Mary Dolan

// Content Marketer

By now, we’re all well aware of the effects COVID-19 has had on communication over the past year (and probably sick of most of it). This includes email, obviously – during the pandemic, brands are trying to change their strategies to maintain engagement and conversion rates.

But the effects of the pandemic on sending email can have a positive silver lining. We mean it. We can see how brands have adapted, and how their new strategies will factor into broader email trends both throughout this year and beyond.

To gather insight, this week at Pathwire we’ve surveyed 760 senders to ask them how they’ve changed their email game in the last year. We’ll use our handy results to discuss how emailing has evolved during the pandemic and what you can do to keep your email program strong. And no, it won’t be as hard as most of 2020.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

How COVID-19 has changed brands’ email strategy

COVID-19 impacted a lot of in-person and public communication. It makes sense that brands would pivot toward more emailing throughout 2020 – that’s one sure-fire way to reach an audience at home.

Of course, it also makes sense that, as email volume grew, brands would find ways to distinguish themselves (strategy changes, bigger budgets) in crowded inboxes. Our data supports these changes and gives insight to communication shifts during the pandemic.

Changes in email strategy

Obviously, the world changed last year and so did the way we email – at least for nearly half of respondents. 49.7% of senders say they have adapted their email strategy due to the pandemic, and only around a third of respondents have made no change to their strategy during the past year.

These statistics speak to the pandemic’s shift toward virtual communication. With public events and other forms of offline marketing postponed, most brands began to rely more heavily on email – the best-performing marketing channel and the easiest way to send personalized communications at scale.

As for the 2.3% who didn’t know…we feel you.

Changes in budget

But did those shifts in the email strategy translate into changes in email budget? Well, not really. Email budgets have mostly remained the same (60.6%), but over a quarter of respondents (27.1%) say they’ve spent more. And while the pandemic has caused economic struggles for brands all around the world, only 12.4% of respondents say they have decreased their email budget during the past year.

Budget increases tie into the increase in pandemic emailing, but it can also be linked to an increased investment in tools and features too. Two-thirds of respondents say they have introduced changes to make their emails more relevant, and nearly a third have started validating email addresses to maintain a healthier email list.

How much and how frequently brands are emailing their customers

So we generally know, even just by looking at our own email accounts, that there’s been more email sending during COVID-19. But by how much? And how often? The answers may (not) surprise you.

Email volume

Staying in touch with customers throughout lockdown and periods of self-isolation has not been easy, but email has been the go-to channel for brands to maintain that relationship. A full 55.5% of respondents say they’ve emailed their customers more since the start of the pandemic. Only 14.9% of senders say they’ve emailed them less.

The pandemic forced many brands to pivot heavily to email, and the increased volume is a result of many marketing strategies condensed into one of the few COVID-safe, distanced channels for personalized communication at scale. Unless you wanted to break the rules, email was pretty much the way to go this year.

Email frequency

Brands have sent more emails during the past year, and also more often. 49.1% of senders say they have emailed their customers more frequently than before, and just 14.7% send emails less often.

When it comes to the specifics of email frequency, brands are emailing more often now than they did pre-pandemic. And it’s not surprising – the past year has been unpredictable, and it’s been hard to keep up with the constant changes that impacted our daily lives. Brands have had to rely on email to keep customers up-to-date on everything from new offerings to altered opening hours, changes to shipping schedules, and other unforeseen circumstances that have impacted their operations and customer support.

While over half (55.6%) of the brands surveyed messaged their customers only once per month pre-pandemic, that number has dropped to a current 40.2%. Now, senders are more likely to send emails at least twice a month (19.3% pre-pandemic, 24.3% now) or once per week (14.2% pre-pandemic, 17% now).

This increase could also be attributed to the need to maintain a strong relationship with consumers while offline communication was off the table. If you want your customers to remember you, an email just once per month may not be enough. Trust us, we know how this email thing works.

However, 40.2% of businesses only sending monthly emails is still a large share of brands. And what’s most interesting: this low frequency actually contradicts customers’ desires. According to our 2021 Email Engagement Report, a full 78.5% of respondents said they wanted to hear from their favorite brands at least once per week, and 51.9% wanted to hear from them more than once per week.

How email engagement has changed during the pandemic

With many people stuck at home with less-than-divided attention, brands may have hoped for higher engagement rates with their audiences. But did users’ habits actually reflect these hopes?

Open rates

Luckily, the answer seems to be a moderate “yes.” In our survey, 77.5% of respondents said the pandemic hasn’t had a negative impact on their open rates. In fact, 40% of respondents said their open rates have increased during the pandemic.

Click-through rates

The same luck holds true for click-through rates. 80.6% of respondents haven’t seen any negative impact on their click-through rates during the pandemic. In fact, 38.2% of respondents say these have increased during this period. So there you have it – there’s one good thing that happened this year.

