Here’s how email marketers can stay sane amid this holiday season’s uncertainty

Here are three ways you can navigate the uncertainty and focus on what you need to do to survive hurricanes, elections, COVID, working from home and everything else going on right now.

Now that we’ve made it to the make-it-or-break-it fourth quarter, advice is flowing fast and furiously about 2020 holiday planning. I wrote some of that advice, too, like my September column “Predictions for holiday 2020 v. 400.0? Be ready for anything” about managing holiday campaigns when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. 

But we advice-givers need to consider what marketers on the front lines are thinking as they get ready to hit “Send” on their first holiday campaigns. Take the other day, when I turned on the morning news and saw the stories that Prime Day was pulling Black Friday spending into mid-October and major retailers like Home Depot, Target, Walmart and scores of others are changing the holiday rules. That’s not in your average holiday playbook!

Holiday email marketing is stressful and confusing enough in ordinary times. This year, we’re trying to focus on marketing when 90% of our meetings take place on Zoom, when we’re working from home and not in the office where collaboration happens. 

So here are three ways you can keep your head on straight through the chaos and focus on what you need to do to survive hurricanes, elections, COVID, working from home and everything else that’s piling on for you right now.

1. Watch the evening news

I know what you’re thinking: “Ryan, are you trying to kill me? My life is stressful enough, and now you’re going to make me sit down and watch the world in my living room?” 

Yes. This is what I’m telling my clients right now. Watch the news on whatever broadcast network you choose. You need to know what’s going on around you. You need to see what other people are watching, how the news is presented and consumed. 

If you’re busy with work or family or dinner prep when the news is on, set a timer and record the program, and watch it when you can.

If we have learned anything over the last 10 months, it’s that being informed is the most important survival tactic. Plus, how can you think about marketing to people if you aren’t in touch with what they’re going through right now?  This is part of the authenticity awareness I have been talking about for months.

2. Try something new because whatever you did in the past has to change

If your holiday marketing program relies on running the same plays year after year, this is the year you toss out that playbook. Nothing you have done over the last 20 years will work out of the box today. 

Take the old practice of turning up email frequency from Black Friday to the shipping cutoff date. As I noted above, Amazon’s decision to delay Prime Day from July to Oct. 13-14 and major retailers’ plans to market aggressively against it will pull Black Friday spending into October. 

This doesn’t mean you can turn on the email firehose in mid-October instead of late November. Customers won’t put up with an endless barrage of emails that focus only on what’s on sale. It’s easy to increase your volume and blast your customers indiscriminately. 

Think about this.  With the election predicted to go long after Nov. 3rd, what do you think inboxes will look like?

But the consequences of that decision – higher unsubscribe and spam complaints, more customers going dark and ignoring your email – could affect your email deliverability and effectiveness long into 2021.

What’s the solution? Try something new. Call your ESP and learn how to use some of those bells and whistles on your platform that you’re paying for but not using, like real-time subject line testing or dynamic content.

Talk to an agency.  How can they help you score some quick wins? Ask!

Develop a segmentation plan that uses meaningful factors to divide your list into relevant segments like these:

  • Best customers
  • Newest customers
  • Customers who buy only on sale
  • Customers who open every email but never buy
  • Customers who buy at full price 
  • Customers who buy only at holidays
  • Recently attrited customers
  • Long-term attrited

Have your CRM group pre-run these lists. During the holiday, find ways to use them and differentiate the messaging, even if you just make small changes. Then have these lists updated weekly as an automation on their side.

Differentiation in messaging and strategy make smarter marketing. You can make money just by running the same old plays. But this year, making money isn’t enough. 

You have to blow it out of the park this year. Run it back from the 1-yard line. Score a hat trick, and then score another one. You have to do great so you can make up lost ground or go in strong in what could be another rocky year in 2021.

3. Take time for yourself every day

In the old days (BC – before COVID), we could lock the office door, hide in the bathroom or go for a long walk to get away from the phone, the boss, the colleague who loved to hang around and shoot the breeze.

Now we’re at home, at the mercy of the impromptu Zoom invite while trying to work and maybe managing kids, schoolwork or taking the dog out – again.  

In my retail days, I was pulling 16-hour days from before Black Friday to the shipping-cutoff day deep in December. I was burned out. And that can lead to bad things. 

You can’t make good decisions when you’re living in chaos. Shared calendars, perpetual Google or SharePoint alerts, the tyranny of the always-on Slack channel – these steal the quiet moments you need to recharge, relax and get your thoughts together.

Take control with technology: Use it to beat those high-tech time thieves. You have a shared calendar or online scheduler? Block off an hour here and there. Set your Slack status as “Away” and pause notifications. Turn on “Do Not Disturb” on your computer. Lock your phone in a door or take off your smartwatch.

What to do? Watch an episode of “SpongeBob Square Pants.” (Trust me on this.) Hug your kid or help with homework. Unplug, let yourself enjoy the quiet, and then plug yourself in again. Rebooting works wonders for your modem. Imagine what it can do for your sanity.

Wrapping up: Avengers, assemble!

Last year I sympathized with marketer friends who were going through the kind of holiday stress I left behind when I moved from retail email to agency and vendor marketing. So I wrote a column that was more like a motivational speech than a marketing advice column. 

It’s more pertinent than ever now that this year – this quarter – is one of the most challenging for marketers everywhere. I can’t give you a medal that says, “I survived Marketing 2020,” so please accept this instead.

Realize, too, that you aren’t alone, and your teammates are probably dealing with the same stress levels. The office Christmas party might be off for now. When we can safely gather together, take the team out for drinks, lunch or dinner to celebrate surviving yet another year…the year of all years. This will be the one we talk about for years to come.

Do your best. Try something new. Make time for yourself. Ask for help. As Captain America says, “Avengers, assemble!” 


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan is co-founder of Origin Email and brings nearly two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board. Ryan also works with start-up companies as an advisor, board member and investor.

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