Your Holiday Email Campaigns are Already Late: How to Get Caught Up
In past years, your neighbors may have looked at you funny for putting up your holiday decorations in October. But when it comes to the 2021 email season, starting early is going to make all of the difference.
We don’t need to tell you that the world has become a more digital place since March 2020. Supply chains have become incredibly volatile and consumers have no choice but to start their holiday preparation early. What was once a week-long email sprint leading up to Black Friday and continuing on through Cyber Monday is now a 4-5 month marathon of email sales and promotions running from mid-October to the middle of February.
Four Reasons Your Holiday Email Campaigns Need to Start Yesterday
- Supply chains are a mess
Products, from cars to tablets to yoga pants, are slow to hit the shelves so consumers need to start their shopping early and it’s your job to inform them. If you want your customers to have their purchased goods in hand prior to whatever special day they need them for, you’ll need to convey a sense of urgency in your email marketing and set their expectations about product availability and shipping timelines accordingly.
- Consumer behaviors have changed
Now more than ever, consumer behavior has made the pivot to digital. You know it’s real when your mom-and-pop pizza shop down the street now takes digital orders. Marketers have known about this shift for some time, but the last two years have accelerated the trajectory of digital consumerism, something that email senders should take note of.
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs) still expect consistency
Ramping up email volumes for the Q4 season will require a slow and steady approach and positive engagement from your email audience. ISPs are always on the lookout for spikes in sending volume that can suggest a legitimate sender’s infrastructure has been compromised, or that they’re doing something incredibly risky/stupid. This has not changed from past years. So don’t expect to double your email volumes overnight, particularly if you’re adding recipients back into the mix who haven’t heard from you lately.
- Holiday retail season hype is growing
You may have noticed that Black Friday is no longer just a day, it’s become an entire season – one that has started slightly earlier every year. I’m not suggesting you need to keep up with the Jones’s just for the sake of things, but considering supply chains are a mess, it’s a good year to follow the trends and get to marketin’.
Now with these points being made, it’s important that you don’t rush anything unnecessarily. You should still delicately plan your attack and provide valuable, thoughtful content to your recipients, following industry best practices.
To help, we sat down with 10 email experts from various levels of leadership at SocketLabs, who have more than 134 years of combined email experience, to learn their tips and tricks for navigating the 2021 holiday season as an email specialist.
Don’t Panic! Advice From our Experts:
1. Consider the bigger picture. Every business wants to hit their year-end revenue targets, but the long-term goals of the organization should always be worked into your planning. After all, the email channel is best used to build long-term relationships with your audience. Be deliberate in setting your objectives not only for this holiday season but for beyond as well.
This involves cross-functional collaboration in the planning phase by including all relevant stakeholders. Specifically, consider…
- The impact on channels beyond email. What kind of experience are you creating with your brand? Is your email channel contributing to that experience, or detracting from it? Marrying up your email data with other channels can answer these questions by filling in blind spots, allowing you to build a more comprehensive profile of your customer.
- Whether you have the right infrastructure in place to withstand not only increased email volume, but also the subsequent business activities related to inventory, fulfillment and supply chain management, customer support, and more. Particularly if you’ll highlight products within your emails, they better not be out of stock! While this extends beyond the email channel, having dynamic email infrastructure in place can ensure your holiday retail season runs smoothly.
- Having a contingency plan in the event issues arise (deliverability problems, outages, etc). Include your deliverability team in the planning to ensure risk doesn’t give way to recklessness. And consider all teams and tools that may be needed (marketing, IT, deliverability, customer support, etc.) so you can budget company resources accordingly.
2. Learn from your email program’s past self. Email is a data-rich channel, giving you plenty of opportunity to analyze what went well last year, and should be replicated – as well as what didn’t go so well and should be tweaked or removed from your planning altogether. Also think back to the challenges (deliverability or otherwise) you faced in past years, and how can you plan ahead to sidestep them this time around.
Last year’s holiday shopping experience was very different for customers due to the pandemic surging and many parts of the world were in lock-down conditions. Online shopping was very appealing and for some, it was the only option. While we are not out of the pandemic, customer shopping preferences and experiences (in-person vs online only) will look different this year as more people now have options to shop in-person or online. Marketers will need to balance their holiday strategy and consider customer preferences are going to be mixed to account for pandemic conditions that still impact our lives and the impending supply chain issues that will make getting those special gifts for loved ones very challenging.
