The Ultimate Email Marketing Holiday Checklist
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This year was like no other, with the COVID-19 crisis changing the digital landscape as we know it. The world economy is rapidly moving online, and the complete consequences are yet to be seen in the years to come. Ecommerce, however, is having a great time. The 2020 US elections and covid impact on physical stores are influencing a rise in advertising costs. On the other hand, most brands are cutting back on their marketing spend. That’s why email, SMS, and web push strategies are expected to play a crucial role this holiday season, as the costs there remain unchanged.
While we’re hearing estimates of a trillion dollars to be spent this holiday season, your audience might have a limited budget that will be depleted well in advance of BFCM, given that a lot of brands intend to start their holiday deals as early as mid-October, just like Amazon Prime Day. With all the chaos going on, delivery delays became a big problem, and, as a consequence, the shipping cutoff dates are happening earlier. So, the more you wait, the higher the odds they might have done their holiday shopping elsewhere and aren’t looking to spend any more.
This checklist will help you keep track of everything you need to have in place so that you’re prepared to maximize your holiday email marketing sales during the upcoming period. If you haven’t completed some of these steps, cheer up – you still have time, but you should get moving!
Email Channel Auditing
The first thing you should tackle is to make sure all of the housekeeping items are in order. The baseline for email channel performance can be summed up as sending the right content to the correct audiences at the right times without anything breaking. Thus, your audits should focus on identifying any red flags along these dimensions and fixing them. This general approach will bleed into the pre-holiday planning and during holiday execution as well.
We’ll want to clear up any troubleshooting and messes in October (or code-freeze date, whichever comes first).
Identify Cross-Channel Needs for Email – Marketing campaigns don’t happen in isolation. We want to identify which cross-channel campaigns are planned, and see what’s the email’s role in leading or supporting these efforts.
Audit the Data Sync – Data is critical for our flows and segmentation to function correctly. This is why we need to audit the current integrations with the ESP to make sure every piece of important data is flowing in correctly. We know for a fact that sometimes site updates may delete scripts such as Viewed Product or Add to Cart, and that has a very tangible negative effect on being able to trigger flows. Moreover, core Shopping Cart integrations sometimes stop syncing or break, so we want to check all these data points to ensure everything is flowing smoothly in.
Audit the Email Flows – Since email flows will play a big part in driving sales, we need to fully audit each existing flow to make sure we are a) uncovering and fixing any flows that are not running and/or contain delay or content mistakes, and b) identifying any missing critical flows or flow touch-points that we need to get live before the holidays start.
- Browse Abandonment
2020 update: This flow should contain 1 or 2 emails. Email #1 should have a 2-hour delay; #2 goes after 22 hours.
- Add to Cart
- Checkout Abandonment
2020 update: Cart and Checkout Abandonment flows should contain 2 to 3 emails. Email #1 should go live with a 2-hour delay; #2 with a 22-hour delay; #3 after 24 hours. In case your last email has a conversion rate higher than 1%, you’ll want to add another email as a follow-up.
An important component in all Abandonment emails is a dynamic product feed, which has an enormous impact on conversions. Utilize best-sellers or personal recommendations, especially in Browse and Cart Abandonment emails, as Checkout Abandonment sometimes doesn’t support adding recommended products feed.
- Welcome – static code mirrored on site, promo-specific flows
2020 update: This flow should contain 3 emails. #1 should go out to the people as soon as they sign up, without delay; #2 goes after one day; #3 after one day, that is, 2 days after the signup.
- Exit Intent
- Order Confirmation
- Shipping Confirmation
Use the Trigger Preview (if available/necessary) to help diagnose any logic conflicts or unintended breakages in the flows.
2020 update: You’ll want to turn off the possibly conflicting flows that you know aren’t going to convert as well as your campaigns.
As you’re expanding your audience for BFCM, there are possibly some Winback, Re-Engagement, Yearly Reminder, or Replenishment flows that are bringing in revenue but are likely to hit less hard than a BFCM promo. As you want to make sure you’re letting people breathe between your sends and not have them be less than 6 hours apart (between 8 and 4 hours works), you’ll want to prioritize your campaigns. But make sure your Abandonment flows are taking priority over campaigns, as those are bound to be performing incredibly well and they’re already more personalized than a campaign. So, your first priority are Abandonment flows, then campaigns, and then the low-performing flows. You can switch them back on as soon as you’re done with your holiday messaging.
