August 23rd is a weird day to be born. I was born precisely 9 months after Thanksgiving, so that’s a fun data point about my parents. I’m a Leo-Virgo cusp. Growing up, some magazines classified me as a Leo, and some as a Virgo. I don’t really follow astrology or know the characteristics of either zodiac sign, so I usually just picked whichever horoscope I liked better. But aside from that – for my entire childhood (and college…), my birthday was always the first week of school (you know, before teachers have planned out how they recognize students’ birthdays. And before you really know your classmates well enough to do a party). And since I have a weird August birthday, my parents had the option of me being one of the oldest students in my grade, or one of the youngest. They picked the extra year of pre-school, so I was always one of the oldest. I usually got new school clothes or tap shoes or whatever I would need for the school year. When I turned 5 I got to lead a bike parade with all of the kids in my neighborhood.
My first birthday in NYC was very weird. It was my first day at a brand new job, and no one knew it was my birthday. I actually have a history of either getting or starting a new job on or around my birthday. It’s weird – as an adult, it’s considered selfish to tell people when it’s your birthday. And if you’re like me and tend to hold back from friending co-workers on Facebook, you often find yourself in situations where no one ever knows. Two years ago, my 30th birthday was at the end of the most stressful work week of my life: my office was going to be closed the following week for a “summer week,” but decided they still needed me to keep the normal (already overwhelming) email schedule, and I had to code 27 emails in a week. It was…bad. Really, really bad. And again, I was new at the job, so most people didn’t know it was my birthday.
After that awful work week, I celebrated my actual birthday (on a Saturday morning) by myself in the best way. It was the first “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon on FXX. I had a cupcake for breakfast and watched classic episodes of the Simpsons, and it was perfect. Then I went to my favorite spa, Aire, with my husband. Much better.
But this blog is about email, and hang on – I’m getting there. A lot of brands send birthday emails, and as a person who has a weird relationship with birthdays — I really, really, like birthday emails and celebrating my birthday with brands. I know I can always count on my free Starbucks drink, a nice free sample product from Sephora, a 15% off discount at Anthro, and $10 off a haircut at my (now former…) salon. One year I was getting that haircut, and an earthquake happened while she was drying my hair, and none of us even noticed or felt it. Anyway, all of these regular birthday gifts from brands have almost become annual traditions for me and for how I spend my birthday. Especially on the years where no one knew it was my birthday. So last year, I tried to test things out on Twitter and see if I could get more brands to help me celebrate.
Got my normal latte for my free birthday Starbucks. I guess that means 31 will be pretty boring.
— kristin (@kristinyc) August 21, 2015
Does @16Handles have a “16 Candles” promo where they give you free froyo on your birthday if everyone forgets about it?
— kristin (@kristinyc) August 19, 2015
Does @BaskinRobbins give free ice cream to people on their 31st birthday since 31 flavors is kind of their thing?
— kristin (@kristinyc) August 19, 2015
It didn’t work. :(
For those of us who have a history of solitary, sort of lonely birthdays, brands can have a lot more impact than they realize. It’s stupidly easy to automate a birthday email. It’s not expensive to offer some kind of birthday gift, whether product or a special discount – not everyone will redeem them, and the ones who do will be delighted (and will probably buy other things). But it can make a huge difference for people who are really bummed out and experiencing their own Sixteen Candles story. As I write this, it’s still a few days before my birthday, and I’ve already received a few birthday emails. I know some brands do a batch at the beginning of every month, and some send the email a few weeks or days before. Twitter now does an adorable balloon drop on your page when it’s your birthday. Even the Hillary Clinton campaign sent me a birthday email last year. Some people joke about brands being the only ones to wish them a happy birthday, but in cases when that’s true – at least it’s something.
The Skimm lists subscribers’ birthdays at the bottom of every email. I’ve never been listed in that, even though I’ve been a subscriber for a few years. I usually scan the birthday list most days to see if anyone I know is on it. I investigated a little, and realized they never asked me for my birthday. They have a preference center (well, they have that hideous ExactTarget preference center that’s existed for 1000 years), and they don’t even ask for birthdays there. I don’t know if I was too late of an adopter or what, but it turns something that’s supposed to be a nice gesture into a disappointing slight.
Last week at the Litmus conference in Boston, Vicky Ge did a great talk about how we need to remember that we’re marketing to people. People who aren’t just a subscriber of your brand, but are also many other things. We have to treat our subscribers like humans instead of clicks and conversions. That means thinking about other things they might be thinking or caring about beyond their relationship with your brand. Birthday emails are one of the easiest ways to do that.