How can brands stand out from this barrage of holiday emails and actually be seen? By looking to the past years’ successes and faux pas and by doing so build on the iterative nature of email marketing.

It’s the most wonderful (and busiest) time of year for email marketers—the holiday shopping season. That’s right, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are just around the corner, which means brands are gearing up to invade consumers’ inboxes like relatives flocking to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. And like a family dinner around the holidays, there’ll be equal parts drama and happiness in the inbox.

So, how can brands stand out from this barrage of holiday emails and actually be seen? By looking to the past years’ successes and faux pas and by doing so build on the iterative nature of email marketing. It should come as no surprise that successful holiday email campaign planning has to start early in the year, however there are still material changes that can be made to increase customer engagement…

Holiday Email Marketing Dos

  • Keep subject lines short – It’s no secret that consumers prefer shorter subject lines and marketers are starting to adapt, even though they prefer to get a little more verbose. In 2016, nine-word subject lines were the most popular, which dropped to seven words in 2017. On average, subject lines containing four words reaped the highest engagement in 2017. Short, sweet and to-the-point subject lines are the way to go. An added bonus of staying succinct and pithy is preventing the clipping of a subject line on a mobile device.
  • Be a little pushy – In 2016, subject lines containing the word “now” were an effective way to drive action, lowering the average median open delay by almost half an hour. In 2017, though, subject lines with the word “soon” outperformed those with the word “now.” Galvanizing recipients with a slight nudge in your subject line is still a great way to get your messages read faster—just don’t be too aggressive about it.
  • Bury the discount lead – 15% of subject lines in 2017 noted the discount right up front—double that of 2016. However, data shows that emails that don’t advertise discounts actually have higher engagement rates. Think of it this way, every marketer on the planet will offer a discount, and our data showed that 20% and 50% off were the most popular in 2016. Instead of falling back on what is both expected and the common practice, seek other points of engagement based on past behaviors and quantifiable data.
  • Optimize for mobile – It should come as no surprise that mobile open rates have eclipsed those of desktop. Click through rates for mobile and desktop are nearly neck and neck, 50% vs. 49.5% respectively. Design best practices dictate that designing for the small screen and scaling up through responsive design techniques will deliver the most uniform user experience across devices and platforms.
  • Don’t shy away from the unsubscribe button – The deluge of promotional and discount emails during the holiday season can be incredibly overwhelming for customers. With that said, making the unsubscribe button more prominent on your messages could be the solution. While it sounds counter-intuitive, recipients who have to look hard for an unsubscribe button are more likely to use the spam button instead, which is way more harmful to your list. If this approach makes you uneasy, you can always offer them a chance to “down subscribe” or opt-out of holiday emails in your preference center so they can re-engage with you when your message volume returns to normal. If you don’t have a preference center that enables customers to tell you exactly what kind of emails and the cadence at which they want to receive them, then default to making it simpler for them to unsubscribe as a means of preventing collateral damage from spam complaints.

Holiday Email Marketing Don’ts

  • Blowing up the inbox – Higher send frequencies correlate with lower overall engagement. Data shows that senders who deliver just one email per week see an average engagement of 21% compared to 19% for two per week and 17% for five per week. Having a preference center can give customers the ability to adjust messaging frequency to their needs and thus keeping engagement on a per email basis higher.
  • Cliché phrases – Contrary to popular belief, it’s a better practice to avoid putting phrases like ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’ in your holiday emails. Recipients get overloaded on these phrases during this time of year, especially as the holiday marketing cycle creeps past Halloween into mid-November and beyond. In terms of engagement, subject lines mentioning Black Friday (11%) and Cyber Monday (10%) performed slightly worse than those that didn’t (16.5%). Stating the obvious appears to be counterproductive. Instead, focus on what you know about your recipients and seek to provide authentic calls to action consistent with your brand.
  • Emoji – Emojis may be a hot trend in the email marketing space, but their usage in the subject line during Black Friday and Cyber Monday correlated with lower overall engagement. Data found that holiday email subject lines containing emojis reaped a 12% engagement rate on average compared to 17% for subject lines without them. Know your segments and audiences—don’t assume that emojis are a universal attraction for every demographic on your list. If you want to play it safe, keep them out of the subject line altogether and focus on an authentic brand voice instead.
  • Exclamation Points – Stop. Shouting. A hefty 31% of Black Friday subject lines in 2017 contained one or more exclamation points, but these messages performed worse than those that didn’t. The lesson here is not to bombard your recipients with subject lines littered with exclamations because recipients feel like they’re being yelled at. It’s safe to assume that everyone is aware that Thanksgiving is intrinsically linked to a shopping bonanza. There is no reason to re-state the obvious.
  • Special symbols – Similarly to emojis and exclamation points, the use of symbols like “%” and “&” not only correlated to lower engagement rates but actually increased the chances of your messages being sent to the spam folder. The bottom line: Keep your subject lines strictly to letters and numbers.

With five clear cut ‘dos’ to implement and five hard ‘don’ts’ to absolutely avoid, your 2018 holiday email marketing campaign strategy should be primed to reap even greater results than last year. Happy messaging!


Len Shneyder is vice president of industry relations at SendGrid, an email delivery platform.