The COVID-19 outbreak caused an unprecedented shift in consumer’s behaviour and created new unexpected challenges for businesses. Everything marketers thought they knew about their consumers changed exponentially.  

Despite all the years of carefully monitoring email marketing KPIs and optimising email campaigns, marketers were left navigating uncharted waters in a desperate attempt to stay afloat during the pandemic. Many businesses had to adjust their short and long-term email marketing strategies to ensure a successful and effective transition to a post-pandemic email marketing world.

“Email marketing is – and will always be – both consumers and marketers’ most trusted communication channel, especially during a time of crisis.” – EmailOut

With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, global lockdowns and work-from-home orders, the business world witnessed a rapid shift in email marketing behaviour. Nevertheless, email remained a significant driving force behind consumer’s purchasing decisions and will, most likely, continue to be the most trusted, go-to marketing channel preferred by consumers – and marketers – in the future. But, how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect email marketing? Did email marketers increase or decrease their sending volume? What was the consumers’ response to COVID-19 pandemic? What would email marketing post-COVID-19 look like?

In this article, we’ll cover the following email marketing post-COVID-19 topics:

  1. Businesses’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic
  2. Email providers’ reactions to the pandemic
  3. Email subscribers’ reactions to the COVID-19 mayhem
  4. Post-COVID-19 email marketing

Ready to dive in?

Within a few months of the COVID-19 outbreak (March 2020), businesses switched their communications into high gear and started pouring more and more resources into reaching their consumers through email. Even companies who did not initially invest in email marketing software or previously developed a strategy began to change their ways to remain in business. By April 2020, overall email sending volumes were skyrocketing. 

As people increasingly stayed and worked from home, their online shopping behaviour changed causing ecommerce purchases to soar. 

  • global traffic to ecommerce platforms rose almost 12% from January (when the virus was first identified) to March (when COVID-19 started spreading)
  • the amount of unique digital shoppers in Q1 2020 rose 40% YoY (year-over-year)
  • in March 2020, YoY unique page views and order counts reached 15% and 21% respectively, before skyrocketing in April 2020 to 88% and 96% 

However, what is email marketing’s role in driving online sales during the pandemic? What do consumers think about email as a communication channel during the COVID-19 mayhem? How does consumers’ engagement impact email marketing KPIs such as open, click-through and click-to-open rates?  

How Businesses Reacted To The COVID-19 Pandemic?

The pandemic affected businesses in various ways across all industries. From disruption in services through shortages of goods to shutdowns, the COVID-19 outbreak turned email marketing – and the world – upside down. 

The first noticeable change was the way companies were reacting to the disturbance caused by the pandemic; and, how businesses had pivoted their short-term email marketing strategies to adapt to the ‘new normal’. The two main responses to the pandemic were – 

1) Shift in email topics and keywords

In early spring, when email marketers initially began to respond to the pandemic, many had urgent COVID-related news and messages they wanted to pass to their subscribers. From changing working hours and open/closed locations through safety protocols to updates on products/services, all industries were focused on delivering important information to their consumer base to ensure customer retention.

Email campaigns’ subject lines during that period were a clear reflection of the rapid change caused by the pandemic. More and more emails sent from March 2020 onward contained language focused on keywords such as “coronavirus”, “COVID”, “important”, “update”, etc. As COVID-19 spread, subject lines became more focused on emotions with keywords like “safe”, “community”, “together”, etc. Traditional email marketing keywords such as “free”, “sale”, “new”, etc. continued to be part of subject lines and email copy, too.

Since the first lockdown, internet usage has increased by 70% and open rates were boosted by 25% week-on-week. As an email marketer, would you want to miss that opportunity?

Even now, with a second lockdown already behind us (in the U.K.), people are still looking for information on how to deal with the mayhem. Therefore, make the most of the peak in engagement and increase your email communication to offer your consumers highly-personalised, useful, relevant and exciting content to keep them engaged and entertained.

2) Increase in email sending volume

With the stay-at-home orders, working from home and not one but two lockdowns, businesses predicted subscribers would also begin to ‘consume’ more emails and they were right. 

During the early weeks of the pandemic, email send volumes skyrocketed and remained high ever since. Granted, some businesses (depending on industry) are sending more than ever before; while others have decreased the number of sent emails. This is how average email send volumes changed across five industries since the COVID-19 outbreak  – 

  • Health Care – 66% increase between mid and end-March 
  • Financial Services – 47% increase at the beginning of March
  • Technology & Hi-Tech – 47% decrease at the beginning of May 
  • Communication – 30.5% decrease in mid-March
  • Sports & Activities – 36% decrease at the beginning of March

How Email Providers Reacted To The Pandemic?

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses became more liberal and less discriminating about their mailing lists. Companies threw careful segmentation out the window and started sending crisis communications to their entire subscribe base regardless of past subscriber engagement. 

Due to this, senders encountered delivery issues, spam filters and recipients’ complaints. Furthermore, email providers and ISPs routinely filtered, flagged and blocked domains with a ‘spamming’ reputation; making it quite difficult or even impossible to get placement in the subscribers’ inbox.

Normally, sending more emails to less discriminated email lists will result in more filtering, spam traps and significant hits on the sender’s reputation. However, due to the exceptional nature of the crisis, that’s not precisely what email providers witnessed. There were, indeed, drastic increases in spam trap hits in the beginning and middle of March. However, by mid-April, the spam traps metrics had stabilised; senders were no longer facing significant hits on their deliverability rates. 

