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“Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" - nearly double the conversion rate. (conversionvoodoo.com)
117 points by aresant on Dec 28, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments

I think people think the "Merry Christmas $name" email is not spam (it looks like a message from a friend), so they open and read. "Happy Holidays" is something that only people trying to sell you something say, so you mentally filter that email.

The conversion rate is just a depressing example of how people will buy anything you tell them to. Once you get people to read your email, you'll much more likely to convert. (You get Viagra spam because somebody clicks it and buys.)

This is basically why I give everyone a unique email address, and /dev/null the address after I stop needing it. People like the author of this post try to abuse my attention, and that is not OK with me.

I sold a few hundred dollars of BCC with an email whose subject line was "Merry Christmas from Bingo Card Creator" It went to somewhere like 1,500 teachers who had previously expressed an interest in playing educational bingo and asked for a monthly email newsletter reminding them about activities they would probably like. The content is pretty predictable: it is almost Christmas, you're busy, here's something which takes one thing off your plate for only $29.95.

In what way is this abusing their confidence?

P.S. For folks who are curious about possible ways to address diverse customers without compromising one's very non-diverse principles:


Just one point about your wording. " It is easy, scales to any number of players, and..." sounds very uh, odd for the subject. I'm not sure teachers are thinking about scaling and Big-O, are they?

It tripped me up while I was reading it.

Teachers definitely have to think about scale. The number of tasks you can effectively do with 5 students is a lot larger than the number you can do with 30 students.

Like I said, I don't doubt that it's effective. I, 0.001% of your non-userbase, don't like it.

I don't care if people spam my grandma. Just don't spam me!

I think his point is that at some point it isn't right to call it spam. Double opt-in mailing lists for a product or service that you enjoy isn't spam.

What do you use to design/send your newsletters?

MailChimp. Strong recommendation: does all the hard stuff for you, gets you to actually sending with minimum of work, great API, responsive support, most beautiful UI you will ever see in a web app. Sends swag to customers for Christmas, girlfriend says mascot tshirt makes me look hot.

People like the author of this post try to abuse my attention, and that is not OK with me.

What does 'abuse my attention' mean to you? Is it unsolicited (spam) email, or just any form of marketing/promotion in general? This is an important point to address for startup founders who often rely on obtaining and nurturing attention relationships with their users.

It's about control. With email, I can't control what I receive. If I want to unsubscribe from your newsletter, I'm at the mercy of your site. That sucks. If you want to send me an email because you came up with a message just for me, wonderful! If you want me to ready your form letter that you send to 100,000 people and that I didn't really ask for, fuck you and fuck your conversion rate. Sending me email is a gift; treat it that way.

What's interesting is that newsletters would be better-implemented as RSS/Atom feeds... but nobody ever does that. Why? Because nobody would actually subscribe. Makes you wonder, doesn't it.

(Again, I'm not saying that spam is ineffective, it is effective. But then again, coming up to me and hitting me on the head and taking my wallet would probably get you the money in my wallet faster than creating a business would.)

> What's interesting is that newsletters would be better-implemented as RSS/Atom feeds... but nobody ever does that. Why? Because nobody would actually subscribe. Makes you wonder, doesn't it.

Wonder about what? 99% of the population have no idea what an RSS feed is, and the other 1% largely don't use them.

The kind of people that most e-mail newsletters appeal to are probably the ones that also don´t know how to use syndication feeds. I know my parents (and I´m assuming more of their generation) love getting various store advertisements and so forth through e-mail newsletters and actually look at nearly every one; RSS would probably be more useful, but my dad has never caught on to the format for other stuff. Putting it in Thunderbird like his e-mail works for him, but there is no real content he´s interested in.

Don't ask to be emailed, and you won't get emailed.

When you email me, that means that you update one of the only two applications on my Dock that's programmed to show a number — and the other one is a To Do application. Is your email as important as my to-do list telling me what I've got due today? If not, don't send it. When you email me, that means you update one of the only three applications on my Phone that are enabled to show me a number — and the other two are my phone app and my texting app. Would you TEXT me this announcement? Or would you CALL MY PHONE about this announcement? If not, don't send it.

When I get emails, I expect them to be from either friends or from clients. I like my friends enough to want to see the things they send to me ASAP; I want to hear immediately from clients so that I can respond to them at four in the morning (if I'm up anyway, that is). Know who I don't want interrupting my workflow? You.

