This month’s MediaPost column is called “It’s Holiday Season. What if your Emails Don’t Care?” You can read the article below or on the MediaPost site. I follow the comments in both places so if you want to chime in, feel free.

It seems like most of the articles on best practices and case studies in the trade pubs like MediaPost are aimed at retailers. But most companies that use email are not retailers. And most of Real Magnet’s clients are not retailers. I think it’s time for more articles aimed at the non-retail crowd, so I hope you like this one and keep an eye out for more to follow.

I used to manage email marketing for a Fortune 500 online retailer, and I’ve since run email programs for trade associations and B-to-B technology companies. In all cases, Q4 is critically important. But through trial (and no small amount of error), I’ve learned that the way non-retailers should approach Q4 emails is closer to the way they approach Q3 emails, than it is to the way retailers approach Q4 emails. Everything you’ve learned about relevance and targeting is doubly important during the holidays, since there is so much more competition for inbox attention. And don’t think that because your subscribers use business email addresses instead of Gmail and Yahoo! that you’re exempt from inbox clutter. The rise in urgent-shopping from auctions, private sale sites like and TheClymb, and one-day only deals means that motivated shoppers are using work email addresses to make sure they don’t miss out.

Here’s the article. Happy (non) holidays.

It’s Holiday Season. What if your Emails Don’t Care?
by Mike May
published on 11.18.09 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

If you thought inboxes were already cluttered, just wait until this year’s holiday season ramps up to full speed. Retail business are struggling to recover, while at the same time cutting ad and direct mail spending, and focusing more resources on ROI-heavy programs like email. It’s a perfect storm headed straight towards inboxes.

But what if you’re not in retail? What if the emails you need to send in November and December don’t care that it’s a holiday? You’ve got newsletters to distribute, conference seats to fill, annual memberships to renew, software upgrades to announce,  year-end feedback surveys to distribute…. How can you compete with the tsunami of “Free Shipping, today only!” and “25% off through Monday” offers set to flood your subscribers’ attention span?

To break through inbox Q4 clutter with your holiday-agnostic emails, try these tactics:

Zig when retailers zag. You know all those best practices about the best days and times to send that you’ve spent the past 10 months learning, testing and perfecting? Ignore them. If it’s a best practice, expect many of your inbox rivals to follow it, which only increases the noise you have to rise above. Try sending your messages on what you previously believed (or were told) are the worst sending days and times. Your audience may be smaller, but the inboxes won’t be as full. Better to be one of 10 messages reaching a smaller group, than one of 100 messages “optimized” for delivery at the same time.

Marginalize other messages with an alternate inbox. A slew of messages from other companies doesn’t mean your subscribers want to hear from you any less. But they’re human, and have a finite capacity for information consumption. Let them know that if the inbox you normally mail to becomes too crowded with holiday offers, that you are happy to temporarily mail to a separate email address, making it easier for them to distinguish your communications from the relentless holiday pitches. You may not get gigabytes of takers on this offer, but know that every one you do is highly engaged and wants to stay that way. They’re worth the extra effort.

Emphasize the white list. As volume goes up, mailbox administrators may well tighten the reins on what messages actually make it through. Now is the time to turn up the volume on your “please whitelist us” requests and instructions. Add it to your current messages and consider a dedicated message expressly on the need for whitelisting in advance of the holiday barrage.

Convince your copywriters that the holiday has been cancelled. It’s pretty easy to fall into a seasonal tone with an email’s copy and subject lines — even if your emails don’t have anything to do with the holidays. Resist the urge. A co-opted holiday tone won’t make your message more relevant this season. It may match the season, but it also matches the hundreds of other messages you want to differentiate from. And it doesn’t match your message content. Put your best Grinch on and tell your copywriters that the entire holiday season has been cancelled, and that any references to turkey, mistletoe, sleighs, candles and singing will be summarily edited out of the finished message.

You’re not going to outspend, outmuscle or outshine retailers for whom holiday emails are a mission-critical operation. Competing head-to-head for inbox supremacy over the next couple of months is futile. You can’t win, so change the game wherever you can. Test tactics that allow you to remove yourself from the competition, and focus instead on your subscribers. It could be a very happy holiday for you, after all.

Not that your emails care, of course.