It’s time for the holidays, which means it’s marketing season again. Mailbox providers (such as Google, Microsoft, and Verizon Media) are gearing up for the influx of traffic that they’ll receive, and wise email marketers need to prepare and know what to expect if they want to see their emails hit the inbox.

What to know about 2020 holiday email marketing

The events of 2020 have prompted a massive influx of email traffic. Businesses that are traditionally brick and mortar are now selling even more online. So, we’re already seeing unprecedented amounts of email marketing due to the pandemic.

Additionally, some retailers, such as Home Depot, have announced that they’re reinventing Black Friday amid social distancing concerns. Home Depot is planning to run their Black Friday deals for two months, and other retail stores may follow suit. If so, we may see email sales campaigns that last for weeks – or even months – instead of days.

This space has long been contested – Amazon launched Prime Day to have their own uncontested sales, which forced retailers like Target and Walmart to respond with deals of their own, and Cyber Monday has grown into its own massive sale. The combination of the pandemic, the US election cycle, and the holidays means that mailbox providers will have record amounts of email competing for consumers’ attention.

This also means that it’s prime time for spam and phishing attempts. Malicious actors know that more consumers will be looking for deals in their inboxes, and more shipping notifications will be going out, so there will likely be an increase in malware activity as well.

The end result of all of this is that mailbox providers will be receiving an unprecedented volume of emails this year. Although it’s unlikely that we’ll see any outages at the major providers, we can anticipate that their anti-spam algorithms will be harsher than usual.

There’s a variety of good reasons for mailbox providers to do this.

If major providers can reject spam and phishing emails outright, it will reduce the load on their servers. They’re also invested in ensuring that their users have the optimal experience in a crowded mailbox (remember – if the service is free, you’re the product). They want to keep users coming back to their platform, so it’s in their interest to ensure that only the brands users engage with the most make it to the inbox. That means more spam filtering.

Smaller mailbox providers (such as an email account provided by your regional ISP or cable provider) may already be feeling the strain of the added load on their server resources from the pandemic, so the barrage of holiday traffic on top of that will be difficult to deal with. Providers typically manage this by rate limiting (or throttling) how much traffic a sender can send them over a given time period. This means that if you’re looking to have flash sales on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you need to be careful – there’s a chance that the recipient won’t even see it before the sale is over if your send is throttled.

The ESPs that send your mail will also be under added pressure (you can click here to see how ActiveCampaign is preparing for this). It’s recommended that you have a longer email cycle with more advance notice so your customers aren’t caught completely unaware if your day-of sales email happens to get throttled by the provider. Smaller more targeted campaigns may help as it reduces the dependency on one large email blast and may see higher opens with less throttling. Also, consider developing new automation workflows to consistently send low volumes of emails throughout the duration of the holidays.

Make sure you’ve set up email authentication as well, and hold off on any major changes to your marketing program during this time. Some mailbox provider engineers and support staff will be on call, and some may even be working over the holidays, but it’s standard for most teams to be short-staffed over the holidays. If the servers start to buckle under the strain, you may have a tired (and potentially cranky) engineer trying to get back to their own deal-surfing.

If the quickest way to fix the issue is to start rejecting or filtering more mail, you don’t want your unauthenticated emails – or campaigns to less engaged audiences – to be caught in the crossfire. The best way to avoid this is to make sure everything is working well in advance.

The staffing problem applies to support tickets as well. If you’re opening a ticket to Google or Microsoft to get your deliverability issue fixed the week of Black Friday, your ticket may not be addressed until after your sale is over. So, again, it’s best to avoid having a problem to begin with – if you were thinking about sending to your unengaged file from that event last year, think twice about that choice.

Conclusion: holiday preparedness checklist

Here’s a checklist of the things you’ll need to do to be successful in your marketing efforts this holiday season:

  • Make sure you’re using email authentication
  • Don’t make sudden changes to your marketing program
  • Don’t try to re-engage that inactive file; send to your engaged recipients
  • Consider a longer marketing cycle and sales duration to account for the pandemic
  • Be aware of rate limiting and throttling and give your customers plenty of advance notice
  • If you have to open a support ticket to one of the mailbox providers about a deliverability issue you’ve been having, do so now

Happy sending!