Holiday Season Already? Not so fast…

Queue the snowflakes and jingle bells? Holiday marketing is appearing earlier than ever but should marketers run with the trend?

In this two part series, we’ll take a look at the engagement practices and campaign tactics of seven brands with a strong stake in winter holiday engagement. For the first part of our analysis, we’ll dig into the engagement rates and risk factors associated with early holiday campaigns. In our follow-up post, we’ll take a deeper dive into brand level performance and outline tips for marketers to make the most of early seasonal mailings.

The brands that we selected to review started mailing early in the season and carried a strong holiday emphasis throughout the 2015 season. These brands include Cedar Fair Amusement Parks, Hobby Lobby, Nordstrom, Pier 1 Imports, Shutterfly, Toys R Us, and Victoria’s Secret.

For this series, we identified “holiday” campaigns as any email with a subject line that included the following words:

  • Holiday
  • Santa
  • Christmas
  • Hanukkah
  • Chanukah
  • Gift/Gifts (removing campaigns without holiday focus, i.e. Gift cards for taking surveys)

While a few holiday-themed emails may have slipped through the cracks, these key words caught the majority of those campaigns and can give us a glimpse into performance.

The Big Picture—Engagement
In order to understand some of the trends associated with early seasonal mailings, let’s take a look at the aggregated performance metrics for September through December. The chart below shows the average read rate performance for holiday emails and standard campaigns. In addition, the blue overlay (that uses the second axis on the right) indicates the total percentage of campaigns that had a holiday focus for each month.

Average Reads and campaigns

At the aggregated level, holiday campaigns tended to perform slightly below standard campaigns with November being the only exception. While September saw a low volume of holiday campaigns, those that were sent drove high read rates. As the volume increased moving into holiday prime time, the read rates decreased. This still resulted in a higher number of total impressions, driving more eyeballs to holiday content.

The chart below illustrates the lift generated by holiday emails. Positive values indicate the lift that holiday campaigns saw over standard, non-holiday campaigns. As shown, every month but November showed standard campaigns outperforming those with a holiday-themed subject line.

September October November December
September Holiday Mailers -3.6% -3.7% 7.0% -5.2%
October Holiday Mailers 0.0% 10.0% -2.8%

For those brands that mailed holiday campaigns starting in September, the performance of holiday campaigns throughout the year dragged behind those mailers that held off until October. While the boost at the beginning of the season was seen, it may have come at the expense of read rates with total holiday volume was higher and more closely tied with conversion behavior.

This data indicates that some marketers’ hesitance to start mailing holiday campaigns early could be well founded. By sending seasonal pieces too early in the year, we may contribute to email tune out when the stakes are higher and impressions are more valuable for the brand.

2 Campaigns

While we saw very low volume for holiday campaigns in September and October, we saw a sharp increase in the representation of holiday campaigns in November and this increased moving into December. If brands that started the holiday push early did see compromised engagement moving into holiday primetime, the overall number of impressions driven by holiday campaigns could have been adversely impacted.

The Big Picture–Placement
Next, we wanted to review whether early holiday mailings impacted inbox placement. As one would expect, the overall increase in mail volume during this time frame resulted in an increasing number of messages being delivered to the spam folder by mailbox providers.

We saw an increase in spam folder placement month over month with the exception of November. During this month, holiday-themed emails saw an overall improvement in placement compared to the preceding month. This placement trend quickly reversed itself with December seeing around 5.5 percent of all holiday messages landing in spam. While standard emails saw increasing spam folder placement from September through December, those non-holiday campaigns saw more favorable inbox placement in December with 4.3 percent of messages getting delivered to the spam folder.

3 spam

Early mailing patterns appeared to have minimal impact on spam folder placement in December, but on average, those mailers who sent holiday campaigns in September showed slightly lower spam folder placement throughout the holiday season. While present, the impact was minimal and not enough to justify early holiday mailing in itself.

Additionally, if we look at the overall trends for the retail vertical, these mailers with slightly early holiday campaigns stayed at or below the average of the brands we analyzed.


So What Now?
Unfortunately, there were no groundbreaking findings that came to the surface through this analysis. The findings did support commonly held assumptions about holiday mailing.  However, as with many practices in the email space, the implications are highly dependent on your brand and your subscribers.

As the holiday season starts to permeate your local retail stores as well as your campaign planning calendar, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Sending too much too early may very well contribute to disengagement during the holidays. If you do decide to start testing out some holiday content in September, consider doing so with a light touch (and stay tuned for my follow—up post for tactics to try and ones to avoid)
  2. Whether you start sending holiday campaigns in September or November, be mindful of your inbox placement. Spam folder placement can creep up during holiday prime time and if your emails aren’t getting into the inbox, they are not going to drive the results you’re after.
  3. Consider your audience. The subscriber sets for various brands may have very different reactions to early holiday campaigns. Are you customers those who are most likely to already be posting holiday countdown memes on Facebook? If you’d like to get crafty, consider tracking keyword usage to determine when holiday receptiveness hits critical mass.
  4. If possible, create a test group to measure the effectiveness of early holiday mailings. By selecting a segment to test, you can determine whether early holiday campaigns give you an overall boost or drag down your total performance. This lowers the stakes and allows your brand to leverage findings moving forward.
  5. Check out our upcoming follow-up post to get some ideas on how to make the most of your early holiday campaigns!

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