Five Ways to Differentiate Your Brand This Holiday Season

It is no secret that retailers rely on a strong holiday season to make their year from a profit standpoint.

In this challenging economy, many merchants have already responded by slashing prices and starting their inventory clearance sales early.

The challenge as marketers is to think your whole process through during the holidays. Here are some ways retailers can drive sales by differentiating themselves from the crowd.

Send more relevant rather than more frequent
When it comes to e-mail marketing, a typical retailer response to the holiday season is to double or triple the frequency of which they e-mail their customers. In some sense, e-mail’s greatest strength (and weakness) is that it is inexpensive.

So much so that the temptation is to send more, whether or not it has been tested or works. In fact, we’ve found that while retailers may see short-term gains for this increased e-mail frequency, this tactic can kill the golden goose by annoying customers.

Going from weekly to thrice-weekly promotions quickly leads to a rise in spam complaints, deliverability issues, and drives customers to do the worst thing imaginable to a retailer—ignore them. This has an impact on 2009 sales and beyond.

How do you differentiate your company in your customers’ inboxes? Be the one that sends the relevant offers. Use past purchase behavior, such as recent purchases or those from last holiday, to drive your offers rather than blasting all of them with the same 20%-off.

Leverage cross-channel activities with single-use coupons
Is a sale the right move? A sale is a sale right? The whole is better than a sum of its parts when it comes to retail. Historically, however, many retailers have kept their online sales separate from their brick-and-mortar business. (You know: different silo, database, customers, sales budget, goals, etc.) The smart retailers, however, are realizing there is great strength in helping your online and offline marketing efforts work together.

One answer is single-use coupons. These can now be delivered via e-mail (even at time of open), and a unique barcode, or promotion code, can be assigned to each individual online consumer and then tracked at point-of-sale.

With cross-channel shopping growing at a significantly faster clip than pure online sales, this is a critical metric for marketers to capture. Not only does it allow cross-channel purchase tracking, but it provides additional insight into brick-and-mortar purchase behaviors that can then be used to drive more targeted and relevant e-mail offers.

Send e-mail as optimized HTML, not just images
Many retailers fail to grasp that their beautiful e-mails won’t be seen by their customers. Since all major ISPs now default their e-mail applications to block images, 60% of a typical B-to-C e-mail file can’t see the images in your e-mail. Recipients have to turn images on first.

Informal research of my inbox shows that most retailers haven’t optimized their e-mails to make an impact in light of the prevalence of image suppression. Often their e-mails appear nearly 100% blank, with little red “Xs” where the images should be. This isn’t the brand impact the retailer was hoping for when they pressed the send button.

The good news is there are ways to still make an impact in the inbox. Use straight HTML headlines and offers rather than imbedding these in an image. Even with images blocked or disabled, your design should be readable and the call-to-action clear. In cases where an image must be used, don’t forget to include alt tags in the img tag.

Talk to your designer and ensure they know how to do this. If they don’t, hire someone who knows something about performance-based e-mail design.

Get your customers to shop for someone else
The 3rd Annual Mindset of the Multichannel Shopper Holiday Survey reports that wish list usage has accelerated with 35% vs. 25% last year reporting that they have shopped online from someone else’s wish list three or more times.

Are you leveraging wish list tools in your online efforts? I’d recommend dedicating a section of each e-mail to promoting a link to your wish list section so they can search for those of their friends and loved-ones. Also, encourage subscribers to make their own wish list or include a referral action such as forward to a friend.

Use e-mail to swap out the out-of-stock items
One benefit of using an e-mail system to send promotions that render in a subscriber’s inbox at the time they open it versus the time you send it, is that it allows you to push the broad-appeal, hot items in a big way, without worrying about them running out of stock.

For example, do you want to promote “Rock Band” for the Wii system? Do it in a big way with a live offer advertisement in your e-mail, and when inventory is running low, just replace it with a new offer or an “out of stock” graphic. Clearly, this is a new concept to e-mail, but not a new one to the Web.

Few, if any, retailers are doing this through the technology that exists. With a bit of discipline around monitoring inventory levels, this could be a big win for holiday e-mail success. After all, there is nothing worse than having excess inventory on your hottest fall 2008 items.

Chip House (chouse@exacttarget.com) is vice president of marketing services at ExactTarget.

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