The Battle of the Holiday Marketing Promotions: Dollars-Off vs. Percentage-Off Discounts

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 20, 2019. It’s been updated to reflect the most current data and insights. 

This is the second in a series of holiday email marketing benchmark reports. In this article, learn how the discounts that brands featured in their holiday email subject lines performed—specifically, dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions. (*A specific discount in the email’s subject line indicates the brand’s main call-to-action with that particular email.)

The holiday marketing landscape is crowded. 

In fact, in concert with the recent Amazon Prime Day sale, I’m sure you’ve already started to see an influx of emails hit your inbox from brands delivering their competing offers. 

And the inbox activity is just going to escalate from here. In fact, many brands will be offering discounts even earlier this year.

And with good reason. Over the next few weeks, consumers will be shopping in drovesand buying online much more than years past—which means ecommerce brands need to work hard to stand out and compete for their dollars. 

Competition during the holiday shopping season is fierce. Data shows that as Thanksgiving week approaches, you can expect to see a 4X increase in the number of emails brands send at the beginning of that week. And during Cyber Weekend specifically, you can expect to see a 7X increase in the number of discount-focused emails brands send. 

Yet while competition heats up, consumers only have so much attention they can and are willing to give brands during this busy time of year. When their inboxes start overflowing with emails, it’s common to see open rates decline. Too many messages, too little time. 

Given that the holiday marketing landscape is noisy and crowded, how can you best compete to make sure your emails don’t become a casualty of the ignored inbox? 

Last week, we took a look at why timely discount-focused emails help you compete during the holidays. 

Data based on 427,000 campaigns sent by 19,500 brands during the holidays last year (October 15-December 31, 2019) representing more than $1.4 billion dollars in sales clearly showed there are clear points during the holiday marketing season when you should think about sending your emails in order to give your brand a better chance of standing out. 

Brands are increasingly realizing this and that’s why they’re sending discount-focused campaigns earlier and earlier each year. 

But what types of discounts capture your customers’ attention best? 

Evan Cover and Hannah Schleifer on Klaviyo’s business intelligence (BI) team dug into that same data from last year and looked at how brands are using dollars-off vs. percentage-off discounts to compete—specifically, how they’re using them in their email subject lines.

First, take a look at what we’ll call the baseline—what the data shows cumulatively across the 427,000 campaigns Klaviyo’s BI team analyzed. Then, explore the same measures across a few specific verticals, which show some key differences to note.

Discount-focused campaigns sent during the holidays

Of the 427,000 campaigns sent during the 2019 holiday season (October 15 -December 31, 2019), 43 percent of the total emails sent included a discount-focused message in the subject line (just under 180,000). 

Of those discount-focused campaigns, 46 percent (over 82,000) featured a percentage-off discount in the subject line while only 11 percent (just over 19,500) featured a dollars-off promotion. (The remaining 43 percent of discount-focused campaigns didn’t contain something as specific as dollars-off or a percentage-off discount, so we’ve omitted them from this particular analysis.)


Holiday season 2019: discount-focused campaigns sent (in aggregate)

Total campaigns sent 427,457
Total discount-focused campaigns sent 179,226 (43% of total sends)
Total discount-focused campaigns with percentage-off discounts 80,909 (45% of discount-focused sends)
Total discount-focused campaigns with dollars-off discounts 17,797 (10% of discount-focused sends)

Let’s dig in a little further and look at the overall volume and the results of the campaigns that were sent during the 2019 holiday season.


Holiday season 2019: dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions (in aggregate)

Holiday season: Percentage-off promotions Holiday season: Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 80,909 17,797
Average # of recipients 34,556 45,279
Average open rate 13% 15%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.26 $0.25

While brands sent significantly fewer emails with dollars-off promotions in the subject line of their emails, they actually sent these emails to more customers. With dollars-off promotions, brands saw a slightly higher average open rate (15 percent) than they did with percentage-off promotions (13 percent). Overall, brands saw higher revenue per recipient (RPR) in 2019 compared to 2018 and percentage-off promotions saw a slightly higher RPR. 

While it’s important to measure the performance of your email marketing strategy in terms of growth and revenue, you should also be mindful of the trickle-down effect this seemingly small difference in open rates has on overall performance. 

If more people open your email, you have more potential people who will click through to your website and convert. While trying to get more people to open your emails, it’s important to make sure your messages are relevant to your audience rather than mass-blasting your emails to as many people as possible (that’s where the principles of segmentation and personalization come into play).  

Looking at the average revenue per recipient, there’s a $0.01 difference between the performance of the percentage-off and dollars-off promotions in aggregate. While it doesn’t seem a lot, those cents can go a long way, especially if you’re sending to a large group of your customers—maybe more than you may typically send to. 

Now let’s take a look at the specific performance of these same campaign types but let’s isolate the time period and only look at those sent during Cyber Weekend last year (November 28-December 2, 2019).


