Why Holiday eCard Spam Might Actually be a Negative

Posted on Dec 24, 2010 | 14 comments


Like many of you, for me this was the year of the unsolicited eCards from random people I barely knew.  Let’s be honest, much of this has become spam.

I’m not the Grinch.  I’m not anti holiday spirit.  But if you ARE going to get into it then you ought to do it right.  Make it count.  Like the team at First Round Capital always does.  This was my favorite.

I didn’t grow up sending Christmas cards.  I’m Jewish.  I grew up going to Chinese food & a movie on Christmas.  In a good year we’d join all of the Chinese people and go to Disneyland.  Most people I tell this to think I’m joking.  I’m not.

I only recently learned that other people did the same (see this video to prove it) – we never all talked to each other in some sort of conspiracy – Chinese food & movies were the only thing to do when all your friends were home opening presents, nothing was on our 4 stations of TV, DVDs didn’t exist and no other restaurants were open.

But I’ve learned to enjoy sending annual cards.  These days I just send personal ones with my kids on them to close friends & family.  I write the annual “state of the Suster’s” summarizing our year.

But I have send out business cards in the past.  Here’s what I learned and my 2 unsolicited cents:

1. Send them only to people you know – Every year I would go through my Outlook contact database and create a separate list for the people to whom I wanted to send a card.  I figured there was no point in sending cards to random people who I barely knew.  When I get a card with no hand-written note from anybody and when it comes from an investment bank I once met, a PR firm I’ve never worked with or a law firm with whom I did one transaction I always think, “what’s the point?”  I know it was sent by their assistants and they put in no effort themselves.  If anything – it has negative value.

I’ve talked to enough other people about this to know that I’m not alone in being annoyed by holiday eCard spam.  If it’s from somebody I know or if it’s a personal note from somebody I don’t know well – great.  I’m all for holiday cheer.  It’s the “blast your whole contact database” that risks negative perception.

2. Add something memorable – When I ran my first company I found it strange that my head of sales was urging me to send Christmas cards to our customers.  As I said, this was a foreign concept.  But I decided if I was going to do it I was going to do it right.  Every year we designed our own company holiday card with our logo, a fun message and some humour (we were in England, after all).

We wished them a good holiday, of course, and we tried to get across a message.  If you’re sending personal cards it’s OK to just be about the holiday, but if you’re sending business holiday cards you might as well admit to yourself that it’s part holiday greeting / part marketing.  And if you buy into that then you might as well have a message that resonates with people.  Put in the time to say something clever.

Just like the First Round Capital team.  Instinctively when I saw their original videos I thought, “those guys are clever at marketing” more than, “what a nice thought a Christmas.”  This year they were even transparant about it with a play off of the Old Spice commercial and said, “is your term sheet a First Round term sheet?”  Humor, for sure.  But in all humor …  Smart.

3. Put in some elbow grease & make them personal – When I send business holiday cards I decided that if I was going to do it I was going to follow my golden rule and make them personalized.  Nobody wants a card printed & sent from your assistant.  If you’re not willing to do some work yourself then why should the recipient value your card?  We had the stock BuildOnline holiday & new year’s message but I always hand wrote 2-3 sentences in each card and signed it myself.  If I was going to send a card it had to be a human message.

4. Send ‘em early or late – There’s no point in your holiday card arriving between December 20-31st.  If it’s a physical card there’s a strong chance they won’t see it until they’re back in the office Jan 2nd with a stack of them sitting on their desk and 100′s of unswered emails.  If it’s an eCard it may be even worse.  If you’re going to send a holiday card make sure it arrives by December 15th so it’s one of the ones that gets read or have it be a New Year’s card that arrives on January 8th when the backlog is cleared.  Earlier better than late.  Ironically, middle is the worst.

6. Send a physical card - OK, so I’m not “anti green” but I don’t buy the BS that most companies are sending eCards to be green.  Most companies send eCards because they’re automated, easy and less expensive.  But if your point in sending a card was to honor somebody that you care about, make them take notice of you, get across some words you’d like to leave with them, stay on their consciousness or whatever reason you have for sending them – you’ll be far more effective with a real, physical card.  For most people sending 100 cards is less paper than the last physical book you read or newspaper you bought.  It’s far greener than the last few flights you took.

In a world where electronic, easy messages become the norm, it’s the unique that stands out from the crowd.  Printed, personalized and physically signed cards will stand out.

7. My REAL suggestion: Send a birthday card in stead - My most important advice is to send a birthday card in stead of a holiday card.  Think about it – when you send a holiday card they’re getting 20-100 of them and it’s a day when everybody is celebrating.  When you send somebody a birthday card they think, “wow, that’s cool.  He remembered.”  And it will be one of a very few handful that they will have received.  Sure, they’ll have 50 Facebook “happy birthday” messages that will blend together.  But yours will be hand signed and sitting on their desk.  Trust me, they’ll notice.

Update: To those who have been asking me how you know people’s birthdays: aside from the obvious place to start – Facebook – it’s dead simple to find out most people’s birthday.  You can start by calling their assistant if they have one.  Just tell them you like to keep track of birthdays to send cards.  Or if you know some of their friends or colleagues ask them .  Just be transparent why you’re asking.  If you’ve had a few meetings with the person and have some rapport – it’s also OK to politely just ask them directly.  Again, just be up front that you send birthday cards.

