Coupon Usage in Email Marketing

Using Coupons and Discount Codes in Email

It’s Labor Day weekend. For consumers, it’s a time to relish the waning days of summer. For many businesses and advertisers, Labor Day marks a significant opportunity to encourage shoppers to cough up dollars, take advantage of special sales and pounce on discounts, offers and coupons.

If your email inbox is anything like mine this weekend, you may have reveived a digital coupon or seventeen. In the content that follows, I categorize the different approaches to offering discounts and coupons via email and critique each unique method.

Categorizing Coupons by Redemption Type/Location

To help organize the different approaches to using coupons in email, I have categorized them by redemption type – in-store, online or hybrid coupons that can be redeemed either at the store or online. Each example includes a screen shot of the email on a mobile device, as we can assume that at least half of recipients will view the emails on smartphones, especially while out and about on a holiday weekend.

In-Store Redemption

GameStop EmailSender: GameStop
Subject Line: Your Weekly Ad is Here!

I’m not sure what confuses me more, GameStop’s approach to email or the fact that I continue to willingly receive them. This one isn’t necessarily specific to Labor Day weekend, but GameStop sends a circular via email that allows readers to view current sales, deals and new product releases.

The Good:

  • The email utilizes a clear call to action with a “View Full Ad” button.
  • The email is fairly well optimized for mobile as the layout modifies to one column on handheld devices.

What Needs Improvement:

  • The content used here does not really consider the medium. You wouldn’t try to make a 728×90 Leaderboard display ad work for radio. I’m not sure why GameStop thinks that a print ad will suffice for its email audience.
  • I would recommend calling out the unique discounts and offers for which the audience member has demonstrated affinity based on previous click or in-store purchase behavior.
  • GameStop also sells products online. Yet this email does not push the recipient to that option. The hybrid approach covered later is an opportunity worth exploring.
  • Finally, the subject line is somewhat nebulous. Similar to catering content to unique recipients or segments of the audience, the subject line should give the individual a meaningful reason to open. “Your Weekly Ad is Here!” is neither compelling nor accurate. It’s not really “my” ad; it is apparent the ad is meant for everyone.


Sports Authority EmailSender: Sports Authority
Subject Line: Only 5 Days Left to Use your $9.25 Reward

Here Sports Authority is sending a coupon good for one-time use only that is valid in the store only. While the ability to personalize coupons and incentives is both complicated and dependent upon multiple systems (CRM and email), Sports Authority has pulled it off nicely. However, the execution can be improved in multiple areas.

The Good:

  • The email is customized for the unique recipient. My name, account number and individual coupon amount are present and easy to find.
  • The subject line is also personalized and provides both value and a sense of urgency for the recipient.
  • The navigation buttons are relevant and well suited for email. Recipients can click to view account details and status or find a nearby store.

What Needs Improvement:

  • The email includes a scannable bar code, but as you can see from the screen shot, the layout is not responsive for mobile devices. Best of luck to the poor soul behind the counter at Sports Authority who has to scan that bar code or key in the 19-digit rewards number.
  • The unsubscribe option is both unclear and difficult. Here’s how the language reads in the footer: “If you would prefer not to receive future messages from The League containing information about your account and rewards you’ve earned, you must close your League account.” Huh? This option does not make it very easy for the recipient. Sports Authority should incorporate a one-click unsubscribe and make the opt-out process much more clear and customer-friendly. Additionally, the email does not include a physical mailing address, which is a “no no” in both the United States and Canada.


Online Redemption

MLB Email MarketingSender: Major League Baseball (
Subject Line: At Bat 50% Off Labor Day Sale

As the baseball season is rapidly coming to a close (mercifully for those of us in Arizona), MLB is offering a Labor Day Sale for its mobile application. MLB’s emails are typically very well-designed but also image-heavy.

The Good:

  • The design is clean, concise and to the point. This layout is very consistent with previous emails from MLB and its other web properties. The call to action is unmistakeable and screen shots of the product are provided. Despite the fact that the email design is not truly responsive, its spacious design and large font sizes work.
  • Once again, the subject line for this campaign is appropriate and conveys relevant value.
  • At the time of this writing, the landing page used for the campaign is very consistent with the email creative. The visual similarities can help the recipient to realize that she is in the right place and should feel confident about moving forward with placing an order.

What Needs Improvement:

  • The email unfortunately is comprised of one large image. This can cause issues with deliverability due to image size. Having run the code of this email through Campaign Weight, a utility that measures file size, the MLB’s email is coming in at 118KB. That’s not terrible or necessarily a deal breaker considering the large image, but recommended file size is 100KB or less to ensure outstanding delivery rates. I would suggest splitting the elements up a bit into multiple images and text. Despite its size, the image follows best practice by using relevant ALT text – “Baseball fans, get At Bat 14.”
  • Where do I click? The large image is clickable, but it would be preferred to include a “can’t miss” call to action or button that alleviates any doubt for the recipient about what to do next.


