Holiday email planning for 2021

Expert Diaries 26
How to plan your holiday email campaigns for this holiday season

Expert Diaries from Zoho Campaigns connects avid email marketers to the experts in their space to learn best practices and tips. Our aim is to form a community that learns email marketing from one another.

In our recent session, we had Nikki Elbaz with us. She is a well-known email strategist and copywriter who was Head of Email with Copyhackers and currently owns a company in her name, Nikki Elbaz. In the past, she has worked with clients like SproutSocial, Shopify Plus, TailWind, and others. She’s helped her clients send thousands of emails, which has earned her the name the “Queen of Emails.”

In this session, Nikki walks us through a few best practices and tips that we can try as we strategize and plan for the upcoming holiday season.

Video Transcript:

What main factors would you consider before planning a holiday email campaign?

There are a few steps depending on how soon and advanced you’re planning. The basic foundation of things will help the entire process be easier and more effective in serving and interviewing your customers. Just get a lot of qualitative data to help inform the entire campaign.

At the same time, if you check your previous emails and all your metrics, you will have a database just to help you inform your strategy. So, now you have the data to help inform. This makes the entire process easier and obviously more effective because it is data-driven. However, you will need a bit of luxury time to set this up and run.

So, depending on how soon and advanced you are, you have to start with how many interviews can you run?

Do you have to cut the interviews and just work on the surveys?

Can you look at the email metrics?

Can you look at Google Analytics for your email campaigns?

What do you have time for?

I would advise not skipping this step; however, I might, depending on how much time I have and how deep I can go. So that is the first thing.

The second thing, as a preparatory step, is to clean your list and ensure that your emails are getting good deliverability during the holiday season. You want your emails to hit the inbox when it is a very busy time and it is so easy to end up in spam. 

So, you need to clean it from a deliverability perspective and also if you’re running a re-engagement campaign. Ask people, “Hey, do you still want our emails?” If they say “Yes,” you’ve rewritten the relationship, and it will be on top of your mind that they’re going to feel more emotionally connected to you as a brand. They’re going to pay more attention to your emails. They’re going to feel better and more excited about your emails when it comes to the holiday season and they start seeing your name in their inbox more frequently with all your holiday campaigns.

Finally you will have to start segmenting all your contacts if you haven’t done it already. You need to clean it up by ensuring that you give really relevant campaigns to each segment of your audience.

For instance, say we have five segments. Firstly, you will want your segments to be relevant so that they can help dictate your strategy. For example, if we have a VIP segment, what should we offer them? What do they deserve? Can we give them 30% off? Can we squeeze it? Okay 25% off? So, if they’re getting 25% off, that means the previous customers or the new people can get 20% off. It’s going to help you dictate your offer based on what segments you have, because you want to make sure it is relevant to them and you know you have all the different offers that you have to put on the table.

Setting up your segments will make your emails really effective and also help you develop your strategies.


Geotargeting can be a major factor that makes designs and content effective while sending out holiday emails to people across different countries. How would you plan your holiday email marketing based on geotargeting?

I look at geotargeting as a tactic that falls under the strategy of relevance. The whole idea of geotargeting—why it is so effective and so amazing—is that it makes the email really relevant.

I remember I got an email from Nuggs, which is an alternative chicken nugget product, and this is one of the most memorable emails that I’ve ever got. The subject line was “Michigan, are you ready?” I am from Michigan. When I read that, I was like, what’s going on in Michigan? What is happening? So, I need to open it, I need to see it. There was emotion there when I read that subject line—I was feeling something, and that is the main thing that you have to do. Make your subscribers connect with your email.That email from Nuggs was very effective, and I was excited and I was curious. I opened the email and it said, “Nuggs are now in Plum market.” That was so relevant because that’s a store where I usually shop. It was not like “Get Nuggs in your local market” or “Get Nuggs in your grocery store now”—it was “IN PLUM MARKET.” That’s so vivid, illustrative, and relevant because I could see myself, the next time I’m in the market, saying, “Oh, there they are.” So, It was just a very memorable email and a very emotional email because it had this relevance based on geotargeting.

