How to Plan and Write a Sales Email Sequence for the Holidays — A Case Study

“Help!”

Ah, the familiar cry from a brand paying too much per sale from their digital ads…

It’s also the subject line of an email that landed in our inbox in late 2018.

To save time and advertising funds, Sabine recommended a well-planned email campaign and website optimisation project.

(Emailing existing subscribers has a higher potential return on investment (ROI) than any other marketing activity, and there’s no extra cost once the emails are written and scheduled).

The sales email sequence Sabine planned and wrote for this client more than doubled their open and click-through rates.

This case study will walk you through the process and results.

Finding out about the brand, the audience and the setup

Our client hadn’t carried out any surveys or customer interviews in over 12 months. There were hundreds of unnamed subscribers on their email list, many of whom had been acquired in a multi-brand giveaway years before. What’s more, the brand wasn’t known for sending regular emails to keep the relationship with subscribers going.

With this in mind, Sabine decided to start with an incentivised subscriber survey to prime people for opening emails from the client.

The incentive would entice them to open the email, while the questions would pique their interest, and we’d gain enough insights into our client’s readers to draft emails that would resonate.

Desk research

First, Sabine checked up on the brand’s Mailchimp account to get to know their setup, run some reports, and see if we needed to work on their GDPR compliance (we don’t have lawyers on the team, but Sabine studied the legislation for copywriting purposes).

She also audited the website to identify friction points that would keep visitors from making a purchase.

Then, she made a list of recommendations for the client to work through in order to optimise the entire customer journey for conversion and compliance — divided into priority levels and with detailed instructions (these actions were outside the scope of our project).

An excerpt from our recommendations, with the highest priority highlighted in yellow.
An excerpt from our recommendations, with the highest priority highlighted in yellow.

Recommendations

Mailchimp

High priority

– Enable double opt-in to ensure unequivocal consent (GDPR)

– Tag New Product subscribers so you know who’s a customer and what they bought, including gift subscriptions. Consider adding tags that reflect some of their survey responses so you can tailor email campaigns to them.

– Include a link to your privacy notice in your signup forms and confirmation emails.

– Update permission reminder to reflect how people joined this list.

Lower priority

– Rename “New product” list so it reflects its true nature

– Merge your lists and rely on tagging/using segments to distinguish between prospects and customers

– Proofread your welcome email

Nice to have

– Set up all forms and automated emails (confirm humanity etc.) to reflect the brand

Sending a subscriber survey

The survey had two purposes:

  1. Tell us what made past customers buy and what kept other subscribers from buying
  2. Help Sabine develop the messaging for the email campaign designed to drive sales traffic to the website

Our client was quick to come up with an attractive prize for the survey takers.

We agreed the questions within just a couple of days. Then Sabine set up a Typeform and invitation email to collect the responses.

Next, she drafted the email invitation. Our client was famous for their witty, provocative voice and tone. Emails tended to have evocative subject lines, but at around 21%, open rates were average. To get as much insight as possible, Sabine needed to dramatically increase open and click through rates.

Because this email was so different from the (irregular) ones that had gone before, she chose a clear summary of the incentive:

“Take my 5-minute survey, get gorgeous knickers for Valentine’s day”

We also started the survey off with a rating question right there in the email — which was going to give us more engagement (people love interactive content):

A snippet from the survey email (transcript below)

Hello gorgeous,

How much do you enjoy buying lingerie?

Worse than a toothache — Kinda OK — Loooove it

For many of us, wearing lingerie and being sexy go together like Cheese and Pickle; they’re not neceeeeessssssaaaaaarily in a monogamous relationship.

So, let’s focus on doing sexy for ourselves. Let’s shift the emphasis from (only) how lingerie looks, to how it feels.

Analysing the subscriber survey

Next, Sabine worked through the results to come up with a profile of our client’s ideal customer and their reasons to buy or not to buy:

A glimpse of the persona Sabine created for our client based on the survey responses. Transcript below.

Name & Picture: Hannah

Behaviours: Hangs out on Instagram & Facebook, and online groups for mums such as Mumsnet; has a thing for gentle movement therapies such as yoga, Nordic walking; likes The Guilty Feminist; reads the Guardian; likely to be a labour voter

Needs & Goals: Likes things that are cute, comfortable…

Facts & Demographics: In her mid-twenties to mid-forties…

At this point we had enough information to plan an email campaign that would feel relevant to subscribers and resonate with their values.

Planning the email campaign

Now that we knew whom we were writing to, it was time to design the sequence. The project took place close to Christmas, and the brand was eager to send one email per week max — so we had only a small number of emails to work with.

Balancing value with asking for the sale

Including the survey email, we had 4 emails to play with for this campaign.

In keeping with our principle of #MindsetOverMatter, Sabine decided to get subscribers ready to buy (= the “matter”) by first getting them to shift their mindset regarding our client’s products. This was particularly important because we were writing to an old list of relatively “cool” subscribers who hadn’t been nurtured in a long time.

So, while the first 3 emails were reminding people of the relationship they had with our client, email 4 was asking for the sale.

