Email marketers missed the mark on Black Friday

Email intelligence company Return Path has unveiled some worrying stats for retailers around Black Friday. Despite 12.5% of marketing emails sent in November focused on the sales event users were unimpressed. The rate of emails marked as Spam was up significantly. Complaints about spam were up 13% and email marked as spam in user inboxes was up 8%. Compounding this were the fact that 24% of retailers couldn’t even manage to send their marketing emails until after Black Friday.

Guy Hanson, senior director, professional services international at Return Path
Guy Hanson, senior director, professional services international at Return Path

According to Guy Hanson, senior director, professional services international at Return Path: “Black Friday has fast become a shopping phenomenon in Europe, however, as these results show, it can pose a number of challenges for email marketers. Firstly, it’s important to get the right balance between neglecting and spamming your customers.

“Timing is everything. This year, any emails sent more than a week before the day performed badly, generating read rates that were on average a fifth lower than on the day, while emails closer to the day delivered email read rates that were a fifth higher, suggesting greater relevance as the day got closer. While it’s tempting to start promoting Black Friday deals in the weeks leading up to the big day – after all, you want to make sure your customers are fully aware of all of your deals – this can lead to subscriber fatigue.”

What next for retail marketing?

Hanson is right. This is not good news for marketers. They have long relied on filling users inboxes with sales offers in the hope it will spark increased sales. This shows that users are finally getting tired of the continuous bombardment of supposed targeted email. The reality for most users is that very little of the email is targeted. Even the “best” retail systems can come up with ridiculous offers that make little sense, as anyone who uses Amazon will know. The whole “people like you also looked at” emails constantly miss the mark.

So what is the next step for retail marketing? That’s a good question. Hanson says: “Marketing emails are crucial in the lead up to and during an event like Black Friday. Indeed, they are more often than not the primary point of contact with customers and the biggest factor in driving online sales. Given estimates show that £1.23bn was spent online this year, retailers are undoubtedly under pressure to stand out from their competitors and implement an optimal email marketing program.”

What Hanson has not provided is evidence of how much of that spend is related to email marketing. The truth is that unless there is a code in the email it is hard to make that correlation. As such, users can look forward to a constant increase in misplaced marketing that will increasingly be marked as spam.

Not all retailers use email campaigns

Perhaps the most interesting thing in the Return Path analysis is that not all retailers took part in overt Black Friday emails. Hanson commented: “What’s also interesting is how those brands that chose not to actively participate in Black Friday deals performed compared to those that did. ASOS, Asda, M&S and Secret Escapes are all examples of those that chose not to jump on the Black Friday bandwagon – however, this doesn’t mean they weren’t active on the day.

“They were and their email read rates were actually 5% higher than those that were promoting it. Furthermore, there were brands that alluded to the event without specifically calling it ‘Black Friday’, which also appeared to work in their favour. Morrisons, for example, led with the slogan ‘Save more with Black Five Days at Morrisons’ which saw a 37% higher read rate than the average benchmark. Approaches like this will often help emails to stand out more distinctly in congested inboxes.”

Does this mean that the phenomena know as Black Friday has run its course. Probably not, but marketers will evaluate the success of their messaging for next year and it will certainly evolve.


There is an increasing tiredness among consumers around the amount of marketing emails they receive. Most see these as more spam than anything useful. The danger for retailers whose emails were marked as spam is that future emails will not be seen by the user. This means that they will begin to see diminishing returns for their marketing effort.

It would be interesting to compare email campaigns with offers sent to mobile apps. The bigger retailers already have their own apps and use them to connect with users. It is likely that users are more likely to be receptive to those mobile apps offers as they on their phones when they go into store. Will this report mark a change in behaviour for marketers? It’s highly unlikely but it could just lead to some reviewing how to make emails more relevant.


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