If you only have a few products, and if there are certain things that will make a difference depending on the location, something that can be used in a particular climate, or something that’s going to make a difference when all your audience is in the same basic country, you will have to find something else that will prove that relevance in your emails. Geolocation is not going to give that spark of “Wow, this is really relevant for me.”

But if you’re targeting people in Australia and in America, Geolocation can make a huge difference, because under the equator, they have holidays in the sun, while above the equator, it’s all the traditional holidays. You will see a lot of the traditional, cold climate sort of holiday geared things sent to Australia and those areas during this time, it’s become normal for them to receive such seasonal content. So, it’s fine but imagine their joy, when they see it, they understand that we know what they’re experiencing. You can delight your audience like that anytime and give them that relevance. Firstly, from a delight perspective and then with specific things that actually make a technical difference, like different shipping times or prices for different locations. If your product can be used differently in different climates, for example, if you’re in a beauty space, you do not want to talk about warm sets to people who’re experiencing cool climate. If you start giving more summer sets to people who are living in summer areas, thinking about your audience experience then you are providing the content that will be relevant and interesting for them. That’s a great use of geo-location.

When do you recommend sending your first holiday campaign?

A lot of American companies will start their holiday email campaigns on Veterans Day (November 11). Meanwhile, if the European audience receives these emails, they’d be thinking, “What’s Veterans Day”?

Think about the location of your subscribers and what you can handle in terms of sales. One company that I saw last year did a really unique thing at the end of October or the beginning of November. I think it was the end of October, because a lot of companies will start sending out emails by the beginning of November. They sent out an email asking people not to buy on their Black Friday sale.

“If you’re smart, you’ll buy now, because we’re giving a bigger, better sale now—we’re doing 20% off now, while our Black Friday is going to be 15% off. We promise you it’s BETTER NOW—BUY NOW!” They were doing this to handle the shipping delays.

So, that was a smart strategy to push the Black Friday sale early. This is because they didn’t have to deal with the craziness of competing with all the other companies that were trying to ship out their entire stuff at the same time, resulting in the carriers being in backlog. Thus, shipping out at the end of October or early November was so much easier for them. They had so much less headache to deal with. That was a smart strategy.

It was also really smart because there were so many fewer companies that were promoting all their sales during that time. They didn’t have the price shopping as such or distractions of all other companies. It was just a beautiful time for them to be like, “Hey, let’s do a really good sale,” and the dedicated audience in the email list got that amazing sale. They still ran the Black Friday sale, but it was probably in lower volumes, so they didn’t have to deal with the shipping.

One option, if everyone starts doing it, is to just push Black Friday earlier. It really depends a lot on your capacity and your bandwidth. If you’re starting (to send emails) on November 1st, what is going to keep that excitement going all the way until Black Friday? From November 1st to 15th, what you’re doing is like, teasers and presales and getting people excited about it. That’s the strategy that you have to adopt. Maybe you have a different offer every week of the month and that keeps people excited. It’s also perfectly valid only to have a flash sale on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, anything in that actual window.

So, it is really about what you want to handle as a brand and what your customers are expecting, which is hard to know. You need to know if it will be good to go with flash sales or if it is better to go with lifting and pre-launching a sale. That will inform what kind of sale you want to be doing. Moreover, the holiday time is so stressful and there are so many pieces and you have to be playing with so many different things, you want to be making your sale window effective and decide what will be the easiest.

You are an email recipient and you receive a holiday email campaign. Now, what would you expect to see in that email? What is that element in a holiday email campaign that catches your focus?

I love it when the question is not answered in the subject line. There’s a question in my mind upon reading that subject line, and I am thinking that now I have to click that and read it. So it should be something that I’ve never seen from a brand or something that just leaves me with a question, something that has word tricks, like using words like “This.” What are you saying when you’re saying “This?” You are not defining what “This” is. So, that’s definitely an easy hack to use a curiosity subject line. But those are my favorite. I default to using them, because I find them definitely the most intriguing in my inbox as well.


What are a few tips email marketers need to consider while creating the subject line, sender name, and preheader for holiday emails?

Yes, those three things are the most important ones for getting the open. Many people forget about the sender name, where it’s just the subject line and the preview text or just the subject line that gains more importance.

