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How Email Engagement Can Make or Break Your Holiday Season

How Email Engagement Can Make or Break Your Holiday Season

As the year’s busiest selling season approaches, retailers find themselves under increasing pressure to deliver site traffic and hit revenue goals.

Email is an inexpensive and reliable way to reach masses of potential buyers, which means retail marketers are often asked to ramp up email volume during the holiday season - but marketers should proceed with caution before opening the email floodgates.

It’s not uncommon for retailers to push out substantially more email volume from October to December. Subscribers have learned to expect this, and many have developed a higher tolerance for increased frequency during these big shopping months. However, not all consumers will be happy about the increase in promotional email, and mailbox providers are extremely sensitive to changes in subscriber engagement. 

If they see negative trends in a sender’s engagement metrics - like opens, replies, forwards, and spam complaints - they’re more likely to filter your emails to the spam folder.

Many retail executives don’t understand the impact of the directive to “just send another email.” Short term, it may generate more revenue, but you also risk exponential damage to your deliverability, which is not easily repaired. Consider this:

It’s (still) tough to distinguish legitimate mail from spam 

Mailbox providers like Gmail, Microsoft, and Yahoo process trillions of messages each day, and the vast majority is spam. Their filtering algorithms have become increasingly more sophisticated and each company uses a different mix of factors to identify legitimate mail, including send volume, sender reputation, authentication, and subscriber activity.

Gmail is leading the way and marketers have to keep up 

With over 1 billion of the 4.6 billion email accounts worldwide, it’s essential for businesses to deliver to Gmail. Gmail is the most sophisticated of the mailbox providers, leading the industry with constantly evolving spam filters. Most recently, Gmail has begun incorporating subscriber engagement metrics into their filtering decisions, as these provide a clear picture of whether an email from a given sender is legitimate and wanted - and other mailbox providers have followed suit.

Subscriber engagement dictates delivery success

Mailbox providers want to ensure the best possible inbox experience for their end users, by delivering only the mail their customers want to receive - and filtering the rest to spam. Opens, replies, forwards, and foldering are all strong indicators of a subscriber’s interest in your email. Engagement today will influence your deliverability tomorrow, so it’s critical to understand how subscribers are interacting with your email campaigns and adjust your strategy accordingly. If subscribers aren’t engaging with your campaigns, your email may be filtered into spam - something no retailer can risk during the holidays.  

Now that you understand how sending 'just one more' email could prove detrimental, here are some ways to mitigate the risk:

Know your numbers: Review each subscriber’s history of opens, clicks, and purchases, along with unsubscribes and complaints. Understanding these behaviors and activity patterns will help you identify your most and least active subscriber groups.  

Send differently to each subscriber group: Mailbox providers treat subscribers differently, and you should too. Set frequency limits for each subscriber group based on their activity level and purchase patterns. Loyal, highly active customers are likely to have a greater tolerance for more volume. Less active subscribers may lodge spam complaints or have messages delivered to spam as a result of low engagement.  

Give subscribers a reason to engage: Your messages aren’t the only ones your subscribers receive - especially during the holidays - so creating an engaging experience is critical. A comprehensive A/B testing program can provide insights into what works (and what doesn’t) with your email campaigns. Keep in mind, too, that individual subscribers like different things and buy different things—and the content they receive should reflect those preferences.

Have a plan for last minute holiday campaigns: Knowing the likelihood of receiving a 'just send another email' directive, plan ahead for managing that request. Sending indiscriminately, without accounting for engagement, can cause your next campaign to perform poorly. Consider tactics like sending a targeted offer to loyalty members or a flash sale to very active subscribers, which can be used to engage with those most likely to appreciate and act on the message.  

Being informed before the holidays are in full swing will help you navigate the ever-changing inbox to a successful holiday season. Focusing on subscriber engagement (or lack thereof) to prioritize messages and build a good reputation with mailbox providers will reduce the risk of sudden deliverability problems and ultimately provide subscribers with a better experience – which will drive better results for your email program this season.

Bonnie Malone

Bonnie Malone

Return Path's Senior Director, Professional Services North America. Bonnie leads the Professional Services North America organization of Return Path, overseeing the consulting team that help clients optimize their email programs by maximizing deliverability, response, revenue and ROI. Bonnie’s knowledge of merchandising, customer buying behavior, content, design, and email campaign strategy have been instrumental in positioning her clients as thought-leaders in their marketplace, as well as instilling brand loyalty by growing customer affinity groups, building subscriber lists, and generating sales.

Since joining the Professional Services team in 2008, Bonnie has worked with a variety of clients in a number of industry verticals, including Disney, eBay, The Hartford, The Art Institutes, Subaru, and Netflix. Prior to Return Path, Bonnie spent 8 years managing several multi-million dollar, multi-channel businesses for Fortune 100 companies in the retail sector. She is currently based out of West Palm Beach, Florida.

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