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How to Lose Previously Loyal Customers: A Holiday Email Frequency Story

by: Annalivia Ford (@IBMforMarketing)
17 November 2015

I get a lot of email. In fact, I have about 9,000 unread emails in my inbox. It's a mixture of spam, notification emails, mailing lists, some personal emails from family and friends, and a small quantity of marketing mail that I actually signed up for.

Just the idea of sorting out all that email makes me tired, so I avoid it and the pile just keeps getting bigger. In short, my inbox is a huge mess that I don’t want to deal with. I mention this by way of giving some context to the following story. Given the backdrop of a pile of 9,000 unread emails, getting my specific, irritated attention with marketing email is difficult.

A specific discount retailer managed it, however. I had been on its mailing list for a long time, at least six years. I liked the products it offered, had bought stuff from it now and then, and its customer service had always been good.

From a deliverability expert’s perspective, it did a lot of the right things:

  • It sent well-targeted email to someone who signed up for it
  • It offered products that were relevant and desirable to me
  • It set expectations of how much email I would get

Until about two weeks before Christmas several years ago, I’d been accustomed to seeing one email a day from this retailer. That was fine, as that was the expectation that had been established long ago and maintained throughout the years.

All of a sudden, this retailer escalated to two emails a day, and within a week the number rose to three emails … before 2 p.m. on a Saturday. The third one announced “COUPONS & FREE SHIPPING EXTENDED UNTIL MIDNIGHT!” The implication was that this was a decision the company made spur of the moment, and that it needed to inform its customer base of this unexpected thoughtfulness. Except … this email and the one before it – “BEST OF BLACK FRIDAY COUPONS & FREE SHIPPING!” – were sent at the exact same moment: 10:02 a.m. It was both dishonest and really annoying.

Since then, some email marketing habits haven't changed much: People are still trying to wring every possible bit of revenue from their email databases. Please consider the implications, though. This is the "one bite at the apple" thing all over again. If it were only one retailer doing this it might be manageable for consumers, but during the holiday season many retailers succumb to the temptation of digging out older sections of their databases, and sending more and more email to proven buyers. The end result is that previously happy customers get irritated and unsubscribe.

The retailer that sent me those emails lost me as a customer. Not only did it lose my regular revenue, but it also lost any word-of-mouth advertising I would have given it … and I also shared this annoying experience with several of my friends, which meant that people who may have been considering using its services decided not to.

Email fatigue is a reality. Pounding loyal customers with generic, ever-increasing email loads around the holidays isn’t necessarily the best way to make more money. As my colleague Loren McDonald talks about in his recent blog post, introducing educational, informative and entertaining "white space" content to your holiday email mix can help you stand out from your competition's nonstop "Today Only" sale messages.

Also, if you’re going to be increasing send volume this holiday season, consider alerting your customers to the uptick in emails, give them the option to manage their frequency, and offer a “Snooze” option for customers who have already completed their holiday shopping. Treat your recipients with respect, and you’ll be more likely to build your base of loyal customers instead of losing them this holiday season.

Related Resources:

1) Ebook: “2015 Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study

2) Blog: “The Email Measurement Trifecta: 3 Types of Benchmarks Marketers Should Use Together

3) Tip Sheet: “Transactional Emails: 10 Tips for Driving Value and Engagement


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