2020 automation content update: In addition to a thorough flow audit, you’ll need to update flow content with holiday messaging. The highest-performing automations will be triggered the most during the BFCM period – Abandonment and Welcome flows. This is especially relevant in case you’re doing locked promotions on your site – which is not recommended but might make the most sense for your business.
So, now’s a good time to think about the journey from your likely holiday-themed site to your “evergreen” emails. You can create duplicates of your emails and update the copy and design only slightly with holiday lingo and imagery. This will help you stand out, as not too many brands are even thinking outside of their campaigns and on-site experience. Plus, you’ll achieve visual consistency and your emails will seem more personalized. But remember, these are your top performers so you don’t want to make too many changes!
How can you update your flows?
At the very least, you should have a banner with the BFCM offer in your Abandonment and Welcome emails. An alternate approach, and likely the easiest to implement, is a nod to BFCM in the subject lines.
For Welcome emails specifically, make sure you include your brand’s value propositions in the content, as well as the variety of your products and services, and a word or two on what you’re all about.
This year, you can expect a lot of customers looking for meaningful connections with your brand. You can nurture the connection through empathetic and transparent messaging and Post-Purchase emails will help you maintain customer relationships after the Cyber Weekend. You can tailor the messaging to your customer cohorts, whether it’s shopping only around BFCM or all year round; shopping for gifts or for themselves, etc. What is more, a lot of brands are expecting shipping delays this year and we encourage you to be transparent about it in your Post-Purchase flows. Finally, bear in mind these flows are not just about saying ‘’thank you’’. They’re an opportunity to reinforce your brand with new customers, to upsell or cross-sell, to educate customers about your products, and even to ask for reviews. Make sure you use their full potential.
You can use your Upsell and Cross-Sell emails to “extend” your Cyber Weekend in a respectful way to people who’ve already placed an order with you. Do this by offering a better deal on their next purchase for a limited time only. Keep in mind this only works if you’re not pushing a better deal later on in the sale, which at any rate is not recommended, as it does nothing to build trust and loyalty. It just robs you of repeat sales in the long run. So, if you’re running a 20% off sale, offering 25% off the next purchase for the next 48 hours (or up to a week), gives you a higher chance of that second conversion. It also allows for additional touchpoints with your customers after the Cyber Weekend sale has ended.
Audit the Signup Funnels & Forms – Email lead captures are very important in driving list growth, especially during the holidays, where sites see an increase in traffic. As such, you should audit the current signup funnels, as well as supplementary forms, to make sure everything is in place:
- Site Footer
- Facebook Lead Ads
- Off-Site Captures
- Manage Preferences Forms
- Unsubscribe Forms
- Signup Redirects
Audit the Segmentation – You should have a core set of lists & segments that you regularly send campaigns to. Prior to the holidays, you want to revisit and audit the lists to make sure the logic and functioning are up-to-date with your latest strategy and avoid legacy, non-optimal configurations.
Several elements to check for:
- Do the core lists and segments contain the right volume of people? For example, if you have an engaged segment, is it covering new subscribers who haven’t had much of a chance to engage yet?
- Are you implementing engagement frequency segmentation? If so, how would this change account for the increased holiday volumes and frequencies?
- Are there other segments you should be preparing ahead of the holidays?
- Are lists set to single opt-in or double opt-in as intended?
2020 update: Utilizing engagement frequency segmentation proved to be a way to go. Obviously, you don’t want to email your entire list at once, so start by breaking your list down into tiered segments based on engagement frequency, starting with the people who regularly engage with your brand and moving down to those who engage less frequently.
Audit List Health & Deliverability – You need to make list health and deliverability for your email program as squeaky clean as possible. Given the super competitive inbox during the holiday season, you need to stack the deck in your favor as much as possible when it comes to deliverability:
- Check for infrastructural setup
- Trends in engagement
- Trends in list attrition
- Spam traps
- Sender IP reputation
- Domain IP reputation
Running an engagement report and isolating by each email domain can surface up any suspected inboxing problems with specific inbox providers.
