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How the Covid-related spike in volumes and engagement has changed email marketing permanently

Companies have used one or all of these strategies, as email activity spiked in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic breaking

In 2020, real disruption occurred; disruption that was not instigated or claimed by the marketing community. The Covid-19 pandemic was an event beyond all our control that was to affect all areas of marketing, data and consumer behaviour. It is unsurprising then that email marketing has experienced a rollercoaster of a year; one which has seen enormous increases in volumes and challenges in the face of a more captive at-home audience.

A huge increase in send volumes, less focus on list quality, a shift in topics and keywords and an inevitable increase in Covid-related communications are among the key trends in corporate email behaviour identified in a new report, Disruption: How the 2020 Pandemic Changed Email, produced by Validity. Some companies used one or two of these strategies, others all of them, as email activity spiked in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic breaking.

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The report also identifies key trends in email subscriber behaviour, as the consumer environment switched from the office to the home. Notably, there was an understandably increased propensity to open Covid-related emails, a clear tendency to read more Covid-related information at the weekend and a perhaps inevitable related increase in the number of complaints associated with the increased volume of opens.

The Collins English Dictionary recently announced that ‘lockdown’ was its 2020 word of the year, closely followed by other pandemic-related terms identified by its lexicographers, such as ‘furlough’, ‘key worker’, ‘self-isolate’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘coronavirus’. Inevitably, such terminologies translate into email key words in subject areas that were little known or unheard of just a year ago.

Subscribers quarantined at home actively sought both information and reassurance. Even companies that had not previously focused on email marketing suddenly poured resources into the medium, covering topics from new shopping hours to Covid-19 safety precautions. By the end of May, the number of emails containing Covid-related keywords peaked at 7% – that’s one in every 15 emails featuring a Covid keyword.

These included not only those words of the year, but terms like ‘important’, ‘update’, ‘safe’ and ‘community’, reflecting the general consumer mood. Send volumes soared in the early weeks of the pandemic and have remained high since. However, governance also faltered as companies new to email tried untested or dormant mailing lists and more experienced email marketers blasted Covid-related communications to their entire lists. Inevitably, this led to more spam, errors and consumer complaints.

Although there was a dramatic increase in trap hits in March, this stabilised by April as email providers appeared more reluctant to mark Covid-related email as spam. Subscribers were highly engaged with emails about the pandemic – as much as 30% more likely to open an email with a ‘Covid-related’ keyword in those early weeks of March. However, the increased likelihood of opening Covid-related emails at the weekend, when catching up on emails, also led to a concurrent increase in the number of complaints.

Since May, the medium has stabilised. Email volumes remain at an all-time high and are expected to continue to trend upwards in line with subscribers’ increased time at home and marketers pivoting non-Covid messaging to reach them there. Records look set to be broken over the forthcoming holiday season, but currently, virus-related emails are between 1% and 3% of the total. There is a return to more generic tags such as ‘now’ and ‘sale’. Nevertheless, send volumes and times have changed with a move from the traditional morning slot to afternoons and top-of-the-hour periods as consumers at home await their next Zoom or Teams meeting.

The key actionable take-outs from the report appear to be that disruption leads to higher email engagement – but, with more companies investing in email, cutting through is harder. As the Covid-keyword surge subsides, a return to a less opportunistic, more content-driven strategy is required. There is also a worthwhile reminder that with so many senders flooding traps, best practices became best practices for a reason. Sticking with them will bring longer-term rewards.

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