7 strategies to make your emails stand out on BFCM

Black Friday is only around two months away. Not to be a broken record from last year (and the year before that, and the year before that, and so on…), but all signs point toward this year once again breaking every record for eCommerce on BFCM.

Last year, online shopping on BFCM was up 20 percent. The pandemic has accelerated the growth of eCommerce significantly in 2020; according to data from IBM, the transition from physical shopping to digital shopping jumped ahead five years versus projections as a result of the circumstances this year. This year has a projected 10.5 percent decline in retail overall—but an 18 percent jump in eCommerce.

The BFCM period is a crucial one for businesses of all sizes. Last year, 36.5 percent of all holiday sales happened over the BFCM week (spanning the Tuesday before Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday)—and the average eCommerce brand took in half of the season’s revenue by December 3rd. The holiday sales season is very front-loaded, so BFCM results can make or break the season for you, and for many businesses that can mean it makes or breaks the entire year.

But… nothing we’ve just said is exactly a secret. Every brand knows just how lucrative BFCM is and, as a result, most will step up their marketing to try to grab their slice of the massive BFCM pie.

Our data from the 4.1 million marketing emails sent using Jilt last year shows a 126 percent increase in email volume on Black Friday versus an average day and a 67 percent on Black Friday. And projections for BFCM this year are another 18 percent increase in marketing email volume.

If you can get your customers to open and click through on your emails, it can be very valuable—stores using Jilt saw a 17.7 percent increase in email attributable revenue on BFCM last year compared to the average day in November. But with so much email hitting your customers’ inboxes, how can you stand out, grab people’s attention, and drive them to buy from your store?

We studied the emails Jilt users sent last BFCM and industry-wide trends to figure out some innovative, savvy techniques brands can use to stand out from the pack. So as you begin to prepare your BFCM emails in the coming days and weeks, here are seven strategies you can and should employ.

1. Start early

While not every brand is already tipping their hand on their BFCM strategy this year, it certainly appears like the holiday shopping season is set to begin in earnest well before Black Friday.

First, for the second year in a row, Thanksgiving is late (November 26th this year), meaning a truncated holiday season. It’s only 28 days from Black Friday through Christmas Eve—an entire week shorter than in many years. That means stores of all sizes need to find a way to make up the sales from that lost week.

Second, even before the circumstances this year with the pandemic, the holiday season kickoff was trending earlier and earlier. In 2019, Thanksgiving saw a 17 percent year-over-year increase in marketing email volume. We also observed a significant ramp up in email volume at Jilt. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year had 41 percent higher send volume than the average day in November; Wednesday had 110 percent higher volume; and Thursday had 177 percent higher volume.

And third, with the pandemic, everything is getting moved up this year as the major brands try to compensate for their significant decreases in brick-and-mortar sales. For instance, Halloween products hit stores by mid August (or earlier) rather than late August—and Christmas will see a similar acceleration. Target, Macy’s, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Best Buy, and undoubtedly several others have already announced they’re going to start their holiday promotions early.

But even if keeping up with the schedule set by the retail behemoths isn’t on your radar, there’s another important reason to start early: early shoppers spend more. People who begin their holiday shopping before Black Friday spend nearly $400 more than people who wait.

Here are three tips for making your emails stand out by starting your BFCM sales early.

Offer VIP access

Instead of opening up your BFCM sale early to everyone, you can catch your subscribers’ attention by offering them exclusive early access. Play up that exclusivity in your subject line, and play up the scarcity factor in your copy—your customers should shop early because the best products will probably sell out once the general public gets access to this sale.

Here’s an example from Philosophy on the Tuesday before Black Friday last year that granted VIPs (read: anyone on their email list) early access to their 40 percent off deal and extra rewards points. They even used the coupon code “VIP40” to reinforce that the deal was targeted at this “special” group of customers.

Philosophy offers VIP access for its Black Friday sale.