Using analytics graphs of unsubscribe/hard bounce/spam complaint rates can give you a gauge of list attrition trends.
Third-party tools like SenderScore.org or Google Postmaster Tools can reveal any big infrastructural issues with sender reputation.
2020 update: Unsubscribe rates might double during BFCM!
You’ll probably be sending a high volume of emails during Cyber Weekend, and not everyone is going to want to hear from you that much. We advise you to follow our segmentation and frequency recommendations (more about them soon!) so as not to overwhelm the contacts on your list who aren’t your top supporters. Still, you should be prepared for your unsubscribe rates to increase along with your sending volume. As part of your pre-holiday checklist, make sure you’re not losing customers because you’re not giving them options to limit the frequency of emails they receive. It’s 2020, so hopefully, your unsubscribe page already allows them to update their preferences instead of unsubscribing. A very effective addition is allowing them to snooze your emails for a set period of time (our default is 30 days but you can optimize that for BFCM only and give them the option of snoozing BFCM content only – or include both). This is a great way to minimize unsubscribes and tailor your audience’s experience.
Tips for what to include on the unsubscribe page:
- Content categories
Allow for multiple selections here. Include sales and promos, new arrivals, tips & tricks, style guide, or informative content.
- Frequency categories
Allow only a single selection here. Give them the chance to choose preferences: monthly, 2x a month, weekly, or ‘’Send me everything’’. You should also include ‘’Snooze all emails for 30 days’’ and/or ‘’Snooze BFCM content’’.
Audit the Email Template – You should do a run-through of the core custom templates you use to make sure there aren’t any systematic errors that would propagate into campaigns. You want to conduct a full QA process on the core template(s), including:
- Checking header and footer links
- Checking titles
- Checking dynamic variables
- Checking rendering on major email clients
- Checking mobile version has the right blocks
- Checking spelling
- Checking grammar
Conclude A/B Tests – You may have sets of A/B tests on the campaign or flow level running. If this is the case, you should strive to conclude all of these tests prior to holidays and roll the winning variants into what you do as default for clients during the holiday period. If new tests are identified to be useful to run during holidays, then you can certainly put it into the plan, but be more rigorous in this planning because the results of A/B tests during the holiday season may not translate exactly into normal seasons due to the increased traffic and potentially skewed composition of that traffic.
2020 update: Prior to concluding all your A/B testing, make sure you’ve tested several elements and learned from the results. A lot of people test subject lines and sending times only. Don’t stop there, as there are many other elements that will help you determine your focus once the holidays start.
Test whether having the CTA lead to your product page or category page converts better. Or, test whether product price, discounted product price, or no product price convert better. According to a research, older audiences prefer a free shipping offer; younger audiences prefer a % off; male & millennial audiences are 3x more likely to pay for expedited shipping. A rule of thumb is that the offer that sounds higher will outperform other offers – for example, if your products are priced above $400, $40 off will likely perform better than 10% off because of the perceived value.
The possibilities with A/B testing are endless, but remember to test only one element at a time in order to get reliable results.
Audit Last Year’s Holiday Campaigns – You need to look at the metrics from the previous year’s campaign emails in order to identify the most effective emails/promotions. This should form the baseline of your campaign calendar for this year, using tried-and-true high performers and then supplementing with new ideas in place of those emails that sub-performed.
All problems surfaced up by this set of housekeeping audits should be fixed rapidly, with the appropriate project management timelines and tools pulled in to ensure visibility of progress and timely completion.
Identify the Holiday Promotional Plan – This pre-holiday period is the perfect time to nail down the promotional plan, so you can formulate the supporting email campaigns.
2020 update: Based on the 2019 results, the most appealing promo offers were price discounts (74%), free shipping (72%), and buy-one-get-one-free (39%). You can create various promotional strategies around this. You can organize:
- Bundling – To make the offer more enticing and increase average order value
- Tiered offers –To give purchasers % or $ discount based on the amount spent
- Referrals (38% of purchasers are more likely to refer friends during the Cyber Weekend)
- Daily deals – To create a sense of urgency and drive purchase frequency without being ‘’pushy’’
- Buy-one-get-one-free offers – To generate more cash and clean out your inventory
You can also promote in-store pickups and curbside pickups for people who are close to your brick-and-mortar stores.