Cyber Weekend 2019: dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions (in aggregate)

Cyber Weekend: Percentage-off promotions Cyber Weekend: Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 23,491 2,564
Percentage of campaigns sent 28% 3.11%
Average # of recipients 33,109 48,300
Average open rate 13% 13%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.32 $0.30

Anytime you look at this type of analysis, some of the most interesting tidbits come from the daily data, especially during this highly competitive time of year where we noticed that the RPR for both percent-off and dollars-off promotions is higher on Thanksgiving and Black Friday than Cyber Monday, but percentage-off promotions see the biggest decrease between those days—by 72 percent. 

Over the five-day Cyber Weekend, there were three key days where the results from percentage-off campaigns were fairly significant compared to the dollars-off campaigns—Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday.

Let’s look at Thanksgiving and Black Friday.


Thanksgiving and Black Friday 2019: dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions (in aggregate)

Thanksgiving: Percentage-off promotions Thanksgiving: Dollars-off promotions Black Friday: Percentage-off promotions Black Friday: Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 3,808 353 6,828 738
Percent of campaigns sent 27.60% 2.56% 32.64% 3.53%
Average # of recipients 31,516 58,583 32,608 51,857
Average open rate 14% 13% 13% 13%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.43 $0.41 $0.38 $0.34

Across this two-day period, brands sent 10,636 percentage-off focused campaigns and saw an average open rate of 13.5 percent and an average revenue per recipient of $0.41. 

For dollars-off focused campaigns, brands sent a total of only 1,091 campaigns. Those emails saw an average open rate of 13 percent and an average revenue per recipient of $0.37—a lower RPR than the percentage-off emails sent during the same time frame. 

It’s important to note that when looking at this data, it reflects averages. In the case of dollars-off promotions, since brands sent fewer of these messages, the campaigns that performed very well can weight the average RPR. 

In 2019, data shows that these percentage-off campaigns performed well, especially on Black Friday, and they drove up the RPR (for due diligence, we looked at this from a median and averages RPR perspective). Then, as you’ll see, the percentage-off campaigns had a higher RPR than dollars-off campaigns on Saturday and Sunday.

On Thanksgiving alone, percentage-off campaigns had a 14 percent open rate—one point higher than dollars-off campaigns and, as seen above, had higher RPR by 13 percent.

On Saturday and Sunday of Cyber Weekend, the rates for these two campaign types were the same, so let’s fast-forward to Cyber Monday.


Cyber Monday 2019: dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions (in aggregate)

Cyber Monday: Percentage-off promotions Cyber Monday: Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 6,031 652
Percent of campaigns sent 34.49% 3.73%
Average # of recipients 34,936 37,830
Average open rate 12% 13%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.25 $0.25

On Cyber Monday, brands saw open rates of 12 percent on average for their percentage-off campaigns and 13 percent on average for dollars-off campaigns, while average revenue per recipient came in the same.

So how does this compare to 2018? Believe it or not, it’s the opposite. Whereas you’re seeing percentage-off discounts performing better in terms of RPR and open rate for Thanksgiving and Black Friday in 2019, the previous year saw dollars-off discounts performing better.

It may be confusing to know how to interpret this information, but it’s actually quite simple. But first, let’s look at dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions during Cyber Weekend 2019 by industry.


Dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions during Cyber Weekend 2019 by industry

Let’s take a look at how dollars-off vs. percentage-off promotions fared during Cyber Weekend specifically last year (November 28-December 2, 2019) across some specific industries—fashion and apparel, jewelry and accessories, health and fitness, beauty and cosmetics, and garden and home goods. 

As you may expect, across these industries, fashion and apparel had the greatest amount of campaigns sent during this time frame followed by beauty and cosmetics (in 2018, jewelry and accessories saw the second-greatest amount of campaigns sent after fashion and apparel). Brands in the health and fitness industry sent the fewest amount of campaigns during this timeframe. Fashion and apparel saw the biggest discrepancy between dollars- and percentage-off promotions in terms of RPR.

Before you dig into the industry-specific data, here are a couple of things to note about the performance of open rates and average revenue per recipient:

  • Open rates: Interestingly, as we looked at open rate performance across five verticals, in two verticals—fashion and apparel and garden and home goods—open rates were higher from dollars-off promotions. In two other verticals—health and fitness and beauty and cosmetics—open rates were higher for percentage-off promotions. While in the remaining vertical,  jewelry and accessories, the promotions performed exactly the same.
  • Average revenue per recipient: Across these five industries, two showed a higher average RPR with dollars-off campaigns, which ranged from $0.08 (garden and home goods) to $0.10 more per recipient (health and fitness). Across the rest of the industries analyzed (fashion and apparel, jewelry and accessories, and beauty and cosmetics), percentage-off campaigns appeared to perform better—by up to 63 percent (for fashion and apparel).


