Email & Ecommerce: Christmas 2020 Trends

In the first post of our “festive reading” series, we considered how 2020 was a catalyst for email innovation and adoption of new technology. November saw major retailers launch their Christmas TV campaigns. For some, like John Lewis, it’s a major end-of-year media event, and consumers await each year’s new seasonal blockbuster with bated breath.

But the technology-fueled email fireworks show we expect hasn’t really happened. Rather, there’s a more muted sense of occasion with smaller-scale campaigns and more introspective messaging, recognising this won’t be a festive season for many people. Let’s review what this approach looks like in our inboxes.

  • Reasons to be cheerful: The COVID-19 crisis created an incredibly hard year for many people. Laughter is truly the best medicine, and some brands are banishing the pandemic gloom by bringing a light touch to their Christmas promotions, designed to put a smile on customers’ faces.

    Tesco is good at gauging the temperature of the national mood, and this year’s campaign humorously forgives everyone’s bad behaviour, encouraging them to celebrate Christmas with a clear conscience. Note the tongue-in-cheek survey (“I’ve accidentally given a relative a dodgy home haircut”)—a great engagement driver.

    TK Maxx introduces “Lil’ Goat”, whose farmer owner has bought her a designer outfit because she’s had such a hard year, aligning strongly with Tesco’s sentiment that everyone deserves to feel special this Christmas. This cheerful tone continues throughout the email, with readers assured the posh presents are “Queen approved”!

    Lego taps into every adult’s secret yearning to revert to childhood with its “Rebuild the World” campaign. Lego products and children’s creativity result in fantastic scenarios that are often laugh-out-loud funny (watch the Star Wars AT-AT walker take a nap when it gets tired!).The email also showcases a great example of community-sourced content, with a “fan creations” section guaranteed to drive high open rates.

  • A time to be kind: A big theme this year is empathy, with brands reassuring their customers they are here to help. As autumn gave way to winter and days got shorter and colder, empathy has further evolved to kindness. In fact, “Be kind” was the Mental Health Foundation’s message this year, commenting “We know from our research that kindness and our mental health are deeply connected, and that kindness is an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging.”

    We are already seeing strong themes around helping the less fortunate this season.

    Boots’ “What the World Needs Now” campaign recognises it’s been a year like no other and acts of care and kindness are essential right now. They are donating £1M of products to The Hygiene Bank and encouraging customers to contribute by placing items into in-store collection bins.

    The Body Shop shines light on female homelessness using Rasheeda Page-Muir’s poetry to tell the story of Jamie, homeless in her late teens but now a successful dancer. The email is threaded with strong supporting calls to action, starting with the subject line (“Together, let’s raise £100K for homeless young women 🙌”) and perfectly complemented by the pre-header (“Join us for the sleep out”).

    John Lewis has also stepped back from its previous blockbuster campaigns, adopting a theme of giving to charity rather than giving presents. The campaign supports FareShare (food poverty) and Home-Start (parents who need support). The email highlights multi-channel options to support, and John Lewis also offers advice on cheering up friends and family who are struggling during this period.

  • Bringing shopping experiences to your inbox: With many countries still experiencing various levels of lockdown, retailers are delivering traditional in-store experiences to subscribers’ inboxes. In our previous post, we showed how Ray-Ban and M.A.C Cosmetics are offering “virtual try-ons” of their products.

    Upmarket French department store Galeries Lafayette recognises many subscribers will be unable to view their famous Christmas Windows, where huge crowds traditionally gather to view fantastic animated scenes with sparkling lights and tons of teddy bears. Instead, this wonderful email recreates the experience with a rich, animated GIF sharing some of the magic with readers.

    Marks & Spencer harnesses a behavioural science called embodied cognition—how external stimuli like colour and temperature influence how people’s minds work. M&S excels using rich language and imagery. In fact, readers can almost taste the panettone and feel the effervescence of the champagne on their tongues. During a cold, dark lockdown period, providing subscribers with positive sensory stimuli can help with the mental fragility many people are experiencing.

    Radley (famous for its Scotty dogs!) takes a simpler, but equally effective, approach. Recognising 2020 has been the year of Zoom, their “Bringing our store to you” email does just that! Customers can book a live-streamed personal shopping experience with store management to help with all their Christmas shopping needs.

It’s definitely different this year, and the seasonal promotions reflect a key email marketing theme of 2020 – less about offers and discounts, more about sharing useful information, and making real attempts to help people.

We’ve focused more on emotional hardship in this article, but economic hardship is also a part of the current reality and many consumers are struggling to make ends meet. Watch for the next post in our “festive reading” series, where we’ll review how email subscribers think about value… and how brands can deliver it.

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2020 State of Email Live…Wrapped!

