It happens every year, and yet the holiday season—a make or break revenue proposition for some companies—sneaks up with surprising speed. Proper preparation and timing requires insight not only into what your customers want, but when they may want it. It’s never too early to start planning, so we spoke with several business experts who offer their advice for crafting a successful holiday marketing strategy.
The Holiday Marketing Calendar
How you time your holiday marketing efforts depends, to a degree, on what type of business you run. The marketing strategy for some service-based firms, says Brandon Levey, CEO and founder of Stitch Labs, an inventory-management solutions provider, may only require managing the flow of customers and projects.
“If you know you’re going to have a lull, or that there’s a big peak season to take advantage of in, say, November, you want to start planning for that maybe a month or so in advance,” he explains. This, he adds, lets you control the schedule and ensure customer satisfaction.
Retailers, on the other hand, have a host of other factors to consider. “A product-based business requires a different strategy, because you actually need to have the products to sell,” Levey says. You need to consider supply chain and manufacturing schedules—alongside your marketing plan—to take anticipated bumps in order volume into account.
“That could push the timeline of how soon you have to prepare—several months, even six months before the holiday season—to get everything right,” Levey says. And because you also need to entice customers into action, early planning for messaging and sales is also critical.
Big-box stores have a comprehensive holiday marketing plan in place (and a budget to match). That’s why, according to Matthew Jonas, president of digital marketing firm TopFire Media, “it becomes even more important that small business owners take an integrated approach to marketing for their holiday campaigns, especially when it comes to the deals they offer and promoting their brand.”
Competing with large companies means leveraging your customer relationships—a distinct small business advantage—early so you don’t fall behind. “The best way small businesses can compete with big-box retailers,” Jonas says, “is by building the relationships now and getting people interested in your products or services over the next 30 to 60 days. That gives you a fighting chance as you move into the holiday season.”
Increase Your Holiday Marketing Mileage
Liam Brown, founder of Sidestep Coaching, a professional training and coaching firm, says his team often works to develop campaigns they can sustain through the entire last quarter of the year. “We don’t create just one campaign and send it out once,” he explains. “We send it out multiple times in multiple ways.”
Rather than narrowly define a holiday season campaign, it may be more effective to create a fall campaign that can evolve into a winter campaign, all while supporting the holiday marketing push. “It’s not just all about one particular point of the year. We try to spin it into a few different points,” says Brown. A small business can then focus its marketing efforts earlier and generate holiday sales that are more organic and more sustainable.
Track Emerging Holiday Shopping Trends
Each holiday season has its own nuances. As new trends take shape, small business owners can use them to create a marketing plan that takes advantage of current issues, preferences, concerns, and opportunities. For example, mobile shopping trend has grown rapidly in recent years, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
“Consider using geo-targeted mobile marketing with your offers, so you can capture holiday shoppers who are close to your store,” advises Jennifer Sassen, senior vice president of marketing at accounting software provider Sage North America. “People often open email marketing messages on mobile devices and, during the holidays, customers typically look at them in real-time to quickly spot offers while they’re shopping.”
Also, as you plan your holiday marketing campaign, keep your messages (and their subject lines) short and to the point, as screen real estate may be as limited as your customers’ time.
Savvy small business owners may want to conduct their own market research to see what interests their customers. “Social media is a great way to find out what people are thinking about before they hit the holiday rush,” Jonas says, suggesting that a few well-crafted questions could yield valuable data. “What does your Christmas list or shopping list look like this year? Who do you plan to buy presents for?”
With targeted information in hand, you can develop a compelling holiday marketing strategy—complete with online ads, blog posts, and discount offers—that’s sure to connect with customers’ needs. “You base your plan on what people are looking for already, which is one of the smartest ways any social media campaign can play out,” Jonas says.
Set Holiday Marketing Goals and Stay on Target
As you plot any new holiday marketing campaign, it’s important to be realistic about your business’s strengths. Some seasonal events, notably Black Friday, have reached truly epic status, with large retailers offering huge discounts. As a result, many small businesses find it difficult to compete on price alone. Sassen offers some alternatives.
“For example, consider using email and social media to invite your best customers to your store for a private shopping event during slow business hours,” she suggests. “Your customers will feel special, and you can minimize the bleed to your bottom line.” Firms might also think about developing a messaging strategy that “increases the sense of urgency with each email, so shoppers feel compelled to shop at your store or site immediately.”
Timing a holiday campaign is crucial, of course. But even if a business gets started at the right time, SideStep Coaching’s Liam Brown says he often sees companies make one common mistake: their marketing campaigns are too short in duration.
“They don’t want to bother people too much, so they send out one campaign once,” he explains. Then, if the business doesn’t get the response they were hoping for, they simply assume the season wasn’t good for them. “That’s the absolute wrong mentality,” Brown says. Instead, he suggests developing a campaign schedule with multiple touch points spread across a realistic time period.
Big data, another source of valuable information now available to small business, can pay big dividends when planning your holiday marketing strategy. According to Stitch Labs’ Levey, firms that have been in business for a few years could find data on repeat customers useful.
“It can give you historic perspective on the repeat business that you normally see over the holidays,” says Levey. “Assuming you run a good campaign, that information can help you estimate how many customers will return to buy a gift or to stock up on sale items.”
An analysis of customer history may also indicate which marketing strategies—email, social media, discounts, or loyalty clubs—have been (and again may be) most effective, and which products or services interest your customers the most.