Cyber Weekend 2019: fashion and apparel industry

Percentage-off promotions Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 7,754 830
Percentage of campaigns sent 35% 4%
Average # of recipients 40,677 45,150
Average open rate 12% 13%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.31 $0.19

Cyber Weekend 2019: jewelry and accessories industry

Percentage-off promotions Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 2,345 199
Percentage of campaigns sent 30% 3%
Average # of recipients 31,51432,714 36,552
Average open rate 12% 12%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.22 $0.16

Cyber Weekend 2019: health and fitness industry

Percentage-off promotions Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 805 122
Percentage of campaigns sent 27% 4%
Average # of recipients 23,438 46,649
Average open rate 15% 14%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.32 $0.42

Cyber Weekend 2019: beauty and cosmetics industry

Percentage-off promotions Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 4,959 502
Percentage of campaigns sent 34% 3%
Average # of recipients 34,204 72,355
Average open rate 12% 11%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.34 $0.27

Cyber Weekend 2019: garden and home goods industry

Percentage-off promotions Dollars-off promotions
Campaigns sent 1,986 214
Percentage of campaigns sent 28% 3%
Average # of recipients 23,245 29,614
Average open rate 13% 14%
Average revenue per recipient (RPR) $0.36 $0.44

How different promotions stack up for each discount

To get even more granular into what brands are offering, Klaviyo’s BI team also pulled additional data on what these promotions consisted of. Take a look at the different percent-off promotions on different days over Cyber Weekend 2019.

You can see that discounts between 20 to 30 percent off are particularly popular among brands. Offers of 15 percent off, 35 percent off, and 45 percent off decrease quite drastically. Offering 45, 55, or 65 percent off is least popular among brands, but offering 40 or 50 percent off is still common—clearly, marketers love their round numbers, but they also know that customers can be deterred if it’s too difficult to calculate how much they’re actually saving.

Meanwhile, if you look at the count of different dollars-off promotions over Cyber Weekend 2019, the $5 off promotion is particularly popular, whereas most brands aren’t offering more than $30 off.

From this data, you can see there’s a greater range in the difference between percent-off offers, while dollars-off promotions seem to cap savings without giving too much away.

Of course, there are many factors that come into play when it comes to determining exactly how much you want to discount your products, whether through a percent- or dollars-off promotions, such as the average order value (AOV) of your store.

As Abby Gettys, customer support enablement specialist at Klaviyo, has observed, the “the better” discount depends on perceived value. 

“I typically see the offer that sounds higher outperforms other offers. So if the dollar amount is $50 off and the percentage is 10 percent off, even if the 10 percent off equates to more than $50, $50 will likely get the best results,” she said.

As you think about your 2020 discount strategy, this psychology is good to keep in mind when it comes to determining what will resonate most with your customers.

Let’s (gift) wrap this up

So after looking at this data, where did you fall? Are you team dollars-off or team percentage-off?

Though the data shows percentage-off campaigns are more popular among brands, and thus probably see more competition in the inbox, that approach seemed to yield higher open rates and a greater average revenue recipient during the 2019 holiday season. 

This data has also flipped from 2018, where dollars-off campaigns performed better than percentage-off campaigns, even though brands tended to send fewer of them overall.

Additionally, when you look at specific industries, you can clearly see dollars-off campaigns tend to outperform percentage-off campaigns in some industries more so than others. And while the data shows which types of discount-focused promotions worked best for brands in different industries last year, it’s still a good idea to test them with your specific audience. 

It may be confusing to know how to proceed when the data concerning best discount changes from year-to-year. Additionally, it’s important to consider that what may have worked well for one brand in your industry may not work as well for yours.

But where the data from these benchmark findings really comes into play is when you use it as a baseline and set up some A/B tests to figure out which types of promotions resonate best with your particular audience at this time of year.  

Before I came to Klaviyo, I remember spending lots of time collaborating with fellow marketers on whether we should use a percentage-based discount or one focused on dollars-off. We didn’t have access to the data like this, so we couldn’t use it to inform the tests we built. We only had our own campaign history to use alongside our best judgment. 

A good old-fashioned historical campaign analysis can always help you learn what’s performed well for your specific brand this year and you can use it to influence your holiday marketing strategy. And hopefully, this data can help you test something new or give you the confidence to reaffirm a decision you’ve already made about the specific holiday marketing promotions you plan to run this year. While the holidays are fast-approaching, you still have time to use this data and make some tweaks to your promotion plan in order to have a strong holiday season this year. 

Most importantly, make sure to listen to what your customers are telling you—just ask Vital Proteins.

“Last year we ran an experiment where we wanted to see if we could get away from offering steep discounts on Black Friday Cyber Monday, so we implemented tiers to get a free gift. However, we received direct feedback from our customers that they were really looking for those discounts on Black Friday Cyber Monday,” said Whitney Queisser, email marketing manager at Vital Proteins in a recent Live From Your Laptop episode.

This just goes to show that no matter how much data you analyze or how many tests you run, direct customer feedback is the most important benchmark you can measure your performance against. 

In the next installment of this four-part series, you’ll get a glimpse into the competition that takes place post-Cyber Weekend, with a special look at which days of the week seem to be the most competitive and tips on how you can navigate them. 


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