Scale-up strategies for your email volumes this holiday season 2020

 In About Email, Email Marketing

This year has been nothing short of crazy with the pandemic and a global recession. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s livelihoods and the economy. But one thing that people will still cherish are festivals and events where they can take a break from this stress and enjoy with their loved ones. 

Welcome to the holiday season 2020! 

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It is the most important time of the year for retailers and E-commerce portals. They tend to do the most sales during the months of November to December. According to Coresight Research, a consulting firm, 23 percent of U.S. consumers plan to start 2020 holiday shopping earlier than in prior years. 

But this year’s holiday season will be unlike any other. Brick-and-mortar stores might remain closed due to the pandemic transmission and folks at home will be forced to shop online for their gifts. There is going to be a huge boom in online shopping this holiday season. Yet, the offline stores can come handy for logistic purposes as fulfillment centers. 

Another reason to get started with your holiday promotions is that many people will try to shop early because of fears of a second wave of infection hitting across the world during the wintertime. Everyone is on the precipice of uncertainty and hence you need to get your ducks in a row on time. 

Holiday email campaigns are the prime time for you to get traffic on your brand website. 

This is the time where an email marketer will try to scale their volumes up to their full potential. So start planning your campaigns a bit early this year to reach out to maximum customers from your list. 

According to a study, people who buy products through email offers spend 138% more than those that don’t receive them. All the more reason for you to send that promotional email!  

According to Deloitte, 78% of the surveyed shoppers are looking to spend the same amount or more this year’s holiday season despite the weakened economic outlook. This shows consumer optimism and the reason why you need to optimize your email strategy to be ready during the holiday period. 

Let’s give you a rundown of email strategies that can be used by a marketer for making this holiday season a success...

Email scale-up strategies for a successful holiday season 

We will cover the strategies into 3 parts with list cleaning, maintaining email deliverability and planning value-added content. These are the main pillars of any high volume email program to succeed. 

First, we start with choosing which users should receive your holiday offers. 

Get your magnifying glasses for a peek into your mailing list...

  1. Refine your mailing list

Your mailing list needs to be the first thing, you need to dig deeper and find the cracks. After all, these are the users who are going to get your holiday campaigns. Looking at your list data is important as it can provide a valuable perspective on customer activity and interests. 

You will want to find out more about them to serve them better.  These are the 3 ways you can prune your email list:

1.1) Validate and clean your list

Sift through your mailing list and validate the email addresses which have been sitting on your list for the past 1 year. It is necessary to remove those addresses with typos or invalid ids. They will lead to a problem of hard bounces which are culprits for poor inboxing performance. 

Run your list through some verification and email validation service to get a healthy active list prepared.  

1.2) Who is active? Who is inactive?

Once you are done validating, you need to look at the past interaction of these users to your campaigns. Here is a way to further segment your list:

  • Those users who regularly have been engaging with your emails. (opens,clicks,replies)
  • Those users who don’t engage with your emails for the last 6 months. 

The first segment will be your active users. You can mail them your early bird offers and keep them interested and engaged to your brand. 

The other segment is of inactive/dormant users who need to be re-acquainted with your brand. 

These users will have to be sent some reactivation type campaigns to get them back in your good books. 

(More on that later)

1.3) Look at past patterns of behavior to predict the future

Assuming that you have a solid retention strategy in place in your email program. You might have retained at least 50% of your past year audience. Do a complete analysis of how they respond to your campaigns and especially festive campaigns. You can draw some conclusions on:

  • What subject line worked to get the highest engagement?
  • Which segment responded better to the campaign? And for which product?
  • Which product category was the highest bought last year as a gift? 
  • Is there a segment of the audience that I need to suppress from sending?
  • Which pages do the users check out the most during the holiday season? 

Answers to the above questions and recognizing patterns will help you plan your campaigns better this holiday season. Test! Test! Test! 

