Gray November 2017: A Recap From my Inbox’s Point of View

Greg Zakowicz
Marketing Strategist
Bronto Software

Gray November, a month-long period of shopping and discounts, is no longer a trend. It’s reality.

This holiday season smashed online sales records. Black Friday reportedly pulled in $5.03 billion in online sales, while Cyber Monday reached $6.59 billion. And in true Gray November fashion, the first 27 days in November drove over $1 billion in online sales for the first time ever.

I went into the 2017 holiday season expecting lots of consumer spending and retailer discounting. I was also curious as to whether brands would try to distance themselves from the continuous deep discounting that put them in this cycle of shrinking margins. Would they wait until Thanksgiving week to offer the best deals? What subject line terminology would they use to appeal to the audience? Would they focus on Black Friday and Cyber Monday or Cyber Week and Weekend?

As I did last year, I watched my own inbox flood with emails and tracked the advertised discounts, email send volumes and subject line approaches taken by retailers. Here are some of my key findings.


As Oprah would say, “You get a discount! You get a discount! Everyone gets a discount!”

According to DynamicAction, 90% of orders on Cyber Monday used a promotion. Retailers seem to have accepted the Gray November approach to deep discounting at this time of year. Anecdotally, I did notice more free gifts and specialized sales on categories of products than I have in the past. This was likely an attempt to drive sales with discounts, hoping consumers would pick up additional full-price items at the same time.

In any event, here are the discounts I received before and during Cyber Weekend.

Cyber Weekend Send Volume

We knew sends would be fast and furious. And boy, were they!

In looking at my own email, the three highest send days for the month of November were Cyber Monday, Black Friday and Tuesday, November 28, respectively. Thanksgiving Day was fourth, missing out by less than 10 emails. Interestingly, last year, Thanksgiving narrowly beat out the day after Cyber Monday.

According to Bronto’s numbers, the four highest send days were Cyber Monday, Black Friday, Thanksgiving Day and November 28, respectively. Similarly, Thanksgiving Day beat out November 28 by less than 6% of total emails sent. All-in-all, these two days are virtually the same.

Black Friday sends to my inbox were 69% greater than Thanksgiving Day, and Cyber Monday was 19% higher than Black Friday. Comparing this to last year, Black Friday sends were only 39% greater than Thanksgiving Day, and Cyber Monday was only 13% higher than Black Friday.

This year, Bronto reported a 62% lift in emails on Black Friday compared to the day before, and an 8% lift in emails sent on Cyber Monday compared to Black Friday. This Black Friday-Cyber Monday gap has been closing every year since 2012 and is now in the single digits for the first time.

Cyber Weekend Sends

Sends to my personal email began to increase during the last few days of October and then remained higher than average until Thanksgiving week. At that point, the noticeable increase occurred.

When I compare daily sends from Thanksgiving week with the average number of sends for the same weekday during the three weeks prior, I saw these jumps in sending activity.

Subject Lines

Subject lines are a funny thing. When email send volume is at its usual level throughout the year, marketers have a tendency to be creative and funny, and test interesting subject lines. I traditionally see much less of this during peak times, such as the holidays, when subject lines can tend to become more utilitarian. They mention the event, the discount and then move on. So, what happened this year, and how did it compare to last year?

  • Thanksgiving Day: “Black Friday” was used in 32% of subject lines, compared to only 20% for “Thanksgiving.” This is right in line with last year, when it was 34% and 20% respectively.
  • Black Friday: The term “Black Friday” was used in 54% of the emails I received - a slight increase from 50% in 2016
  • November 25 (Saturday): “Black Friday” was used in 30% of subject lines, and 10% referred to the sale being “extended.” In 2016, this was 26% and 10%.
  • November 26 (Sunday): “Cyber Monday” was used in 33% of subject lines, while Black Friday was used in 16%. This increased from last year, when Cyber Monday was used only 22% of the time and “Black Friday” was still being used in 14% of subject lines.
  • Cyber Monday: The term “Cyber Monday” was used in 51% of emails, up from 46% last year. This same-day percentage is less than the 54% of Black Friday mentions in Black Friday emails.
  • November 19-25: Only 24 emails (out of thousands) used my first name in the subject line. This is up from the 12 that did so last year.

Overall, Gray November played out just as I thought it would. Discounts were plentiful, retailers sent emails (and lots of them) and online sales have never been higher. If that news wasn’t enough, there’s still time to shop during the holiday season. The only question now becomes, will you settle for the 40% discount or wait for the 50% off email?

This content was originally published by Oracle + Bronto.

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