Here we are, folks. What a ride it’s been this year! We’ve done the State of Email Live webinars for most of the year, and each episode brought something new, whether data or expertise from all corners of the industry.

We couldn’t just ask our viewers to sift through every webcast to get the information they were looking for, so we created DISRUPTION: How the 2020 Pandemic Changed Email eBook.

In our last State of Email Live webinar of the year, host Guy Hanson and show regular Greg Kimball elevated some of the most important findings from the data, and helped marketers plan for the next stage of email marketing.

You’ll want to watch the full recording to get all the contextual background and nuanced advice, but here are the three phases we experienced this year:

  • Initial impact: When the pandemic began, brands rushed to show their acknowledgement of the situation, empathy, and flexibility. This is where we first saw changes in volume and recipient behavior.
  • Stabilization: Yes, this is “the new normal.” During this period, senders adjusted their strategies in volume, send-time, and messaging.
  • Looking forward: We’re planning again! Of course, no one could have planned the events of 2020, but looking at what we learned, we’re now able to use our learnings, lean into the practices working for us, and plan to use new technologies. What are they? Greg and Guy outline some exciting tools you’ll want to have on your radar.

Obviously, this is just a high-level look at the themes of the webinar and the eBook. You’ll need to watch the whole shebang below to get the extent of their expertise! Trust me, I’ve been watching these all year, and this is one you cannot miss.

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Innovation Starts With “A”

For many, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years ever, and that includes for email marketing. One upside is that innovation thrives during periods of disruption, and we’ve seen many examples this year. In this blog, we’ll review how this has reshaped email marketing—for the better!

  • Authentication: The COVID-19 pandemic provided many new opportunities for fraudsters. Security vendor Mimecast reports a 26% increase in spam messages and a 56% increase in blocked clicks. To combat this, email senders are increasingly adopting Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC), an email protocol for senders to improve protection of their domains from fraudulent email.Global adoption still has a way to go. Even in banking—a sector with good reason to take fraud seriously—only 1/3 of domains (1,800 out of 5,354) currently have DMARC records. At Validity’s recent Summit, Verizon Media’s Marcel Becker expressed a wish for 2021: “All senders to authenticate…the people responsible for the brand(s) don’t understand the implications [of not doing so].”

    A positive side-benefit of DMARC is senders can implement Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI), a new standard making it easier to display logos next to emails in the inbox. This encourages greater subscriber trust in senders, as they are given a visual indicator it’s a legitimate email.

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI has been driving spam filtering and fraud prevention solutions for a while now, but 2020 encouraged an explosion in other applications. Senders now use AI for send-time optimisation, engagement prediction, best offer selection, better personalisation, and next-best channel identification.For example, Validity customer eBay implemented Phrasee (an AI-powered copywriting technology) to optimise subject line and headline copy within its email, resulting in a click rate uplift of 42%.

    AI is so effective because email programs can deliver truly 1:1 messages at a scale never previously possible. This creates relevance and trust—two primary drivers for why 73% of consumers rate email as their preferred marketing channel, according to new DMA research.

  • Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP): AMP is the breakthrough technology of 2020, allowing email senders to include components delivering rich, engaging experiences by making modern app functionality available within the emails.Using this technology effectively brings website user experiences into the inbox, with senders weaving functionality like drop-down lists, carousels, and customer surveys into email itself. There are already widely quoted AMP use case examples from (preview destinations directly within the email), Pinterest (view and save items to the board), and Doodle (participants can select times directly from the email).

    One of our favourite examples came from Babylon Health in collaboration with Action Rocket and Braze, using AMP to create a 3D version of the body, with user interaction producing a customised lifestyle questionnaire. At a time when it’s much harder to get face-to-face medical advice, Babylon reported a 56% click rate uplift and a 20% increase in questionnaire completion.

    Back when kinetic email was a hot topic, Experian reported average uplifts of 18% in click rates, with subscribers more primed to transact by their richer inbox experience. With AMP offering all the functionality (and much more) once promised by kinetic, marketers have a strong incentive to adopt this technology in 2021.

  • Augmented Reality: During a year of lockdowns when consumers were unable to visit many physical shops, brands innovated by bringing traditionally in-store experiences directly to subscribers’ inboxes. In this excellent MAC cosmetics example, customers are encouraged to use their digital tools to virtually try on eye shade and lipstick products.
    We’ve seen similar approaches from Ray-Ban, allowing customers to see if they look better in Aviators or Wayfarers. In a year where flights and holiday inventory was massively reduced, the travel industry also went virtual with senders bringing travel experiences to their customers instead.