Identify List of Initiatives to Complete Pre-Holidays – You may have some time to wrap up some core initiatives prior to the bulk of the holidays. If so, you need to identify the highest-priority items and focus on bringing those to conclusion ahead of the season.
Create Email Campaign Calendar – Types of promos that worked the best based on data (aggregate and client historic). The email campaign calendar should be as detailed as possible and locked in as far in advance as possible, ideally at least 1 month prior to the scheduled dates for the emails. This is a super critical part of the pre-holiday planning process, and the better you do here, the less stress and more success you’ll see during the season.
As for details on each campaign, it may include, but is not limited to, the following:
- Campaign Name
- Subject Lines
- Sender Name
2020 update: One of the first things your subscribers spot when receiving emails, besides a subject line and a preheader, is your sender name. Using generic sender names, such as ‘’[email protected]’’ or ‘’[email protected]’’ or even your brand’s name can create a sense of distance. Try to make this element more humane and personal by having your emails come from a specific person on your team, a founder, or even a founder’s pet. One of our clients is using his dog’s name as a sender name. It works wonderfully.
An alternate approach to utilizing your sender name in a way that will play well with the holidays is creating sender names for the day, like “Brand Name Black Friday” or “Brand Name Cyber Monday”. It is a good way to stand out in the inbox and use the characters in your subject line for more details on the offer. It will help you avoid common subject lines that do nothing to differentiate your brand from others, such as “Black Friday sale starts now”.
- Scheduled Date and Time
2020 update: That’s why you shouldn’t schedule emails on the hour, half-hour, or quarter-hour. Instead, opt for a more unusual sending time (for example, 6:07 p.m. or 6:12 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.). Adjust the smart sending time frame to fit your needs – you don’t want to send emails to people who already got an email from you in the last 4/6/8 hours. To avoid being rejected by the sending server, limit the number of emails you send at once. Try sending to just 25% or 50% of your list each hour.
Finally, bear in mind that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to holiday strategy around send times. Options will vary depending on your brand’s needs, the type of product you’re selling, the audience you’re trying to reach, and many other things.
- Promotional Type
- Promo code or link
- Promo conditions (exclusions + duration)
- Featured secondary content – all product or lifestyle image links & landing page links
- Landing page links. Indicate if a new one is needed or not.
- Countdown timers
- A/B testing (most likely fewer than normal)
- Target Lists & Segments
- Exclusion Lists & Segments
- Special Considerations, Notes, and Contingencies
- Design assets – GIFs or animation
The idea is to get as much detail as possible into your calendar, so you can get started with creating the content right away, as well as not be tripped up during scheduling with questions that could easily have been answered during the planning phase.
Create Scheduled On-Site Campaigns – Once the campaign calendar is locked in, you can develop the on-site email capture and conversion campaigns ahead of time. You can also pre-schedule these campaigns to start and stop running on certain dates in order to coincide with your email and other channel promotional campaigns. This will lighten the load during each promotional launch.
Mirroring the email promotional message on-site has been proven to increase continuity, user experience, and conversion rates. You want to implement such on-site messaging (with holiday-themed creative) whenever possible to support promotional pushes.
2020 update: You’ll want to take care of on-site promo messages, pop-ups, and SMS integration too. Before the holidays kick in, make sure to take care of the SMS sign-up process by adding an optional field to your pop-ups. Justuno is reporting great results by making this a 2-step process. First, ask for an email address and then ask for a phone number. Other approaches to collecting phone numbers include footer signups, checkout fields, a dedicated email campaign announcing your SMS program, or even a separate landing page for SMS sign-ups only.
Something we’re seeing works very well is having SMS signups be the first to hear about our sales – and providing them with early bird access is a fast-track to the VIP program. In terms of messaging, you can send them an SMS-exclusive deal around the time you have your smaller deals announced through email. Or, simply pause the messages from the Welcome flow, send a campaign instead, and make sure it’s tailored to their sign-up experience.
