December 3, 2010, 3:38 PM

E-retailers launch a holiday e-mail assault

More e-mail hitting more inboxes helps retailers book more online holiday sales, two studies say.

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Two new reports write a positive story for e-mail marketing over the past week. Retailers sent more e-mails during the big online holiday shopping week and more of those e-mails reached inboxes. Those two factors, the studies suggest, may have played a role in record online holiday sales of more than $1 billion on Monday and $648 million on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, as estimated by comScore Inc.

On Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the clients of e-mail marketing firm Responsys Inc. set a record for the number of e-mail messages sent in a single day. The volume of  e-mail sent Thanksgiving Day also increased significantly over Thanksgiving 2009 as more retailers opened their stores, held special one-day sales and leaked online Black Friday deals a day early, Responsys says. E-mail volume on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, was on par with last year.

"While we thought this would be the year when Black Friday stole Cyber Monday's title as the most popular e-mail marketing day of the year, most of the gains in Black Friday messaging this year hit subscribers' inboxes on Thanksgiving Day," says Chad White, research director at Responsys.  He says one-quarter of major retailers promoted their Black Friday deals by e-mail a day early.

77% of the online retailers tracked by Responsys sent at least one promotional e-mail on Cyber Monday, up from 71% in 2009. The day before, 56% of tracked retailers sent e-mail, up from 45% for the same Sunday last year.

On Black Friday, 69% of retailers sent e-mail, about the same as last year. But as retailers fought to capture shoppers’ attention early, more moved their messaging up a day—to Thanksgiving. 60% of retailers sent e-mail on Thanksgiving Day, up from 45% in 2009, Responsys says.

"With more Black Friday deals becoming available online and more retailers becoming convinced of the ability of e-mail and other interactive channels to drive in-store traffic, e-mail has become a critical channel for promoting Black Friday sales," says Ed Henrich, senior vice president of professional services at Responsys.

And shoppers jumped on the early offers, partaking in a little web shopping after their Thanksgiving meals, data show. Online sales on Thanksgiving Day hit $407 million, up 28% from last year, according to comScore. Online sales for Black Friday reached $648 million, up 9% from 2009.

The volume of e-mail sent isn’t the only e-mail factor that may have impacted sales over the past week. Another study finds more e-mail messages were reaching consumers’ inboxes than in previous years.

A study of e-mail deliverability by Unica, a unit of IBM Corp., says the amount of e-mail reaching shoppers’ inboxes rose 8% on average for the week of Nov. 23-30 from Thanksgiving week last year.

During the holiday week the best time of the day to send e-mail was between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. During those periods, e-mail reached shoppers’ mail boxes more than 90% of the time on average. The best days of the week for deliverability were the Saturday before Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving Day, Unica says. Those were the only days that week when e-mail reached inboxes more than 90% of the time.

For retailers gearing up for the rest of the holiday season or looking to next year, Unica offers some e-mail marketing tips.

  • Send e-mail at off-peak hours and on non-peak mailing days. The firm suggests retailers segment a portion of shoppers they deem most important and send e-mails to that group during down times, such as weekends, so their messages will stand out.
  • Test for proper rendering. The most eye-catching, creative e-mails may not display properly across all web browsers and e-mail providers, so Unica suggests retailers do their homework and test messages early on.
  • Consider mobile. More shoppers are reading e-mail on mobile devices, so retailers should optimize for smaller screen sizes as well.
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