Tease your deals early

You may not want to offer your Black Friday deals early, and that’s absolutely fair—after all, even with all the early sales, Black Friday is still the day when customers expect the biggest sales and do the most shopping. So you don’t always have to offer your best deals early, but you should get customers excited about those deals early.

Check out this email from Wedgwood that teases the biggest BFCM deals and builds anticipation using a countdown clock. The email includes some other deals—not the huge Black Friday ones, but ones customers might be interested in early. By starting the hype process early (this email went out on November 3rd last year), they build anticipation with their customers—so when Black Friday comes, their customers will seek out their emails to finally find out what these deals are.

Teasing Black Friday deals with an early email.
Via: Milled.

Watch your competitors

It goes without saying you want to be a leader in your category, not a follower. Regardless, it’s still important to study your competitors, assess their BFCM strategy from years past, and monitor what they seem to be planning for this year.

You want to avoid a scenario where one of your competitors beats you to the punch with a great sale and a chunk of your customers take advantage of that sale and stop spending in your category for the season. You need to move early to beat your competitors into customers’ inboxes (at least by teasing your deals, as we mentioned above, so your customers know they don’t have to go to a competitor because you’re definitely going to be offering something great).

It’s also beneficial to offer a different value proposition than your competitors. You don’t always want to offer a discount that’s similar—or, even worse, lower—than your top competitors. Engaging in a race to the bottom with ever steeper discounts is a recipe for disaster. Get creative to stand out from similar brands.

2. Promote the exclusivity of your deals

On the average day, putting any discount in your subject line increases open rates. Black Friday is not the average day. When people’s inboxes are flooded with emails offering giant discounts, that 15 percent off deal you were reluctant to even consider because it cuts your margins to the bone is going to have a tough time standing out. Here’s a snapshot of an inbox (one I use to track marketing emails) from Black Friday last year.

A loud inbox on Black Friday.

It’s very hard to stand out on BFCM with a traditional deal when everyone is offering nontraditional, eye-popping deals. Last year, the average advertised discount by the major brands was 40.4 percent. In some categories, the discounts were even higher.

Discounts by category for Black Friday.
Via: WalletHub.

It’s entirely possible you can’t compete with that level of discount. You might not even want to—after all, as we said, you don’t want to enter into the downward spiral of deeper and deeper discounting.

Tease the exclusivity of the deal

Try not to compete with the massive deals at other brands—your goal should be to compete against yourself. So rather than presenting your 15 percent off deal in a subject line like, “Black Friday sale! 15% off all items”, focus on how rare and exclusive the deal is. For example, “Our biggest discount of the year!” or “We never do this” or “The lowest price ever on _______.”

Now your 15 percent isn’t competing against, say, Old Navy’s 99.999 percent off deal. Instead, you’re letting customers know this is your best offer relative to all other offers you’ve sent them this year on your fantastic products (and all the offers you’ll send them over the next 12 months). By framing your deal around the relativity of the deal and not the absolute number, you’re no longer competing against the giant brands—you’ve moved things to an entirely different playing field. For people who love your products, the message is clear: now is the best time to buy.

Subject lines that promote rarity of deals.

Don’t get creative with your from field

When you’re positioning your BFCM deal as an exclusive, once-a-year (or one-time-ever) deal, you need to be straightforward with the from field on your email. Subscribers scan their inboxes looking for familiar names, especially during the email deluge of Black Friday. You want to make sure it’s easy for your fans to pick out your emails.

So it’s not the time to complicate things and change your from field to anything besides your company’s name. More than two-thirds of people say they look at from fields when they’re deciding whether or not to open an email—so make it easy on them on the high-volume email days of BFCM.

3. Convey a sense of urgency and scarcity

There’s an inherent sense of urgency and scarcity with BFCM. There’s built-in urgency because the sales will only last for the day or the weekend (or for some flash sales, the hour); there’s built-in scarcity because of the implication that products will sell out at these prices (that scarcity bred all those tough-to-watch Black Friday doorbuster stampedes).