While innovation is the lifeblood of progress, there are often obstacles to overcome, and our Summit panelists had some excellent advice:

  • Accept there may be reluctance to introduce change because of potential business risk. Email often struggles to attract investment because it is seen as a high-performing channel not needing additional help.
  • Equip yourself with as much detailed information as possible and craft a compelling business case. Define your objectives and focus on what can be achieved with the technology, not the technology itself—what business challenge is being solved?
  • Ensure there is adequate resourcing to implement and continue to support the program, technology, etc. enabling this innovation.
  • Demonstrate patience. If innovation is defined as engaging at scale with a new audience/segment, you need time to build trust and relevance.
  • Always remember you are asking your stakeholders to take a leap of faith. Bring them with you on the journey and make it really easy to buy in.

As we enthusiastically embrace the festive season, email subscribers will benefit from a year of frenetic innovation. Watch out for the next post in this series when we’ll look at “Ecommerce Christmas” and the vital role email plays supporting the big end-of-year sales push.

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How to Please Gmail

Gmail forms a large part of a typical B2C email list and can be a challenging mailbox provider (MBP) when it comes to email deliverability. We regularly get asked for the Gmail secret sauce, but it’s not that simple, given they operate a highly sophisticated AI-powered filtering solution. However, there are several practices Gmail likes to see from good senders, and in this blog we’ll take a closer look at them.

Monitor reputation: Good inbox placement starts with understanding how MBPs view senders. Sign up with Postmaster Tools to monitor factors like when Gmail users mark emails as spam, whether messages are authenticating correctly, and the impact on IP/domain reputation and inbox placement.

Implement authentication: Gmail encourages senders to reduce being identified as spam by setting up email authentication. This should be done for each sending domain by publishing an SPF record, and signing with DKIM (using a key of 1024 bits or longer). Senders can then use SPF and DKIM to publish a DMARC record, which helps protect their domain/s against spoofing.

Opt-in, not opt-out: Email programs should use an opt-in permission model, with recipients providing active consent to receive marketing emails. Validate new email addresses either by screening them at point of entry, or using a confirmation process like double opt-in. Ensure addresses generating hard-bounce notifications are promptly suppressed. (We have tools to help you with this!)

Maintain engagement: Gmail places a premium on engaged subscribers, reasoning they have willingly chosen to receive and read their messages, and takes an aggressive approach to recency. Consider using a separate recency threshold for Gmail subscribers, send messages to confirm users want to stay subscribed, and automatically unsubscribe non-responders.

Make it easy to unsubscribe: Always include a prominent unsubscribe link. When subscribers choose to leave, it’s a better option than being marked as spam, or deleted unread – which are negative reputation signals that ding your deliverability. Senders should also include a list unsubscribe record in their email headers, with one-click being the preferred option. Both are in place in this example from New Look.

We are often asked how to make sure emails get delivered to Gmail’s Primary tab. Our standard answer is: “Don’t try to game the system!” Senders may risk being penalized for doing so. You may not want to anyway. Consumers understand marketing emails go to the Promotions tab and look for them there. Analysis by Marketing Charts shows little variance in read rates between Primary and Promotions tabs (22% vs. 19%). Rather, understand how Gmail thinks about tabs placement, and adapt your sending practices accordingly:

  • Use different IP addresses for different message types.
  • Use consistent from addresses for similar message types.
  • Don’t mix different types of content in the same messages.

Learn more in “Guide to Gmail Categories.”

Success with Gmail is not just about pleasing Gmail itself. It’s also about pleasing Gmail users – your subscribers. There are several levers you can pull:

  • Inbox actions: Actions such as retrieving false positive emails from the junk folder, emails that generate forwards/replies, and willingness to add senders to recipients’ contact lists are all regarded as indicators of good emails with valuable content. Email marketers should find ways to amplify these behaviours – making the “add to contacts” request like does is good practice.
  • Subscriber profiles: Be aware the overall profile of subscribers varies by MBP. Research from DMA UK showed typical Gmail address owners are younger, live in cities, and are more likely to engage with new technology like smart watches and smart speakers. They also engage with emails in slightly different ways. For example, Gmail subscribers are more likely to delete unwanted messages rather than unsubscribe or complain.
  • Gmail-friendly tech: Gmail wants users to have good experiences with their emails. This is where they serve their advertising: The more time customers spend in their inboxes, the more ad revenue they generate. For this reason, Gmail has led the way in developing tools for better email marketing, including:
    • Annotations – a toolkit for marketers letting them include images, deals, expirations dates, and other offers that help make the emails more engaging (learn more here).
    • BIMI (Brand Indicators for Message Identification) – uses the sender’s DMARC record to show their official logo next to the email in recipients’ inboxes (learn more here).
    • AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) – provides webpage-style functionality within email.

