The pumpkins come out, the days grow shorter, the weather cools, and there's no mistaking that the holiday season is upon us, even though we're barely past the back-to-school rush.

Already, it's holiday marketing time.

Yet, in recessionary periods, what is normally a festive season is not all sweetness and light—for consumers or retailers. Still, that doesn't mean advertisers can't find ways to add some luster to their email-marketing programs this season.

Especially during down times, here are three ways to make your holiday email shine.

1. Put an extra treat in their stockings this year

Most holiday email is focused on e-commerce, but it doesn't have to be all about simply driving sales. If you're still selling by way of promotion rather than service, you're missing an important opportunity to build brand equity and long-term relationships.

In the spirit of the holiday season, focus your email on both giving and receiving. What immediate non-purchase-related value can you offer for free?

How about some cheer, as OfficeMax has done for several years running with its Elf Yourself program? Or, better yet, feature additional, seasonally relevant and helpful content such as recipes, shopping tips, or ideas for a new holiday tradition. Or launch a holiday-themed sweepstakes or contest. There's no time like gift-giving season to award those big prizes.

2. Holiday time is story time

The holiday season is the perfect period for a limited-time email series.

Think of a series as a way to tell a story. Just as good fiction follows an arc, so can your holiday email series. Plus, we love to hear our favorite holiday stories year after year, so craft your email program to tell a new one about your company or products.

Easier to launch than an ongoing continuity program such as a newsletter, the limited-time series is palatable both to marketers and to subscribers.

Provided you don't go overboard with frequency, subscribers love a limited-time email series because it clarifies and manages their expectations from the start and promises not to go on indefinitely. It's also an extended opportunity to build a solid foundation with the many new subscribers or first-time customers you're sure to attract this time of year.

You can go with the tried-and-true holiday season "countdown" approach, but what about something more unique? Ask subscribers for feedback and then vary the content within a series to suit their needs.

Maybe you launch a weekly gift-suggestion campaign that highlights gift ideas for the people most people are buying for—parents one week, siblings another, the boss the next.

Be sure to set clear expectations about what subscribers will be getting, when they'll get it, and for how long. And, of course, give your list members a chance to change their minds or stop the flow of email mid-stream if that's what they want.

3. Come Dancer, come Prancer: Expect more online shoppers and reward channel loyalty

Even during last year's recession, online sales on December 1, 2008 (known as "cyber-Monday"—the Monday after Thanksgiving), jumped 15% over 2007 levels, to $846 million, making it the second heaviest online-spending day on record, according to comScore.

More people are shopping online than ever before, and we can expect the trend to continue this year, for three reasons:

  1. It's more cost-effective to comparison-shop on the Internet than to spend gas money driving from place to place.
  2. Consumers are looking for the very best deals and believe they are usually found online.
  3. Ordering online for delivery saves time and money, and is less of a hassle than in-store shopping and shipping.

Reward your site visitors and email loyalists with channel-exclusive offers and inventory they can't get anywhere else. Use the unlimited real estate of your website to promote "Internet exclusives" that aren't available in-store or via catalog.

And for the love of e-commerce, if your company isn't using abandoned-shopping-cart-triggered emails yet, start a program with a holiday-purchase discount tied to it.

Last but not least, remember that you can issue post-holiday rewards for holiday-period purchases. Numerous retailers routinely do so at intervals throughout the year.

That strategy prevents erosion of holiday-sales margins while igniting post-holiday sales during typically slow periods. Brookstone did it last year; think also of Gymboree's Gymbucks program, and PacSun's Repeat Rewards, which kick in around back-to-school time.

* * *

Seasons change, but we must remember the basics survive. Sure, it's email and it's holiday time, but it's still marketing.

Be in it for the long haul. Build on the new relationships you've forged rather than never calling again. January 2 isn't time to breathe a sigh of relief, cease and desist, and return to your off-season status quo.

Instead, think about how to ease off from, yet continue, holiday momentum through gift-card redemption offers, upsell and cross-sell opportunities, and post-holiday sales.

You'll also want to debrief in January and take a look back at how your holiday email performed to develop a benchmark for next year.

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Three Strategies for Inspired Holiday Email in Tough Times

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image of Karen Talavera

Karen Talavera is the founder of Synchronicity Marketing, a company specializing in digital marketing training, coaching, and education.