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Are internet holidays marketing genius or just social media noise (and who declares them anyway)?

Brands are scrambling to participate in themed social promotions (see: National Pancake Day), but is it all leading to a holiday hangover?

Design by Jean Lorenzo

Profile picture of Liz Doupnik


6 min read

Log in to Instagram on any given day, and there’s a good chance you’ll learn about a new, highly specific holiday: Science Fiction Day, Trivia Day, National Pancake Day—Pickles get an entire week.

Brands are scrambling to participate in these social promotions, but is the marketing trend all leading to one big holiday hangover?

Short answer: Not with the right marketing strategy. If digital agencies want to reach engaged followers and turn them into consumers, they’ll need to cut through the noise (or pancake, or pickle…).

“Special day-themed promotions seem to have quite a bit of promise, as long as they’re both original and brand appropriate,” says Daniel Zane, PhD, assistant professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Lehigh University, who has conducted research on the topic.

Of course, “original and appropriate” is the crucial detail for agencies. Learn how to identify the best holidays for your clients (or maybe even create your own), then craft compelling content that resonates, without longing for World Sleep Day—a real thing.

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How internet holidays got their start

Let’s back up a bit. Cyber Monday is the OG internet holiday, and the National Retail Federation (NRF) formalized it in 2005.

In a sense, Cyber Monday walked so National Pi Day could run, because it solidified the consumer’s desire to shop online on an exclusive day. Cyber Monday sales have well surpassed the online sales of Black Friday, earning $11.3 billion in 2022, according to Adobe Analytics.

But it’s hard to compete on America’s biggest online shopping holiday, so brands got creative with other festive social media promotions year-round.

“Traditional dates, like Black Friday and Valentine’s Day, are still important, but brands are trying to find their opportunity to compete in a saturated market,” says Gina Gulberti, vice president of marketing at Launchmetrics, an international data and marketing company for luxury brands. “This is especially true for small brands. It’s hard to compete on Black Friday, but a special-day promotion can give them more space to get customers’ attention.” (Related: These legacy retail brands modernized their marketing strategies, and now they're thriving)

That, and they’re highly engaging: Over 700K Instagram users posted pics celebrating National Donut Day and over 360K shared their love of running on Global Running Day.

So, does that mean these special-day promotions actually drive sales?

Signs point to yes. Zane and his fellow researchers found that consumers carry a large appetite for these promotions when executed well.

For Zane’s study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, consumers were given either a coupon for “National Picnic Day” or a retailer’s “Annual One Day Sale.” Shoppers given the Picnic Day promo were more likely to make a purchase, Zane says, because the specificity created more intrigue than the generic sale.

“In another study, we found that consumers who received a 25% discount via email to celebrate the day that a company adopted their dog, were almost twice as likely to click to shop on the company’s website, compared to those who received an equivalent discount with no mention of the adoption day,” he says. Again, the specificity got people’s attention. (And who doesn’t like dogs?)

6 ways to create a successful internet holiday for your clients

Zane and his colleagues identified two key attributes of successful special-day promotions, based on the picnic and dog experiments: creativity and authenticity. This means the promotion needs to stand out in a sea of social media posts and make sense for both the brand and the holiday. Here are some ways to do this for your clients.

01. Align on your client’s goals, audience and story

Before drumming up quippy social copy, be sure that all players working on the campaign have the client’s brand book at the ready. Understanding the consumers and audiences of various social platforms, their shopping abilities and demographics can—and should—play an integral role in cultivating how your client participates in a social shopping holiday. It’s also key to understand the client’s overall vision and goals not only for this campaign, but the business as a whole. Participating in an internet holiday should be one play out of an entire football game’s worth of strategy.

02. Don’t be so literal

“I see lots of smaller, local companies leverage special day-themed promotions nicely,” Zane says. Think: pizza shops and bakeries tapping into Pi Day. “These companies get the added benefit of having more of a community feel, and consumers might want to reward their creativity.”

Zane also points to Lego as an example of how to optimize special-day promotions that feel unexpected, but not off-base. “Lego’s uses Star Wars Day, ‘May the Fourth Be With You,’ to offer promotions on their Star Wars-themed Lego items.”

You should also lean into your brand’s story. “Storytelling is really important in these special-day promotions,” Gulberti says. “And it has to align with the values of the brand or company.” For example, a car company that emphasizes off-road-adventure in the rest of its marketing might partake in National Get Outdoors Day, because it makes sense for the story they’re trying to tell.

03. Reduce friction to purchase

Most people think of these events purely as a brand awareness play, but Zane’s research shows that they could drive sales. So, don’t just post a pic; include a promotion and send people to the client’s website to make a purchase with a link in bio. See this example from Williams Sonoma on National Pi Day, which has a simple, on-brand CTA to shop. (Here’s how to set up your link in bio page with Wix.)

04. Consider creating your own holiday

Marketers need to consider if they want to join an existing holiday, or create their own, like the dog mascot approach in Zane’s study. Each can garner strong results, while offering different flavors of the same dish. Though joining existing special shopping days can do considerable boons for business, companies with rich history can branch out on their own to create special-day promotions, Zane says. Take, for example, National Swimsuit Day, which Lands’ End launched in 2017 and has continued since.

Depending on the maturity of your holiday strategy, it’s possible to register the day and make it *official* — but remember, it’s best to kick the tires on the success rate before going down that route. Ready to register? Cool. For one, you can file an application with National Day Calendar or National Day Archives, both of which provide higher visibility for your strategy by adding to their respective calendars. You should also search their catalogs to check out the competition. And to ensure no one comes for your holiday, you can also trademark the name.

Keep in mind this can be a double-edged sword for big brands. While they may have the reach and resources to create their own special-day promotion, appearing inauthentic can create adverse responses from shoppers. “The thing brands need to be careful with here is whether consumers see the created special day simply as a tactic to increase sales and not so much a creative way to celebrate a worthwhile event,” Zane says.

05. Know when to sit one out

Creativity is key, but don’t let imagination muddle any brand messaging or motivate any far-reaching campaigns. Zane says brands will best succeed when special-day promotions feel authentic to the company, otherwise consumers are likely to be turned off. A tween retailer shouldn’t try to participate on National Independent Bookstore Day, or another day that’s entirely unrelated to the core business.

There’s also an issue of saturation. For promotions that are reaching peak popularity, like National Running Day, brands in their infancy might be wise to sit one out, no matter how endemic it is to the brand. “Our research shows that a company’s efforts to create a special day-themed promotion might not pay out if the product category is saturated with similar promotions,” Zane says. “It might simply behoove companies to pass on that event and target a future one that won’t see so much action from competitors.” If your client still wants to join in on the posting, be sure to dedicate more resources behind paid social and manage expectations (and KPIs) accordingly.

06. Play the long-game

Brands who nurture their relationships with followers at all times of year stand to succeed the most when joining the internet holiday frenzy. This way, social posts dedicated to these social holidays won’t feel like a random post that’s clearly transactional. While it’s easy to keep client KPIs top of mind, it’s crucial to be sure the consumer remains at the core of the strategy.

And that’s the whole point of tapping into these promotions in the first place: connecting with consumers in a fun, natural way. Do this for your clients, and these holidays can be a powerful way to drive both brand awareness and sales.


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