In the same vein, when Cyber Weekend rolls around, you might have around 15 emails planned from Thanksgiving to Giving Tuesday, but you should not go nearly as heavy with SMS. After all, SMS revenue does not thrive from frequency: the recommended cadence is between two to maximum one message per day, and that is in the event you have new offers every day. If you’re going with the early bird/first-to-hear approach, that can be one SMS, followed by the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sends. You can also send on Black Friday and Cyber Monday only, or launch an SMS to coincide with every new offer.
During the holiday season, and even as early as November, you’ll want to reconsider using MMS due to deliverability issues. The performance between SMS and MMS is largely the same, and MMS tends to be more costly, so going with SMS only is a win-win for your budget. Don’t forget to schedule your SMS for the mornings or early afternoon, as the high volume of messages being sent can lead to a carrier issue of extended delivery times.
Create Saved Promo Blocks in Email Templates – You should pre-create Saved Blocks to be able to quickly pull them into email campaigns during holidays. This way you can speed up the development of emails where possible. These can be blocks that speak to a promotion, a set of shipping deadlines, holiday gift guides, promo exclusions, and more.
Run Re-Engagement Campaigns – You want your list to be in the greatest shape it can be going into the holidays. As such, if you haven’t run a Re-Engagement Campaign in a while, you should consider running this as soon as you can in order to clean up the list a bit.
Keep in mind that based on our current research, dormant customers tend to wake up during big promos, while dormant non-customers tend to be dead-weight on the list. So when you identify the target list for re-engagement, we highly suggest going with dormant non-customers as the group to target.
Also – if you have automated Re-Engagement Flows running, chances are you may not have manually unsubscribed those who haven’t engaged. If this is the case, you should run a segment to identify those folks and get them suppressed.
An Important Note: Running Re-Engagement Campaigns during the actual holiday season push is not recommended. Instead, dormant non-customers should be primarily excluded from sends. This is because the inbox becomes quite competitive during the holiday season, and intentionally sending to disengaged contacts is very counterproductive to deliverability, since engagement rates are a huge factor in determining deliverability.
2020 update: Re-Engagement with a twist
From a content standpoint, you don’t want to be the brand that only reaches out during BFCM – that does nothing for increasing customer loyalty. Your subscribers’ inboxes will be full of BFCM content and if they don’t recognize you, since it’s been a long while, they’re more likely to ignore the email or worse, mark it as spam).
When it comes to segments, you need to test them prior to the Cyber Weekend to ensure they don’t hurt your deliverability.
Ensuring you’re hitting an average 20% open rate is crucial since you don’t want to negatively impact your deliverability. Sending to engaged people gets you 25%; if you want to send to your disengaged audience, create a segment that is the size of 20% of your engaged segment and add it to your engaged send. Even if these contacts don’t engage, you’re guaranteed a decent open rate by default.
Content-wise, the messaging that is typically used for re-engagement purposes is “We miss you” or “It’s been a while”. Still, you can be upfront with your audience on what the matter at hand here is. A straightforward question, such as “Do you want to hear about our Cyber Weekend deals?” will work. “Black Friday” is already a very powerful word, so including it in your subject line will have a positive impact on open rates. In the content itself, make it very clear that you’re looking to provide your audience with value, not spam their inbox. Show them that you understand that while they might not be shopping with you this season, they might want to hear from you in the future; or, unfortunately, they might not be interested in your content anymore. By giving them various options, that are much more focused on their experience and needs, you’re increasing the likelihood of their engagement. And, if someone’s not interested in your brand, it’s better to remove them from your list prior to the holidays. If you don’t do this, they will negatively impact your deliverability with low open rates and high unsubscribe rates. Another reason to start expanding your target lists prior to the holidays is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not take kindly to sudden shifts in sending, such as a sudden increase in frequency or volume.
Conclude Any ESP Migrations or IP Warm-Ups – If you have any ESP migrations or IP warm-ups going on now, you need to conclude those as soon as possible. Any moves to different ESPs or IPs during holidays are going to be disastrous, i.e. Black Friday emails may be all placed into spam, resulting in no revenue!
Please plan accordingly, knowing that IP warm-ups typically take a few weeks, and ESP migrations similarly so. Basically, if the target date for completion is not by the end of October, you should not be attempting it.