And the sender name is actually more important than your subject line, because if you get an email from your mom asking you to take the garbage out or something, that is not exciting—it’s something that doesn’t make any sense or doesn’t interest you. But you’re going to open it anyway because it is from your mom. So that applies to brands as well. There is a relationship between the brands, the subscribers, and the customers.

If the sender name is recognizable, it doesn’t matter what the subject line is. If they’re excited about emails from your company, they’re going to open them regardless of what the subject line is. And that’s a lot of work. That’s much more than holidays. Still, you can take part of your pre-planning effort to build up that excitement about your brand and generate that kind of relationship pre-holiday so that your sender name does the work.

You also see a lot of holiday sender names like Coal-Black Friday or HP Black Friday where it is just very easy for people to see that “this is a Black Friday email.”

Particularly during holidays, we know inboxes are flooded, so making it really clear that it’s a Black Friday email is exciting. That can be a really smart tactic so that when they’re skimming, they’ll find it like “Oh, it’s Black Friday sale. Okay, cool, I am clicking here.”

Another interesting thing with preview text is that a lot of times you see a curious subject line, but then the preview text will give away what the curiosity was aimed at.

For example, “Open for super secret savings,” and then the preview text says “20% off.”

Now you don’t have to click the email to see it because you already know. There’s nothing wrong with not being curious. You don’t have to use curiosity alone in your subject lines, but if you’re using them, you don’t want to give everything away in preview text. So, that’s just something to think about.

However, just in general, when you’re crafting emails—the subject lines, the preview text, etc.—for the holiday, the one thing that you should be focusing on and having on top of your mind is that peoples’ inboxes are crazy crowded with emails during holidays.

But beyond just trying to stand out, which obviously you are trying to do, knowing their reality and how you could step in to their shoes and experience that.

So there’s one really unique email that I get reminded of now. I saw it about four times last year. I think somebody did it and then a bunch of marketers were like “Okay, let’s have it in our campaign.” It was like an emoji pointing up and emoji pointing down, and in between the two emojis was a subject line. And each subject line was like “ignore these emails,” “these sales are not as good as the sales in this email.” It was such a unique way to show “we know what you’re going through” and “we know you’re trying to figure out all the distractions.” I don’t know if you might be using that strategy because it might be like 20 people using it next year or this year. But just that idea of getting into the head space and understanding that this is what their reality is, should we help them focus? Or we want to help them understand that this is where they should be focusing. Getting into their headspace is going to help you craft your subject lines.

What is your opinion of using animated gifs, images, videos, etc. on a holiday email campaign?

It is definitely a way to keep things interesting, engaging, and different. It does add a little bit of uniqueness, whereas, you know, if everybody is going to use the red flashing sale emoji, that’s a very popular one. So what if we do like a blue ocean or a palm tree? That stands out a little bit. And as well as images in the actual email videos, they’re just another way to engage your users. Obviously they have to make sense to your audience and for the email. Yeah, they’re fun.

I would like to talk about GIFs, especially those that are brand-made. For example, you have your product and that flashing text of what makes your product awesome—that’s a way to really pack in a lot of information in a short email. It could be just like a really quick email that’s like, “20% off starts now.” But then you can have no fillers so that it doesn’t take a lot of mental space and also doesn’t occupy a lot of actual physical space. But it is very engaging, it’s just a nice way to start things.

The only thing about videos is that, of course, you can embed videos into emails. So you want to make sure that you’re driving people to a landing page that has other ways to get conversions. Don’t drive them to YouTube or just a static video page with nothing else on it. You want to make sure you drive them to the video they want to be watching and a page that allows them to convert, shop, and buy and continue that customer journey.


Many people conduct win-back emails during the holiday seasons. Do you think it’s a good practice? Also, would you like to give any design and content-centric tips to them?

What works so nicely about win-back emails during the holidays is that, from the email marketer’s side, it’s such a great way of knowing whether their subscriber is going to be a healthy, long-time, good subscriber or not, because you’re sending them the holiday offers that are probably the best offers throughout the entire year. And if they’re not interacting, they probably won’t convert ever. Because you are giving them your best and they’re not taking it. So, from the marketer’s side, it’s a no-brainer to do a win-back during the holidays.