If you're looking to get my attention because you've got a new feature or you generally just want me to come back to you, then come up with a way to make me want your reminder. Have me become a fan of you on Facebook, so that you can push to my feed. Have me follow you on Twitter. Publish your story to Hacker News, and make sure it's good enough that I'll notice it and check it out again. Get a blog and push your updates to me through RSS. But when you email me, you're being a jackass.

If you use unique e-mail addresses like the GP (jrockway), you could funnel all potentially-obnoxious mail into a separate folder that doesn't trigger notifications. At least, that works with gmail on my Android phone. It's unreasonable for everyone who wants to e-mail you to predict that you have an aggressive notification system.

> It's unreasonable for everyone who wants to e-mail you to predict that you have an aggressive notification system.

No, it's not. Maybe it was when we didn't have RSS and other "push" systems like Twitter and Facebook to handle people who didn't know who wanted to see their updates but assumed somebody might. Now, however, there is little reason to push content directly to my inbox rather than letting me specify the sorts of things I want there.

I'll put my email address down on a web site if they haven't launched and I want an email notifying me of launch. I think that's a reasonable time to email me. I think it's also a great idea to offer an easy "sign up to have us email you our blog posts" for people who don't have RSS but would still like to benefit from receiving updates. People who release specifically-made-for-email newsletters are either not taking enough advantage of modern methods of online communication, or they're assholes who care more about my seeing their name than they care about whether or not I want to see their name.

While I agree completely with your point of view about how I'd like the world to use email, I'm pragmatic enough to realize that most of the world doesn't think that way. Most people use email to forward chain mail and pictures of cats. Even phone calls and SMS are "abused" by marketing people, and all most people do is complain about call centers ringing them up at meal times.

I _try_ to use unique email adresses, but it's a bit of a pain so I only end up doing it when I suspect spamminess, perhaps there's an opportunity here, a simplified way to auto generate single vendor/website specific email addresses directly from mail clients. It'd be reasonably easy to do it inside gmail on chrome, but I'd wNt it to work the same from my phone, iPad, laptop, desktop, and webmail. That makes it a bit harder. Perhaps a mail server based scheme where I can bcc a specific address and have the mail server/proxy deal with everything...

"Most people use email to forward chain mail and pictures of cats."

No, no they don't. That was pre-facebook - most of those users have moved there now.

Sure, because you're the center of the world and everybody else should think about your specific setup and technology fetish of the week rolls eyes.

Look, I dislike spam as much as the next guy, but being an entitled whiner like you are in this post is beyond ridiculous. If you don't like advertising and businesses trying to sell you stuff, move to North Korea and send me a postcard next Christmas to let us know how you're doing.

It saddens me that people who don't wish to be subjected to consumerist bullshit are labelled 'entitled whiner[s]'.

It's perfectly reasonable for someone to _not_ want, what consumerism brings them. People who decide they don't like receiving marketing emails - trying to dupe them into making a purchase - shouldn't be required to opt-out of society.

(Doh! Despite actively checking, I see other people have made this point already: I must be way too tired and was scrolling in the wrong direction. Regardless, I think some of my comments are not jhst restatements.)

Dude: you chose to let email interrupt your flow. This is simply not how reasonable people use email: most people turn their computer on once a day or two and see if they have any email. When friends want to get a hold of them, they call them on the phone or maybe send a text message.

The question should not be "would you call me with this announcement", it should be "would you send me a piece of snail mail with this announcement". Seriously: when you insist that email be used in this manner /you/ are the person who is being the jackass.

I will also point out that letting friends interrupt you is also ludicrous. "Hey bill: next Thursday I'm thinking of going bowling; want to come?" should not force you to stop everything you are doug and drop out of flow. The next step is that you start going to your friends and yelling at them for forwarding you something they found funny and legitimately thought you would enjoy (and which most of their other friends also enjoyed).

Where does it end? This kind of email addiction is exactly what all of those "how to be happy and effective with your work" books spend most of their time trying to stamp out of you (as people who make their life around business and computers often fall into this trap).

Wishing customers 'Happy Holidays' or 'Happy anything' in bulk isn't a great idea.

1. You probably don't have a personal relationship with your customers. Don't fake it.

2. Trying to sell your customer something off the back of a message like this is opportune and Machiavellian.

3. If you want an opportunity to sell your customers something - be honest and upfront about it.

At the end of the day, this article is just an advertisement for an email conversation company.

