How to Plan and Write a Sales Email Sequence for the Holidays — A Case Study
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 my inbox last year.
To save time and advertising funds, I 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 I 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
My client hadn’t carried out any surveys or customer interviews for longer than 12 months. There were hundreds of unnamed subscribers on the 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, I decided to start with an incentivised subscriber survey to prime people for opening emails from my client.
The incentive would entice them to open the email, while the questions would pique their interest, and I’d gain enough insights into my client’s readers to draft emails that would resonate.
First, I 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 (I’m not a lawyer, but I studied the legislation for copywriting purposes).
I also audited the website to identify friction points that would keep visitors from making a purchase.
Then, I made a list of recommendations for my 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).
Sending a subscriber survey
The survey had two purposes:
Tell us what made past customers buy and what kept other subscribers from buying
Help me develop the messaging for the email campaign designed to drive sales traffic to the website
My 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 I set up a Typeform and invitation email to collect the responses.
Next, I drafted the email invitation. My 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, I needed to dramatically increase open and click through rates.
Because this email was so different from the (irregular) ones that had gone before, I 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):
Analysing the subscriber survey
Next, I worked through the results to come up with a profile of my client’s ideal customer and their reasons to buy or not to buy.
At this point I 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 I 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, I had 4 emails to play with for this campaign.
In keeping with my principle of #MindsetOverMatter, I decided to get subscribers ready to buy (= the “matter”) by first getting them to shift their mindset regarding my 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 my 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 I 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 I see in emails: diluting their power by overloading them with lots of different ideas.
To keep each email on point, I set the following big ideas:
Survey email -> let’s make buying lingerie great again
Great gifts are based on shared values
The holidays are about letting yourself off the hook
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, I 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.
My 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:
The middle section of this email gave some practical advice for “making it to 25 December with your sanity intact(ish)”:
It concluded with the (free) offer of a gift-buying guide that my client had written and designed:
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:
Feminism turned into a humorous-but-serious critique of capitalism and (somewhat ironically) concluded in a sales pitch:
I 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).
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:
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, I added a self-referential, ironic lead-in to a list of people who’d really benefit from my 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.
Let’s take a look at the overall campaign results:
Despite the fact that we didn’t achieve the sales goal set for this campaign, I 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, my client had decided to de-prioritise the website optimisation part. While that’s understandable, the email click-throughs didn’t result 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 me 3 things:
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 are saturated with holiday sales messages. With holiday emails, you can’t really start too early. I’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.
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.
Optimise the relevant parts of your website before asking for the sale.
While I love seeing high click-through rates, we all 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 me to write the sequence for you.
Over to You
How did your last email campaign go?
I'd love to hear about your own experience with sales emails — especially before the holidays.
Let me know in the comments section!