Email marketers have been on the front line when it’s come to keeping the world connected in 2020. And, honestly, we’ve done a good job.
Email has helped businesses to co-ordinate remote workers. It’s kept brands in touch with customers. It’s been a major channel of communication between governments, health authorities, and people. It’s kept people informed through an unprecedented time of crisis.
But, as with most things in 2020, it’s not always been easy. Email has experienced a lot of challenges and gone through many changes since January 2020. Some of those changes will be permanent, and their impact will continue to develop in the years to come.
We all know what happened in 2020, so there’s no point laboring the details. Wildfires, a global pandemic, civil unrest…it’s been a wild ride.
Change throughout 2020 has come thick and fast – so fast that brands have often been unable to keep up. Messaging designed in February was outdated and even insensitive by March. Brands which had finally worked out a Covid communication strategy then had to pivot on a dime to accommodate the BLM movement.
Covid-19, with its major disruption to the way in which we live our lives presented the biggest challenge for email marketers.
Initially, the brand response to lockdown was a bit of a scramble, with everyone rushing to send out their own lockdown email.
This one was functional, practical, and often sorely needed. Customers wanted to know the new rules for using their favorite businesses during the coming months. This email from Ocado is a classic example of the genre. It also includes apologies for service disruption, and a note of thanks to hardworking staff alongside the list of changes customers can expect.
The thanks is a nice touch. As well as genuinely being a lovely thing to do, it gently reminds readers that, drastic though these changes are, everyone is doing their best.
This kind of email usually presented itself as a caring brand checking in on a valued customer. Sometimes, this backfired. This usually happened when brands which had not previously used a caring tone suddenly started emailing their customers in a sensitive manner, or when the messages were neither valuable nor necessary.
This was the kind of email that social media most took against…
Classpass, for example, combined their caring email with tangible benefits for their customers, such as a credit rollover and the option to pause their accounts if needed.
As in this example from At Home. The tone is caring and empathetic (with an emphasis on community in the last paragraph), the message comes from the CEO, and the email details changes that the customer can expect from their At Home experience.
Public response to lockdown emails from brands was a bit of a mixed bag. Judging by social media’s reaction, you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone hated these emails:
The statistics, however, tell a different story.
According to CampaignMonitor, engagement rates did indeed drop in the early weeks of the pandemic. This may well be because people were simply sick of receiving hundreds and hundreds of near-identical brand emails concerning the pandemic.
However, the drop-off did not last for long. Engagement rates recovered very quickly. Soon, they were above pre-pandemic engagement rates. The increase percentage varies depending on whose research you follow – but everyone is in agreement that engagement metrics for email rose almost universally during lockdown.
People spent more time at home : Whether they were furloughed, working from home, or just unable to get out and about as much as they used to, people were spending a lot more time in their homes than before. In many cases this also meant spending more time on the internet – and therefore checking their inboxes more frequently.
People wanted information : Trapped at home, stressed, and frustrated, many people reached out for any information source available. Lots of people were interested in what their favorite brands were up to, and how they were adjusting to the new normal.
People had more time on their hands : This relates somewhat to the first bullet in this list – but it’s worth making the distinction. Lockdown-induced boredom encouraged people to seek out content - including email content.
Overall, engagement rose across the board. But some industries saw a bigger rise than others.
Hospitality businesses did particularly well from the engagement spike – especially if they adapted in innovative ways to restrictions on their business operation.
For example, this restaurant in Nashville quickly pivoted to offer takeout ‘Brunch survival packs’ and hot meals for the homeless. They sent almost daily emails, updating customers on their progress, new ideas and (eventually) their policies for re-opening.
Other restaurants did things like expanding their newsletter content to feature chef secrets, personal stories, ‘at home restaurant’ how-tos, and more.
All in all, the hospitality industry had to do a lot of adapting very quickly – but it paid off with a huge boost in email engagement.
Small & community businesses and non-profits also benefited. Partly this was due to the fact that people often could not travel far, so were more likely to patronize local businesses. But, on a more positive note, it was also because of an increased interest in community during lockdown. Local businesses which offered time and resources to help people struggling during lockdown gained a lot of subscribers.
As the pandemic progressed, a pattern of change began to become clear:
As the Covid months progressed, businesses began to adapt. This meant getting their email schedule back on track. The initial flurry of emails slowed to a more normal pace. Many brands slowed their emailing significantly as business was put on hiatus and marketers were furloughed.
However, this did not reduce consumers’ hunger to hear from their favorite brands. Statistics show that engagement is higher than ever, and that consumers increasingly favor more frequent email campaigns.
Of course, it has not always been possible to send relevant, valuable content when business models have changed so much. But many brands have worked out ways to stay in touch with audiences that are both on-brand and appropriate for the situation. Lingerie brand Bravissimo, for example, focused on how their products and values can help to put smiles on faces during trying times:
It became obvious quickly that many brands were simply not equipped to adjust their messaging and/or tone quickly enough, sensitively enough, or authentically enough when lockdown began. This problem occurred again as the George Floyd riots broke out in the USA.
Much as brands and marketers wanted to respond to these events with empathy and compassion, they found it challenging to strike the right tone. Everybody wanted to show their care, but nobody wanted to either overdo it or to be seen as ‘cashing in’ by using these events to boost engagement.
Tuesday sends from brands got the least engagement during the pandemic, according to CampaignMonitor and Mailchimp. Weekends were particularly good for engagement, but any day that wasn’t a Tuesday also worked well.
Emails from governments, healthcare authorities, and other essential industries with valuable pandemic-related information were highly prized by audiences. This being an uncertain time, everyone wanted regular updates from the people on the front lines. The World Health Organization, CDC in the USA, and governments worldwide all experienced a major uptick in engagement.
One thing that 2020 has demonstrated beyond doubt is that email is an effective tool for communication.
Not only have people been relying on email to keep them up to date with changing government guidelines and health advice, email has also been their primary method of communicating with brands.
It is very likely that a lot of the changes we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic will remain. For example, businesses have learned that remote working is not just possible – it’s also cost-efficient, effective, and good for employee morale. So, we can expect to see a very changed working environment over the next few years.
This means that tools for remote communication will be much in demand. Email may have proven its worth during the pandemic – but that does not mean that email marketers can rest on our laurels. Email is one of an increasing number of remote communication tools. In order to maintain a place in this market, email marketers will have to be more innovative than ever before.
Automation and AI could be key here – not only in keeping email at the head of a growth industry, but also in helping marketers to pivot quickly and effectively in the face of global crises like those we have experienced this year.
Email definitely has a strong place in the post-Covid world to come. But, in order to keep that place, we must keep learning, keep innovating, and keep putting the customer first.