Holiday Marketing Advice from Elastic Path’s Linda Bustos

Now that it’s fall, it’s time to start thinking about what your holiday marketing plan is. You should start planning everything from when you’re going to start your holiday emails to what you’re going to send post-Christmas.

To help you out with planning, we got in touch with Linda Bustos, the Director of Ecommerce Research at Elastic Path. Linda offers consulting for some of the largest ecommerce sites in the world, and was happy to offer some insight on what email marketers should do for the holidays:

Hi Linda. We just said goodbye to summer and we’re already talking about holiday marketing. Some places have even started their holiday campaigns. Last year, Hallmark sent its first Christmas marketing email on 6/29/10. How do you feel about starting that early?

I think it depends on the industry. A company like Hallmark might already see increased sales of Christmas products in the fall. Even if there is no immediate response, exposure to the brand promise of a great selection of Christmas cards, gifts, etc. early on can be like planting seeds for recall later.

I wouldn’t expect conversion rates to be through the roof this early in the season, but as long as you know what to expect and what metrics to measure, and are willing to take risks, it can be a good strategy.

So when do you recommend most online marketers start emailing about Christmas?

This varies from year to year. When the economy was really suffering in 2008, holiday messaging began as early as October. It seems Black Friday gets pushed earlier and earlier in the e-commerce world. I like to watch consumer research each year on when people plan to begin their shopping, and would recommend promoting holiday messaging a week or two before.

When someone is ready to start their holiday marketing campaign, do you recommend setting up a special holiday preference center?

I think holiday preference centers can be beneficial, but don’t bank your entire strategy on people setting preferences. When requesting information, remember only a small proportion of your list is going to take action and update or set their preferences. These subscribers can be segmented and targeted accordingly, but the rest of the list needs to be tested and monitored for response to various messaging throughout the holiday season.

A shortcut would be to promote gift finders in the e-mails which are generic, but lead the subscriber to content on your website that they can tailor to themselves.

About the emails…what types of subject lines work best for holiday emails?

Again, this depends on the industry, the business itself, the product types, even the time of the season. Closer to the end of the holiday season, last-minute gifts, free overnight shipping, electronic gift cards and so on can be effective. Shipping offers in the subject line may be more effective because that has been shown time and time again in customer surveys to be a top motivator for shopping with the business. If you always offer free shipping, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate that, the rest of your subject line creative is open to testing ๐Ÿ™‚

Personalized subject lines that are relevance to the subscribers’ preference center may also outperform generic titles.

Let’s talk about a company’s regular customers. In your experience, does offering incentives to regular customers make them more likely to do their holiday shopping with you?

This is tricky, because your regular customers may be happy to pay full price. They may be the wrong segment to offer discounts to. This can have a huge impact on your profitability, because in essence you are cannibalizing your own profit margin this way.

I would recommend conservative testing of promotions, segment out your regular customers and test a portion with and a portion without discount offers, similar to mail holdouts tests in catalog marketing. Measure profitability, not conversion rate!

In terms of purchase role, A/B testing can be used with Version A merchandise for the self-shopper, Version B for the gift giver. But there’s no problem with sending a variety of promotional messages throughout the holiday season, some focused on get a little something for yourself, and others with gift finders, featured product, most popular, top-rated etc.

Some online retailers offer daily deal emails closer to Christmas. Does this frequency increase have a positive effect?

E-mail frequency is a very sensitive issue. I can’t say that more is better or less is better, though you do risk turning people off sending them too much e-mail. If the subscriber has opted into daily e-mails, no problem, but just blasting an existing list may not be received well.

How do you feel about a “Seasons Greetings” email? Does it humanize you or is it a waste of time?

Personally, I would avoid sending e-mail without a clear call to action that ultimately lends itself to benefiting your business. Customer appreciation e-mails just for the heck of it can lead to unsubscribes if customers don’t find value in the message. Inboxes are overflowing during the holiday season with promotional e-mail – more signal, less noise please!

Mobile e-commerce is becoming more common every year. Any tips on how to take advantage of this?

One thing we’re sure of is more and more e-mail is being read from mobile devices, so ensuring your e-mail promotions are mobile friendly is very important. While shopping from smart phones is still tedious, even with applications, the real driver in mobile commerce is tablet computers. It’s just easier to navigate and check-out on a bigger device. Looking into design best practices for the iPad and its cousins may help you this holiday season.

Emails with upsells for popular gifts are also becoming more common. How effective do you think they are?

Social proof is always helpful, so merchandising top-rated gifts or bestsellers can really help a gift giver parse the number of options that are out there. Consumers may trust what other customers like better than what the store decides to promote. There have been a number of case studies where including product ratings in e-mail campaigns have led to higher sales.

Are there any post-holiday marketing strategies that would be helpful?

After the holidays, messaging can switch to keeping New Year’s resolutions ๐Ÿ™‚ for example features quit smoking, weight loss, exercise products and nutritional supplements in January.

Many shoppers will be hunting for clearance sales for personal shopping, and others will be eager to see what new products are available [especially in fashion] for the new year. Valentines promotions should begin in January to account for shipping times, especially for international orders. There is never a lack of possible promotions in January!

What is the best thing an online marketer can do this holiday season? What is the difference from last year?

I think it’s important for retailers to look at real-time analytics, whether it’s the regular web analytics, your e-mail marketing stats, your paid search, sales velocity on certain items, etc. Every holiday season is different, so relying on past trends is not a good idea. Many businesses wait until long after his season is over before reviewing the data, but if you regularly review your analytics to catch trends and potential pitfalls in your marketing, you’ll get a lot more out of it during the season.

Thanks for all your advice, Linda!

Need Holiday Email Inspiration?

Then you need this collection of last year’s Christmas campaigns. It’s a free PDF, so download it to flip through when you’re planning out those Christmas emails!

Get the Christmas Email Lookbook for 2011 right here.


  1. Phil Walker

    10/27/2011 11:32 am

    Very helpful. Thanks.

  2. Justin

    10/27/2011 1:09 pm

    Thanks for that. I picked up a couple of good ideas from this and will try them out!