I don’t personally send business birthday cards – I barely get through my email.  But I picked up this tip 20 years ago reading “Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive” by Harvey Mackay and always liked it.  If you like this tip there’s 30 more in the book.  But if you’re a Christmas card sender and want to be more effective, I’m certain that birthday cards are that.

  • Sherif Koussa

    While I agree with most of what you are saying, it is a challenge to know people's birthdays though, specially people who you do business with regularly enough to send them cards but not enough to know their BDs.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Just wrote an update at the end of the post.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    heh, first thing i thought when i saw first round capital xmas card a couple of years ago .. they are knock-off artists.

  • Susan Alexander

    Mark ~ I love your writing style: clear, to the point, info-packed, nicely outlined (and, because of those things, rare). It's good of you to share what you know. Just ordered Swim With The Sharks. Thanks for that recommendation, and for linking to that very cool eCard about dancing. Reminded me of Alan Webber's advice in his book Rules Of Thumb: “If you think it's hard to work without music playing, try surviving without it.” If you're interested, check out Daniel Levitin's book, This Is Your Brain On Music – it's a scientific (but entertaining) look at how music affects the brain. Levitin's roots are in classic rock, so that's the genre he looks to, mostly. All the best in 2011. Look forward seeing what you write. Susan Alexander (@SusanRPM4)

  • http://www.gooddisruptivechange.com Susan Alexander

    Mark ~ I love your writing style: clear, to the point, info-packed, nicely outlined (and, because of those things, rare). It's good of you to share what you know. Just ordered Swim With The Sharks. Thanks for that recommendation, and for linking to that very cool eCard about dancing. Reminded me of Alan Webber's advice in his book Rules Of Thumb: “If you think it's hard to work without music playing, try surviving without it.” If you're interested, check out Daniel Levitin's book, This Is Your Brain On Music – it's a scientific (but entertaining) look at how music affects the brain. Levitin's roots are in classic rock, so that's the genre he looks to, mostly. All the best in 2011. Look forward seeing what you write. Susan Alexander (@SusanRPM4)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Susan! I actually heard him interviewed on NPR but never bought the book. I'll check it out. Re: Swim with the Sharks – it was a great read. As it's 20 years old I'm sure it's a bit dated, but Harvey Mackay is the master.

  • Parth Srinivasa

    Great post, and that's what I did… hand written cards that would resonate on a business conversation or sentiment we had earlier this year. I held back several dozen cards in the end if I didn't have something meaningful to say.

    Mark, please do a favor and post this again next year before Thanksgiving, it can help a lot of people!

  • Sherif Koussa

    Thanks!

  • http://www.redbeacon.com Ethan Anderson

    Mark, e-holiday greetings actually may have a negative effect. I make it a point to unsubscribe to every list that generated a holiday greeting to me. I hate the spam and half the time I have no interest in being on these companies' lists. The wasted holiday greeting actually gives me another opportunity to unsubscribe and lose the relationship… all for what? A Merry Christmas?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm with ya. Done with class, cards are a nice way to say you're thinking about somebody. As spam, it's a negative.

  • Hamilton Chan

    Hey, Mark. Great advice, especially about the physical card! I didn't observe Rule #4, so mine is probably under a mountain of mail. Nonetheless, I hope you have a happy holidays. Hope to see you soon in the new year!

  • Susan Alexander (@susanrpm4)

    Mark ~ Just read your post of (almost) a year ago: “The Y0-Yo Life of a Tech Entrepreneur – A Cautionary Tale (31 Jan 10). Now that the year is almost through, I'm wondering how the metrics you mentioned worked out (Withings and Daily Burn). Couldn't help noticing that you like cycling, as I'm pretty avid. Some info for you, in case you're interested: There's a very cool spring training camp going on in February in the Santa Ynez Valley: http://bit.ly/i2dSV5. To prepare for it, I'm using these DVDs: http://bit.ly/h9QyaL, and this book: http://amzn.to/fNYU8B. Both awesome. I've found indoor cycling (my bike, mounted on a CyclOps) invaluable for cramming rides into a busy schedule (because it eliminates concern for weather, childcare, etc.). And the DVDs and book keep you super efficient. I'm learning A TON from your blog. Thanks for all you write. Susan

  • http://www.prestonsmalley.com Preston Smalley

    Hey Mark, great advice. I think #3 and #2 are the most critical for the card to really “count” in the eyes of the receiver as it shows that you gave the gift of your time and that they remember who you are. As for birthday cards, I agree with you that they are a great way to reach out during the year and if I may toot my company's own horn… Plaxo.com offers a great way to discover/manage birthdays as well as schedule/sending personalized and high-quality eCards.

  • http://twitter.com/InFioreWorks April E. Simons

    Thank you so much for you post Mark! I am so delighted that there are others who still like to send a handwritten note. It is a part of me that I think I will never give up – and it always touches me when someone takes the time to pick the card, write the note, add a stamp and drop in the mail – especially in this amazing, VERY creative age of technology. I have seen some REALLY good holiday eCards – however – I am sticking with the old fashioned method. :-) Thanks for your great insight!