Eg: 

  • You can test those similar subject lines which worked in the past for your campaigns this year. 
  • Try to make them more creative and better than your rivals to stand out. 
  • Have your subject line and email tone reflect the unique identity of your brand.  

Always look to the patterns in the past to get a semblance of what might work in the near future. 

This brings us to a crucial part to manage your email strategy: email deliverability. 

  1. Staying proactive with your deliverability game

Your subscribers can only get happy and excited when they actually receive your email campaigns in their inbox. You need to stay proactive to avoid the deliverability land-mines on your way to scaling up volumes during the holiday period. 

Holiday season does not mean that good practices go out of the window

There is one request we often encounter from brand marketers during the holiday season. They wish to send really high volume of emails just like every other brand out there during the peak season. Most of the time, this means scaling your daily send volume to 10X the regular volume. 

So the good practices followed for the entire year by the same brand take a back-seat just because it's a holiday? 

The truth is best practices for email inboxing set by mailbox providers (MSP) don’t take a holiday. Neither do MSPs become super kind during this period to allow millions of emails to go inbox. 

Hence you will face some challenges from the MSPs in order to scale your volumes during the holiday season:

  • Sudden spike in volumes indicates spammy activity to mailbox providers, resulting in throttling of emails and some amount of emails put in the spam folder.
  • The number of unsubscribes and bounces might increase if you are targeting inactive users.   
  • MSPs can be unforgiving when punishing random high volume activity with domain and IP reputation penalties. 
  • Those users who have not received emails from you for a while might report your campaigns to spam. This could lead to serious inboxing issues. 

If a marketer plans to scale up the volumes to 10X the original, preparation to increase them should start from now onwards. A scale-up program to really high volume could take up to 5-6 weeks. Hence the planning of the campaigns and execution of the scale-up should be done in the months of September and October itself.

Doing so will ensure that by the time November rolls on, you are already communicating with each potential customer in your mailing list.    

So how does an email marketer jump through the above hoops, and still scale their email volume? 

Follow our 6 smart scaling practices to increase your audience volume by 10X and still inbox like a pro

2.1) Re-activation strategies for inactive users

In order to scale your volumes, you will have to target the moderately active to inactive users as well. You will need to get them engaged well before the holiday period. Say if Black Friday and Cyber Monday are coming up in the last week of November, then you will have to touch base with all the inactives in October itself. 

Send them your early bird offer campaigns and provide the best value to them. Make sure you give greater emphasis on creating amazing content and design for these campaigns to get these users to interact with your emails. 

Segment these users into opens, clicks, and non-opens. If the users don’t open a single campaign for the entire month of October, sunset them from your list for the holiday season. 

If they were not interested in your early bird campaigns, then they won’t be for your holiday campaigns as well. Remove them from your contact list altogether.  

An ideal plan for reaching out to the inactive users will be as follows:

  • Week 1 & 2 - Reach out to users who have opened your emails just once in the last 90 days
  • Week 2 & 3 - Reach out to users who have opened your emails just once in the last 180 days
  • Week 4 - Reach out to non-openers for the last 30 days.
  • Week 5 - Reach out to non-openers for the last 90 days 

2.2) Use the 5-week Recency-Frequency (R-F) model for a smoother scale-up

The R-F model is used to smoothen the process of scaling up on email volume based on subscriber engagement activity and sending frequency. The way an R-F model works in terms of a week’s plan is as follows: 

  • Week 1& 2: You can target organic sign-ups from the website according to  recency of the last 7-15 days. Combine them with the hyper-engaged users who have opened the emails more number of times in the last 7-15 days.
  • Week 3: As the warmup process is slow, we started with a small volume of emails and incremented the volumes by 25% each day. In the following weeks, you should introduce more direct signup users and the moderately active users to the email campaigns.
  • Week 4 & 5: Finally, in the last week of scaling up the volumes, you need to send the campaigns to some of your least active users to re-engage them again with the brand. 

