The year-end holiday season always seems to be a hectic one in the email marketing world. It’s your last push to meet your annual goals, so stress levels—and email volume—are at an all-time high. Subscribers are also busier than ever, so breaking through to them is even more of a challenge. How can you make the “most wonderful time of the year” good for you, too?

Our curiosity got the best of us, so we analyzed nearly 2.5 billion email opens from this past Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. And what we saw was definitely different than the trends we found in the first three quarters of the year. And this can be helpful as you plan for the year ahead.

How does email engagement change during the holiday season?

While digging through the year-end holiday email data, some interesting patterns emerged. Here are three of our takeaways.

1. Mobile email opens increased and took the top spot

Most popular email reading environments, measured by global email opens (November 26, 2020 – January 1, 2021)

People have been mostly opening emails on mobile devices for a while now, but in our 2020 State of Email Engagement, we saw an increase in webmail opens after the COVID-19 pandemic began. That’s right, webmail overthrew mobile as the favorite place for subscribers to open emails.

However, as 2020 came to a close, we saw mobile opens gain ground again, and it continued an upward trend the closer we got to year-end.

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, about 44.2% of people opened emails on a mobile device, 34.6% via webmail, and 19.8% within a desktop application.

Saturdays in particular see a bigger bump in mobile email opens. And though we typically see a slight dip in mobile email opens during the workweek, it was fairly level between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

In general, when people aren’t on the job, they’re more likely to read emails on their mobile devices. The holidays are usually when people are “out of office,” so it’s not surprising that mobile opens remained consistently high during that time.

It’s a good idea to look at your own open data either in your email sending platform or in a tool like Litmus Email Analytics, so you can optimize your emails for your audience. For example, did you know that most of our own subscribers actually don’t read Litmus emails on mobile?

With high mobile opens, you’ll want to focus on creating mobile-friendly emails. Even if you don’t typically see a lot of opens on mobile devices from your own audience, you might notice the same trend here with mobile opens going up on Saturdays and holidays. So if you send emails during those times? Mobile isn’t something you can ignore.

2. People opened emails at 7pm

Litmus Email Analytics email opens by time of day in the United States during the holidays 2020
Most popular email open times, measured by United States email opens (November 26, 2020 – January 1, 2021)

For diving into when people were most likely to open emails during the holiday season, we zeroed in on data from the United States only (so much data, so little time!). Compare this to the best time to send email, and you’ll notice it’s not 10am here. In fact, 10am isn’t even the second most popular time to open email.

What we discovered is that 7pm was by far the most popular time of the day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day with 9.45% of email opens on average.

It seems like people are less engaged with emails throughout the day during the holidays compared to before them. Instead, they preferred to open during more narrow times of the day like 7pm or mid-morning. This is especially true after Christmas.

Who’d have thought that?

So you might want to consider changing up your email routine when the holidays roll around this year.

That being said, we are in a pandemic, and anything goes. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the end of 2021 shows us something completely different. This is why it’s important to be agile and stay on top of your subscribers’ behaviors because they can change at any time.

3. But lunchtime was a favorite for shopping

We did notice a few significant exceptions to 7pm being the most popular time to open emails during the holidays in the United States: Sundays, Christmas, and the biggest shopping days of the year.

On closer inspection, these are the top three most popular email open times for shopping the biggest sales:

  • Black Friday: 11am (9.17%), 10am (8.41%), 12pm (8.28%)
  • Cyber Monday: 11am (8.16%), 12pm (8.08%), 10am (7.63%)
  • Green Monday: 12pm (9.14%), 1pm (7.83%), 7pm (7.67%)

Given that people don’t want to miss out on the best deals or risk having something they’ve been eyeing run out of stock, it’s no wonder 7pm is a no-go.

Lunchtime is most likely ideal since Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Green Monday fall on workdays. And shopping the sales requires more focused time that people get during their break as opposed to stealing glances at their phone when they’re supposed to be working.

So if you’ve got a big sale coming up, it might be worth testing to see if your audience also prefers shopping between 11am and 1pm local time. Hint: There are some holidays just around the corner.

There’s no one-size-fits-all holiday email strategy

The holiday season is a critical time for many companies, and it might be your last chance to hit or exceed your goals.

While the insights we shared here can help serve as a baseline for your next holiday email marketing strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. You need to see your own audience’s behavior.

Even if you know your audience, you can’t assume they’ll always behave the same from month to month—or even day by day. Our data proves this, and we just barely scratched the surface by zooming in on roughly one month of the year.

Be sure to track trends on your email performance. And if you want to dig deeper to see when your subscribers open your emails, how long they read them, and more? Check out what Litmus Email Analytics can do for you.

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