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Five holiday promotion ideas for small businesses

Five holiday promotion ideas for small businesses

$885 billion. That’s how much U.S. shoppers are expected to spend this holiday season. With all that cash on the table, it's no surprise retailers are fighting tooth and nail for every sale, discounting their products deeper and starting their promotions earlier.

Ecommerce startups can learn many lessons from major retailers—we covered a few big ones in Part 2 of our Holiday Seller's Guide—but when it comes to holiday sales promotions, small businesses often struggle to match the bargain-basement pricing, free shipping and giant stack of coupons handed out by companies like Amazon and Best Buy each year.

The good news is that price doesn’t reign supreme. According to a 2014 Epicor survey, the majority of consumers value getting a competitive price over getting the lowest price. And although Black Friday and Cyber Monday continue to feature insane markdowns and even below-cost prices, small businesses can win over shoppers with creative holiday promotions that don’t require mammoth marketing budgets.

As you’re prepping for your mid-December rush, consider some of these holiday promotion ideas that have worked for our clients in the past. Give them a shot in your store and let us know what you think!


Get people talking

Consumers trust word of mouth more than anything else, so it pays to employ loyal customers as Santa’s little helpers. While happy shoppers may do this work for free year-round, the holidays are a great time to show your gratitude and incentivize conversation about your products.

To boost the effectiveness of your referral campaign, experiment with special offers for both sides of referrals. When Airbnb released its beta version in 2011, it offered $25 credits to new sign-ups as well as as to referring users, nearly doubling its member base. Four years later, this referral program continues to be an extremely lucrative customer acquisition tool for the company.


airbnb referral coupon


Keep in mind that not all successful referral campaigns include a cash money incentive. A University of Chicago study found that non-cash incentives are actually 24 percent more effective at boosting performance than cash incentives, so think about what really motivates your customers. It could be a discount on their next purchase, or it could be exclusive access to something, an entry to win a prize, or even a donation to a cause they care about.


Give the gift of great content

Content marketing has been a hot topic in ecommerce circles for a while now, but many brands still struggle to produce the kind of consistent, high-quality content that keeps customers coming back for more. Even with well-defined strategies and teams of writers, marketers and community managers, many established brands suck at content marketing.

Successful content marketers understand that content marketing isn’t just about product promotion—it's about providing customers with information they can actually use. Whether that means winter wardrobe inspiration, tips for planning a special menu, or, heck, a guide to surviving the holidays as an online merchant, good content engages your customers without giving them a hard sell.  


mr.porter website journal page


Remember that “content” doesn’t just refer to the stuff that makes up blog posts and email newsletters. The holidays are a great time to experiment with new channels. Video, mobile, and a bunch of new social media apps are all expected to drive sales this season. Entrepreneurs who embrace new technologies are sure to benefit—so be bold, get a buy button.


Make friends and win customers

Stretch your marketing budget and get on Santa’s nice list by reaching out to other businesses and striking up partnerships. You promote their business, they promote yours, everybody gets increased market share and better brand awareness—often at a very attractive price.

It's easy to see why partnering with an established brand can be lucrative for small businesses, and bigger brands are increasingly seeing startup partnerships as an opportunity to tap into a fresh audience and inject some originality into their promotions. Think of Target and The Honest Company, Adidas and Wings+Horns, Nordstrom and Warby Parker—just a few of the big-little partnerships that have rocked the retail world in the past couple of years.


promo for nordstrom and warby parker featuring a man and woman sitting sit by side wearing sunglasses


Small businesses have also keyed into the benefits of banding together, thanks to campaigns like Shop Local and Small Business Saturday. Complementary businesses can co-produce promotions, create joint loyalty programs, and pool mailing lists to better effect than they could have done solo. Taken to the nth degree, marketplaces like Garmentory and Of a Kind are examples of small businesses turning partnerships into bona fide sales channels.


Put a bow on it

Corrugated cardboard, bubble wrap, packing peanuts—not exactly the type of thing you want to put under the tree, right? But red-and-green-swathed packages trimmed with handwritten gift tags and fat, velvety bows? That’s the stuff of childhood Christmases, and it’s what customers want when they order online during the holidays.

While gift wrapping is a great opportunity to boost convenience for your customers and create a personalized shopping experience, relatively few retailers offer the service (and those that do leave much to be desired). A little holiday paper and ribbon can make even the most impersonal holiday gifts—electronics, chocolate, gift cards—seem heartfelt.


wooden crate filled with four presents wrapped in packing paper and decorated with leaves


As you prepare your holiday wrapping campaign, think about which colours and designs will appeal most to your target demographic and set your business apart from competitors. Keep your packaging consistent with your brand and inventory: if you’re selling toys, cartoon reindeer and snowmen are probably a good choice; for bespoke housewares or accessories, you might pick something more understated and traditional. Whatever you decide on, make sure you include a photo of what it will look like–that will increase the number of customers who add gift wrapping at checkout.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of a handwritten holiday message. The tradition of writing personal notes and letters has become something of a lost art, and in the words of Qualipedia founder Dawn Bryan, “This paucity imparts even more value to the rare handwritten note because it makes the recipient feel special.” There’s just something about seeing our name in cursive that gets us every time.


Support a good cause

Supporting charity and nonprofit organizations can make a world of difference to important causes while giving an additional boost to your business. According to a study by Propinquity, 85 percent of consumers have a more positive image of a product or company when it supports a charity they care about, and 80 percent are likely to switch brands to one that supports a cause.

It would be great if ecommerce merchants were able to donate to charities with every sale, but for fledgling startups that often isn’t realistic. The holidays are a good time to dip into philanthropy not because the need is any greater in December than it is in June, but because charity initiatives have more traction around that time, with three times as many people making donations during the holidays versus non-holiday months.


website popup asking people to watch a video about charity work


If you're going to include charitable contributions in your holiday promotions, it’s important to be clear on three issues: identity, amount and frequency. You should ask yourself what connection your chosen organization has to your business—the closer the tie, the stronger and more effective it will be. The amount and frequency of the donations is up to you, but make sure that you’re able to fulfill those commitments.


Wrapping up 😁

The holiday season may be the most competitive time of year in retail, but you don’t need a big budget to compete with major retailers, and you don’t have to slash prices to attract shoppers. Thanks to the magic of technology—not to mention good, old-fashioned customer service—a variety of novel campaigns can be assembled to entice consumers and boost your bottom line.

Have more ideas for creative holiday promotions? We want to hear them! Hit us up in the comments and let us know how you’re promoting your store.

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