A Black Friday stampede.
Via: Giphy.

Urgency and scarcity are among the most effective psychological sales techniques and can make a real difference in your success. Studies have found emails that convey a real sense of urgency and/or scarcity see 14 percent higher click-to-open rates and double the transaction rates.

But, again, the power of urgency and scarcity isn’t some underground secret, and customers’ inboxes will be packed with emails employing both on BFCM. Your goal is to employ the techniques differently as a means of standing out.

Use urgent and scarce subject lines at off times

There are points on Black Friday and Cyber Monday when the flood of urgent subject lines really picks up—mainly as midnight approaches and there’s only “one hour left” to take advantage of the deals.

You can stand out by employing urgency in your subject lines at other times. Send an urgent email in the morning or afternoon to help separate your five-alarm fire from everyone else’s five-alarm fire. Here’s an email, for example, that went full urgency (clocks, capital letters, and so many eye catching, um, i’s) at 3:47 PM on Black Friday.

An off-hour urgency email.

Share inventory updates in your subject line

There may have been a time in the early days of marketing when people always took brands’ word for it when they said “we’re about to sell out!” We’re now several generations removed from when that and that alone worked. For scarcity marketing to be effective today, it has to be credible. (PDF)

Check out this email from Star Cadet which went out at 10:21 AM (off time!) last Black Friday. The subject line is “ONLY 143 Cat Packs LEFT! 😱😱😱”. By including the stock number in the subject line, the scarcity becomes tangible and more believable. They didn’t follow up with another email later in the day updating that number, but if they had, that could add even more credibility. (We’ll assume they never got a chance because their first email worked so well they sold out instantly.)

Creating credible scarcity with a subject line.

Use a countdown clock

Countdown clocks lead to a 270 percent increase in clicks and up to a 400 percent increase in conversions because they present urgency in its purest form: a ticking clock.

Using a countdown clock to build urgency for Black Friday.

You can use a countdown clock leading up to BFCM (like Wedgwood did in the example earlier in this article) or to count down to the end of your BFCM deals themselves.

This year, you may also want to employ a countdown clock to create a sense of urgency around your holiday shipping deadlines. With erratic shipping times throughout the early months of the pandemic, print-on-demand and dropshipping delays across the board, and, most recently, the negative changes to the U.S. Postal Service, shipping deadlines are going to be a serious consideration in this short holiday season. Give your customers a countdown to your “safe” shipping deadline with a clock to increase their sense of urgency.

(If you’re looking for a countdown clock solution that works with Jilt, we’ve had great results with MotionMail and NiftyImages. Our support team can help you get set up—just send us a message in-app!)

4. Position your products for self-gifting

Black Friday was once mostly about taking care of all of your holiday gift purchases—but that time is over. Today, people are more likely to buy things for themselves on BFCM than buy for others. An estimated 60 to 80 percent of people take advantage of BFCM deals to buy something for themselves. (PDF) And that includes three-quarters of the top spenders (defined as people with a holiday budget of $500 or more).

In other words: You can stand out on BFCM by remembering that some—and quite possibly most—of your customers are going to be shopping for themselves.

Position your products as practical

Although “self-gifting” is the widespread term for the practice of buying things for yourself on BFCM and beyond, it’s a partial misnomer. “Gift” implies something a person wants but may not necessarily need; something extravagant or impractical. But BFCM self-gifting skews heavily in a different direction—it’s people taking advantage of low prices to stock up on things they need or, at the very least, things they’d been planning to purchase for quite some time.

Here’s a look at the most common types of products people planned to self-gift last year, according to a survey by Deloitte. There’s quite a bit of practicality on this list (e.g., the 16 percent of people buying pet-related products probably weren’t going full treat-yo-self with 30-pound bags of dog food).

