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July 21, 2009

Christmas Advice In July

For many retail brands, we are quickly approaching the saturation point for email volume. My Retail Email Trends Index currently indicates that retail email volume is running 19% above last year’s. While that’s slower than the 28% year-over-year increases that we were seeing in July 2008, it’s alarming because we’re heading into the holiday season.

Last year, retail email volume rose 43% during the holiday season — and during its peak week was up 76%, compared to the pre-holiday baseline. If this holiday season follows the same trajectory, retailers will average 3.4 emails per week, with a peak of 4.2 emails per week.

Subscribers are unlikely to suffer such increases on top of the increases already seen this year. Email marketers are sure to experience deliverability problems like some retailers had during the first week of December 2008, when average retail email volume was pushing past 3.2 emails per week. (Note that figure is less than the projected average for this upcoming holiday season.)

Imagine losing all the sales generated by your email marketing program during the first week of December — plus the distraction and expense of getting your email unblocked during the heart of the holiday season. That’s what some email marketers are risking if they increase their broadcast promotional email volume like they did last year.

More than ever, the question is: How can we make each email that we send work harder? How can we minimize volume increases to avoid increased list churn and deliverability issues, while maximizing revenue?

Consider these tactics:

Additional opt-ins. Give your subscribers the chance to opt in to an additional email stream of daily or weekly holiday deals or your “X Days of Christmas” campaign. This way you’re focusing your additional volume on subscribers who want it and are most likely to convert.

I spoke to a retailer last year who said his company only sent its “12 Days of Christmas” campaign to its best customers. Company strategists felt that insulated them from the downside of higher volumes, saying that their unsubscribe rates among those receiving the additional emails was no higher than their average opt-out rate. What they failed to take into consideration is that these were their best customers, a group with lower opt-out rates and higher conversion rates. Instead of holding the line on opt-outs, they actually drove their best subscribers away at an elevated level by over-mailing them.

Preference updates. Use August, September and October to ask (and perhaps even incentivize) subscribers to update their preferences. You can then use that information during November and December to power your segmentation and dynamic content programs to ensure greater relevance and higher conversion rates for your emails.

If you don’t have a preference center, there may still be time to launch one before the holiday season gets underway in earnest. If you have one already, now would be an excellent time to review all the selections in it to make sure they are up to date and feeding into your email system properly.

Triggered emails. Rather than sending way more broadcast emails, launch new triggered emails or revamp the ones you have. Does your welcome email make the most of that first touch? Don’t forget to take advantage of your transactional emails to promote related products and get buyers back for another purchase. Also consider shopping cart abandonment emails and browse-based emails — just be careful not to come across as too Big Brother-ish.

Good luck with your holiday campaigns.

Chad White is the Research Director at Smith-Harmon, an agency focused exclusively on providing email marketing strategy and creative services. Visit his blog at