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Black Friday isn’t just a day anymore. It’s the start of a buying season that now includes shopping events like Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. (You can throw Giving Tuesday onto that list, too.)

E-commerce retailers have taken notice of the fact that shoppers spend a little more freely once the turkey’s been put away. And that creates a new kind of problem. If you want your email campaign to stand out, how do you compete against all those other retailers flooding inboxes?

Nate Wright and Seth Rasmussen of Small Biz Triage know what works—and what doesn’t. That’s because they’ve planned and executed hundreds of Black Friday campaigns for e-commerce clients seeking to stand out from the crowd.

Relationships > coupons

So what’s the first step to a really great Black Friday campaign?

“Know your subscribers,” Wright says. “We have best practices and rules of thumb for these kinds of campaigns, but at the end of the day you have to do the groundwork way ahead of time to understand what your subscribers want. How many emails can you get away with? What motivates them? When they get bored, what works to re-engage them?”

Rasmussen agrees.

“Most of the use you’ll get from a Black Friday campaign happens because of what you’ve done the rest of the year,” Rasmussen says. “If a campaign flops, the problem may actually lie with the research and work you’ve done prior to launch. By the same token, when it succeeds, what’s really driving your success is the work you’ve done ahead of time.”

It pays to be unpredictable

Faithful readers of this newsletter likely already understand the importance of building a strong relationship with subscribers. So if that’s already in place, what are the next steps to a successful Black Friday campaign?

“During the build-up to Black Friday, you want to starve your subscribers of coupons and sales,” Wright says. “You’re forcing them to go on a fast, a coupon cleanse, starting around Halloween. That can be a little scary, because you may see a dip in revenue, but it’s about creating an appetite.”

This strategy is the natural extension of one that Small Biz Triage recommends to clients all year long: unpredictable reward intervals.

“As far as creating an appetite, I advise clients throughout the year to be unpredictable with coupon codes. A good metaphor is a casino,” Rasmussen says. “A slot machine would never pay out on a predictable schedule. You have to have some randomness so that people don’t stop playing.”

With email, then, you want a little randomness in your offers so people will open. But is that still possible on Black Friday, when everyone expects special discounts? Can you both create an appetite and then surprise people with coupons on the biggest shopping day of the year? Rasmussen believes you can.

“People expect a deal, they expect a special offer. It’s more or less mandatory,” Rasmussen says. “But you can still inject elements of randomness. A favorite tactic of mine is the daily deal—from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, keep daily deals coming through that each last just 24 hours. It creates a sense of urgency, and motivates people to open the next day’s email.”

But, Rasmussen emphasizes, this works best when you have a good relationship already built with your subscribers.

“By Black Friday, you should know what gets your readers excited to open your emails,” Rasmussen says. “And you should have a reputation that convinces them your emails are more worthy of opening than someone else’s.”

"We’ve found that the best Thanksgiving emails are personal. Text only, no images, just a personal email from the owner taking a break from selling to wish subscribers a happy Thanksgiving."

Take a break to give thanks

Small Biz Triage emphasizes the importance of being “unapologetically human.” That’s because Wright and Rasmussen have seen real value in reminding subscribers that there are real human beings behind the emails they receive. It’s not just a matter of sales—it’s a question of how to forge a real connection with readers to build a better following.

And for Wright, the holidays offer another chance to add this human touch.

“It’s really tempting to hit people with a coupon on Thanksgiving Day,” Wright says. “But we’ve found that the best Thanksgiving emails are personal. Text only, no images, just a personal email from the owner taking a break from selling to wish subscribers a happy Thanksgiving. It’s a perfect opportunity to inject a little humanity back into your emails before you go back to selling the next day.”

But once you do go back, it’s important to stay hands-on through the whole weekend.

“You’ll learn a lot about your subscribers through the year, but you should also be ready to make adjustments to your campaigns during Black Friday weekend,” Wright says. “If you see open rates plummet, you need to be ready to pump the brakes and decrease the tempo, maybe adjust the messaging. Throwing a plan together and putting things on autopilot for the weekend is a good way to miss opportunities.”

That’s another reason why it’s good to study your subscribers as early, and deeply, as possible before the holiday. If something goes awry, you want a working knowledge of how to adjust, and what will connect with your readers. Especially since you might be a little short-handed.

“It’s a holiday weekend—your staff won’t be in front of their computers, ready to revamp emails,” Rasmussen says. “But being aware of what’s going on will allow you to know what adjustments are worthwhile if something unexpected happens.”

Nate Wright working in Oceanside, CA.

Make your list and cut it twice

Before a big holiday campaign, it’s important to shore up your subscriber list. But it’s not just a game of numbers.

“There are a lot of ways to rapidly grow a list,” Wright says. “Some are dodgy, some are spammy, some work just fine. The issue is that growing a list is easy, but growing a good list is hard. It takes time.”

Here are a few tips on creating a healthier subscriber list.

Tip 1: Make it easy to unsubscribe
“A large list can give you a false sense of security,” Wright says. “But the list size means nothing if you’ve got pockets of unengaged people that are just ignoring you. In our company newsletter, we’ve made our unsubscribe button gigantic. It’s okay to prop open the exit door, because you need to have confidence in what you’re doing to go after great subscribers.”

The people who will respond the best to your email campaigns aren’t going to click “Unsubscribe,” so don’t be afraid of the ones that do. In fact, losing them may help you make more sense of your data. Which brings us to…

Tip 2: Cull your list before you test
Okay, so you’ve made it easy to unsubscribe, but you’ve still got a lot of dormant subscribers on your list. Next step? Take a personal hand in cutting them. It might feel strange, but your reward will be better data the next time you run some A/B testing.

“If half your list is dormant, they’re muting the statistics of your campaign,” Rasmussen says. “Many of those people won’t engage no matter what you do. If you want useful, long-term insights into how your subscribers want to get email, a little list hygiene will help you analyze results with more clarity.”

And once you’ve pared your list down, you’ll be in a better position to grow it again.

Tip 3: Be prepared to invest in growth
“If you have a small list, you may need to grow it aggressively,” Wright says. “Running some Facebook ads is a good start. But growing your subscribers is going to cost you. It will cost time, and it may cost money. But that’s your customer list—why would you look for a shortcut?”

Laying the groundwork for a successful holiday campaign is a year-round job. But over time, as you remove dormant subscribers and replace them with engaged readers, you’ll see a return on that effort.


Illustrations by Sarah Neuburger, an Atlanta-based freelance illustrator and designer.