A graph of what people buy themselves.
Via: Deloitte. (PDF)

If you sell products with very practical applications in people’s lives, it’s not just okay to play that up on BFCM—it could be a smart marketing strategy. Sure, “Stock up on contact lens solution” isn’t as catchy on the surface as “142-inch TVs only $3,000!”—but it just might have a broader appeal to all the customers out there looking to save on things they need.

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Promote a “one for them, one for you” deal

While a large number of people are self-gifting on BFCM, many of them won’t just be self-gifting—they’re also looking to buy presents for their friends and family. (Assuming they remember in the midst of their id-driven self-gifting frenzy, of course.)

So you can grab the attention of those customers by giving them the chance to self-gift and buy gifts for others simultaneously. That’s where “one for them, one for you”-style promotions come in. Promote a free small gift or a bonus gift card with a BFCM purchase to leverage people’s self-gifting instincts into closing a sale. After all, now that they have a material incentive for themselves to buy a present for someone else, how can they pass that up?

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There’s another major benefit to offering a free gift or bonus as a purchase incentive. A lot of the deals on BFCM are subtractive; that is, they’re offering a discount storewide or on a specific product. While subtractive discounts are extremely appealing to customers, there are downsides. Subtractive discounts can lessen the value of your products in customers’ eyes, they may prevent customers from ever purchasing at full price, and they can put you into that downward spiral of discounting where you feel compelled to continuously offer more discounts and larger discounts to keep customers interested.

A free gift or bonus is an additive deal. Rather than lowering your price, you can still sell at full price but incentivize through an add-on. That keeps the perceived value of your products high. (Now, you’ll probably note that two of the three examples above feature a large percentage off discount and a free gift. However, those are major national brands. If you’re a small or medium-sized business that rarely offers discounts, an additive incentive alone could be enough to meet the BFCM sales expectations of your customers.)

Include your return policy

One of the side effects of self-gifting is people don’t (usually) wait until December 25th to open the things they bought for themselves. That means you may see an increased volume of returns throughout December, as opposed to just a rush in late December and January.

Your return policy is something that matters to your customers. It’s true that people generally never read the fine print, but return policies are different. One survey found three out of five customers will look at a return policy before they make a purchase. So make sure your return policy, especially on clearance items, is clear in your emails to set expectations. 

If you want to take it a step further, you could even promote free returns or a long return window in the subject line of one of your BFCM emails. (Another good reason to promote a long return window: the longer customers have, the less likely they are to actually return something.)

5. Think cross-device

Mobile shopping continues to grow every year on BFCM. However, mobile has not replaced desktop when it comes to BFCM shopping. If anything, the two are now working as a team on BFCM—with your customers utilizing both their smartphones and their computers as they shop throughout the weekend.

Last year, only 37 percent of traffic to eCommerce stores occurred on computers and 58 percent came from smartphones. But… when it comes to purchases, those numbers are flipped. 59 percent of BFCM purchases happened on computers and only 36 percent happened on smartphones. Conversion rates on desktop were also more than double the conversion rate on phones on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

It certainly seems like customers are checking out eCommerce sites from their phones but waiting until they’re back at a computer to make a sale. That puts the onus on you to make sure your mobile visitors remember to come back to your store when they’re at their computer—and to make it easy for them to do so.

Keep your emails mobile-friendly

Yes, if your emails aren’t mobile friendly you’ll stand out on BFCM—but not in a good way. Make sure your emails use responsive design so they look good on both mobile and desktop. To stay mobile-friendly, keep your subject lines short (under 35 characters) or, at the very least, put the most important information within those first 35 characters. Deep link to products so customers don’t have to try to navigate around your mobile site. And keep your email design simple and focused.

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Use cross-device cart regeneration

Let’s say a customer clicks through one of your BFCM emails on their phone. They add a few things to their cart. But, like the statistics suggest, they don’t check out right there—they plan on getting back to your site later, when they’re at their computer. What’s your best way to close that sale?