We recommend a healthy proportion of active and inactive users to keep the email program balanced. 

The R-F model helps to build a good reputation with ISPs in a 30 day period with no major hiccups when it comes to email deliverability. Thus, you can scale up on the regular volumes of the brand within a month’s time with excellent results. 

2.3) Maintaining the reputation index

Your domain and IP reputation on Google Postmaster is an indicator of your sending practice hygiene. If you are following the best practices like a genuine sender, your reputation will be maintained at high. But if you don’t follow, Google will downgrade it, which causes serious deliverability problems in Gmail. 

Thus, when you are scaling your volumes and sending holiday campaigns make sure that you are maintaining a high reputation. This means minimizing the spam complaints and hard bounces you receive. Watch out for any dips in the sender reputation.  

There are several reputations in your email that are monitored by a MSP eg: DKIM signing domain, from-domain, envelope domain etc. 

Below figure shows an example of an email header with the important domains that count for reputation purpose:

If you are using an ESP like Smartech or Pepipost, then I would recommend you get informed on their shared IP infrastructure. ESPs generally have their own domains and IPs with a good reputation which are capable of sending high volumes of email. The IPs are used to sending millions of emails with relatively good deliverability. If you are at ease with using a shared infrastructure, it can really help you scale up volumes quickly. 

If not and you wish to stick with your dedicated domains, then I suggest you maintain your sending frequency daily and then try scaling up the volumes using the above R-F pointers. 

2.4) Warmup of IPs and adding new ones

Your sending domains and your IPs will need to be warmed up to send larger than usual volumes consistently during holiday weeks. So start early by scaling up volumes steadily on your IPs to warm up your email infrastructure. 

Follow a proper warmup process of increasing your volumes on a daily basis. Say currently you send 1 million users per day and you want to eventually scale up to 10 million by the time holiday season kicks in, then follow a steady incremental format of volumes according to the R-F model and scale-up within 30-45 days. This is conditional to having a good inboxing and sender reputation.  

Ensure that your IPs and domain have a high sender reputation and are not part of any email blocklists. Pay attention to subscriber engagement to garner a good reputation and maintain it to send large volumes of email with high inboxing during the holiday period.

Ideally, you should use separate IPs for your transactional and promotional emailing. Just to be proactive in managing your IP reputation.  

Warmup new IPs and keep adding them to your set of delivery IPs. So that if some of them lose their reputation due to some reasons, then you still have a good backup of high reputed delivery IPs to send your campaigns.            

2.5) Sunset and suppress policy

When you send reactivation campaigns to your non-active users, keep monitoring their engagement metrics. For those users who have not opened or responded to the campaigns for a period of 3 months, just sunset them from your mailing list. 

If they did not bother to check your early bird offer campaigns, they won’t bother to check your holiday offers as well. There seems to be a brand disconnect and in such cases, just remove them altogether from your list. 

As you increase your sending volumes, some users who don’t wish to receive your emails can report them to spam. Since Google does not tell us who these users are, monitor certain segments of users, which generate high spam complaints and then suppress them while sending your next campaign. This suppression policy will work to reduce your spam complaint percentage. 

2.6) Slow and steady gets to the inbox

The misconception some brand marketers have towards sending volumes of email is that they think that sudden spikes in volumes won’t be a problem since you have been sending lower volumes for the whole year. 

Unfortunately, mailbox providers (MSPs) don’t see it that way….

For an MSP a pattern of a high spike in volumes from your domain is a red flag. Their anti-spam filters jump into action with this suspicious activity. There is an immediate dip in your sender reputation and emails start going into the spam folder. So in short, it can be a show stopper for your email activity. 

The solution to this is steadily increasing your sending volume over the course of a month (as stated above in the warmup plan), till you reach the number of emails you wish to send on a single day during the promotions. This provides a  good sign to the mailbox providers like Gmail which use AI technologies to detect your content and sending practices. 