All of our homebound, online pandemic time created a surprising positive. More time spent at home on devices, combined with users’ desires to hear from brands, worked out well for brands’ engagement rates.

And how might email messaging have played a factor?

How brands have adapted their email messaging during the pandemic

COVID’s broad changes to global culture and lifestyle made some brands’ messaging feel irrelevant or outdated. Did they, and how did they adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic?

Email content

Unsurprisingly, most brands made some kind of change – in a year in which everything else has changed, it isn’t shocking to see email messages have too. In fact, only 20.8% of senders say they’ve made no changes to their email content over the past year.

The shifting ways of life and social attitudes during COVID-19 have had an impact in brand communications. Consumers now expect brands to align with their values and support the causes they care about, which explains why over a third of respondents say they have increased their focus on their brand’s mission and values. Around a quarter also highlighted different social and local initiatives in their email messages.

Another quarter of brands (25.6%) increased discounts or special offers – which is why most users (56.4%) sign up for brand emails, according to our research. With in-store promotions not as accessible in a social-distanced world, these changes in content reflect closer alignment with consumer desires during the pandemic.

Email relevancy

Inboxes have been crowded during the pandemic – very crowded. In our 2021 email engagement survey, 19% of Americans said they receive more than 50 emails per day, and even we don’t read that many emails.

Most senders have realized that sending more relevant emails is the best way to build a better customer experience and increase their ROI in such a competitive space, and only 31.1% of respondents say they have made no changes to their email relevancy strategy.

While most brands used more than one strategy, the biggest overall changes they made was adding simple email customization (24.1%) and introducing segmentation based on engagement (19.4%).

Interestingly, only 8.8% of senders say they used complex personalization (like dynamic content blocks or templating language). Yes, we know complex personalization requires more effort than simple personalization (“Hey, [ First Name]!”), but it’s actually much more effective. On our 2021 email engagement survey, 83.3% of users said that an email that seemed to be personalized to their interest was an important factor in deciding whether or not to open it.

Adapted communications

Nearly 40% of senders have simplified their emails to increase authenticity and nearly a third have also adapted their tone to become more human. People like emails that sound like they’re coming from other people, not automated email programs (shocking, we know) and we predict that this shift to more authentic and more human emails will continue throughout 2021.

We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. When it comes to reaching customers, human touches and authenticity are key.

How brands have maintained the health of their email lists

When brands are sending large volumes of email, an unhealthy email list can be a death sentence. That’s probably why 77% of respondents say they have made changes to their email list cleaning practices during the pandemic. 40.2% say they have started removing blocks and bounces regularly and 31.4% have started validating email addresses.

This is a smart move. According to our email engagement report, 57.1% of users either unsubscribe or mark a message as spam when they receive an unsolicited promotional email from a company, and a further 40.5% just ignore it.

As we all know, negative engagement (and non-existent engagement) only spells trouble for your email program. And, in a time where email communication has spiked in importance, list-cleaning is a necessity to make sure you’re targeting interested, high-value customers and getting the response you need.

Key learnings

OK, email is just one aspect of life that has been changed by COVID-19 but, for brands, it’s one of the most important pieces of their marketing strategy. Email is far from being dead – fewer communication options have led to brands increasing the volume and frequency of their sending, and to consumers opening more email and engaging more with content.

COVID and its effects are (unfortunately) far from over, and there are a few key takeaways you should remember to make sure your email program is the best it can be. These include:

  • 55.5% of senders have increased their email volume, and 49.1% are emailing customers more frequently. That’s good, to put it mildly. But to do that safely and effectively, senders need to ensure they’re keeping an eye on their email list cleaning practices and maintaining a healthy email list. Strategies like implementing sunset policies or validating email addresses can help brands reach the inbox. Clean out the clutter.
  • 43.6% of users stated personalized communications are very important when determining whether or not to open an email, and yet only 8.8% of senders have introduced complex personalization during the pandemic. Using templating language and dynamic content alongside advanced segmentation can help brands send more relevant emails that really speak to their customers. Don’t be afraid to get personal.
  • The pandemic has changed the way we communicate and consumers now demand more authentic and more human communications. Brands have started to adapt: 39.6% have introduced simpler designs to increase authenticity, and 32.5% have changed their tone to sound more human – and they’ll need to keep it up in order to strengthen their bond with their customers.
  • Through this year, 40% of senders have seen increased open rates, and 38.2% have seen increased click-through rates. Analyzing the performance of email campaigns sent during this period will help keep these rates consistent (and customer relationships strong) even after the pandemic.

 

It’s been a year since the start of COVID (yep, a year). And while the world continues to change, your email program shouldn’t stay the same. Use our insights to navigate the uncertainty and maintain your email health now and through whatever comes next.

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