3. Make it easy for recipients to engage with you. If you’re looking to generate a lot of opens, click-throughs, and conversions on your next big sales day, prime your audience ahead of time by sending content that feels highly targeted and personalized. This will reinforce the idea that email from you is valuable and worthy of their time.
Start by doing your research to understand what your email audience likes (and doesn’t). You’ll need to focus not only on your positive engagement metrics (like opens, clicks, conversions), but also your negative metrics (including unsubscribes and spam complaints). This will give you a more balanced picture into recipient engagement and allow you to reduce spam complaints from recipients, which can have a major impact on inbox placement. Unsubscribes are not as damaging to deliverability as spam complaints but treat them similarly, because they are a negative sentiment from recipients.
Set expectations with your audience about email frequency and the types of content you’ll send and be sure to include a clear call-to-action (CTA) so they know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing when they open an email from you
Then track your progress and adjust accordingly! Email is not ‘set and forget’. So once you’ve started ramping up for the holidays, make sure you’re regularly reviewing your engagement data to be on the lookout for signs of recipient fatigue (resulting in lower opens, clicks and conversions) and frustration (resulting in unsubscribes or much worse: spam complaints).
4. Perform a deliverability & configuration check-up. Email technologies have evolved over the years and labeling is very important for your recipients and the mailbox providers to know who the mail is coming from. If you haven’t checked on your configuration recently, you may have missed something.
Make sure you are DKIM signing using the domain in the From Address, and have a matching bounce/mailfrom domain with properly configured SPF. In addition to improving deliverability, these are essential in setting up DMARC to protect your domain from would-be phishers.
In addition to ensuring proper authentication is in place, I recommend having your domain that is used for engagement tracking pixels match your sending domain. This not only helps with alignment, which is good for deliverability, but it also lets your customers know who is behind those URLS, providing more trust in the links being clicked by your recipients. More recently it has become important to make sure you are using HTTPS for those links.
5. Ramp up slowly. The filters at the inbox providers don’t care what time of year it is, they always treat sudden spikes in message volume as suspicious. While tempting, the holidays are not the time to dig deep in your lists and start sending to less active subscribers.
If you want to get the word out as wide as possible at the holidays, start now with re-activation campaigns that go out gradually and offer a compelling incentive to get your customers re-engaged.
While you can ramp up your cadence around the holidays, it should also be done gradually. Too great of an increase in sending cadence can also have a negative effect on your sending reputation and make it harder to get your message out.
Slow but steady wins the Q4 race!
6. Involve your deliverability consultant in the process. Monitoring campaign results and deciphering metrics during this time of year can be a daunting task, but you don’t have to go through the holiday season alone: deliverability professionals have seen it all! They aren’t there to pump the brakes but instead to ensure calculated risk doesn’t give way to recklessness.
You can rest assured that you will have a resource on your side that can walk you through any potential pitfalls for the holiday season. And for those rare instances where you need help with a delivery issue, they will be your best resource on remediation strategies.
So be sure to share any marketing calendars or roadmaps with your consultant. They will need to be made aware of the intricate timing of your campaigns and will want to ensure that your performance leading up to these high-volume days will be dialed in.
Also be sure to get your consultants input on defining key performance indicators (KPI’s) for the holiday season. They can help keep you focused on deliverability benchmarks that matter.
7. Get creative! Just, not too creative.
Embrace the chaos
Try out weird times! EMBRACE CAPS!
If the phrase “Black Friday Spamhaus Listing” sends shivers down your spine, you already know the holiday sending season is not the time to make large scale changes to your subscriber base. But, while you can’t make massive changes, you should consider running a few small experiments during this timeframe to help stand out in the inbox to your subscribers.
Two examples to get your creativity flowing:
1. Get emoji-nal AND FEEL FREE TO BE EXCITED: One of the most strangely pervasive myths about email sending is that you can’t have all caps or emoji or certain words in a subject line. “That’s a one-way ticket to the spam folder!”
Well, I’m here to tell you that the year 2000 called, they’d like their email advice back. Spam filters have evolved significantly past the idea of “trigger words” or certain punctuation causing mail to go to the spam folder. Feel free to try out a few emoji in subject lines if it works for your brand’s voice, let me know there’s a SALE! A little creativity in your subjects can go a long way toward getting your users to engage. Bonus points for puns.
2. What time does a 3pm group meeting start? Unless the person leading the meeting is a total stickler for time, a 3pm meeting realistically starts at 3:03 or 3:04, likely because someone is coming off another meeting or wrapping something up. You’re competing with so many other things for time and attention at 3:00 pm, so why not set the actual meeting start time at 3:04?
