Labor day has come and gone and kids across the country have swapped beach towels and bathing suits for backpacks and sneakers as they prepare for the year ahead. Marketers, too, have shifted their focus from back-to-school savings to the long holiday season build-up.
Whether or not they hit it big with back-to-school, retailers will be looking to improve for the upcoming holiday season and marketers could learn a lot from back-to-school’s biggest successes and failures.
A recent study from cognitive content platform Persado looked into back-to-school campaign subject lines over the last three years to provide brands with insight on what’s resonating best with customers. Many of the findings may inform marketers’ holiday strategies, Ryan Deutsch, senior vice president of global customer success at Persado, told Retail Dive.
"The approach is not dissimilar. For example, if I know I have a household with three kids and I know the ages of the kids, I have a way to communicate in a hyper-targeted way," Deutsch said. "In both back to school and holiday, you should be leveraging those insights in the exact same way."
Here are the three biggest holiday hacks marketers should consider as the holiday season arrives.
1. Ditch calls for urgency
At the beginning of almost any retail holiday, the windows of our malls (and now our browsers) are flooded with flashy images, usually containing big block letters in red, black or white. These signs have become staples for retailers looking to signify the next big sale — and those same marketing strategies carry over to social media and email marketing as well.
While these methods can be effective, they can also make retailers lazy — according to Deutsch.
Retailers often plan their promotions based on the prior year, the result being that many retailers use the same methods, "even if those don’t really make sense," he said. One of the biggest examples, which rings true for both back-to-school and holiday marketing, is the tendency of retailers to rely on urgency to drive sales.
"The typical retail play is that urgency really drives traffic when in fact it’s the opposite," Deutsch said. "Urgency is an emotion: It’s an emotional response that people have to marketers, but it’s an emotion that has the least response from consumers."
"Retailers need to get their arms around the fact that emotions matter and that urgency is not the most important emotion."
Senior Vice President of Global Customer Success at Persado
In fact, the best-performing emotions during back-to-school were anxiety, achievement and gratification, according to Persado’s study, whereas challenge, excitement and urgency ranked lowest. While emotional language itself is good for marketing campaigns — it contributed 64.17% to performance on average, compared to 19.05% for descriptive language — Deutsch recommends ditching the calls for urgency this holiday season.
Emotional calls can be especially helpful for millennials, as some studies have shown that younger consumers are more demanding when it comes to forming personal connections with a brand before promising any kind of brand loyalty. Millennials not only want to connect emotionally with their favorite brands, but they also want their favorite brands to be trustworthy — something marketers may be able to capitalize on when targeting them this holiday season.
Personalization of this kind may be the answer for retailers struggling to spark life into their old marketing strategies. Emotions have not generally been a strong suit for marketers, however, with only 22% of CMO’s saying they feel skilled at emotionally engaging their customers. According to Deutsch, it’s all about using the customer data you have to run more targeted campaigns.
"Retailers need to get their arms around the fact that emotions matter and that urgency is not the most important emotion," Deutsch said. "So how do we use data to change the way we talk about sales? How do we get retailers to understand that they have more to work with than ‘24-hour sale ends today’ or ‘Black Friday Now,’ which we see all the time."
On the other hand, not every retailer has the benefit of data that is copious and useful enough to personalize marketing messages to every customer, whether those materials are being sent out via email or the postal service. For those retailers, Deutsch said a more generic approach is the way to go: "It’s much more about ‘don’t let them down’ or ‘surprise them with the perfect gift'" in those cases.
2. Market to parents, not kids
When we think of holidays, we often think of kids. What would Christmas be without children rushing to a present-adorned pine tree or Hanukkah without the lighting of the menorah and eight days of present-giving? So sure, holidays are all about the kids — but marketing for them isn’t.
While Deutsch acknowledged that kids and young adults seem more involved with retailers online — after all, the number of kids who have smartphones and iPads is trending younger and younger — it’s still parents who should be the main target for marketers during the holidays, for the simple reason that they’re the ones holding the cash and buying the presents.
"It’s frightening how young kids are that are now engaging with devices and having brand conversations," Deutsch said, "but when it comes to 'I know that X product is hot right now, where am I going to get it and where am I going to get the best price?' I still think its the parent who’s making that decision."
"Getting someone from the page they landed on through the checkout as quickly as possible is necessary. The longer a customer is on there, the more they start questioning: 'Do I really want this product and if I do, do I have to get it from this site?'"
Assistant Vice President of SEO at Ansira
Even so, building a marketing strategy around the hottest products of the year might not be the best way to go. While it can be tempting for retailers to showcase their best products of the season, Deutsch notes that it’s important not to let consumers forget about the rest of their assortment, or worse, bypass them entirely on the assumption that those products are all they have to offer. This holds especially true for email marketing.
