EmailEmail Marketing OptimizationE-mail: Make It the Linchpin of Your Digital Holiday Planning

E-mail: Make It the Linchpin of Your Digital Holiday Planning

It’s time to review what you learned from last year's holiday season, assess your e-mail program's performance, look for ways to fine tune it, and start planning for this year.

The 2010 holiday shopping season is shaping up to be another tough one for retailers. The National Retail Federation (NRF) hasn’t published figures yet, but based on back-to-school sales, we may see a mild recovery for holiday 2010. This recovery will be led by e-mail marketing. Marketers have more channels than ever to send out promotions, but e-mail remains the linchpin of an integrated digital marketing program. Many retailers will see increases in attribution to e-mail, as marketers fine tune frequency and the most engaged customers get a greater number of relevant messages.

Consumers are once again predicting they will cut back on purchases and seek out more bargains and deal-sweeteners.

Marketers, too, have to think hard about where and how they spend their budgets and where they can get the biggest bang for their own bucks. E-mail again is the answer, because it continues to rule all other marketing channels for ROI (define) and remains the consumers’ choice for receiving sales and other promotions.

Savvy marketers are discovering that they can create a strong marketing program when they integrate e-mail with other channels such as search and social networks to connect with more prospects and customers and drive higher sales, revenue, and engagement.

Q3 Planning for Q4 Results

If you think it’s too early, or you need to get back-to-school and Halloween promotions out the door before you can think about Christmas, you should see my inbox. It’s beginning to look a lot like…well, you know.

That doesn’t mean you have to move up whatever holiday promotions you’ve got in the works, though. This is the quarter to review what you learned from the 2009 holiday season, assess your e-mail program’s performance, look for ways to tune it up now, and then begin planning a coordinated marketing program that integrates all of the channels you use with your e-mail strategy.

That’s a tall order, admittedly. But, because your e-mail program has so much riding on it, you have to be sure it’s operating at peak performance before plunging headlong into the annual Q4 frenzy.

After all, the holiday season doesn’t begin when somebody rings a bell. It doesn’t even wait for Black Friday, which kicked off the in-store shopping season in the old days.

In 2009, retailers began their holiday campaigns on Oct. 19, an average of 67 days before Christmas, according to research by Chad White, my company’s research director. That date, by the way, is just 62 days away from today. For more stats and a huge list of tips, stay tuned for Chad’s upcoming report, “Retail Email Guide to the Holiday Season 2010.”

Where to Focus Attention

Because e-mail is the central driver of a digital marketing program, it makes sense to start your diagnostic work there. Anything you do now to improve your e-mail engine’s performance will benefit the rest of your Q3 campaigns, so it pays to start as soon as possible.

Focus your efforts on fixing what you have now. It’s not the time to scrap your entire e-mail program and start over.

Although you have any number of options for improving performance, these strategies will help you achieve a stronger e-mail program going into Q4.

1. Review what you learned from your 2009 holiday campaigns.

It’s probably been six to eight months since you looked at your Q4 2009 report. Blow off the virtual dust and refresh your memory about what worked and what didn’t. Were you able to change anything this year based on what you learned last year? Or did the press of business push it to the back burner?

If you haven’t tried it already, look at the data through a revenue tree lens.

2. Improve your list health with appropriate frequency.

Review the activity of your mailing list and come up with an appropriate frequency based on level of engagement.

We did this recently with a retail client and were able to quadruple the revenue attributed to their e-mail program. We suppressed or reduced frequency to the inactive segments, thereby improving deliverability. We increased frequency to their active segments and targeted merchandise promoted based on what subscribers had clicked on. The over 4x revenue came with only a 1.4x increase in average frequency.

Another way to increase frequency to the people who want it is to start an opt-in for a “holiday series” campaign. I think this is going to be a big trend this year (e.g., Deal of the Days, 12 Days of Christmas, Daily Gift Guide, etc.). There are segments of subscribers who do want higher frequency and marketers should start to collect permission now in preparation for the holidays.

In addition to this basic strategy of “appropriate frequency,” you can combat inactivity with an easy, obvious, and reliable unsubscribe process or by tracking people who don’t respond and inviting them back through targeted reactivation campaigns.

But you also have subscribers who just don’t see any reason to open and act on your e-mails. Invite them to fill out customer profiles or preference pages, and use that information to segment your list and create more targeted e-mails. If you’re like one of our more sophisticated clients, create three separate profiles for your customers: one for self-reported, one for e-mail clicks, and one for website browse information. This gives you a larger universe of profiled customers, and will drive greater results.

For a more aggressive approach to making over your e-mail program before the holiday season, see my column, “Adopting an E-mail Program Improvement.”

3. Cross-pollinate your e-mail and social networks.

This is where the rubber will hit the road this holiday season if you already have footprints in Facebook, on Twitter, or any of the myriad special-interest networks.

First, understand that even though many of your e-mail subscribers probably also tune in to your tweets and fan pages, they likely want different things from different channels. There are great ways to make all of these channels work together so the sum is greater than the parts. For some examples see my past column.

Review the last three to six months of content on those sites. What drives your Facebook audience? What gets the most response to your tweets? The conversation is the heart of social networking, after all. If you’re just there to promote, you won’t learn anything.

Then, look for ways to integrate e-mail and social networks. The most obvious way is to post a benefit-driven e-mail invitation on every social-network landing page you have, and likewise to link prominently to your social networks in your e-mail messages with either share or join links.

Beyond that, consider how you can differentiate the experiences. What can someone get from your Facebook page that she can’t in your e-mail? What does e-mail give her that Twitter or MySpace never could? The answer is as unique as your value proposition. Now is the time to find it.

For more holiday planning strategies, see my checklist in my 2009 column, “Tune Up Your Holiday E-mail Planning Now.”

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