The Holiday Email Marketing Push: Is It Worth It?

The Holiday Email Marketing Push: Is It Worth It?

Companies dedicate enormous resources to ramping up email marketing programs around seasonal pushes, like the holidays. But do they actually get more customers?

We all know the feeling — how the office buzzes, the anticipation starts to build. Busy season is around the corner, and your team is getting ready for the big push to make this the most successful year yet. But have you ever wondered if all the extra hours and money you pour into these seasonal marketing campaigns are worth it?

As the holidays approach, many businesses, especially retailers and e-commerce companies, are starting to ask themselves this question — or, at least, they should be. At what point will creating and sending another email to your database be detrimental, rather than beneficial? How much should your messaging change? Should you try something totally new and different to catch customers’ attention?    

IBM Marketing Cloud’s 2016 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study has some interesting answers to these questions.

The holiday email-marketing study

The 2016 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study is an annual report that offers insight on how many people open, click, and ignore messages from email marketers around the globe. It aggregates data from messages sent by nearly 750 companies representing 3,000 brands in 40 countries. This year, the study also examined the performance of holiday messaging versus non-holiday messaging for retail/e-commerce vendors.

Most retailers send at least double the amount of emails during the holidays (defined as Thanksgiving to New Year’s) as they do during the non-holiday period. They entice potential buyers with aggressive pricing, free shipping, and deal deadlines. But do these more frequent, offer-loaded emails make a difference? Let’s take a look.

Click and open rates

In almost every respect, non-holiday emails outperformed holiday emails in a significant way. Open rates during the holidays were 18.8% lower than during non-holidays. Mean click-through rates differed by 28%. Mean click-to-open rates remained similar.

There are several takeaways here. Yes, open rates were lower during the holidays. But because the volume of emails sent during this period increased significantly, it’s likely that the total number of emails opened was greater during the holidays than non-holiday period. That’s a positive thing.

That being said, click-through rates decreased pretty dramatically. You would expect that special holiday offers would entice recipients to click through more often. But increased email volume seemed to detract from such motivating offers.

Similarly, click-to-open rates measure the effectiveness of email content (in driving a reader to take the requested action, e.g. redeem an offer). These rates remained relatively similar across both time periods, which is surprising. With more people looking to make purchases during the holidays, you would think that more recipients would act on the offers presented in the holiday emails. Again, increased email volume seemed to detract from their doing so.

List churn metrics

Increased email volume meant retailers processed more hard bounces, unsubscribes, and spam complaints during the holidays. 

Here are the takeaways. Firstly, more emails equal more hard bounces. That seems logical enough.

Though unsubscribe and spam-complaint rates were slightly lower during the holidays, that doesn’t equal success. Because of the frequency math effect, retailers are losing a larger number of subscribers because they are sending more emails.

Say your company sends one email per week during the year, and two emails per week during the holidays. If you usually have 10 people unsubscribe per week during the year, approximately 20 people are unsubscribing during holiday weeks. That can deplete your database pretty quickly — especially if you’re more than doubling your email volume.


The folks at IBM Marketing Cloud had some interesting thoughts about their findings and how to increase the effectiveness of holiday emails.

For one, while increasing the number of emails you send during the holidays isn’t inherently a bad idea, as more emails equates to more total opens, many retailers are going about it the wrong way, as is evidenced by lagging click-through rates.

That’s because when many marketers ramp up email volume, they forget all the best practices that make their emails successful in the first place: personalization, targeted content, and offers that are relevant to the specific recipient based on his/her place in the buyer’s journey. Personalizing email content will help improve click-through and click-to-open rates, which could dramatically impact sales given the increased email volume.

Further, a courtesy head’s up about increasing email frequency could reduce the number of opt-outs and spam complaints. IBM Marketing Cloud suggests that companies should “consider sending an email to subscribers before you ramp up frequency, explaining the increased frequency, what kind of promotions they can expect, and shipping and return policies. Include prominent language about frequency options and link to your preference center. In addition, revise your preference-center language and options to encourage unsubscribers to opt down or snooze emails instead of simply opting out.”

Application across verticals

While the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are not every business’s busy season, the findings from this study are still applicable. If your prospects experience an uptick in marketing emails during a particular season from you and your competitors, you’re likely to experience similar results.

The key in ramping up emails prior to a big push is to retain quality — that is, customizing content and offers to the particular recipient. If you can’t scale, then you shouldn’t send.

Furthermore, this study speaks to the value of a strategic, year-round marketing program that builds brand awareness and customer loyalty, regardless of how close the busy season is. If prospects grow to know and trust your brand, they’ll turn to you when it’s time to buy, regardless of how many emails you send them in the weeks prior.

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