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By John Landsman, Director of Strategy and Analytics

With the passage of Labor Day, business focus for many of us turns to the Holiday peak.  For retailers, this peak may have different timeframes that relate variously to planning and execution.  Many organizations will already have completed their Holiday planning.  But the focus is always on the November/December period, with residual activity into January as well.   For retailers, this the most important and demanding period of the year.  A disproportionate percentage of annual retail sales occurs during this period, and an even higher percentage of annual profits.

For email marketing executives, the fun begins when they start feeling pressure from Management to enlarge audiences beyond the usual targeting, and to increase campaign frequencies.  Both moves involve risks:  those related to spam complaints, and those related to audience retention.

Understand that for full-blooded retail merchants, the only focus is driving sales.  It’s how they’re evaluated and compensated.  These people are not very interested in email (or any other) marketing optimization.  They only know that if they talk to more people, and do it more often, they can drive more sales.  This focus contends with that of the email marketer, who’s interested in (and evaluated on) list health, inbox reputation and optimal program performance.   This conflict between merchant and marketer can get ugly.

Here’s our point of view on the subject.

First, think about the primary risk:  Emailers receiving more than three spam complaints per thousand emails sent risk being flagged by the major ISPs.  Spam complaints — as well as opt-outs — occur when people shouldn’t be receiving, or do not want, your email. This action can lead to having your email sends simply shut-down.  You definitely do not want this to happen, and especially not during any time-period supporting your Holiday business.  

Solution?  Recognize the temptations and how to deal with them.

Temptation: Your Management wants you to send Holiday email to a portion of your email audience you would normally consider inactive or even lapsed.


  • This is playing with fire. You shouldn’t be emailing any customer who hasn’t open/clicked and/or browsed in the past 90-180 days, and/or bought in the past twelve months.  When I worked with an ESP, one of our major retail clients had senior merchants who wanted to email deep into this forbidden zone of email/purchase inactives.  We flat-out told them we wouldn’t mail there.  Point?  Let your ESP be the heavy.  They have almost as much at stake in managing this risk as you do.
  • To establish accurate customer activity status (per our last Nugget), you need to be able to see your customers’ multi-channel purchase and summarized browse behavior in a 360-degree customer-level database.  Who owns your CRM database of record?  How much use do you make of that database in managing your email programs and defining customer status?
  • Other elements of risk mitigation:
    • Consider ECOA on ‘old names’ to which you might want to send Holiday mail.
    • Consider re-opt-in/reactivation programs for inactives (however defined) prior to targeting them in a Holiday push.
    • If these are options you may wish to pursue, timing is key.  Get started now, not in October or beyond.

Temptation:  Your Management wants a sharp increase in the number the number of campaigns being deployed during Holiday, beyond the usual baseline campaign cadence.

Response:  This is somewhat less risky than emailing inactives, but must still be handled with care.

  • While there are audience retention risks in overdoing customer contact frequencies (over-mailing being a primary driver of opt-outs), Holiday seems to create something of a time-out in that process.  The natural excitement of the season seems to prime customers for the greater tempo of marketing contact that is prevalent, and we tend not to see the same degree of list attrition due to what we would otherwise consider over-mailing.
  • The other key offset to the risk of over-mailing is our faithful friend, Relevance.  Customers receiving email that is segmented, targeted, personalized and interactive are much more likely to engage with it than to opt-out of it.  Sending relevant email buys you a higher contact frequency tolerance.
  • In the end, testing is the key to managing contact frequency in any given retail email audience.  We recommend testing various mailing frequencies across multiple customer engagement segments, measuring impact on KPIs like open/click/conversion rates, opt-out rates, and revenue.  

Holiday is too critical a period for you to risk either your inbox reputation or your email list health.   Just applying these few well-accepted best practices should help you stay safe.


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