Don’t do what you will regret when the holiday hangover wears out. 

I have seen brands fix their email deliverability issues, post-holidays, for the next few months of the year because they didn’t follow good sending practices. A good deliverability trend once lost, could be harder to recover from. 

Which gets us to the final pillar of your email program - campaign content. Here are 6 content-based strategies which will drive your orders during the holiday season: 

  1. Plan your content smartly

Content is king. It is also a powerful tool in a marketer’s arsenal to build trust and relationship with their audience. This should be your first step in making a holiday season strategy. 

You will have to plan your campaign content such that you are delivering great value to your customers in need. In the backdrop of the pandemic, your tone of communication should be of empathy and kindness to your potential customers. Design amazing content so that your users get happy about receiving your holiday offers.

Some tactics mentioned below on how to go about impressing your subscribers - new and old.  

3.1) Early bird catches the customer

According to Statista, 60% of people start shopping for their Christmas gifts before December 1st

Since you have to start early, why not offer your users with an early bird price for your products?

The audience to be targeted for these campaigns needs to be your loyal users who are your best fans to propagate the news. Offer them some VIP access to your products and services since they are making it early than others. 

75% of shoppers like going through their email to grab relevant discounts.

Early bird prices can be discounted and have a dual benefit of fetching initial revenue and building a community of your most ardent brand fans. This is a way of doing velvet rope marketing. 

Focus on providing value and raising your brand equity inside the inbox. The results will take care of themselves. 

This early bird offer campaign by Brooklinen for the upcoming Friday sale. This one has a catchy gif which helps to entice the users plus the discounts on offer are another catch.

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3.2) Work on your email design and tone

Your subscriber is going to look at your email content and decide to shop on your website. So, make sure your email design is amazing and you are making it super easy for a user to figure out your CTAs and your offers. Oftentimes, I have seen marketers not putting much thought on the overall design of the content but just rather on the numbers in the content. 

 Brand tone is also something that a marketer needs to get right during the holiday period. Especially now, with the pandemic having affected people’s jobs. Put some thought to the content and the way your brand messaging comes across along with the pricing, your users will appreciate it. 

 This campaign by Asos has a clear and simple email design. The gif part adds the interactivity to the email and the snow joke gets a smile from the user. Another example of using your content writing skills to get engagement from the audience. 

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3.3) When in doubt, ask for feedback

In our recent COVID survey report we found that, majority users wanted brands to communicate on easy access of products and services. This mechanism of getting feedback from them will benefit you in the long term to make future content decisions. 

 So when in doubt, just ask your users. 

 In this case, if you don’t know what kind of content your audience would expect in the holiday period, run some feedback campaigns or polls in order to know the pulse of your mailing list. Segment the audience according to their replies and then plan some tailored content for them. 

Getting user replies to your campaigns is seen as a positive engagement from MSPs which further adds to your reputation index.

You can go one step further and ask the same questions regarding their holiday gift interests during the signup process. You would not believe how much people appreciate being understood on their needs and acted upon!

3.4) Promote at every opportunity

The E-commerce penetration in the online market is going to be deeper this holiday season. So your competitors will try every trick in the trade to get their customers to shell out their saved money for splurging on their cool products. So, start promoting your holiday offers much earlier than your competition. Adobe reports that, during a holiday season, a major holiday weekend can lift your sales by 200%

 You can mention your holiday promotions in your automated campaigns, like abandoned cart emails, welcome series emails, delivery confirmation emails. Try to get your exciting offers in front of your audience in every way possible. You can wield your app and web push notifications to this effect. Mention your amazing products on sale as a side note on your newsletters. Let any visitor on your website see this as the first thing as a pop-up. 

Drive social media campaigns via email as well for your promotions. Run a contest on social media handles as well as email to declare some winners for your early bird sale products. This should generate some buzz to get you more traffic coming online. 

