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Creating Effective - and Profitable - Birthday Emails

  |  April 18, 2011   |  Comments

Learn from NHL and create a personalized email that will really engage the birthday girl. Part one in a three-part series.

We've been talking about the potential effectiveness of birthday emails, which are email messages sent to recipients in response to the annual anniversary of their birth, for a long time. In the past I've written about birthday email hits – and misses – in this column.

Here is the first of a three-part, example-based series on birthday emails, featuring tips and tricks for making your birthday email messages more rewarding – both for your recipients and for your organization.

First, a quick case study. One of my current clients regularly segments and targets email by birthday. The birthday emails carry the same offer as the non-birthday emails and are mailed at the same time.

The copy within the email references the occasion and "birthday" is included in the subject line. The birthday version regularly beats the control with a 60 percent or greater lift in conversion rate (conversions divided by the total number of email messages assumed delivered).

This can be attributed to the extra attention the birthday email receives from recipients, where it bests the control with an average:

  • 30 percent lift in open rate
  • 60 percent lift in click-through rate

The conversion here is a lead that's generated – it doesn't cost the recipient anything, so there's no ROI tied directly to the conversion. But the quality of the leads is equal to or better than the quality of the leads generated from the non-birthday email. It's clear that the small amount of extra work it takes to customize this effort for birthdays is well worth it for this organization.

Bottom line: if you're not looking to make the most of your recipients' birthdays, you should.

My birthday was last week. I received 21 birthday email messages from companies I have online relationships with. They included a total of 20 offers, with five companies only wishing me well (no offer), and a few giving me two or more "gifts."

The majority of these messages, 57 percent, landed in my inbox on my actual birthday. I was surprised and heartened by this. It means that companies are making use of triggered email technology to better target by date, rather than doing a once-a-month, send to all April birthdays. That's a good thing.

Let's take a look at what I consider to be the most effective birthday email I received this year. Although it's not perfect, it's much better than anything else I received.

I'm a huge hockey fan (let's go Caps!), so it was great to get birthday greetings from the NHL (below). This message came though about a week prior to my big day; the subject line was clear: "Happy Birthday! Save 15% at Shop.NHL.com!"


This was, by far, the most personalized message I received. The NHL incorporated my first and last name, as well as my favorite hockey team, into the creative.

Personalization is not expensive nor is it difficult to do in email, if your ESP or send solution has dynamic content capability. This is why I'm so surprised that more companies aren't thinking of creative ways, like this, to use it. I know that the personalized jersey is a bit clichéd, but it caught my eye and engaged me in a way that none of the other birthday email messages did.

The call to action is clear – get 15 percent off on NHL merchandise. This email is so simple, yet so powerful and effective. If you ignore the header, it's fewer than 15 words.

I was also intrigued by the forward to a friend link in the bottom left. Can I really share my birthday discount with friends? I did forward the email to some other hockey fan friends, so we'll see.

When I initially clicked through to take advantage of my 15 percent discount, I thought that I had been taken to a generic version of the NHL home page (below). I actually went back to the email to see if there was a code I needed to get the discount.

But then I looked again…


While the "above the fold" part of the page was generic, the individual item listings had been personalized to include not only a note about my discount but also a "Happy Birthday" message (below).


The personalization of the landing page was very impressive and it's what really put this campaign over the top for me. That said, it would be nice if the top of the page were also customized so there was no confusion when you first land there.

I'm glad the NHL included one of its "women's" items on the page (bottom left), but maybe it should have been higher up, maybe in place of the Men's Fantom Watch (top right of the individual items section). I don't know if the NHL asked my gender when I registered (it may not have) and I realize that women hockey fans are the minority, so a small issue.

A larger issue comes when the email is viewed using AutoPreview (Snippet) and in the preview pane of Outlook (below).


The NHL is using a pre-header ("Happy Birthday! Get 15% Off at Shop.NHL.com! Click Here") which appears in the View>AutoPreview mode just under the from and subject lines. While it's good that the company's thinking in terms of AutoPreview text, making it mirror the subject line is a missed opportunity. I've written about AutoPreview and Snippet text a few times in the past; if you're not testing its effectiveness, now's the time.

The preview pane view is also a disappointment. You can see the two lines of pre-header text, then the Shop.NHL.com logo. With images blocked, just the pre-header text appears. Not much to engage someone, especially considering the heavy personalization that's in the body of the email.

Moving the "Happy Birthday Jeanne!" up to the right of the Shop.NHL.com logo would help. It's got to be rich text rather than an image, since it's personalized, and when a recipient sees his or her name in the preview pane it's been shown to boost engagement and encourage people to read further into the email.

Optimizing the preview pane would force the NHL to rethink what appears to be its standard email header, but I'd recommend it look at doing so. I'd ask to look at the metrics to see how many people click on those links in the header – and ask if they are more important and more effective at driving revenue than the personalized message below. I doubt they are.

I wouldn't remove those header links entirely – I'd just move them down below the personalized message. This would put the personalized message in a more prominent location and keep those generic links from upstaging it.

Even without implementing these recommendations, this one-two personalization punch shows the true promise of email and online marketing. If you aren't there now, you should work on moving in this direction.

In two weeks I'll dissect a birthday email that was the least successful at engaging me on my big day and provide recommendations for improvement. Following that, a month from now, I'll provide a quick look at some of the other birthday emails which intrigued me – and which you can learn from to make your own birthday email efforts more effective – and more profitable.

Until next time,




Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a recognized expert in the email marketing industry and managing director of digital marketing for Digital Prism Advisors. She has more than 20 years of experience in the email and online marketing and product development world. Jeanne's direct-response approach to digital strategy, tactics, and creative direction helps organizations make their online marketing initiatives more effective and more profitable. Digital Prism Advisors helps established businesses unlock significant growth and revenue opportunities in the digital marketplace; our clients learn to develop and implement successful digital strategies, leveraging data and technology to better meet bottom line goals. Want to learn more? Check out Jeanne's blog and Digital Prism Advisors.

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