But from the customers’ side, they’re overwhelmed by so many emails. Let’s pretend that they’re not getting annoyed by your emails—they’re going to be shopping for the brands that they’re comfortable with, brands they’re loyal to and that they’re most used to. It’s just like when you have so many decisions and are so overwhelmed—then, by default, you just do what you’ve been doing.

It is this funny balance between it’s a great time to do it and maybe it is not such a great time to do it. The best thing to do in these kinds of situations is to address the fact that this could be a weird time for them.

 I was working with a client, and they had a product that they did a lot of research about, but you only get one like every 10 years. Maybe you bought a secondary one, but it was kind of one-time thing. So, instead of just sending them holiday emails, we sent them emails where the first set said, “Did you buy them already? If you didn’t, do you have anything stopping you? Can we help you with the decision? Can we help you with the research?” It opened up with that conversation, and they didn’t feel annoyed or overwhelmed or anything like that. This helped them continue their journey from research to actually buying.

After that, we did many series of that win-back-ish, “Did you?” and “Did you not?” We then defaulted them to, “This is how you can get the secondary one.” The offer was about more of the secondary product than the primary product. It matched their reality of disengaged subscribers—instead of just throwing them the same thing that everyone else got, it was following what they were experiencing, which then can lead to higher conversions. Addressing that kind of thing, making your content talk about the factor and not something like, “Hey, we noticed you haven’t bought in a while!” because that doesn’t do anything for anyone. The worst they can do is make them feel guilty, and the best they can do is create some relevance.

However, what you want to do is ask the email recipients, “We see you haven’t bought. Is it because of accessibility? Do you want to try this version? Did you know that we have a free trial?” Helping them through that juncture—instead of just reminding them that they haven’t bought—is better. So definitely try with subject lines, but focus the content around their journey.

Another interesting thing is to run secondary win-backs sometime during January or February. Firstly because it’s the slump season, just recovering from the holidays; but also, if they missed it and were kind of overwhelmed, just giving them another chance where they’re familiar again, they’re getting the emails again. But it’s just like that secondary and not overwhelming kind of a situation.

Holiday email begins with a strategy—then comes the message that will resonate with subscribers. Finally, it’s the design that makes the email appealing. What, according to you, is the most important among these three factors and why?

No question—it is strategy, strategy, strategy, strategy, strategy!

The strategy is going to dictate absolutely everything. You can have the most beautifully crafted emails that are unique, clear, and enticing for people, but if they don’t make any sense to the contact who they are targeted at, they’re not going to convert.

Actually I was thinking of a brand right now. Their emails are so unique and so interesting that I open and read them and they help me grow, but their strategy doesn’t make any sense to me. I am not going to take any further action aside from reading them. So, yeah, that’s about strategy.

Do you have any personal favorite brands that do their holiday emails perfectly?

I get so many emails. I love studying them all. I actually mentioned them previously, the ones that did the early Black Friday sale. Though that was a supply, they sell single-edge razors—I don’t have facial hair and I am reading every single one of their emails because they do it so well.

First of all, they’re just really nice-looking and well-designed, which is just a basic foundation. They’re very smart and strategic. A lot of the emails have stories in them—they have angles, they help people through their journey. It’s not just like, “Hey, here’s a sale” or “Here’s how you should shop,” you know? “Here’s something awesome about us and hey, we’re running a sale.” They really help people convert. They’re data-driven, they have great copy that helps persuade people, and they’re very founder-focused. You feel like you’re really connected with the brand. Every so often there will be an email from the founder. He had a Father’s Day email where he was talking about his struggles with infertility, and it just creates that connection with the brand. But they don’t lose that where sometimes you just see too much content and not enough conversion, and that doesn’t work from the brand side. So they have a really nice balance there. They’re just very human in terms of, you know, that Black Friday early sale. That email was so straight talk, it was just like, “Here’s what’s happening, Here’s what we are doing, Here’s what you should do.” So, that just worked out very nicely.

And they had an apology email once, where they messed up the sale so they just said, “Hey, oops, we messed up.” It wasn’t like they were faking—it was like they felt real and authentic. They were doing a really good job.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The comment language code.
By submitting this form, you agree to the processing of personal data according to our Privacy Policy.

Related Posts