That's all well and good for unsolicited email, but for those of us who have lists of people who have signed up to receive email from us, this sort of thing is terribly relevant.

And if you're selling things online and aren't creating these lists, you're leaving a bunch of money on the table.

While I very much agree with your sentiment (email marketing is usually a bad thing), this article seems like a small example of "psychological hacking" and I hate to admit how interesting this sort of thing really is.

It frightens me to know that there are people who spend as much time optimizing the performance of their marketing messages as we do on algorithms. The key difference (at least this is what I tell myself) is that while my work improves the actual product, the marketers work does no such thing.

If you keep thinking that way, you're doing yourself a great disservice. No matter _how_ great your algorithms are, without letting people know about it, you won't sell anything.

Like everywhere else, 90% of everything is crap and "marketing" is no exception, but how many bingo cards do you suppose Patrick would have sold if he wasn't greatly skilled at some oft-disparaged disciplines like SEO and email marketing?

Marketing done wrong is just as useless as all the programming done wrong you laugh at on Daily WTF. If you think you can run a profitable startup while religiously _not_ doing "marketing", I think you're wrong. I'd love to hear how you pitch that philosophy to investors though....

Hey, I said it was evil... I never said it wasn't a necessary evil. Obviously having salesmen is just the way the world works, and just like how libertarianism, communism, and utopian markets could all work in an ideal world, I recognize that's not the world we live in.

Even after reading HN for 662 days now, I still have to force myself to concede that not everyone is motivated by product quality or code cleverness. It still feels immoral to me for a company to sell an inferior product with superior marketing, but I have to ask myself: "Who am I to argue with what people want?" Or, more technically, "Who am I to argue with the neurochemistry of the majority of the population?"

Two thoughts:

For many consumer products, the value of the product is the experience created by the product in conjunction with the marketing. I think hackers tend to focus to exclusion on "core" or "objective" value. If the consumer market thought like that, everyone would be buying off-brand cola.

Second, I would imagine there's at least one order of magnitude more effort going into marketing optimization than there is into computer algorithms.

Marketers work does improve the actual product, in the eye of the consumer. Intangible value is still value!

Preach it, brother! If your stuff will improve someone's life, not hearing about it is the most severe bug you can think of!

This is basically why I give everyone a unique email address, and /dev/null the address after I stop needing it.

Offtopic, but what service do you use for this email redirection setup? Or do you run your own mail server? I do exactly the same thing, currently using MyDomain.com, but looking for a better alternative.

And I bet if you sent 'Happy Hanukkah' vs. 'Happy Holidays' you'd get much more traffic from Jewish recipients. Repeat with any holiday specific to a group.

That’s a great point – clearly the demographic you’re sending to will influence the results.

The experiment was, however, about as controlled for general USA populous as we were able to do - big box retailer, drives most customer acquisition via SEM / SEO so these type of results should be duplicatable if your customers find you through search engines.

The conversion rate could be much better because people rarely see Merry Christmas any more. I'd have bought something from Walmart if they just said 'Merry Christmas' over 'Happy Holidays'. I'm sorry, I'm not celebrating 'happy holidays' I'm celebrating mother fucking Christmas.

I'm not religious, it's just the goddamn holiday. I don't say 'happy holidays' to a Jew, because it's flat out rude. They're Jewish, it's their religious holiday and I respect that. I'll say happy Kwanzaa if I knew someone celebrated it. I'll say happy noodle day to a spaghetti monsterist.

I like respect. If I'm spending money, I want some damn respect or I'll go to the little store downtown and buy something that's actually celebrating the holiday I'm buying for: Christmas.

„Frohe Feiertage“ is the German equivalent to “Happy Holidays” (usually only referring Christmas and New Years because minorities play a much smaller role in German society) and I’m not aware of anyone who was ever offended by it. (I’m also not aware of anyone who was ever offended by „Frohe Weihnachten“, the German equivalent to “Merry Christmas”.) The local catholic priest will get very angry at Santa Claus but he will say „Frohe Feiertage“ (“Happy Holidays”) without even flinching.

To me this looks like a thoroughly ridiculous and awfully US-centric “controversy”.

I have to say that I have never met anyone who was offended by Merry Christmas. I'm an atheist and I hate "Happy holidays." I know what the holiday is: just say its name. My Druid ex-girlfriend would point out to me that it was a Christian usurpation of a pagan festival and then wish me Merry Christmas after the lecture :-)

I've known more people who were upset by "Merry Xmas" than anything else.

