An Email Christmas Carol

One of my favourite things about Christmas is watching the film “A Christmas Carol” based on the Charles Dickens classic of the same name. While there have been many film versions over the years, I’m partial to the 1951 version directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, which was always shown on TV on Christmas Eve when I was a child. The actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) is brilliant and the fact that the film is in black-and-white makes it all the more creepy when the spirits of Christmas past, present and future make their visits.

These spirits are tasked with trying to inspire some Christmas spirit in Scrooge in the hopes that he will become a more kind and generous person. One of the best quotes from the book sums up nicely how Scrooge really feels about Christmas: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” The sprits obviously have their work cut out for them.

So what does “A Christmas Carol” have to do with email? As every marketer knows, email is a heavily used channel during the Christmas season. It is depended on to drive revenue, generate leads, and sell, sell, sell. Unfortunately, during this time of year we see many marketers tempted to forgo best practices and take a “quantity versus quality” approach to their messaging strategies. As the countdown to the 25th begins, we see frequency rules fly out the door faster than you can say “deck the halls.” While sending more email to more subscribers may have short-term gains, the long-term negative effects (disengagement, unsubscribes, list fatigue and complaints) will be just as hard to shift as the extra Christmas pounds that tend to remain once the festive season is over.

It got me thinking that maybe email marketers need to have a similar experience to Scrooge. If they could be cautioned against giving in to temptation, what impact would that have? If they could get a snapshot of email’s past, present and future to remind them of how to treat their subscribers right this Christmas season, would it make a difference? I’m certainly not as eloquent as Charles Dickens, but here’s my attempt at a Christmas email intervention:

1. Email Past: The email channel of 10-15 years ago looked a little like the proverbial Wild West. For the most part, anything went and anything was sent. Want to add more names to your email file? Buy them (regardless of how they’re permissioned or the reputation of the source they come from). Want to make more money? Send more email. Better yet, sell your subscribers’ data to the highest bidder. And be sure to collect as many data points as possible, even if you’ll never use that data in a meaningful way. Email was treated as a cheap and easy way to push information out to customers and prospects. Having an email program was often seen as a license to send anything to anyone and continue to do so forever.

2. Email Present: How times have changed. As the email channel has matured, many in the industry have championed and now adhere to best practices that support a more methodical approach to email. Some marketers have smartly realised that a successful email program is about forming relationships with customers and prospects; and like any successful relationship, it’s one based on trust, respect, mutual gain and two-way communication. Some marketers have also embraced the fact that their practices are directly tied to whether or not their emails get delivered to the inbox, a fundamental necessity for email ROI. And others have accepted the need for implementing strategies that support targeting, customisation and personalisation of messages. However, while much progress has been made, a lot still needs to be done.

3. Email Future: Marketers who send relevant messaging to their subscribers while respecting their interests, needs and preferences will reach the inbox, consistently achieve high response rates and drive revenue. Marketers that don’t will see their email lists wither and eventually die. Subscribers will view any email that isn’t useful or interesting to them as spam. User-level filtering at ISPs will allow subscribers to easily manage their inboxes and place the most important messages at the top and lump the “grey mail” into bulk or junk folders, or folders created specifically to collect unimportant messages. The only way to stand out and get noticed will be to target email based on subscribers’ data and activities across all marketing channels. Email marketers will be competing not just with inbox clutter created by spammers (and each other), but by social features that favour messages from subscribers’ networks of contacts. Email of the future is an exciting and dynamic space for marketers following best practices, but a scary and limiting one for those that don’t.

So, has this snapshot of email’s past, present and future been enough to create a Christmas miracle or are you more inclined to mutter “Bah humbug?” Have I inspired you to pause before pressing send and think about whether what you’re deploying has any value for your subscriber base? Does your email program look like it’s stuck in 1995 or is it ready to greet 2011? It’s time to take stock because the future of email is almost upon us.

This post was originally published on the DMA Email Marketing Blog. Click here to view.

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