Brands will be carefully monitoring their competitors’ email programs this holiday season, just as they’ve done in past years. However, they’re increasingly seeing a smaller and smaller portion of what their competitors are actually sending.

That’s because of the growing adoption of:

  • Personalization and dynamic content
  • Predictive intelligence and personalized product recommendations
  • Segmented emails
  • Triggered emails

As email marketing does a better job of living up to its 1-to-1 potential, competitive intelligence will become increasingly daunting—and perhaps even pointless. The scale and diversity of circumstances involved in getting reasonably good visibility into what others are doing with their email program, plus the analytics and manpower necessary to parse the resulting data, will make such exercises expensive and cumbersome in the future.

Already there are brands that generate the majority of the email marketing revenue from triggered and transactional emails. In the years ahead, passing that milestone will be one of the markers of a great email marketing program.

Retailers have long been concerned about tipping their hands to competitors, particularly during the critical holiday season. Using more personalization, segmentation, and triggered messaging increases the fog of war, making it more difficult for competitors to broadly know what you’re doing, especially when these strategies account for a majority of program revenue.

Here are 6 hard-to-see shadow tactics that can give you the advantage this holiday season and in the years to come:

1. Progressive Profiling & Preference Update Emails

While analytics are powerful, sometimes it’s best to supplement your implied preference data with expressed preference data. In other words, why guess when you can simply ask your subscribers what they want?

This approach can be particularly effective at inflection points where subscriber preferences are likely to change significantly, such as going into the holiday season, coming out of the holiday season, and the start of spring. Collecting in-market data can be highly effective at helping you select the audiences for segmented messages.

For instance, on Nov. 13, 2013, Zulily sent a progressive profiling email that resulted in a brand alert email being triggered on Thanksgiving Day. And on Nov. 5, 2014, Sony sent a progressive profiling email where respondents received a targeted triggered email on Black Friday. In both cases, that’s great timing for an email that the recipient is already primed to act on.

Unless a competitor uses multiple personas to follow each branch of a progressive profiling email, it will be impossible for them to see the full span of your messaging.

2. Abandonment Emails

Cart and browse abandonment emails work best when they are tailored to the product abandoned, and even the circumstances. For example, if a subscriber browsed a digital SLR camera but didn’t purchase, following up with content about other possible DSLR choices would be wise, as Crutchfield does in this email. And if a subscriber abandoned a product because it was out of stock, it would probably make more sense to follow up a “back in stock” message, as Williams-Sonoma does in this email, rather than to focus on product alternatives.

If you take the time to optimize your response to abandonments across product categories and circumstances, you’ll not only be delivering highly relevant messaging to subscribers, but you’ll make it very difficult for your competitors to figure out your conversion tactics.

3. Conditional Series

Many of the most effective triggered emails are expanding into series. However, a smart series doesn’t treat everyone the same.

For instance, if a subscriber abandoned a shopping cart with $20 of merchandise in it, you’d send them a cart abandonment email. Whereas, if the cart was worth $2,000, you’d probably send them a 3-email series. Similarly, you’d send a post-purchase product review request for a $100 product, but probably not with a $1 item.

4. Personalized Recommendations

Adding personalized recommendations using predictive intelligence and other tools is another way to keep competitors guessing, as the variations are nearly infinite for large assortment retailers.

This cart abandonment “sandwich” from Blue Nile is a great example of how personalized product recommendations can be used effectively in triggered messaging. The first email in the 3-email series focuses on the product abandoned; the second focuses on product alternatives based on the abandoned product; and the third is a combo of the two approaches.

5. Reengagement, Re-permission, and Win-Back Emails

These emails are all about reengaging subscribers and customers. Reengagement emails target subscribers who haven’t engaged with your emails in a while. Re-permission emails target chronically inactive subscribers, giving them a chance to reconfirm their subscription before you take them off your active mailing list. And win-back emails target your subscribers who haven’t purchased in a while.

Going into the holiday season is a great time to think about all of these emails, as they allow you to reinvigorate your subscriber base, while also trimming your list of subscribers who may hurt your inbox placement during the worst time of the year to have deliverability problems.

Because these emails are typically triggered or manually sent after months or even more than a year of inactivity, they’re hard for competitors to track. And if you tailor the messaging of these emails to different subscriber and customer personas, then they’re even harder for competitors to get visibility into.

6. Seasonal Adjustments to Triggered Emails

Triggered emails are not “set it and forget it”; they are “review and renew.” That’s especially true going into the holiday season. Make your triggered emails more relevant to holiday shoppers by adding seasonal imagery to the headers and gift services footers to the bottom of those emails, and adjusting the logic and timing of your cart and browse abandonment emails.

For instance, time to purchase is compressed during big shopping days like Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Green Monday, so you’ll likely want to trigger your first abandonment email and any subsequent ones in the series to be sent more quickly than usual.

If you can, go back and determine the natural rate of return for your customers during Black Friday and other key holiday shopping days last year. If you’re not about to, consider looking at your shoppers’ behavior during your Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day sales. Use those behaviors to determine your ideal delay for your cart abandonment emails.

Achieving a Stealth Victory

Content and messaging that’s 1-to-1 and 1-to-some are key to present and future success in email marketing. They’re also key to flying below your competitors’ radar.

Instead of fixating on misleading industry benchmarks and on what your competitors are doing, it’s time to double-down on focusing on your subscribers and customers. If you focus on who you’re serving and act like you’re always behind your competitors, then you’re most likely to find yourself among the victors.

For more on winning the email marketing holiday war, download the free email marketing holiday calendar.