So if it's before/during Hannukah and you're not sure if they're Jewish or not...

Oh, and what if you're talking to a Pagan? Do you identify them by the sacrificial blood they are so clearly wearing?

I usually detect my Pagans with a divining rod, I find it the much more applicable way. Similarly I detect Jews by throwing ham at people and judging their reaction, it becomes a little difficult with the Arab Israelis, but you can judge them by carrying around a selection of Halal non-Kosher products.

Note: This method isn't 100% accurate due to the lack of verified studies into the field of divination, and the fact that a large subset of people would hit you if you pelt them with seemingly random foods.

Considering that the person who introduced me to bacon and garlic pizza was Jewish, I can attest that this method does not always work.

> I'm not religious, it's just the goddamn holiday.

They're saying "Happy Holidays", not "Happy Holiday". There are all sorts of holidays in December, including New Years.

When was the last time you bought a new years present, or even card? Stores aren't selling new years, they're selling Christmas - hence the christmas trees they put up.

I've yet to see 'Happy Holidays' when they're selling me Easter Eggs. So I grant your technicality but they're not using it that way given their own usage methods for multiple holidays.

I'd understand this terminology more in British-speaking countries where 'holiday' veritably means any non-regular brake from work. Whilst in North America it is almost literally still used for its original meaning as a Holy-day - with vacation denoting the chiefly British usage of holiday.

So why, in the US when Holiday is virtually still a contraction of Holy day are they not simply using the days name, when they use every other holidays name including other days of religious origin.

I believe the death/martyrdom and ressurection of Christ on Easter weekend is likely to be a more offensive holiday to bring up in the presence of Jews than his birth. But then, you know, that's logic. You can never be logical and politically correct, it must cause cancer or brain aneurysms as by the present date evolution seems to have made them mutually exclusive.

> When was the last time you bought a new years present, or even card?

That doesn't stop it from being a holiday. I don't shop for Christmas presents at my grocery store, but they still put up decorations and wish me a Happy Christmas or Happy Holidays. Both are accurate, and neither rely on me buying stuff for said holidays.

> I've yet to see 'Happy Holidays' when they're selling me Easter Eggs.

There aren't multiple popularly celebrated holidays at Easter time, so it'd be inaccurate then.

> You can never be logical and politically correct...

[citation needed]

So Good Friday is no longer a holiday? Hmm, I'll notify the Church that the Christ's death is now irrelevant.

Here in the States, it generally gets considered as part of the Easter holiday, for the same reasons the eight days of Hanukkah do, or New Years Eve and Day.

I know about five Jewish families that also celebrate Christmas as a non-religious holiday--the only Jewish families I know. I´d say the secular Christmas holiday is common enough in the American culture to not offend all that many people.

One problem: you did this test on Dec 21, well after Hanukkah had passed (it was December 1-9 this year).

So for a big portion of the folks who are supposed to appreciate your PC-ness you missed the holiday by almost a month. Hardly surprising the remaining segment liked "Merry Christmas" better.

Lots and lots more agnostics and aethiests than Jewish people in the USA:


But fair point - would be interesting to test a happy holidays message earlier in the season.

That's fine, but plenty of atheists/agnostics/other non-Christian folk celebrate Christmas (at least in the gift buying sense, which is what you care about).

So for people who do celebrate Christmas, regardless of religion, of course the more specific "Merry Christmas" would beat the generic "Happy Holidays."

Of the folks who don't celebrate Christmas, but do celebrate a gift-buying holiday, Hannukah is pretty important. My gut tells me that Jewish folks are a big portion of this segment, and running the experiment 3 weeks after Hannukah would pretty much kill any chance of conversion for them.

Still, the takeaway from your experiment is solid: if you're running an email campaign 4 days before a major holiday, go ahead and focus on those who celebrate it.

"Happy holidays" smacks of politically-correct pandering and pussyfooting. (I'm a Christmas-celebrating atheist.) Merry Christmas, HN!

I'm a Christmas-celebrating Catholic and I say "Happy Holidays". This notion that the words "Happy Holidays" are a political statement is bullshit. People said them long before Bill O'Reilly declared that there was a war on Christmas.