This campaign by Udemy has a great design and promotes their recommended courses below as well. The timer adds to the urgency of the email and who wouldn’t want to take a great course for $10?

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3.5) Cater to the vulnerable in your list

As I mentioned earlier, the pandemic has been cruel to wipe out millions of jobs around the world. The people who got laid off will be in a bad situation financially. In such times, buying gifts or holiday shopping will not be the first thing on their minds. Hence you as a marketer have to be socially aware and provide them some relief from your holiday email campaigns.

 Identify those segments of the audience who might need your consideration for some relief from your emails. You can get this information from a holiday survey or feedback form. Once you know who they are, ask this segment if they need products with affordable offers to be mailed to them or simply offer to snooze your emails till they see fit. 

 People need empathy and kindness more than ever during such tough times. They will remember your brand for it and stay with you because of it.   

3.6) What should be your sending frequency during the holidays?

 The campaign by Bose for black Friday is interactive asking a user to scratch off the labels to reveal the savings inside. These are early bird offers so a user is treated like a VIP to check out the products at low prices before others get to them. Such offers can work as tools for velvet rope marketing and retaining your regular customers. When you are in the thick of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Christmas, a marketer could panic into sending too many emails per week to the same user. I would suggest an effective approach to testing and honouring the preferences of the customers. 

If you do have a preference center on your sign up process, you can refer to it for knowing the send frequency of a  segment of the audience. If you don’t have one, there is a way of testing your frequency and adapting to a customer’s needs. 

 Start sending your promotional emails 2-3 times a week in the week leading to the Cyber Monday or Christmas and then look at the engagement metrics. If they reflect positive numbers with no spam complaints then go ahead by slightly increasing the frequency slightly more and then repeat the process again. 

There is no silver bullet in knowing your perfect send frequency. But once you test and adapt to the pace of sending then stick to it. 

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Bonus tips

  • Collaborate to service your customers better

During the intense lockdown periods of the last 3-4 months, brands were collaborating with logistic companies to deliver the goods to the customer doorstep. Some areas were highly sensitive and some cities were completely shut down. This made last-mile delivery challenging. 

 But with logistic partners like Uber, Lyft, Ola, Rapido providing their services to fulfill essential orders, brands were able to deliver much effectively. The same can be done now to deliver your holiday orders.

This would save you from shipment delays and stock limitations.   

  • Optimize your send times

You can also test various send times using the send time optimization feature available on Smartech. This allows you to tweak your delivery time to match that of the customer opening their mailbox. 

 Your emails will naturally grab a lot more eyeballs if they are sitting fresh on top of the user’s inbox. We have found in a recent analysis for an upcoming benchmark report that the use of the STO feature provided double the open rates as compared to not using it.  

What do you do post-holidays?

 Post holidays, your work will be to analyze the user engagement and signup conversion during this period. 

 There will be some new users who have signed up only to get freebies or shop during the holidays from your website/app. Make sure you track their post-holiday engagement for a month. 

 If their engagement reduces or they report your emails to spam, ask for honest feedback, and reduce the number of emails you send them. You might also want to document what worked for you in terms of getting more conversions and engagement, and what didn’t. This analysis will improve your tactics for the upcoming year besides providing you the know-how of your audience. 

Final words

Holidays are a crucial time for any marketer to promote their product offers and get the sales rolling. An email marketer will like to reach out to their maximum audience during this time. 

 So start planning for your campaigns now and don’t overwhelm your users during the season, when you will be competing with hundreds of other brands in that crammed inbox. But they also need to maintain good sending practices without hurting their inbox placement. 

 Take cognizance of the above 3 pillars of having a 10X reach and start planning your campaigns and scaling your volumes early on. Validate and segment your list of audience and scale them smoothly using some of the techniques mentioned above. 

 What are some of your ideas to target users this holiday season? Are you changing anything as compared to last year? 

 Please share them in the comments below…

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