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Birthday Emails: Analysis and Samples from My Inbox

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
06 June 2012

You might remember I am a big fan of birthday emails because they can drive revenue and branding and build engagement with your subscribers for relatively little effort.

This year my birthday yielded 16 commercial email greetings plus one reminder (view screenshots of the emails on SlideShare). Not bad, but as I subscribe to more than 100 email programs from consumer brands, I was surprised at how few are taking advantage of the benefits this little goodwill ambassador can provide.

Below are my observations with this year's crop of birthday greetings:

1. Timeliness: Birthday Month vs. Day
Here's the delivery schedule for my birthday (March 16) emails:

Day 1 of the month: 4

Day 2-10: 6

Day before: 1

On birthday: 5

Post-birthday: 1

An emerging trend among consumer brands is to batch birthday emails for all subscribers born in that month and send on the first day or early in the month. With this approach, you can create unique creative and offers for one-twelfth of your database and have the promotions run for the entire month.

Among my birthday emails, the monthly senders used copy and a nonspecific subject line to convey that the wish was for the whole month.

The downside, of course, is that most of your birthday people won't get your message on their special day. But what you lose in immediacy and personalization, you gain in simplicity of managing fewer promotional deadlines.

The other downside is that your recipients whose birthdays are later in the month aren't necessarily focused on their birthday yet and might forget about your offer. Solution: A reminder email (more on that later).

2. Content: Purchase Incentives Rule
Among email marketers as a whole, birthday greetings usually range from a simple "Happy Birthday!" greeting to an offer for a full-fledged freebie. In my own collection, I received one with no incentive, two virtual gifts and one freebie. The rest were discounted purchases.

Here's how the offers broke down:

  • No purchase required: 2

The professional networking service Xing offered a free seven-day premium membership to basic members. Premium members got a free seven-day membership extension. Betty Crocker sent me a link to download a cake-recipe booklet.

  • Discount with purchase: 13

The percentage discount (10 percent to 40 percent, some with minimum purchases) ruled, with 11 offers. Four emails offered a monetary discount ($10 to $250 off for a Delta vacation of $5,000 or more).

  • No incentive: 1

Virgin Atlantic was the only company that didn’t offer any kind of incentive or gift. It did ask me to click a button that took me to a landing page that built a personalized message in skywriting, jet-stream fashion: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY LOREN YOUR FRIENDS AT VIRGIN ATLANTIC" (see below).

While this was creative, I wish Virgin Atlantic had extended this to an action-oriented message, such as "Create your special trip." With that, the landing page could take me to another page where I might engage further.

3. Personalization
Email marketers debate whether subscribers appreciate seeing their names in subject lines, body copy, or both. However, birthday emails seem to be an undisputedly appropriate use for it (besides transactional messages, of course).

Surprisingly, only three of my 17 emails personalized the subject line. Seven added my name to the body copy, including one sender that used just my last name (clearly a data issue).

Here, Xing went above and beyond with artwork that personalized a birthday cake with my first name. Nice touch.

4. Subject Lines
Birthday emails give you the creative ability to break out of your regular subject-line format. All of my birthday messages had some version of "Happy Birthday" in the subject line, although a few went beyond a simple “Happy Birthday.” Examples:

  • "On your birthday, the sky's the limit"
  • "Make This Birthday All About You!"
  • "It's your birthday! Celebrate with a BOGO Blizzard Treat!"

Here's my subject line content breakdown:

Offer hint in the subject line: 6

Specific offer: 4

Birthday reference only: 7

Remember that your birthday people are receiving greetings from other marketers as well as friends and family, so you should say more than "Happy Birthday" to stand out from all the other virtual greetings in the inbox.

5. Creative/Design/Tone
Birthday emails give you the chance to send a message that conveys a "You're special" message beyond just a "Buy this."

Creatively speaking, my emails ran the gamut from Betty Crocker's fun and informative infographic style (see screenshot below) and the personalized birthday cake from Xing (see previous screenshot) to a basic message that used product and model photography and no birthday imagery (see HairMasters screenshot at right). HairMasters also included a "Savings Coupon" but didn't tell me the value or where to redeem it.

Sales trumped greetings: Many replicated the look and feel of their regular broadcast emails, complete with tabbed navigation and copy that focused on the offer instead of the greeting.

This reflects one of the birthday email's greatest benefits — driving incremental sales — but it didn't make me feel special, especially if I had to spend money to use the "gift."

One exception was Dairy Queen, which sent its birthday email from its Blizzard Club. Like the Betty Crocker greeting, DQ's email combined the offer and the greeting in a clever way.

Although I did have to buy one Blizzard to get another one free, the call to action didn't focus on the money-spending aspect. Instead, it recognized the social aspect of birthday celebrations: "Recruit a Blizzard treat-loving friend."

6. Reminder Messages: Missing in Action
Almost all of the purchase incentives expired by a certain date. However, only Cole Haan sent a reminder.

The Cole Haan email simply repurposed the original content with a different subject line ("DON'T FORGET to Celebrate Your Birthday (with 25% off"). However, you can get more creative with body copy that stresses the deadline, which might move more recipients to act.

Reminding your customers to use their offers before they expire is a service to them and a potential sales driver for you, especially if you send messages early in the month to subscribers whose birthdays are late in the month.

Naturally, you'll want to send the reminder email only to those who did not open or click on the message. You can also use this behavior data to move your recipients into specific tracks according to their actions.

Recipients who open but don't click might get one series of follow-up messages. Those who do open and click but don't act on your incentive receive a different series of follow-up messages.

7. Preferences/Administrative Links
One of the side benefits of a triggered message like a birthday email is that it might engage subscribers who rarely open your messages. Use this opportunity to get subscribers to update their preferences and change their email addresses as appropriate.

Nine of my 16 senders included an email-update or preferences-update link. That's a handy way to keep their lists up to date.

8. Promoting Social Following
The trend to mesh email and social isn't making it into most birthday emails. Only three of my 16 birthday senders asked me to check out their social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or their own social channels. That's another big miss.

If I didn't want to use the incentive, I might have been interested enough to visit their network pages and maybe even connect there, too.

9. Looking at a Few Verticals
Ten of the 16 original messages came from ecommerce providers, from online retailers like Fabric.com to the NBA's All-Access program. No surprise there, because B2C senders are more likely to offer birthday email.

In my analysis, I was curious to see who did not send messages. For example, I subscribe to several airline and hotel email programs. Among airlines, I receive regular emails from United, Delta, British Airways, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and Southwest.

Only Delta and Virgin Atlantic sent birthday emails. Southwest sent a physical birthday card (nice touch). Interestingly, though, American did send an email message a few months ago recognizing my 25th anniversary as a member of its frequent flyer program.

Among hotels, I subscribe to emails from the Hyatt, Marriott, Fairmont and Kimpton chains plus the Mela and New Yorker hotels in New York City. Only Kimpton sent a birthday email.

Ready to Dive In?
I hope my mini birthday email survey will inspire you to either launch a birthday email program or inspect your own birthday emails to see where you could pump up the value to your subscribers as well as your own bottom line.

You'll find detailed instructions, tips and screenshots of examples in Silverpop's white paper, "Birthday Blueprint: How to Build a Top-Tier Birthday Email Program." And, I welcome your comments or questions about birthday emails in the comments box below.

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