences on consecutive days.
John Landsman is the director of strategy and analytics at eDataSource, the premier source of email tracking, performance insights, and deliverability technology.
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John Landsman is the Manager of Research Analytics at SparkPost,the world's largest email deliverability engine.
He oversees competitive analysis and reporting for clients. With 30+ years of experience in all aspects of CRM development, deployment and application, John merged his technical and data know-how with his intimate knowledge of retail marketing, having served Macy's corporate for 12 years. He comes to SparkPost through the acquisition of eDataSource in October 2019, where he was director of strategy and analysis for five years. His earlier years in CRM and email marketing were spent at corporations including eBay Enterprise Marketing Solutions, Analytics Group and Harte-Hanks CRM Analytics. Between 2005-2014, John was on the Marketing Faculty of Bentley University (Waltham, MA). He holds a B.A. from Miami University (Ohio) and an M.B.A. from The Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College.