Harnessing this functionality allows senders to optimize user experience for Gmail subscribers, helping deliver the increased engagement by which Gmail measures good senders.

The good news is  many of the things important to Gmail are all available under one roof in Validity’s Everest platform. Whether it’s verifying emails before mailing them, setting up your DMARC reporting, adding in engagement data to monitor engaged vs disinterested users, reporting on your Tabs placement, implementing BIMI and Gmail Annotations with our built-in wizards…We’ve got it covered! Learn more about Everest, then talk to us about using it to please Gmail with your email program!

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LOCKDOWN: Email Lessons Learned

Many countries are back in lockdown as the world attempts to flatten COVID-19’s latest surge. When lockdown first became reality back in March/April, email marketers had to adjust their strategies overnight to address a very different set of needs. Recognising “Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it”, I’ve summarised the best practices we saw back then.

Which still hold true, and which may need adapting for slightly different circumstances?

Data Quality: Many brands will need to email all their customers about changes in trading hours, delivery times, etc. The risk in this is mailing to dormant addresses, During the first wave of lockdown messaging, we saw a 5X increase in spam trap hits, which negatively impacts sender reputation and makes delivery more difficult. Senders should use this opportunity to suppress dormant email addresses, re-qualify inactive addresses, and validate new addresses.

Timing: Most subscribers are now working from home, so there’s no need to target them early or late in the day while they are commuting. In the first lockdown, we actually saw higher levels of engagement in the afternoon and on weekends, so consider shifting sends to after midday and during non-traditional working hours. Also offset sends to before and after top of the hour: 70% of marketing email volume is sent during the first 10 minutes of the hour, so avoiding this peak will help improve delivery.

I gathered these particular insights from our regular State of Email Live webinars in which we analysed data during lockdown and the ensuing months, and we’ve recently compiled these findings into an easy-to-reference ebook. I strongly encourage you to review the data as we approach yet another lockdown, as we’ll likely see similar email behavior again.

Content: During this period, it’s not just about promotions – customers are looking for important information as well. Pandora Jewellery provides a great illustration highlighting other channels that can be used, explaining their extended exchange/return policy, and providing a range of customer service details.

Of course, some businesses can’t sell at all right now. Center Parcs France makes this point but explains they would like to maintain a relationship with customers, and subscribers are encouraged to follow a range of developments taking place while the resorts are closed.

Triggered Emails: Remember your triggered emails may contain messages that were relevant during normal times, but are not appropriate now in lockdown. For example, a French sender is welcoming new subscribers with,“We look forward to seeing you in one of our stores soon”, which won’t be possible while they are shut!

Augmented Reality: Brands realised if customers could no longer visit their shops, they would need to bring shopping experiences to their customers’ inboxes instead. We saw great examples from Ray-Ban (try on a virtual pair of sunglasses) and MAC cosmetics (test the perfect shade of lipstick).

As we begin lockdown 2.0 these points all apply, but there are subtle variances. Consumers now have some experience on what to expect, but this is a different season—shorter days, colder weather— and Christmas is approaching. These factors mean tweaks will be required.

Peak-sale Fatigue: The peak-sale period started earlier this year, with Amazon Prime day moving to mid-October, followed by Singles Day and Click Frenzy in November. Subscriber fatigue is a real threat, and some senders are adapting promotions to extend events normally based on one day to a week (Lookfantastic) or even a month (The Body Shop). This reduces pressure on customers and maintains offer relevancy, rather than expiring after 24 hours (meaning less complaints from subscribers who find them too late!).

Smart senders also provide functionality like “remind me later” and “take a snooze”, allowing subscribers to engage on their terms, reducing potential list churn as an added benefit.

Early Starters: Consumers are starting Christmas shopping earlier this year. Inventory issues and consumer uncertainty means they don’t want to risk products being unavailable, or extended delivery times, meaning purchases won’t arrive by when they’re needed. Senders can provide customers with wish lists of the products they are most interested in, and opt-in to replenishment notifications for items temporarily out of stock. These message types are high-value, too, generating average revenues of £0.39 and £0.43 per email (according to research from Bluecore).

Tone of Voice: The first time around, we saw the importance of empathy, demonstrating “we’re all in this together”. Ten months later, it’s a tougher period in many ways. It’s getting cold and dark, many people won’t spend Christmas with their families, and fragile mental health, at a national level, is a very real problem. Helping people deal with these challenges will be vital, and we are already seeing an evolution from empathy from brand to consumer, to “be kind to everyone,” as this great example from Burger King showcases:

While this is a tough period, senders can use it as an opportunity to build trust through being good actors. By doing so, they will build durable customer relationships that will outlast the pandemic and yield permanent benefits through reduced list churn and increased customer lifetime value.

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