The holiday season is the most important time of year for retailers, when aggressive goals are set for increased traffic and sales, both in-store and online. Email marketing is a powerful tool that retailers can use to build their brands and increase sales during that crucial period.

In the second episode of my new email-marketing podcast The Tip Jar, I chatted with Chad White, research director at Smith-Harmon and author of the Retail Email Blog.

We discussed White's annual "Retail Email Guide to the Holiday Season" and shared many tips and best-practices for creating a successful holiday-email campaign for the 2009 season. Below are the key takeaways from that conversation.

2008 Takeaways

Discussion point: How can email marketers learn from the 2008 holiday season to help improve the success of their campaigns this season?

Summary: The first important step is to examine the results of your holiday-email efforts from last year. There are definitely best-practices you can learn from looking at other retail email marketers, but imitation isn't the best bet.

Your holiday campaign should be tailored to your customers' needs and your brand image. Retailers need to look at the results of last year's holiday campaigns early and often; the postmortem should take place at the beginning of the year rather than the pre-holiday season, which starts in mid-August.

When examining campaigns from last year, you look at your big wins, big misses, and how people responded to certain aspects of the campaign, including frequency, subject lines, calls to action, etc. Use all that data as a baseline for where to start this year's holiday-email planning.

Campaign Timing

Discussion point: When should email marketers begin their holiday efforts?

Summary: The holiday-email push has two important periods: pre-holiday, which runs mid-August though mid-November, followed by holiday, which runs mid-November through the end of December.

Although many email marketers use the holiday period well, there needs to be a greater focus on the pre-holiday months. That initial time period should not be ignored or misused, as it paves the way for a successful program later in the year.

Complementary messaging should be used in the months before November to help strengthen your future emails; a big part of that is having your email-list subscribers update their preferences.

Asking them questions in an email during September regarding products they are interested in, preferred email timing and frequency, and preferred point of purchase (online or in-store) can do wonders to help improve the response you receive during your November and December mailings.

An excellent example, as White pointed out, is, which in the past has used email to collect preferences for its Black Friday sales. went in-depth and surveyed customers as to which product categories they were interested in and what they would be willing to pay for certain items.

Gathering that information before the holiday push can create much-better conversion rates and sales numbers. The pre-holiday period is also a perfect time to ask previous customers to fill out product reviews, as those reviews will bolster the value of your site during the holiday season.

An issue that many retail email marketers encounter is frequency. Although complementary pre-holiday emails are integral to a successful program, keeping the frequency light and focused during that period will give you more latitude to send a higher number of emails during the holiday rush.

Be sure to keep your email frequency in line with your brand's normal email habits, taking a holistic approach. Although you should be wary of annoying your customers by overloading them with email during the holidays, remember that it is a critical sales time for your company and recipients will embrace your messaging as long as you keep it relevant and tailored to them.

Sender Reputation

Discussion point: How should email marketers ramp up their holiday campaigns from their normal sending schedule?

Summary: Another invaluable aspect of holiday email campaigns is your sender reputation. Be smart with your email frequency, subject lines, etc., so you can stay on recipients' whitelists.

As White put it, "It makes sense to be a little bit more conservative and spend more time getting the right email sent over sending two emails. Spend the time creating one tailored, hyper-relevant, segmented, dynamic-content email, instead of creating two emails that are much more broadcast, painting everyone with the same brush."

By being careful and crafting a higher-quality email, rather than rushing to put out several lower-quality blasts, not only will you be more likely to remain on whitelists, but also consumers will have a better perception of your brand.

However, there are dangers in being too pushy about whitelisting. Stuffing the pre-header with whitelist requests on every email campaign is not a good idea. If recipients haven't added you to their address books after the first few communications, it's probably a good idea to hold off for a while.

One excellent method is to add a strong whitelisting call to action in one of your pre-holiday emails: for example, "We are going to have some fantastic deals during the holidays. Add us to your address book to make sure you don't miss them."

Special Holiday Design

Discussion point: When someone's inbox has four pages of emails, what does that person look for that can help an email marketer stand out during the holidays?

Summary: When moving closer to the holiday months, it's a good idea to add small touches to your email templates that indicate a change and entice readers to check out special deals that you have for the season.

Subtle changes can do wonders. Home Depot, for example, added a bow on top of its logo last year; you could alter your template to include holiday colors. Be careful, however, about putting too much of a Christmas skew on your campaigns; keep them more in line with the holiday season and spirit as a whole.

Depending on your brand, you might consider making some custom emails, especially for big events such as Black Friday. For example, did a negative-type email for Black Friday, which would normally be an email faux pas; but using a black background and white type helped the company stand out among all the clutter that week.

Remember, if you create custom emails or make big changes to your templates, be sure to test the rendering on all major email clients (software and Web) before sending out the campaign. (eROI's Email Testing Guide can help.)

One of the biggest mistakes that email marketers need to avoid is underestimating the effect that design can have on email performance, especially during the holiday period.

Quality design helps present your brand in a positive way, separates you from competitors, and helps increase sales. Small design changes, such as the placement of buttons, the use of images, and slight edits on the layout, can make all the difference and will help make your email campaigns much more appealing.

The holiday season will remain the most important time to drive traffic and sales, both in-store and online, for your business. As White put it, "The holiday season is the time to use all of your tricks, and doing so is going to pay off."

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Email Marketing Tips for the 2009 Holiday Season

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Alex Williams is the online marketing strategist for eROI ( Contact him via or 503-290-3103.