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Black Friday 2016: Key Trends & Takeaways


It’s the most wonderful time of the year (for email geeks)! Retail’s favorite pseudo-holiday, Black Friday (and its cousins, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday) serves as the culmination of months and months of email marketing planning.

And this year, that planning paid off. Black Friday 2016 broke the previous year’s record with over $3 billion in total online sales, with nearly $1 billion of that on mobile. Black Friday’s performance almost dethroned Cyber Monday for eCommerce as the largest online shopping day of the year.

This year continued last year’s trend of extending Black Friday. It felt like it started as early as November 1, with pre-Black Friday sales all over our inboxes (even on Thanksgiving). Here’s what we found to be the top trends and key takeaways from the record-breaking week:


Black Friday is all about standing out in the inbox. In a flood of email campaigns, how will you get the open? More importantly, how will you ultimately get the conversion from that email? It’s important to remember the ultimate goal of your subject line is to generate openers who convert, not just to generate openers.

One way to stand out is to spice up your subject line with emojis. (Be careful though, support isn’t always the best!) One brilliant use of emojis stood out to us, from Topman:


The creative copy from ThinkGeek also made us chuckle throughout the week:

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Otherwise, subject lines tended to be straight and to the point, focusing on deals and savings.

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Or, for those sent on Thanksgiving, for giving thanks. More retailers adopted the “thank-you” message this year, which may be an effort to address the backlash against store openings on Thanksgiving.

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One thing we’d like email marketers to change next year: STOP SHOUTING! In an attempt to stand out in the inbox, we saw quite a few misguided subject lines like these ones:

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Each email seemed louder than the next as time went on, using (and over-using) emojis, all-caps, and exclamation points.

While Black Friday may be one of the best opportunities to grab your subscribers’ attention, in our joint research with Fluent on consumers’ spam trends, we found that 42% of subscribers look at sender or from name to determine whether or not to open their email, not the subject line.

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While it may be tempting to focus your energy on being the loudest in the inbox, it’s really the overall brand experience that matters. There’s no need to shout! Just ask Joanna Wiebe from Copyhackers:

In the inbox we shouldn’t sound like marketers, we should sound like someone that the subscriber knows. —Joanna Wiebe, Copyhackers

Stand out in the inbox with Subject Line Checker

Use Subject Line Checker, now available in Litmus, to test emoji support, subject lines, and preheaders so you can make the best first impression.

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When it came to design, animated emails took over our inboxes. We loved how email designers went the extra mile to surprise and delight customers for the holidays, playing on holiday themes, carols, and of course, the deals.

Nest used animation to show off their products:

See the full email with Litmus Scope.

SoulCycle and Anthropologie were more playful with their animation, staying on-brand.

See the full email in Litmus Scope.
See the full email in Litmus Scope.

With animation, you’re building something more captivating and delightful for the user. It’s a great way to grab attention for the reader once an email is opened. Unlike all-caps our loud subject lines, it’s a friendly and fun way to hold your reader’s attention and build something delightful.

While most of our emails that had animation used it above the fold, we saw a few examples of animation throughout the email, like this ThinkGeek one:

See the full email in Litmus Scope.

The key with animation? Balancing the subtle and the bold based on your brand. Even if you’re not a quirky, geeky, or “fun” brand, you can still use animation in subtle ways, like this example from Ann Taylor:

See the full email in Litmus Scope.

Try using animation in your next email campaign using our handy guide.

Animated GIFs and CSS animation aren’t fully supported across all email clients, so it’s important to keep that in mind when thinking about using animation in email, and have a fallback in place.There are still plenty of pleasing design techniques you can use to surprise and delight your customers, without animation.

We liked the layout of this one from May Designs. The use of high-contrast white text on black backgrounds and the S-curve design in the secondary messaging catches the eye and guides the reader down the email, encouraging the scroll.

black friday


Shoppers know what Black Friday is about, and they’re expecting emails from their favorite brands. And while the “Black Friday” season seems to extend longer and longer every year, putting together messaging that both stands out and isn’t off-putting (see those subject lines above) can be challenging.

Anti-Black Friday Campaigns

We saw two major trends this year in our inboxes. The first is a bit more radical: a complete anti-Black Friday stance. Brands can see the tension that consumers feel on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, at least in America: Aren’t we supposed to be thankful this week for what we have?

Companies like Patagonia and REI opted for bold campaigns that completely turned away from Black Friday. Patagonia did a cool $10 million in sales this year, and they’re donating every penny to help save the environment.

See the full email in Litmus Scope.
See the full email in Litmus Scope.

Meanwhile REI asked their customers not to buy from them, and instead to go outside, with their award-winning #OptOutside campaign. We loved this last year and are glad it’s becoming a tradition, one that expanded this year to include Google and Subaru.

Read the full email on Litmus Scope.
Read the full email on Litmus Scope.

Other brands focused on being thankful, rather than on the consumerism of the day. Take this one from Title Nine. Their ideal customer is a strong, athletic woman—so it makes sense that they’d focus on being thankful for trailblazers that came before. While subscribers have the option to purchase or navigate to the website, the focus stays on being thankful, and not on purchasing.

See the full email on Litmus Scope.
See the full email on Litmus Scope.

It’s a great example of staying true to your brand above all. Similarly, Toms used their campaign to encourage everyone to be thankful:

See the full email in Litmus Scope.

As did Fluent City, a language course, with their emails (including great animation, too):

See the full email in Litmus Scope.

Cohesive Marketing Campaigns

Rather than one-off email campaigns that have been sent in past years, this year we saw a real trend toward similar and cohesive campaigns sent over multiple days. That included subtle changes in design and using the subject line to tell more of a story, giving subscribers a chance to think about it before pulling the trigger.

Kate Spade, for example, used the same main design elements, but changed up the background and the products included in their animation throughout the week.

Check out each of their campaigns:

While this was great to see since many more cohesive email campaigns, there was a dark side: wayyyyyyyy too many emails. We received the same email from several different brands multiple days in a row. It’s not just us: eDataSource found that retailers sent 12,606 email campaigns on Black Friday, 55.4% more than 2015; Cyber Monday email volume also jumped up by 42%.

Even if you’re using amazing email design techniques or something flashy like animation, it completely ruins the delight and surprise from the first email to the second. And by the fourth iteration, it’s just annoying.

On top of that, according to our report on Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam, email volume was the number one reason consumers unsubscribed, with nearly 67% reporting it as a reason.


The solution lies in data. If you know that your subscriber didn’t open the first email, sending a second that’s similar is probably a safe bet. Utilize the data you have at your disposal to build something more personal and relevant for your customer, rather than adding volume.

Focusing on quality content and targeting customers based on their behaviors with your brand and within past emails can help you pare down your campaigns and prevent the negative backlash that can result from sending too many emails, like an unsubscribe or spam complaint.

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With the addition of a small tracking code to your campaigns, Litmus Email Analytics generates a report of where your subscribers open your emails, including geolocation data, so that you can build more targeted email campaigns.

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