The marketing forecast for the 2016 holiday season? A blizzard of emails—and yours will have to be well-timed and well-targeted to plow through the whiteout. That’s the conclusion of a major study by Yes Lifecycle Marketing of 2015 holiday email marketing by 30 big retailers. (Download the study here.)

The headlines:

  • The volume of holiday-themed emailing went up. Brands sent 29% more emails in the fourth quarter of 2015 over the third quarter.
  • But the “open rate” – the proportion of messages actually read by consumers – fell by 13%

The problem, says the study: “More brands were competing to attract consumers’ attention with the same tactics.”

In particular, don’t count on simple good feelings and holiday cheer to get your message opened. In fact, more than other times of year, you need to come up with a compelling offer.

Let’s take it holiday by holiday.

Halloween:  The number of emails sent tripled in 2015 but the open rates stayed at or below the 2014 levels. Successful campaigns gave specific details on products and deals, not just sale announcements, in the subject lines. October and November are already highly competitive for email marketing because of Columbus Day sales and fall fashion marketing, the study points out.

Thanksgiving: Another tripling of email volume, but poor performance for mailings sent close to the holiday.  The lesson: Start Thanksgiving themed messaging earlier in November (a countdown clock was an effective gimmick in 2015). General subject lines like “Happy Thanksgiving from Our Family to Yours” didn’t get the opens.

Black Friday: Last-minute works here: The most effective campaigns landed just before Black Friday. Subject lines should focus on “urgency and fast-approaching deadlines”.  Post-Black Friday mailings actually did very well, too.

Cyber Monday: Best send time: the weekend before the Monday. And, unlike Black Friday, post-event emails did not do so well.

Green Monday: Never heard of it? eBay popularized the second Monday of December as another sale day and it’s now the third largest online shopping day of the year. Few retailers emailed for Green Monday in 2015 but those who did scored well.

Free Shipping Day: Online retailers who offer free shipping on December 18 with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve saw open rates drop steeply in 2015. One possible explanation: Free shipping offers are more frequent year-round, and especially during the holidays.

Christmas: Open rates for Christmas-themed emails were down in 2015 vs. 2014, as inboxes bulged with marketing messages. “Most subject lines that underperformed focused primarily on Christmas sales, deals and specials without any differentiators or descriptors to hook consumers”.  The better performers were sent in the 10 days leading up to Christmas and emphasized deadlines and countdowns to the holiday.

General holiday season advice from the Yes Lifecycle Marketing study:

  • “Space out holiday deployments throughout Q4, instead of giving in to the temptation of drastically increasing volume as the holidays approach.”
  • As an alternative tactic, look to relieve holiday season stress for customers by sending holiday guides, how-to articles, gift ideas and checklists.
  • Make subject lines sound urgent, but go easy on that tactic. Too much too often and customers may not view them as genuine.
  • Remember that “free” and CAPITALIZATION in subject lines are warning flags to email services on guard against spam.

See Dex Media’s marketing solutions for local businesses, including email program management right here