When planning an email sales campaign, it’s usually a good idea to roughly follow the 3:1 rule of adding value three times for each time we’re asking for the sale. New ideas and points of view are extremely valuable to readers, especially when presented in an entertaining way.

In this project, the pressure was on! We were limited to 4 emails in 4 weeks. So Sabine decided to make two sales pitches — a humorous one and a more serious, informative one.

Defining the big idea for each email

The number 1 mistake we see in emails: diluting their power by overloading them with lots of different ideas.

To keep each email on point, Sabine set the following big ideas:

  1. Survey email -> let’s make buying lingerie great again
  2. Great gifts are based on shared values
  3. The holidays are about letting yourself off the hook
  4. Lingerie that allows freedom of choice and freedom of (physical) movement makes a perfectly loving holiday gift

Writing & designing the emails

Once we had agreed the campaign plan, Sabine was ready to create the emails.

Because this brand has such a distinctive personality, capturing their voice and tone was essential. At the same time, these emails were more action-focused than previous ones. It was going to be interesting to see how subscribers would react.

“Training” readers to click through to valuable content

A lot of product-based businesses only ever send advertising newsletters. They’re all about the product and don’t write about the company and founders, or the questions their customers face. Those emails are usually full of calls to action (CTAs). If those aren’t clicked, it’s usually because

  • the email fails to engage the reader
  • none of the products shown piques their interest
  • there are too many CTAs, leading to analysis paralysis and decision fatigue.

Our client’s previous emails were quite different in that respect.

Many times, they didn’t include a single CTA. There was nothing for the reader to do at the end of the email, so they…

…didn’t do anything.

It was important to change this pattern before the sales email in order to establish CTAs as the gateway to additional value — thereby increasing the likelihood of clicks in the sales email.

Email 2: Great gifts are based on shared values

Using the subject line “It’s the most magical time of the year”, this email was designed to liberate readers from the burden of having to create that magic for their loved ones. Taking a deliberately feminist stance, the email opened:

Beginning of the email — transcript below

I’ll never get over twinkling lights in steamed up cafes and shiny things hanging in trees and purple gin.

But it turns out, “magic” is just the word we use to give credit to the magician, even when it’s the female assistant who’s sawn in half, doing a lot of work to make something incredible look effortless… like Santa’s little studio assistant LOL.

– Taking 10 kilos worth of Christmas cards to the post office before 18 December (last posting date for 2nd class mail FYI!)

– Finding new, creative, charming ways to show important people that you care about them

– Trying to get through the ‘season to be jolly’ with your ethics intact (juries out on tinsel)

The middle section of this email gave some practical advice for “making it to 25 December with your sanity intact(ish)”:

second part of the email — full transcript below

Focus on one area that will REALLY make an IMPACT, without too much extra brainspace.

– Fan of the circular economy? -> Use recycled wrapping paper or old newspaper.

– Climate change your main concern? -> Get all presents locally. (This can really speed things up, and it’s a great time to build relationships in your community.)

– Reducing your meat consumption? -> Scrap the main and go straight for pudding.

The genius thing about this approach: it really is the thought that counts.

Nobody wants to end up with stuff that they don’t need and won’t really use.

It concluded with the (free) offer of a gift-buying guide that our client had written and designed:

Part 3 of the email (full transcript below)

Which means that the greatest gifts are based on our values.

And which gives us licence to trim everything back to the really fun stuff:

– spending time with each other,

– having those important conversations,

– laughing about silly things.

See? Puts that whole ‘should I buy it’ question into perspective.

If it still bothers you, I’ve made you a lil’ flowcharts thing to help you decide:

Should I buy it? <<– click to download the thing

Magical.

Email 3: The holidays are about letting yourself off the hook

The subject line of this email, “Seriously rhymey”, was more in line with the brand’s previous, trademark style of combining the word “seriously” with an adjective.

Continuing the feminist theme, the email started with a confession:

Beginning of email 3 (full transcript below)

Rrrright. Ahem.

Christmassy feelings?

It’s a squeeze, innit.

Squeezing fresh oranges and lemons against the ubiquitous cold & flu bugs.

Squeezing a visit to see Father Christmas with the kids in between cleaning the bathroom and whipping up a batch of mince pies on a Saturday morning.

Squeezing your delish white-as-sugar winter tums, bums & things into clean, sexy underwear…

Feminism turned into a humorous-but-serious critique of capitalism and (somewhat ironically) concluded in a sales pitch:

second part of email 3 (full transcript below)

Yeah! Exactly. Let’s stop squeezing ourselves into a system that isn’t built for the body.

Much like pre-holiday patriarchal regression (aka empowered women taking sugar-dusted stints as glamorous angels of the house), underwear gives us a clue about how much capitalism isn’t working. Regular lingerie brands try and make things mathematically exact, defined by clear systems — trying to squeeze a person into a regular shape, or even geometrical shape (remember the triangular tits of the 1950s)?

Which tells me it’s time…

Time for my sales pitch.

(Betcha didn’t see THAT coming…!)

Sabine had decided to write that sales pitch as a poem with internal and end rhymes (hat tip to Lucy with a Why for the inspiration!)