Expedia Email CouponSender: Expedia
Subject Line: $50 coupon + summer deals end September 1

Expedia does a very nice job with this email providing recipients with a $50 coupon on hotel bookings. The email showcases the brand’s mobile application and provides a clear call to action to access a coupon code. Although from that point, the details get a little fuzzy.

The Good:

  • The subject line is concise, but it delivers value and sets expectations. The only thing wrong with the subject line might be its accuracy. The “summer deals end September 1,” but within the content, the recipient is encouraged to book by September 2. Which is it?
  • This email provides an excellent example of well-executed responsive design for email. Image widths are altered to fit the mobile screen, navigation links are limited for mobile readers, content wraps appropriately, and the call to action stays consistent.
  • Speaking of the call to action, the “Get Your Code” button gives the recipient a very clear next step. How can one not quickly identify the purpose of this email?

What Needs Improvement:

  • There’s really not too much wrong with this email. My only critique here would be the coupon redemption process. Once the “Get Your Code” button is clicked, the recipient is taken to a landing page on which she must provide her phone number. That action will generate a text message that includes a unique coupon code. Perhaps Expedia is protecting themselves against excessive use of the special discount here, but there has to be a better way. A simple offer becomes too complicated too quickly.


Hybrid Redemption

Cost Plus World Market EmailSender: Cost Plus World Market
Subject Line: Long weekend. Lots of deals. Labor Day is here!

Cost Plus World Market uses email to promote general Labor Day savings and specials unique to certain products available in their stores and online. Similar to other retailers, a coupon is not necessary per se, as mark-downs are applied at the time of shopping and purchase.

The Good:

  • The Cost Plus World Market email design is not responsive to email. However, the spacious and scaleable design makes everything easy to read on smaller screens with the exception of the navigation line.
  • The subject line and pre-header are used well in combination. Many email clients’ inboxes will display the first line of text from the email in addition to the subject line. Cost Plus World Market created an attention grabbing subject line with “Lots of deals” and paired that with a pre-header that reads, “From rugs to lanterns, don’t miss our floor-to-ceiling savings.”

What Needs Improvement:

  • Given this hybrid approach to offering discounts and savings to both online and in-store shoppers, the “Find a Location” link is poorly placed nearly the bottom of the email. I would suggest moving this up near the “Labor Day Deals” content.
  • Cost Plus World Market OfferWhen the recipient clicks through to any of the offers presented, she will find a “Save 10%” offer for both in-store and online shoppers. This feels like a missed opportunity to not share this incentive with email subscribers.


Michaels Email MarketingSender: Michaels
Subject Line: 4 Days! 20% Off Your ENTIRE Purchase!

Our final example is from Michaels arts and crafts stores. Here they have used a very holiday-centric design to provide a generous “20% Off” coupon. The coupon and related discounts are available to shoppers who plan to visit a store or purchase online.

The Good:

  • Michaels does very well with their email layout. The offer is clear and obvious, and the call to action is readily apparent.

What Needs Improvement:

  • As noted, the “Get Coupon” call to action is hard to miss and an online promo code is present. Given the option to shop in-store or online, it would make sense to include a second, adjacent button for online shoppers to “Shop Now”.
  • Michaels may be aiming to track clicks to its coupon for email measurement purposes, but the “Get Coupon” call to action does provide an extra, and maybe unnecessary step. Similar to the Sports Authority example above, Michaels and their customer may be better served with a scannable coupon bar code placed directly in the email.
  • Similar to the MLB example above, this email from Michaels is very image-heavy. Using the Campaign Weight app, the email file size is a whopping 1.5MB. Goo! On an average mobile data network, an email like this will take eight (8!) seconds to download completely. Michaels should strongly consider modifying their approach to image usage in email with an eye toward cutting file size significantly to avoid deliverability issues.

Email Coupon Takeaways

From these examples we can see some preferred practices that you may be able to apply within your own campaigns.

  1. Make the campaign offer and call to action pronounced and as unique to the individual recipient as possible.
  2. Design the email to render well in all devices including desktops, tablets and smartphones.
  3. If possible and pertinent, include a coupon for both in-store and online shoppers. Allow your best customers to enjoy an incentive on their terms. Make simple the task of finding a nearby store.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary steps for subscribers Use both alphanumeric and scannable bar codes where applicable. Include these codes within the email message.
  5. Simplify the coupon redemption process as much as possible. Don’t make your subscribers work to get their discount.