Plan your holiday e-communications now

Anyone who lived in the New York area during the 1980s will recall the ubiquitous TV ads from electronics retailer Crazy Eddie. In particular, the company's device for driving sales in the summer months stands out. Wearing his trademark white turtleneck and navy blazer, the company's spokesman -- a radio DJ named Jerry Carroll, not Eddie himself -- mops his brow and says "It's hot, it's sticky. You're sweltering. It's time for... Christmas in August!"

While the calendar-makers have not, in fact, moved Christmas any closer to Independence Day, marketers of all stripes should begin planning holiday e-marketing efforts now, even as beach sand begins to accumulate in the trunks of their cars. Although retailers, who traditionally derive 40 percent of their profits in the fourth quarter, make a point of planning out holidays early -- sometimes even as early as the spring -- non-retailers should also think about what to do when the winds turn cold.

Why start so early? The flexibility of e-communications often spoils marketers by giving them the opportunity to execute campaigns at the last minute. Unfortunately, coordinating email, mobile messaging and other communications requires solid planning. Moreover, the nature of the commerce year means that marketing heats up starting in August and continues unabated until January. That means that if you don't give in-depth thought to holiday marketing now, there's a good chance you never will.

Let's discuss retailers first; however, non-retailers ought to read this part as well, as many of the principles apply to them too.

Holiday planning for retailers
Holiday sales drive not only your company's revenues, but your competitors' too. Competition begets clutter; the Retail Email Blog reported that, in 2007, the volume of email from top retailers increased 62 percent between October and December. Of course, this figure does not take into account the onslaught from other media channels that invariably leads to consumer fatigue.

The challenge to the retailer, then, lies in finding ways to rise above the clutter rather than merely adding to it. Key tactics include the following:

Review: What worked last year? Which communications resulted in the greatest sales? In addition to repeating your best moves, consider basic segmentation to take advantage of easily targeted consumers. Customers who bought apparel last year are fairly likely to buy it again this year, so target past buyers with additional communications focused on items they bought.

Mark your calendar: By now, consumers have come to expect great deals on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, of course), and many consumers look for deals online each Monday thereafter (known as Cyber and Echo Mondays). Plan emails and other communications accordingly. Remember, many retailers begin Black Friday before dawn, so make sure to put the email in the inbox earlier in the week to draw attention to your own deals.

Moreover, the holiday season lasts a long time, often starting before Halloween and not ending until the last gift card gets rung up sometime in January. Make sure to develop a master editorial calendar with specific time-of-year trends and areas of interests to ensure a good presence in the inbox and coordination with communications in other channels.

Similarly, avoid the temptation to email too often, at least to your entire list. Although very engaged customers (as determined by keeping track of who opens and clicks through emails) might want to see emails daily, most customers will not want to hear from your store more than three times per week, at maximum.

Mix it up: Communications that come at the same time every week or feature the same types of offers will quickly render themselves invisible to the consumer. Make sure to include a variety of offers at different times to keep the consumer interested in what your store has to sell.

Make time for reading: Plan in advance so you have time during the holidays to monitor competitors' communications. Email in particular gives retailers a great opportunity for a rapid response to a competitor's challenge. For instance, if a competitor promotes a deal that your brand can beat, a quick email might interest consumers.

Explore new communications channels: Consumers' inboxes become flooded during the holidays, but other communications channels hold promise. Mobile messaging in particular gives retailers the opportunity to contact customers while they're shopping (e.g., by timing texts for weekend days). Obviously, retailers need to begin phone number and permission capture for SMS campaigns well before the holidays to take advantage of this channel.

Even better, a truly media-savvy marketer may create an entertaining Twitter feed to engage customers. This feed could encompass anything from the 21st-century equivalent of Kmart's old blue-light specials to the running commentary of some urban hipster trolling the aisles for interesting merchandise.

Test in the off-season: Given the crucial nature of the holidays, retailers should optimize communications well before the season. It's better to find out what doesn't work when fewer consumers are paying attention. Summer and early fall are great times to test creative, subject lines and offers in order to develop the hardest-working communications that you can.

Holiday planning for non-retailers
Did you get all of that? Good, because most of the above recommendations apply to non-retailers as well. As noted, inboxes will become especially cluttered over the holidays, so non-retailers should plan communications accordingly if they want to be heard. If you've got something important to say via the e-channel, try to do so before the holidays gear up -- or risk getting lost amidst the clutter.

On the other hand, the holidays offer specific opportunities for companies that have something to sell but are not at the retail level.

Manufacturers: Just as retailers enjoy outsized revenues during the holidays, many manufacturers depend on this period to sell their products via retailers. Make it easy for your retail partners to sell by directing consumers to their sites, either within the communication or via landing pages on your site. Make sure to track where consumers go to get a sense of which retailers are benefiting the most.

Travel: Historically, travel marketers have less success in the e-channel later in the year. This is primarily because they depend on that channel for last-minute bookings and most consumers plan their holiday travel in advance. Thus, the holidays may be a good time to wish your customers well in the new year as a means of boosting brand perceptions.

B2B: The holidays also tend to mark a down time for B2B marketing. Budgets tend to get sewn up in September and October, and businesspeople are often rushing to complete objectives by year's end. But rather than going completely dark, B2B marketers should consider keeping customers and prospects engaged with surveys or other questionnaires.

Retailer or not, a marketer should look forward to planning for the holidays as a chance to apply learning and to think through an evolving communications strategy. While Crazy Eddie popularized Christmas in August, let me leave you with a more traditional take on the holidays: They come but once each year.

Chris Marriott is vice president and general manager for Acxiom Digital.

 

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