The reason: Mailbox providers that have been steadily strengthening their reject algorithms over the past years have loosened their logic (to an extent) since the start of the pandemic allowing more emails to be delivered. In fact, COVID-19-related emails were around 2% more likely to reach the subscribers’ inbox compared to non-COVID-related emails.

The average email marketing metrics (across all industries) for April 2020 – 

  • Average open rate – 21%
  • Average CTR – 3%
  • Average CTOR – 15% (2% increase compared to March)
  • Average unsubscribe rate – 0.14%
  • Average bounce rate – almost 1%

Based on email marketing metrics (and stats), the most optimal day to send emails during the pandemic is Monday. The best day for highest CTOR and lowest unsubscribe rate is Sunday.

With in-store shopping mostly unavailable, lockdowns and work-from-home orders, consumers on a global scale had no other option but to turn their focus on online shopping. It’s only natural for marketers to up their email marketing game with the amount of time people were spending online. Hence, email became the primary go-to source for product discovery, possible discount finding, delivering valuable content, etc. during the pandemic. 

The bottom line: Email subscribers, as well as consumers, are more interested than ever in what businesses have to say and/or offer (via email) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Always, always monitor your campaign reports to evaluate the performance; and, of course, optimise your email the best way you can to deliver an excellent highly-personalised experience to your audience.

How Email Subscribers Reacted To The COVID-19 Mayhem?

The most important email metric for all marketers has always been the audience’s engagement. Since the start of the pandemic until recent days, email subscribers have exponentially changed their email habits and consumer behaviour.

Initially, subscribers were especially engaged with COVID-19-related emails as it was top of mind. This, of course, proved to be quite fortunate for senders as the major portion of their email sending volume was primarily related to the pandemic. However, as the year progressed, subscribers’ engagement levelled. Stats point out that email subscribers were 30% more likely to open a COVID-19-related email during the first few weeks of the pandemic, with open rates for such emails especially spiking during the weekend.

However, despite the subscriber’s tolerance for pandemic-related emails being high, COVID-19 complaint rates spiked compared to non-COVID complaints reaching as high as 8.2% in mid-March.

The bottom line: Email marketing post-COVID-19 (and during) has changed exponentially. Thus, to stay afloat, email marketers and businesses must adjust their long-term email marketing strategy. Monitor your email campaigns’ performance; evaluate the results; and, if necessary, make adjustments to maximise the impact of your campaigns with perfectly optimised, on-point, highly-personalised and uber relevant emails.

Email Marketing Post-COVID-19

It’s been 10 months since the pandemic’s outbreak. Businesses’, email providers’ and subscribers’ response to it have now settled into a somewhat predictable pattern. 

Companies have dialled down on pandemic-centred emails with only around 3% of their total sending volumes including COVID-related keywords. Yet, they have not completely returned to their pre-COVID email strategies and sending volumes. Rather, they have adapted their email marketing to meet the new reality and deliver an excellent consumer experience. Most marketers have returned to normal email campaigns with traditional call-to-action (CTA) such as “sale”, ”now”, “daily”, etc.

Consumers’ email habits and purchase behaviour have completely changed during and post-COVID-19 due to the numerous lockdowns, work-from-home orders and in-store unavailability. 

  • 48% of consumers have increased their online shopping since the pandemic’s outbreak
  • 91% of consumers consider email as their preferred communication channel
  • 25% of consumers are willing to share their personal data to gain a more personalised experience and offers
  • 88% of global consumers are planning to stick with the brands they switched to over the lockdown(s) rather than revert back
  • 32% of consumers in the UK have switched to less expensive products/services to save money compared to 31% in the U.S.
  • 45% of consumers are using mobile devices for shopping since the COVID-19 outbreak

Overall, consumers of different ages and across different locations have exponentially changed their habits and patterns since the outbreak. Most have moved to digital channels as a means to engage with brands while they cope with the pandemic; with email reigning supreme above all other marketing communication channels.

Final Thoughts

The impact of COVID-19 had the entire world reeling. While initially businesses and subscribers struggled to adjust and adapt to the ‘New Normal’, now things have somewhat settled. Yet, one thing will remain altered by the pandemic and that is consumers’ behaviour.

It is quite impossible to say with certainty what email marketing post-COVID-19 will look like. (I would, but my crystal ball got lost in the mayhem.) What you can do to ensure your business’s survival is to follow email marketing best practices, always test, constantly monitor and be vigilant about how and what you communicate to your targeted audience. Understand what your subscribers and consumers need and make sure you deliver.

Furthermore, the increase in open, click-through and click-to-open rates is a very clear indication that email marketing is and will remain the driving force behind consumers’ purchasing decisions. Thus, it’s highly likely that email will continue to be the most trusted go-to marketing channel in the future. Take advantage of that and adjust your long-term email marketing strategy accordingly.

Lastly, follow three simple steps to ensure your email marketing post-COVID-19 will not fall short – 

1) consider the worth of your email  – is the information you’re sharing unique and important to your target audience? 

2) maximise your email campaign’s impact – email marketing KPIs across the board have increased proving the subscribers’ eagerness to hear from your business. However, don’t abuse this, keep delivering value to your audience without overwhelming or, worse, annoying the recipients.

3) test, observe and optimise – from subject lines and email copy through sending times to email layout and overall design, make sure you’ve tested all variables (one at a time) if you want to deliver the most highly-personalised, relevant and valuable experience to your subscribers and consumers. 

Highly recommended further reading – 

1)  How To Improve Your Sender Reputation?
2) 12 Call-To-Action Examples That Convert
3) The Ultimate Guide To Email Marketing Laws
4) Email Personalisation 101

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