By Tommy DeLuca and John Schellman

Holiday marketing success in the 21st century requires fresh ideas. Old chestnuts won’t cut it (even if they are roasting on an open fire). Here are six steps to get you headed in the right direction.

1. Don’t start too late

Deciding when to launch a holiday marketing campaign can be tricky. Depending on the nature of your brand and the marketing channels you use, you risk a backlash if you run holiday ads before the leaves have changed. (As our founder, Lewis Gersh, wrote last year in Marketing Land, “Remember when Christmas in July promotions were supposed to be ironic?”)

But there’s no trick when it comes to planning your holiday campaign. You need to work on it year-round, and the best way to do that is through relentless testing. Many brands rely too heavily on one marketing channel that has worked well for them in the past, and they fail to test enough new combinations. If you’re a digital marketer, technology moves really, really fast. It’s in your best interest to stay informed on new channels, new strategies, new products. Innovative companies are popping up all the time with creative approaches. (Our company, PebblePost, is a good example.) Fine-tuning your approach by testing new ideas and new channels early in the year can pay huge dividends when it’s time to ramp up spend in Q4.

2. Don’t stop too early

Many brands miss another big holiday opportunity by shutting off their marketing spigots too soon. Again, this is primarily a failure to adapt to a new reality. Years ago, ending your holiday promotions on December 21 was logical because that was the last day a brand could ship something out in order to get it to a consumer by Christmas Eve. But in the digital age that hard stop is a huge miss. A lot of brands still draw users to their sites throughout the holidays. And many of those visitors are armed with newly received gift cards or the 20 bucks that grandma sent them.

In addition, many consumers take advantage of the huge discounts available after the holidays, so some brands can get additional revenue by keeping their foot on the gas pedal well into January. (January is also a great time to convert first-time holiday buyers into loyal customers.)

3. Stay in your lane…

Another benefit of crunching data throughout the year is that it gives brands a solid baseline understanding of who their customers are. Testing and optimizing allows brands to identify which segments of their audience generate the highest conversion rates. The process also allows them to put the right delivery partners in place to effectively target repeat buyers during peak holiday season with strong promotions.

4. …but don’t follow the crowd

Brands tend to rely on the duopoly too much, especially in digital. That’s understandable; with 85% of digital spend going to Google and Facebook, it’s easy to justify this approach. And some brands probably should devote the bulk of their budget to Google. But others, especially mid-market brands, could find pockets of efficiency with new channels competing for certain audiences. That’s yet another reason why brands should test throughout the year instead of just falling into their old ways. With the inevitable increase in traffic during the holidays, brands have to be ready to target segments that they don’t at other times of the year.

5. Build a big enough budget

Many brands determine their budget for the next holiday season by duplicating the budget they had last holiday season. This fails to account for the rising costs of digital media during peak holiday season. A good rule of thumb is to allow for a 15% increase. In addition, many brands fail to identify the right KPI targets and don’t have the right attribution model in place, which can harm their ability to drive incremental revenue come holiday time.

And then there’s the budget for testing. Many brands don’t even include so much as a line item for testing in their budgets. Given the importance of testing—have we mentioned the importance of testing?—this is hard to comprehend. So even if brands don’t include testing in their holiday budgets, they need to adequately accommodate it in their overall marketing budgets.

6. Don’t forget to incorporate the holiday spirit into your holiday marketing

Some brands become so focused on the marketing portion of holiday marketing that they overlook the holiday component. That’s a missed opportunity. Consumers tend to respond favorably to holiday campaigns that feature philanthropic themes. A couple of recent examples are Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” and REIs #OptOutside Black Friday campaigns. Those brands' willingness to sacrifice revenue for principle resonated strongly with their loyal customers.

While a cynic might argue that there’s an element of reverse psychology at play here — the attention that “Don’t buy this jacket” attracted might well have helped Patagonia sell more jackets — that doesn’t necessarily mean that the underlying message is insincere. It is, in fact, possible to have it both ways. The best holiday marketing campaigns generate both profits and goodwill.

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