"You definitely want to drive in the shopper, but you want to make sure they understand the breadth of the assortment," Deutsch said. "For example, you don’t want to feature a product in the subject line, but towards the bottom of the email you can start showing top products and then when they go to your [web] page they see a larger product assortment."
According to Persado’s back-to-school data, effective marketing methods targeted the buyer with direct messages rather than trying too hard to make clever puns or jokes in the subject line, although emojis in subject lines also performed well (they posted a 17% contribution to response rates). Holiday marketers looking to follow suit would do well to send emails that make shoppers feel a sense of accomplishment or reward.
"I don’t think we’re there yet where we can address multiple personalities in the household, especially when you get down to the kid range."
Senior Vice President of Global Customer Success at Persado
Although email marketing might seem outdated in a world of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, Cheetah Digital’s Quarterly Email Benchmark Report proves differently. Despite the fact that open and click rates were flat year-over-year, Cheetah Digital found that consumers spent 5% more per email in quarter two.
According to the report, half of all retailers brands had “statistically significant increases in revenue per email, with beauty and home goods products leading these increases.” Shoes, department stores and luxury brands also posted good numbers for the quarter, with all seeing year-over-year improvements in revenue per email.
That being said, it wasn’t all good news for email marketing. According to Cheetah Digital, the number of total emails opened on mobile or tablets in Q2 decreased by 6% (from 58% in quarter two of 2016 to 52% this year), although retailers also saw increases in how many emails were opened on desktop.
That disconnect between mobile and desktop open rates could be the result of retailers who aren’t putting enough effort into making emails and apps mobile-friendly — a must for retailers looking to drive mobile conversions.
"With a mobile device, speed is the name of the game," Luigi Ferguson, assistant vice president of SEO at Ansira, told Retail Dive in July. "Getting someone from the page they landed on through the checkout as quickly as possible is necessary. The longer a customer is on there, the more they start questioning: 'do I really want this product and if I do, do I have to get it from this site?'"
Even as smartphones trend younger, Deutsch said that if retailers can identify the main buyer in a given household, "it’s most effective to point there." He added: "I don’t think we’re there yet where we can address multiple personalities in the household, especially when you get down to the kid range."
3. Consider timing
As with just about anything, timing is key for holiday marketing — and that doesn’t just refer to how early or late in the season a retailer starts marketing. Marketing should change depending on how close key shopping events are, such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and even Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays.
"Things that resonate before and after Black Friday week are different," Deutsch said. "The way you communicate and build fascination and exclusivity building up to Black Friday — that changes in and around the actual Cyber week. You move a little bit closer to the importance of discounts and product-specific pricing."
"There is, in holiday, a certain six to eight day window where emotions become a little less important and folks are just out there checking things off their list."
Senior Vice President of Global Customer Success at Persado
In particular, this is the time for retailers with great discounts and deals to emphasize those prices. Chances are, consumers are already planning on heading into malls and storefronts — or at least logging into their online shopping accounts — during that time, so meaningful brand messaging takes a back seat.
"There is, in holiday, a certain six to eight day window where emotions become a little less important and folks are just out there checking things off their list," Deutsch explained, saying that during the week of shopping surrounding Black Friday, user experience is also incredibly important.
After all, consumers — whether they’re purchasing online, on mobile or in store — don’t want to experience lags in the checkout experience, especially in that kind of high-intensity situation where, most likely, they can find the same product at another retailer. Indeed, a study by Corra found that 68% of shoppers actually leave websites if they experience basic functionality problems.
Online shoppers are most turned off by a poorly designed menu (41.2%), followed by search capabilities that are too basic (29.8%) and products that are buried behind too much branding (26.4%), according to the study. That’s not to mention mobile. Popular with the younger generations especially, who convert twice as much on mobile, Gen Z isn’t afraid to ditch a site with poor functionality: 60% of the generation won’t use an app or website that’s too slow to load and 62% won’t use an app that’s difficult to navigate, according to data from Content Square.
That being said, if the user experience is up to snuff and the products are relevant and desired by consumers, holiday marketing isn’t without its customer appeal — 88% of holiday shoppers actually want ads from their favorite brands. And Deutsch sees that trend pushing even farther in the future.
Rather than sending you the most popular products for the general populace, Deutsch expects retailers to become much more targeted with their timing, taking the data from health and wellness devices like smart watches and making a personalized push for a product that supports your personal goals at a time when they're most relevant.
"Companies will have a lot of trouble beating Amazon on price or assortment, but if Sephora or whoever it is can create a more emotional connection with the consumer, that’s where the competition will come from."