Conclude Any Major Design Overhauls – If a client has any major design overhauls going on, such as a new website, new branding, seasonal image replacement, or heavily requested email design updates, you need to conclude those prior to holidays. During the holiday season, you should be focused on executing based on a standardized design aesthetic, not on instituting major design overhauls during that period.
During Holiday Execution
With the proper planning, you should be going into the actual holiday season in great shape. That said, during the holidays, you need to focus on precise execution. You should be focusing on several tenets:
Optimize Each Campaign’s Content – Make sure your campaigns are optimized for click-throughs and conversions.
- Subject Lines/Preheaders – Use the knowledge gained from past subject line A/B testing, as well as past holiday campaigns that performed well, to inform building out of SLs and PHs for your holiday campaigns.
- Dedicated holiday landing pages (clearance, gift guide) – These pages tend to work a lot better than general home pages. As a rule of thumb, driving to more focused landing pages on the site will help increase conversions.
- CTA buttons – Call-to-action buttons inside emails help drive more clicks. These buttons, whether HTML-based or image-based, guide the user on exactly what to click. It’s key to always have them where possible.
- Timers in emails – Dynamic countdown timers are very good at driving urgency and click-throughs. You should include them in key promo campaign emails.
- Dynamic elements (AMP-enabled, GIFs) – Animation is shown to increase engagement. When possible, include GIFs, hover-over effects, and other animated effects to drive more subscriber engagement and clicks.
Metrics Monitoring – You need to keep a sharp eye on email performance during holidays. No matter how carefully you plan or execute, some things are bound to go off-course or break. Your best defense against this is to regularly monitor the metrics of the emails that went out. This helps identify trouble points quickly rather than missing or being delayed with finding out. This responsibility can and should be held by anyone who is inside the ESP, the more eyes and peripheral awareness, the better.
Utilize QA Holiday Checklists for All Emails – Checklists are your friends during holidays, and a robust, consistently executed quality assurance (QA) checklist will ensure the emails you send are error-free and put forth the brand in the best light. QA checklists at the very least should involve the following:
- Checking for spelling errors
- Checking for grammatical errors
- Making sure all links direct to the correct landing pages
- Testing coupon codes to ensure they are working
- Comparing desktop and mobile versions to see each renders as intended. Optionally, run through an email engine such as Litmus or Email on Acid
- Checking that frequency caps/smart sending is enabled or disabled appropriately
- Checking target inclusion and exclusion lists & segments
- Checking schedule time and date details
- Checking subject lines, preheaders, and ”from” addresses are correct
2020 holiday season preparation: A parting word
One of the strategies many brands utilized in 2019, that you should steer clear from in 2020, is being dishonest about your stock and promo duration. This is not the year to be hitting subscribers’ inboxes with “Last chance!” just to follow up with “We’re extending the sale” within 24 hours. As mentioned previously, customers are looking for brands they can trust. So, if you only have one offer planned from Thanksgiving to Giving Tuesday, there are other ways to create fresh emails without creating this false sense of urgency or scarcity.
You can create product or category feature emails that showcase your bestsellers, and while the offer will be the same in all of them, this allows for fresh copy and design in all your sends.
You can create shopping guides that pair your products together for a more impactful discounted price.
You can create campaigns that focus on products that are perfect stocking stuffers, family gifts, and self-pampering gifts.
You can even create non-promotional campaigns and sprinkle them in, with only a banner at the top or midsection that’s referencing your sale. This approach helps you stand out.
Finally: If your promotional plan includes (as it likely does) smaller promos leading up to BFCM, be careful about sending to recent purchasers. You want to avoid support tickets, refunds, and returns once they catch on to a better deal. And when it comes to deals during Cyber Weekend, start high and stay on the same level or reduce the value. Do not increase it or add anything else onto the Black Friday deal. While everyone’s aiming to get as many sales as possible, you want to reward your top customers. Don’t make them feel less valued by offering a better deal to subscribers who are in reality less loyal to your brand. Here, it’s not just a question of excluding recent purchasers from the sends (although it is recommended so you’re not overwhelming their inbox as they’re already getting your Post-Purchase automations); it’s about building and maintaining trust with your audience.