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If the subject line enticed you to read this column, please e-mail me to let me know. I’m doing an informal study, Crazy Success Using Common Sense. Here’s why.

It’s the holiday season, and every analyst talking about retail sales sources has predicted e-mail will be a strong purveyor of holiday sales news and retail offerings. Some of my closest friends in the e-mail world were even talking about how concerned they were that e-mail inboxes might hit full overload because of the medium’s overuse this season.

In the beginning of the season, I sat quietly and observed. (Those of you who know me know this was a hard thing for me to do.) I found there was close to a 100 percent increase in the number of companies sending e-mail that included holiday savings. If you’re scratching your head about how I can observe close to a 100 percent increase, keep reading.

Initially I noticed many standard consumer retail companies — JC Penney, Sears, Nordstrom,, and — began sending e-mails with a holiday theme a bit earlier than last year. Many of them even created special Black Friday e-mails to entice earlier online shopping.

With the recession rumors flying, an early push on sales seemed like a sound business decision. Target even accelerated selling for the next season by going overboard and putting bathing suits front and center in their stores.

What struck me as over the top for holiday “retail” promotions, though, was this entirely new set of companies that haven’t sent holiday discounts in the past. Companies in the B2B (define) space were trying to disguise their standard offerings as special holiday gifts to ride on the coattails of the positively performing retail e-mails.

During the week of Cyber Monday, I received more than 15 e-mail messages from different companies that had absolutely no holiday gifts to sell, trying to masquerade their company’s offering as a special holiday treat. Some of my favorite lines in these messages were:

  • This season give your co-workers the gift of their own voice. Send them to public speaking training.

  • Give them the one thing they really want this year: desktop software
  • Office supplies are the one gift your loved ones will really love
  • Upgrade your security suite today with no shipping cost and enjoy Christmas knowing the Internet is safe

At first I thought these were just plain weird. Why would these companies lower their brand efforts to the level of a retail transaction?

Then it hit me. Maybe these companies were actually pretty savvy. Maybe they were simply using common sense to drive success. After all, with the tremendous increase in consumer e-mail at this time of year, do you really think a subject line that doesn’t scream out savings or discount has a chance of being seen?

One of the best things about my job is that when I see interesting trends like this, I can usually find a way to test the validity of my thoughts in real-life situations. So I asked the directors of marketing at both of my companies to test out subject lines that were more retail-oriented and in line with the seasonal buzz. Imagine how thrilled we all were when responses and sales went through the roof in both cases.

Maybe the key to more successful e-mail is to actually move away from the made-up marketing programs we tend to create. I know in 2009 my companies will focus on creating messaging around the realities of what’s happening in consumers’ minds and in their respective inboxes.

Happy holidays!

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