Your best best is sending cart abandonment recovery emails with cross-device cart regeneration. Make sure you have cart recovery emails set up for BFCM—that way, reminder emails will automatically go out to customers to make sure they don’t forget to come back to your store. And at Jilt, we have a cart regeneration feature so whenever a customer clicks on a cart recovery email, the contents of their abandoned cart is automatically populated—even if they filled in the cart on a different device. 

As a result, recovery emails with cart regeneration are very lucrative. Last year, the average attributable revenue per click on abandoned cart emails for eCommerce businesses using Jilt was $25.28 on Black Friday and $21.88 on Cyber Monday.

6. Stay true to your brand

There’s a lot of sameness with Black Friday emails. Here’s a look at just the subject lines from that inbox screenshot we included earlier in this article.

Sameness in the inbox.

That’s a lot of subject lines shouting loudly, and largely shouting the same basic thing. But, odds are, your loyal customers don’t want you to shout at them. They buy from your store and they stay subscribed to your marketing emails because something about your brand appeals to them. 86 percent of customers say authenticity is a key factor in brands they like and support.

So even in a sea of loud, bold subject lines and emails, you can stand out on BFCM by staying true to your brand.

Use your authentic voice

As you’re putting together your BFCM strategy and emails, it’s crucial to focus on what’s going to work best for your brand—and what’s going to best appeal to your target customer personas. Here are a few examples of brands who differentiated themselves from the pack on BFCM with promotions that were borne from a solid understanding of their voice and what their customers wanted from them.

Eat Your Coffee is a socially-conscious brand, so their email here focused less on the discount they were offering (notice there’s no giant headline saying “30 percent off”) and more on their charitable initiative surrounding the BFCM sale.

Eat Your Coffee's BFCM donation

REI has gotten a tremendous amount of publicity over the years (and even advertising industry awards) by eschewing Black Friday sales and, instead, urging customers (and its employees) to spend time outdoors. Although being “anti-consumerism” is quite a needle for a giant retailer to thread, REI manages to pull it off by having a masterful grasp on its voice and what its audience wants.

REI's BFCM campaign promotes going outdoors

Finally, Cards Against Humanity is one of the most irreverent brands operating today, and their BFCM promotions show it. They’ve done a number of BFCM stunts through the years that are on brand and directly appeal to their customers—including the stunt below, where rather than holding a Black Friday sale, they gave customers the option to give them $5 for nothing. More than 11,000 people inexplicably took them up on the offer—including almost 1,200 people who gave them more than $5—and they then followed up by sharing exactly how the people on their team blew the $71,145 in pure profit.

Cards Against Humanity's aggressive anti-BFCM sale on BFCM

Lean into what your customers love about you

You know what your customers love about you and what they respond to in your marketing. So stand out on BFCM by doing more of whatever that is. Just like your customers over-ate on Thanksgiving, give them the chance to over-eat on your brand on Black Friday. That’s perhaps not the smoothest metaphor, but it feels apropos to the season of acceptable excess.

For example, if your emails are heavily personality-driven and not just focused on selling but also entertaining, give your customers more of that. Last year, Chubbies used its extremely casual and non-traditional marketing email subject lines repeatedly throughout BFCM to cater to their fans.

Leaning into your personality on BFCM

7. Get your automations ready

Broadcast emails (primarily sales announcements) get the attention on BFCM. Most of what we’ve covered in this article has been centered around broadcasts and, no doubt, your strategy is going to lean on them. However, automated emails can do a significant amount of heavy lifting for you on BFCM.

Our data from last BFCM shows automated emails brought in an average of $1.11 per email sent. Broadcast emails brought in an average of 15 cents per email sent. That means automated emails outperformed broadcast emails by a seven-to-one margin in terms of revenue. That effectiveness warrants at least some of your email marketing effort, right?

Customize your automations

One of the most appealing aspects of automated emails is they’re mostly “set it and forget it” cash machines—you set them up once and they continue to work in the background forever. However, BFCM and the holiday season is a good time to update your automations with relevant imagery and information.

