Time-sensitive email

What Is Time-Sensitive Email?

Whether you’re sending promotional or transactional email (or both), email senders often don’t think to consider what it means to say email is “time-sensitive,” except to expect that it should arrive without delay. After all, we often think of all email as being time-sensitive. The immediacy of the medium encourages the notion that every email is as timely as any other, and that they all are time-sensitive in the same way.

But the truth is that the optimum timing of email messages can vary significantly, depending upon the type of message. Getting that timing right is increasingly critical in a digital universe full of distractions and crowded with competition. In fact, when it comes to delivering a relevant message, hitting the inbox at just the right time can be as important as optimizing a subject line or tailoring message content.

This means “time-sensitive” is not just a euphemism for “very important!” When we’re talking “time-sensitive email,” we mean any email where delivery at a specific point in time is directly influences the value of the message.

Why Time-Sensitive Email Works

The big advantage of getting email timing right is that it ensures your message reaches the recipient when they are most receptive to its content. Remember the classic “four P’s” of marketing? Product, Price, and Promotion all transfer directly to email content. When we add in receiving email at just the right time, we now have Place, too.

So, by getting timing right, time-sensitive email…

  • Allows you to reach a recipient at the moment when they’re most receptive, especially if data-driven insights from past interactions drive the email.
  • Fosters feelings of timeliness, appropriateness, and relevance—not spam.
  • Creates a sense of urgency that drives response to promotions or pre-event buzz-building.
  • Demonstrates that you are engaged, communicative, and understand your customers’ needs.

Examples of Time-Sensitive Email

Unsurprisingly, many time-sensitive messages are forms of triggered emails. Typical examples include:

  • One obvious example of time-sensitive email are messages sent immediately after a trigger event or another cue, and are anticipated by the recipient. Examples? Welcome and confirmation emails, password resets, security alerts, and the like. The more immediate the delivery, the more likely the message reinforces trust and drives necessary next steps.
  • Conversely, the optimum time for delivery sometimes is offset or delayed from the original action. These emails send after a certain amount of time, ranging from minutes to days, even months and years. Examples include follow-up emails and reminder emails, such as cart abandonment reminders, deadline and past-due notices, or re-subscription promotions to former customers.
  • Date-based emails align with key dates on either the consumer’s calendar, and are sent before or after a date, too. Birthday and anniversary emails, time-based reminders, holiday promotions, and expiring membership or discount alerts are just a few examples.
  • Limited offer emails are a classic promotion that give the recipient a limited time or other constraint (“while supplies last!”) within which to act. Examples can be anything from a flash sale alert to a sweepstakes promotion. For messages like these to work, however, they need to arrive within narrow window that drives urgency but still allows sufficient time for the recipient to take action. It’s also important to use this active judiciously; we’ve all seen examples of marketers who overuse limited-time offers and inure us to time-sensitive messages.
  • Event-based emails are usually relevant only within the finite timeframe of a relevant event. This type of message often is used for sports or entertainment events, webinars or business conferences, and the like. Depending upon the message content, these emails have limited windows to arrive before, during, or after the event. Examples include a session reminder while at a convention, or coupons to the stadium gift shop at a sporting event.
  • A final sort of time-sensitive email isn’t necessarily triggered by a consumer action or fixed calendar dates, but instead respond to external developments that have a limited shelf life once invoked. Reporting breaking news is a classic example. Other examples are regulatory notices like shareholder notifications or employee alerts requiring delivery within a given period.

Take the Next Step with Time-Sensitive Email

I hope you’ve seen why it’s important to plan and implement your email programs to ensure that the timing and cadence of message delivery reflects a strategic and purposeful intent, not simply “whenever it arrives.”

Of course, the asynchronous nature of email and the heterogeneous networks it travels means some factors simply will be out of your control. However, the right strategy, combined with an email delivery service like SparkPost that boasts great deliverability and that has the elasticity to scale on demand, help to ensure that your time-sensitive messages reach the inbox at just the right time.


P.S. Want to dig deeper into time-sensitive email? Be sure to check out our “7 Best Practices for Time-Sensitive Email” Guide.

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time sensitive email marketer who cried wolf

Retailers Condition Shoppers to Expect Discounts

Of all the tactics in an email marketer’s toolbox, few are as powerful as the little word “SALE!”, especially when paired with the warning “Hurry, time’s running out!” But, similar to antibiotics or thrill-seeking, promotional discounts and other limited-time offers lose their impact when overused. Like the villagers in the boy who cried wolf, consumers become inured to senders who promote constant sales and make every email a last chance to save… and then do it again… and again.

What’s going on here? It’s not that consumers don’t like the notion of a deal. Sales, coupons, and other discounts are powerful psychological motivators for most of us.

Moreover, although discounts necessarily require careful management of operating margins, value-based pricing can be a very successful long-term strategy. As businesses as diverse as Target, Trader Joe’s, and many others can attest. On the other end of the spectrum, some retailers (especially high-end, luxury brands) simply never discount, instead relying on brand cachet and other qualities to nurture their business. What unifies these otherwise very different retailers is a consistent pricing strategy that doesn’t depend upon temporary promotions to draw customers.

For retailers whose brands and business models don’t have that intrinsic pricing strategy—high or low—consumers’ expectations create a quandary. Retailers turn to promotional pricing to goose sales, but when overused, customers quickly become trained to shop only during sale periods. A dependence on sales to generate business has become especially intractable for mid-market brands like Gap, Lands’ End, and Macy’s. I’m not the only person who thinks if I’m not getting 40% off at these stores, I’m throwing away money. It’s vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape, as J.C. Penney learned the hard way.

As email marketers, we can’t solve that fundamental challenge by ourselves. But that’s not to say we don’t have a role in addressing the “cry wolf” dynamic. Of course, how we approach it depends on the nature of our business and our brand. I’ve seen great examples of using time sensitive email that don’t feed the wolf as we seek to drive traffic. Here are some lessons email marketers can take to heart.

  1. Make sales and other promotional discounting a genuinely rare event. For example, men’s clothing retailer Thomas Pink has two sales per year, and they’re explicitly designed to clear inventory of goods with seasonal appeal. Your customers might well jump at the deals — great! However, they won’t be tempted to delay purchases at other times, because they know that your rack rates are the “real” prices.
  2. Restrict aggressive “time-sensitive offers” to situations where it has the most impact and supports a strategic business goal, rather than a one-time spike in traffic. Encouraging sign-ups for products or services with subscription pricing—which drives recurring revenue—is an ideal application of this approach. A perfect example is this email from Headspace that offered limited-time incentives to get new subscribers. It delivers a compelling value proposition for the customer, with little real cost to the company’s brand or business model.

Time-Sensitive Email: Headspace Subscription Last Chance3. Get time on your side by using creative, time-based promotions that don’t involve sales or promotional pricing. Unlike endless “the sale ends at midnight!” offers (which seemingly happen every week), effective time/event-based marketing creates a sense of real value and novelty. Consider this email from Peet’s Coffee. The real appeal is the in-store demonstration; although it includes a 20% discount, that sale reinforces the specialness of the event, rather than a pure pricing play.

Time-Sensitive Email: Peet’s Coffee Cafe Event

Time Can Still Serve as a Powerful Marketing Tool

I won’t pretend that rethinking time sensitive email offers like these are all it will take to solve the promotional pricing trap that too many business find themselves. But I do hope they show that, when used judiciously, time can be on our side and serve as a powerful marketing tool that our customers will truly value.

What’s been your experience sending or receiving limited-time offers in email? I’d like to hear what’s working for you.


P.S. Have you seen examples of time sensitive email sales we’re missing? Please comment below!

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