….and what does this have to do with email?
Same idea! If you schedule emails, you’re more likely to time it on a quarter hour, at :00, :15, :30, or :45. A ton of other senders are doing this too, so you aren’t standing out. You’re competing with every other sender, both in terms of end user attention and in terms of receiving server queues. What happens if you send your mail at an off time, like 3:21 or 4:42? Now is a good time to find out!
Get creative now
Don’t do anything too wild
Have a little fun. 🙂
8. Use segmentation and personalization to target email recipients who are active and inactive with your brand differently. Brand loyalty can go a long way to dictating the sending frequency that you can get away with. And sending too much email to folks who can’t keep up, or don’t feel strongly connected to your brand in any way, will hurt your brand affinity. It may even turn a loyal customer into a detractor, simply by creating a negative email experience. So do your best to treat distinctive groups within your audience base separately based upon the facts that you know about them (based on email engagement, purchase history, etc.)
Creating cohorts based on email engagement recency (i.e., days since last open/click/purchase) will help with the frequency warm-up. With the current supply chain bottlenecks, starting this process as soon as possible will help you have the most successful holiday email season. It is recommended to start increasing frequency to the cohorts that have the highest engagement with your brand. As you approach Black Friday, start increasing frequency slightly to the lower cohorts. The highest cohort will always receive a higher frequency than the lower cohorts. As this warm-up occurs, monitoring overall unique engagers will be critical as this should increase. If this metric decreases, this often indicates you have gone too far, and it is recommended to reduce frequency to the lower cohorts.
9. Have a backup plan. Several, in fact. We are still living through a pandemic, after all, which means you not only need to worry about the typical deliverability and performance issues associated with this time of year. You’ll also need to have contingency plans in place for unexpected events such as supply chain issues and changes in your level of service due to unexpected world events that are outside of your control.
If you’re relying heavily on your email program to reach lofty Q4 revenue goals, have Plans A, B, and C ready to go. A couple of things we recommend:
- Leave some breathing room on your calendar around your most important campaigns. This allows you to send service-related notifications to your email audience without overwhelming them with too many emails from your brand. It also lets you pump the breaks when a deliverability issue occurs, ensuring you don’t make matters worse by continuing to send high volumes of emails that have no chance of hitting the inbox.
- For SocketLabs customers that know they will be sending more email this quarter, don’t forget to upgrade your service plan. If you plan to increase your sending frequency or to expand targeting to include less-active recipients during the holidays, you may be able to save money or avoid overage charges (which may be higher than your typical sending rate) by upgrading to a plan with lower per-message rates. You can always downgrade your plan after your email volumes return to normal. This is why you use a cloud service, so take advantage of it.
- If you are not a SocketLabs customer, then have a plan in place for back-up email infrastructure so you can continue sending business-critical emails if you’re experiencing performance issues related to server downtime, deliverability issues, or some other unexpected event outside of your control.
10. Do the right thing. In the annual holiday email rush, it’s easy for legitimate senders (experienced or not) to get caught in the gray area of good vs bad practice. In these scenarios it’s so important to just follow your gut and do the right thing. If purchasing a list looks and feels sketchy, it’s because it is. If your email content has a spammy feel to it, it’s because it looks like spam. If your data tells you people are losing interest, it’s because your content isn’t interesting anymore. This concept is painfully simple but so often it’s overlooked.
It’s important to have patience, pay attention to detail, and do the right thing. Don’t just do things the quick and easy way, take your time, avoid shortcuts, and follow your gut – it goes a long way.
11. Don’t worry about Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection’s impact. If you’re not sure what this one’s about, you can get yourself caught up by reading our most recent blog posts on it (here and here).
While adoption of iOS 15 continues to grow, and over-inflated open rates will make it harder to identify who’s really opening your emails and when, all of our SocketLabs experts agree this is not a deal breaker for your email strategy. If anything, you’ll wind up sending a bit more email to recipients who didn’t actually engage with your brand. The good news is, if you’ve been following industry best practices and have a healthy sender reputation, you don’t have much to worry about. Opens are one small piece of the email deliverability and engagement monitoring puzzle.
And as a SocketLabs customer, you have access to StreamScore: our email health analysis tool that monitors a large set of internal and third-party data points to help you understand your email performance and identify issues that may impact deliverability. Because StreamScore relies on so much data, and weighs this data appropriately, a loss in open tracking won’t actually impact your ability to monitor, adjust, and perfect your email program.