Reminiscent of theatre and the stage, this fits the burlesque aspects of the brand, as well as their style of selling in the most “obvious” ways, without trickery or undue pressure, while cautioning against overconsumption (sometimes called “sufficiency-driven” marketing).

The sales pitch poem — full transcript below

In rhymes and disguise!
(A word to the wise: this isn’t your typical carol…)
A poetic sales rant, from [my client’s brand] —
sing this under the tree at your peril

Please stay till the end, my [brand] pantsed friend
— perhaps snack on some honey-roast nuts —
No need to look stern with underwear concern,
it would really be superfluous

Cause [my client’s brand], of which you’re a fan
(well I hope so as you read these lines)
Can sort this for you, and for your bessie too
(all we struggle with is porcupines)

If you’ve scaled city walls, for a gift for your pals,
alas! to no avail,
And you still haven’t found a present profound,
and worry your love will seem stale,

Ahem! we can totally help you with that:
our gift pants fly in to the rescue!
They’re a good thing to buy aaaanyway —
for everyday you or burlesque you

But in true lefty spirit, (no need to fear it!),
I have to add just one disclaimer:
Please only buy this, if you really think Yes,
I think this will positively frame her!

The pink line in the poem is a clickable link, and there was another big, bold button at the end of the email.

Email 4: Asking for the sale

The final email had the subject “Seriously listy” — both a play on the popular Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and a means of foreshadowing the list at the end of the email.

It continued the slightly rant-y, empathetic style of the previous emails:

Beginning of email 4 (full transcript below)

Hey gorgeous,

How’s your holiday shopping going?

Getting the right kind of present can be an amazing experience.

One that shows that the giver has listened to and understood your preferences.

That they’ve paid attention to all the hints you’ve dropped, rather than getting you something that THEY liked. (Like, when aunt Nellie gives a set of cleaning sponges and faux chamois leathers… every.single.year.)

But with only a few days left till the big C, finding treat like that for our list of loved ones can feel like carrying the Revolving Service Structure of launch pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center* on your back.

The middle part brought in customer reviews from Facebook (real-life screenshots for added authenticity) and a step-by-step guide to selecting the right product on the website, complete with product photos and links.

To finish off, Sabine added a self-referential, ironic lead-in to a list of people who’d really benefit from our client’s lingerie — adding the value of a laugh or a giggle. Positive emotion and the likability factor of this approach were going to make readers more likely to consider a purchase.

Part of the list at the end of the email (full transcript below)

The marketing gurus tell me I can’t send you a sales email without adding value.

So, if you’re struggling to think of someone you could gift a … here are 6 Christmas cracker style ideas to get you going:

1. Theresa May, because her pants should be as black as her soul (plus, imagine her in leopard print! Noooooo)

2. Jim — this golfer dude needs spares, in case he has a hole in one.

3. Katie Price, cause her head is finally back on her career and she’ll need some no-nonsense pants that go with “getting on with it”.

4. Your sis, whose pants are on fire with all the little white lies about what she’s been up to on Saturday nights.

5. Every single nun you know. I challenge you to find pants that go better with their habit… while allowing just a little bit of fun (she gets to decide how much)

Campaign Results

Let’s take a look at the overall campaign results:

Mailchimp graph showing open and click-through rates for each email. More details below.

The emails Sabine planned, wrote and scheduled are marked in yellow. There was a bit of a gap between the survey and our client booking us for the sales email campaign. Emails they wrote and sent during that gap are marked in grey.

Despite the fact that we didn’t achieve the sales goal set for this campaign, we still consider it a success.

  • The emails engaged readers, which can be seen from the sharp increase in open and click-through rates.
  • Because of time and budget constraints, our client had decided to de-prioritise the website optimisation part. While that’s understandable, the email click-throughs didn’t result in the sales they’d hoped for. Readers were ready to buy, but there were still too many obstacles and friction points for them to make a purchase.
  • Emails perform best when combined with a seamless e-commerce experience.

Every project is also an opportunity to learn.

This campaign taught us 3 things:

  1. Don’t leave sales campaigns quite so late.
    Email 4 (asking for the sale) went out on 18 December — at a time when most people’s inboxes were saturated with holiday sales messages. With holiday emails, you can’t really start too early. We’d recommend starting as soon as possible after Halloween (31 October). This also allows you to send appropriate follow-up emails to close the sale — for example, answering FAQs based on real engagement from your subscribers.
  2. If you don’t usually sell via email, take the time to nurture your subscribers.
    Make lots of different offers — some free, some at a small cost — to train them to expect value when they click those links and buttons in your emails. Work on the necessary mindset shifts that prepare your readers for the sale. Never, ever give in to the temptation to sell too soon in the process.
  3. Optimise the relevant parts of your website before asking for the sale.
    While we love seeing high click-through rates, we really want those clicks to convert into action. That’s unfortunately beyond the power of just the email alone — the website needs to convince and make saying YES as easy as possible. Start with a thorough website conversion copy audit, then make the necessary improvements before sending traffic to your online store.

Following these three principles will set up any sales email campaign for success — whether you decide to DIY it (perhaps with a bit of Copy Coaching) or you decide to book us to write the sequence for you.

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