How to Use Email Marketing to Increase Sales This Holiday Season

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Email marketing experts share 12 proven tips for getting customers in the holiday spirit -- and into your store.


The holiday season is upon us. And if you are planning to entice shoppers into your online or bricks-and-mortar store via email, you need to make sure your email marketing campaigns stand out from the hundreds of other holiday email offers.

[ Related: 7 Ways to Create a Successful Integrated Marketing Campaign ]

So what can businesses and marketers do to make sure their emails will be opened and clicked on before Christmas day? Dozens of email marketing experts share 12 can't-miss tips for making your email marketing deliver for the holidays.

1. Try different subject lines -- and be creative. "Do A/B testing of subject lines right up until the very end of the season," says Alyssa Nahatis, the director of Deliverability for Adobe Campaign. "There is always time to make it better."

For example, "test subject lines that include [the customer's] name," says Ben Meyer, email campaign manager, Cleverbridge, a global ecommerce provider.

"The more individualized an email is, the more likely consumers will respond to it," says Christopher S. Penn, vice president, Marketing Technology, SHIFT Communications.

"I recommend that brands try to be as specific as possible with subject lines, to grab the target audience's attention," says Steve Warren, vice president & general manager, Teradata Interactive, a provider of data-driven marketing solutions. "For example, try: Top Electronics for the Men on Your List; 10 Toys Kids Want under the Tree; Gift Ideas for Animal Lovers; or Gifts Under $25 They Won't Return."

Also, "use words like new, free, sale, now, holiday and save in your subject lines," suggests Connie Sung Moyle, head of Public Relations at VerticalResponse, an email marketing provider. "VerticalResponse recently analyzed 10,000 email campaigns sent over the holidays in 2013, and these words generated the highest open rates."

2. But go easy on using Cyber Monday. "We found including the words Cyber Monday in the subject line of an email sent on Cyber Monday 2013 actually decreased open rates," says Christopher Lester, vice president of sales, Emma, which provides email marketing services. That's because people "are bombarded with Cyber Monday messages." Instead, "get creative [with your subject lines, to] stand out from the crowd."

One last thing to keep in mind: "according to an email marketing benchmark report from eMarketer published in 2013, shorter subject lines had higher open rates, but longer ones had higher click[through] rates," notes Meyer.

3. Put the most important information in the first two sentences of your email. "Many ISPs and email providers display a line or two of text after the subject line," referred to as the "preheader," says Ramesh Bulusu, CEO of, a packaging consolidation service. "So [inserting] a call to action, attention-grabbing copy or teaser into the valuable preheader space is a great way to keep your subject lines short but still emphasize special offers, create urgency and, most importantly, encourage recipients to open your email."

4. Use photos, especially ones that evoke the holiday spirit -- but don't forget about your copy! "People are inspired by photos," says Lysa Miller, lead designer & Web strategist at Ladybugz Interactive. "If you are selling a product or offering a service, offer a visual that appeals to your market to make them want to click on your offer. For example, if you are selling pajamas or nighties, have pictures of those products in a holiday setting or holiday theme," she suggests. Even better: "have a photo of someone opening a gift with the product."

That said, "don't rely solely on graphical elements," says Janelle Johnson, director of demand generation at Act-On Software, a provider of marketing automation software. "Yes, images make an email beautiful, but many email clients strip out [or don't display] images. So your copy must be engaging to provide recipients a reason to enable images," she says. Therefore write the copy first and ask yourself: "If all someone saw was the text, would they be interested? Once you have the copy spot-on, add graphics and visuals to enhance the email," she says. Finally, "don't forget to test to see how your email will render across multiple email platforms."

5. Don't forget a call to action! Tell people what it is you want them to do. And "if you're selling something, include a direct link to that service or product," says Mario Mirabella, founder & creative director, MSM DesignZ. "Even if you aren't selling or promoting anything, you should always add a link to your company's website to the email with a call to action such as 'For more details' or 'Learn more at,' to encourage clicks to your website."

6. Notify customers of delivery deadlines. "Be sure that your email messages provide clear and concise instructions to ensure gifts ship and arrive on time," says Warren. "You can create a sense of urgency with strong reminders to buy now, rather than waiting until shipping costs go up and guaranteed delivery is unavailable." Also, as this is information customers consider very important, consider putting it in the subject line as well as in the body copy.

7. Make customers feel as though you are giving them something. "Create an offer that your audience can't resist," suggests Miller. Whether it's "free shipping, by one get one free, [or whatever], make the holiday offer your holiday gift to your customers."

8. Employ limited-time offers. Another good strategy is to "offer something that has a deadline," she adds. "Offer a specific deal to targeted customers, which has to be redeemed by a specific date. Then send a follow-up email a day or two before the offer expires."

For loyal customers, "give [them] advance notice on planned promotions," says Nahatis. "Announce your offer two to three weeks in advance, and then send a reminder the week of the offer."

9. Make sure your email is mobile friendly. "A significant number of people use their phone to check their email," says Chris Apaliski, social media director, Magic Logix, an integrated marketing agency. So "if you aren't properly optimizing your emails for mobile, you run the risk of running customers off.

"Make it as easy as possible for them [to interact with you]. So they can open an email from their phone, cruise on to your site and make a purchase without ever leaving the comfort of their surroundings."

[ 12 Tips for Creating a Mobile-Friendly Website ]

10. Target your email. "Segment your lists so that you can send targeted emails to groups of subscribers based on interests, purchase history and/or how often they've engaged with your past emails," says Sung Moyle. "The more targeted the email content and subject line, the more likely your subscribers will open it. For example, if you're a winery, send a holiday promotion for red wines to subscribers who've purchased a red wine in the past."

11. Remember that timing is (almost) everything. "Outbrain found that Americans are more likely to click on holiday content on the weekend," says Lester. So create "an automated email series scheduled to send each Saturday [through] December." Just keep in mind that "overall engagement with holiday emails starts to steadily decline after the second week of December, so focus your holiday email marketing on [earlier in the month], while people are still paying attention."

Another tip, for when you do want to send email during the week: "For B2C email campaigns, sending around lunchtime or after work is best since that's when most people will check their email for leisure," says Mirabella. "For B2B campaigns, send early, before work, or in the early afternoon after lunch."

Remember, "folks are usually busy during the holidays and even more so during the days and evenings," says Sharif Kalil, content manager, Neesh, a digital marketing agency. "If they get your email during their busy hours, they'll quickly close and forget they ever saw it [or outright delete it]," he says. So "sending email during the early morning means you'll have a better chance of grabbing their attention."

12. Create a seamless experience. "Create a seamless experience from the moment people open your email through their website visit," advises Bruce Ernst, vice president of Product Development at Monetate, which provides cloud-based testing, email optimization and in-the-moment personalization software. "Something about your brand's email caused the customer to click." So make sure your messaging and branding is consistent, from your website, to your email marketing campaigns, to your social media and other channels.

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