It's not "politically incorrect" or offensive to say "Merry Christmas" to someone who isn't celebrating Christmas (or, as is far more likely now, is instead preparing to celebrate New Years). It's stupid.

Saying "Happy Holidays" to someone who isn't celebrating any holidays this time of year (e.g. a Chinese Buddhist) is also stupid.

If I was in China, I wouldn't say it. In North America, I'm safe in assuming they're at least celebrating New Years, because they're probably getting the day off.

I'm an atheist who feels the opposite. I'd much rather have someone wish me "Happy Holidays". Assuming people celebrate a certain (your) religious holiday is presumptuous, IMO. Aside from that, with "Happy Holidays", New Year's is included along with Christmas, Hanukah, Festivus, Kwanzaa and all others.

Why leave out new year's?


I'm a (non-practicing) Jew and I appreciate it when people acknowledge I might be celebrating a different holiday than Christmas.

That's a pretty interesting finding, I wonder if anyone else has done similar testing and would care to share their results?

Also, I can't help but grin about "conversion" and the religiously-tinged "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" debate. Perhaps the already-converted are more likely to... convert?

Or maybe Jesus rewards those who keep "Christ in Christmas" with higher conversion rates.

Now that's interesting. I wonder if it's because businesses tend to use HH while personal mail tends towards MC?

I just love to see this kind of experimental results.

Just to take a step away from the particular discussion at hand, I found the very similar season greetings cluttering my inbox to be a nuisance.

It's worth remembering that the conversion rate only applies to the people who clicked at all - remember the surly curmudgeons like us who don't. :)

Just before you think about applying this to your business.

Um, what was the unsubscribe rate on this particular campaign?

While they converted 16% they probably alienated another 16%

I'm possibly wrong, but for me, Merry Christmas has a direct association with buying, sales, or e-mails about a sale etc., while happy holidays doesn't conjure up the same meaning, and hence a higher probability of me opening an e-mail?

Maybe fewer percentage of the people even opened the e-mail and the click-through percentage of the people that actually opened the e-mail was the same?

An important note about email conversion rates.

There is a conversion funnel to actual paying customer. For this kind of test they are testing conversion from one step to the next. At other steps in funnels that I've seen, I've found that the increase in conversion at that step goes fairly straightforwardly to conversion to paying customer. However for email in particular at a couple of different places I've seen that improvements in clickthrough rates do not convert linearly to improvements in revenue.

While 100% more people may have clicked through, I'd be willing to bet that actual purchases went up by substantially less than 100%. This is not to discount the value of, say, a 20% increase in sales. But you really should measure that instead of clicks. (That said, people like this company like to measure clicks because it is very easy to do so.)

Valid point.

In this case the results were nearly linear, this is addressed in the article: "While we haven’t included the buy rate in the chart above due to client confidentiality, the results were similarly impressive."

"similarly impressive" is deliberately vague; I certainly wouldn't take it to imply nearly linear.

Very important point. Driving increases in CTR is a million times easier than driving increases in actual conversion rate. While the author mentioned that they saw "similarly impressive" increases in conversion, that isn't the norm. In a lot of cases, the extra traffic drawn in by jumping through hoops to increase CTR converts at a proportionately poorer rate - it's fickle, poor quality traffic.

"Merry Christmas" always seemed more personal to me than "Happy Holidays". Family members wish me "Merry Christmas", corporations wish me "Happy Holidays". Its not really a religious thing in my mind its more a matter of an meaningful gesture vs an empty statement.

Google agrees, "Merry Christmas" reigns supreme:


What the writer is referring to is the "Click Through Rate". A "conversion" is when the user takes an action post click (submits info, downloads, purchases, etc.).

He also incorrectly calculate the CTR. The CTR on an email campaign is clicks divided by opens. He divided clicks over sends, which since fewer people opened the "Happy Holidays" email, fewer would have naturally clicked. "Merry Christmas" still performed better, but not at the rates he's suggesting.

Who cares about offending people who consider Christmas exclusionary when your CTR doubles? Most Americans still consider Christmas a “religious holiday” so this email means, to most people, your company is “picking” Christianity. I personally disagree with this practice. There’s enough Christian privilege to go around as it is.

I hear Happy New Year more than Happy Holidays

'Happy Christmas' remains awkward.

"Happy Christmas" is accepted in the UK, just not in the US.

From 30 Rock:

HAPPY HOLIDAYS is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas, Avery and Jack.

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