You’ll stand out because not many brands tailor their automations to the holidays—in fact, the two emails below are two of only a handful of holiday-themed automations we could find from last year’s BFCM.

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As you can see, you don’t have to go over the top. Using a photo with some subtle holiday imagery or punching up your copy just a bit is enough to make your emails stand out in a sea of standard automations.

You can use your updated automations to promote your season-long specials, relay key info like shipping deadlines and your return policy, and show your products in a holiday or gifting context to push people to buy them.

Just make sure to set a reminder in your calendar to change them back to normal once the holidays are over. (Or better yet, use this as an opportunity to set up a schedule to update your automations at various times throughout the year.)

Utilize your welcome emails to nurture the customer relationship

When we analyzed our BFCM data last year, we were blown away by how successful welcome emails were on BFCM. Welcome emails to first-time customers lead to five times more revenue on Black Friday and three times more revenue on Cyber Monday than welcome emails on an average day. So the right welcome email can immediately turn a first-time customer into a repeat customer—great news for the holiday season.

But welcome emails have an important utility beyond that short-term benefit as well. It’s great to bring in lots of new customers over BFCM and the month of December, but there are 11 other months of the year where you still want people to buy things from your store. You can use your welcome emails (or welcome series) to begin nurturing your relationships with new customers to turn them into repeat customers both in the short and long term.

You can do that by introducing yourself, the people behind your brand, and your story and values. You can point them to good content to bring them back to your site now and in the future. Or you could introduce your rewards or VIP program as an incentive to keep them coming back.

Turning BFCM customers into long time customers with a VIP program

Key takeaways

eCommerce is projected to break all of its own Black Friday/Cyber Monday records this year—much like it does every year. But with the growing importance of BFCM, retailers are stepping up their marketing—the volume of email marketing is on pace to go up 18 percent this year.

You need to make sure your emails stand out so your customers see them, open them, click through from them, and buy from your store. Here are seven strategies you can use to make sure your email marketing stands out this BFCM.

  • Start early. BFCM promotions were already trending earlier—and now, with the pandemic and a shorter-than-usual holiday season, they’re going to push even earlier. Consider teasing your deals early and offering early VIP access to your subscribers. Also, make sure to keep an eye on your competitors so they don’t beat you to market.
  • Promote the exclusivity of your deals. It can be hard to compete with the giant discounts many brands offer on Black Friday. So instead of promoting a discount that might look small compared to other brands, frame your deal as “lowest prices of the year” or something that you “never do.”
  • Convey a sense of urgency and scarcity. Urgency and scarcity are among the most powerful psychological sales techniques—but that means lots of stores use them. Stand out by sending urgent messages at off times, give inventory updates in your emails to put a tangible number on the scarcity of your products, and use a countdown clock to motivate customers to act fast.
  • Position your products for self-gifting. People are now more likely to buy things for themselves on BFCM than for others. And often, they’re looking for deals on everyday items—so position your products as practical in your emails. You can also offer “one for them, one for you” deals where you throw in a bonus gift or free gift card with a purchase.
  • Think cross-device. The majority of traffic to eCommerce stores last BFCM came from mobile devices—but the majority of purchases happened on computers. Since it’s very likely your customers will use both their phone and laptop, make sure your emails are responsive and cross-device-friendly. Also, take advantage of Jilt’s cart regeneration on abandoned cart recovery emails, so if someone abandons a cart on their smartphone, it will automatically fill in on their computer when they click through from the recovery email.
  • Stay true to your brand. There’s a lot of sameness to BFCM promotions. Use your authentic voice and lean into what you do best to stand out from the crowd and appeal to your target customers.
  • Get your automations ready. Broadcast emails get the most attention on BFCM, but automated emails can bring in far more revenue. Stand out by being one of the few brands to customize automations for the holidays, and work on your welcome emails to onboard new customers and turn them into repeat customers in the future.