5 tips for holiday email marketing in our crazy new world


Here we are in the middle of October. It's hard to believe how fast this year has gone. It seemed as if 2020 was like riding the slow boat to China, and now we're in the thick of holiday email planning again.

I dug out an Only Influencers post I wrote back in 2015 – 5 Tips for Surviving the Holiday Season – to see how well my advice held up after six years.

You remember 2015, right? We were all so innocent then (flashback moment … cue music). Back before Apple messed with our metrics, when COVID-19 wasn't even a gleam in a virologist's eye, and we didn't have supply chains breaking down or dozens of cargo ships stacked up outside ocean ports eight weeks before Christmas.

Take a minute to read what I wrote back then. I stand behind my advice, especially my closing comment: "Keep your wits about you and realize that there are things you can do to minimize the risk for mistakes and help your company meet your goals."

I preach this all the time in client conversations. But because we are living in a different world now, here are my updated five tips for surviving – even thriving – amid all the changes and pressures of 2021. 

1. You thought 2020 was a wild ride? Buckle up, buttercup.

Last year, we dealt with fluidity. We finally saw the value in agile marketing. We learned how to pivot and then pivot again. We need to do that again.

This year, different segments of customers will shop from home. Some online buyers are back in stores. Some of your most dedicated store visitors are at this very moment buying from Black-Friday-in-October sales and anticipating a second year of Christmas shopping from their couches.

Adding to the uncertainty are differing COVID infection rates around the country, coupled with wildly varying vaccination rates – all of which can skew the in-store/online shopping picture.

And this is only October. What’s to come?

This fluidity in customer behavior and attitudes means your data pool might still be inaccurate. You're dealing with even more change, and you must adapt to that.

Walk into Holiday 2021 with the ability to pivot quickly while still drawing on what you know from 2019. Your data will still be fundamentally different from 2020 and 2019, and even unpredictable given the potential disruptions I'll discuss next.

At this point in the year, we have moved out of strategy and planning and into execution mode. If your company has done its job over the last nine months, you have a handle on what's different and what remains the same in your data. You have reasonable segmentation schemes and a good idea about your direction.

But stay on top of the news, both in what you read and see on TV and in your own industry niche, because you might need to be agile all over again. 

2. Get ready for supply-chain issues.

Cargo ships are jammed up at ports from Los Angeles to Houston to New York. If you rely on imported goods or raw materials, they're probably rocking at anchor right now.

Getting reliable supplies and restocks will be difficult this season. Out-of-stocks are always a factor in holiday retail, but the cargo backlog means you need to rely even more on tight integrations with inventory management and data.

This is different from an out of stock Barbie. This time, Barbie's whole family might not be there.

If you have access to inventory, check it before you launch a campaign tied to specific products. (If you don't, pester somebody to get it ASAP. See my next tip.)

Also, double-check your out-of-stock emails to be sure they are as helpful as possible. As I mentioned before, we are in execution mode, so it's not the time to start a new project. But, if you can update your templates to manage current expectations or add functions without going through IT or engineering – do it.

Also, look for work-arounds if you're locked down already. Could you isolate customers who are getting out-of-stock emails or who clicked on suddenly out-of-stock items? If so, follow up with another email that adds context, apologizes and gives customers other options or a contact via customer service.

It all comes down to this: What could you do differently to preserve the customer relationship in this exceptional year? How you handle out-of-stocks might be a big differentiator. As consumers and marketers, we've gotten used to COVID but not to the massive disruptions that it can cause in areas we never expected. 

3. Plug yourself into conversations.

It's a historical characteristic of email – we marketers are not brought into the conversation until the last minute. Many large organizations will come up with a detailed communications plan, but under "Email," all you'll see is "Send an email."

We all know what happens after that. You have to figure it all out, and probably on the fly.

Head this off at the pass right now. Grab time now with your managers, directors, VPs or C-level executives, and explain why you need to be at the table. If not you, someone who understands the process that goes into an effective email campaign.

Make them see that you aren't just opening your Outlook, typing in a bunch of words and then sending to a million subscribers. Walk them through the entire email process, from strategy and tactics to logistics, development, set-up and testing.

Being involved gives you a heads-up on what's coming, helps you anticipate and plan for problems and lets your management team know what the email team can deliver. If you can't grab a meeting invite, schedule time for a debriefing.

You are the front line for your company's communications and PR people, the closest to your customers. That's why you need to be in those conversations, and that's what will  help you pivot successfully.

In my retail days, I had daily stand-up meetings with group leaders, even on Saturdays and early on Thanksgiving Day. When the calendar turns to crunch time, that's how you stay connected. 

4. Stay connected with your team.

I missed this one in 2015. Today, it's more important than ever.

We are in the locker room, and the clock is counting down to game time. It's time to get the team together. If you're all back in the office, take your team out for drinks or dinner, or cater in a meal if people are nervous about gathering in crowded spaces.

Talk about what will happen in the next eight to 10 weeks. Explain your game plan. Ask how people are feeling and what's on their minds. Thank them, if you didn't already, for all the work they did over the last 18 months. Positive reinforcement like this can fire up your team and build cohesion.

Still working with a remote team? Send goodie boxes and schedule a virtual gift-opening so everyone can discover what's inside at the same time. Create a playlist and set up a virtual dance-off.

Use what you learned about your team over the last year and a half to come up with a creative way to get everyone on board without making them feel they're just on another Zoom call.

5. Sneak in one new idea.

I know I said this isn't the time to start new projects. But you still can seize the moment to be creative if you think it will move the revenue needle.

Don't tell anybody what you're doing (but don't do something that could get you fired, like blowing up your brand standards, and definitely don't tell me about it if you do).

I'm not talking about subject lines here. Innovation comes when you do something big and bold. Follow a hunch. Test something. If you already plan to increase weekly email volume by 20%, slip something new in. It might work, it might not. But the attempt is what counts, and it can point you in the right direction for later.

Wrapping up

It seems like there's always some new fire to put out, some new crisis to deal with lately. Who had shipping delays and continued COVID craziness on their scorecards for 2021?

Do your best to help your team stay motivated this holiday season. Once again we're about to make it through another year because we didn't lose our collective mind.

These last two years will be an era that you'll remember, talk about and learn from because they have been unprecedented in their demands. Hold it together, and help your team hold it together because Halloween is coming, and you know that that means.

Don't let the zombies win!

aaron burden gTnhYYQ5Zk0 unsplash 600Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash