How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected email marketing?
Many of you have asked us this question, and we were just as curious about it.
Did marketers increase their email volumes? Or maybe they’ve decided to move their marketing budgets elsewhere? And how did the email recipients respond? Do they open emails just as frequently, or are they spending more time offline with their families?
We’ve decided to check the data and summarize our findings in this report.
What you’re about to see is the analysis of how the email volumes and engagement rates have changed for SMBs across different industries from February 24th to May 10th 2020 (weeks 9 to 19). For the best insights, we only looked at active senders with at least 1,000 contacts.
We’ve supplemented this with email campaign examples that show how different marketers have adjusted their strategies. Hopefully, these will provide you with useful ideas on how to tailor your email marketing program to fit the “new normal” better.
We sent many more emails during this time
The COVID-19 pandemic affected businesses in various ways across industries.
Because of this, companies have responded to these changes differently. The rate at which marketers have begun to change their email schedules seems to be the biggest differentiator.
Despite that, we observed a drastic increase in the average number of emails sent across most verticals around February 24 and March 22.
As the recipients’ mailboxes got overstretched with marketing communication, the engagement metrics like open and click-through rates decreased.
Soon after, companies have lowered their mailing frequencies to average numbers, started to adjust the content of their email campaigns, and the engagement metrics swiftly picked up.
We observed the highest average number of emails sent by customers across the industries in the second week of March. After this slight spike, the number decreased and stabilized. We consider the peak a sign of companies informing their customers about changes and how the pandemic affects their business.
We opened emails and engaged with them much more frequently during the pandemic.
The average open rate went from 15,6% in the week most “overloaded” with emails (week 12) to 25,14% and stayed high in the following weeks. The average click-through rate for all industries followed the open rate’s trend. Throughout weeks 12-19, neither of those metrics dropped back to their pre-pandemic levels.
More emails sent; more emails opened
We saw a sudden increase in the number of emails sent by companies within the Health Care industry.
Between the 23rd and 30th of March, the average number of emails sent increased by 66%. This high volume remained stable for about three weeks.
Interestingly, the spike in the average of emails sent didn’t cause a drop in the engagement metrics observed by marketers. Health Care companies saw a slight increase in the average open and click-through rates between March 23 and April 6.
Health Care is a very specific industry. It revolves around safety and trust. During the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are more inclined to read content about these topics; however, the emotions driving that interest are far from positive.
Marketers in the Health Care industry need to be aware of how fragile these emotions are right now and make sure not to overwhelm their recipients with information that may cause irritation, fear, and other extreme emotions.
Health and Beauty
An increasing number of emails, dropping complaints
We can see a clear increase in the volume of emails sent by companies in the Health and Beauty industry, especially in the week following March 16. The sudden 40% spike was then followed by slightly slower two weeks, but then the average number of emails sent picked up again and remained rather stable from April 6.
It seems that in the extreme week 12, where the engagement rates dropped and the volumes went significantly up, we didn’t observe an increase in the unsubscribe and spam complaint rates. In fact, these metrics were at the lowest within the timeframe we analyzed. This could either mean that the recipients:
a) weren’t bothered by the emails they received,
b) were reluctant to open them because of how many other messages they’ve received from other marketers,
or c) a sudden spike in volumes resulted in less-favorable filtering of incoming emails by the mailbox providers.
Health and Beauty marketers are facing challenging times, but they can still benefit from doubling-down on their email campaigns.
Especially now, they need to pay attention to their deliverability and engagement metrics. If you’re working in Health & Beauty vertical, consider implementing more automated email sequences, triggered by recipients’ actions, and communication based on engaging content rather than using psychological tactics based on scarcity.
Rising metrics while going back to pre-COVID mailing frequency
During weeks 11 to 15, marketers in the Financial Services industry sent 23% to 47% more emails than in weeks 9 and 10. Although noticeable, this increase in the email volumes isn’t as big as in some other industries we’ve analyzed.
Looking at the engagement metrics, we can see that initially, the numbers have dropped, but starting on March 23, they’ve been on a rather steady rise.
In particular, the open, click-through, and click-to-open rates have been the highest in weeks 16, 17, and 19. These weeks, however, were also the ones when the average number of emails sent went back to the level we observed at the beginning of the period we’ve analyzed.
Much like with other industries, marketers in the Financial services increased their email volumes, but the response from their recipients wasn’t significant.
A reason for this may be that initially, consumers were more interested in topics related to their health and well-being, and only after that, they started looking at their finances.
This would make sense, considering that many businesses haven’t yet started implementing contingency plans at that time.
A different trend in engagement metrics
The Education industry observed more of an opposite trend compared to what we’ve seen with other verticals.
The volume of emails sent was the highest during weeks 9 to 11 and picked up only once again later in weeks 17 and 18. Across the weeks 12 to 16, the average number of emails sent was lower by about 14% compared to what we observed in the preceding three weeks.
Despite the lower email volumes sent, the engagement rates were also initially low. They’ve picked up, however, from week 14 onward. A similar trend was visible for click-through and click-to-open rates.
It seems that marketers in the Education industry increased their email volumes, but since they didn’t have a positive engagement with their communication, they’ve decided to level down their emailing frequency.
Later, however, they began to see that the recipients started showing interest in the email communication, and it’d be more reasonable to pay more attention to this channel once again.
The initial low engagement seems to coincide with what we’ve seen with many other industries, like the financial services. In the first weeks of the pandemic, consumers may not have been interested in development, education, and investing in acquiring new skills.
They may have been more concerned about their health and safety, but only began to focus on other aspects of life, when the general media started to emphasize the virus’ impact on the global economy.
A great spike in click-through rate
We initially observed high average email volumes sent by marketers in the Communication industry, but after week 12, they’ve suddenly decreased by about 30.5%.
When the email volumes decreased, the average click-through rates observed by marketers in this industry have increased by 82% on average.
The lower volumes also resulted in lower unsubscribe rates and spam complaint rates.
The initial engagement metrics observed by marketers in the Communication industry were rather low, at least compared to what was reported in the Email Marketing Benchmarks report.
Given that these metrics increased when the number of emails sent decreased, we’d suggest that marketers shift their focus to recipients’ engagement, deliverability, and adjust their mailing frequency accordingly.
Although this applies to all industries in general, it’s essential to pay attention to their recipients’ interests, preferences, and emotions they may currently be experiencing. Rather than increasing their email volume, we’d recommend that marketers figure out how they can improve their content and help their audiences succeed.
Arts & Entertainment
A spike in emails sent caused email fatigue
Despite – or maybe due to – the difficult situation many Arts & Entertainment companies have found themselves in, we observed a significant increase in the email volumes sent within this vertical. The average number of emails sent was 48% higher between weeks 12 to 19, compared to weeks 9 to 11.
Very similar to other industries we’ve looked at, an increase in the volumes sent coincided with a drop in the engagement metrics such as email open and click-through rates. When it comes to the unsubscribe and spam complaint rates, these haven’t changed initially, but by week 15, they seem to have increased, which could be a sign of email fatigue.
Although lower volumes coincide with higher engagement rates, this doesn’t seem to be a good time to put your email campaigns on hold.
Before changing your emailing frequency, we’d recommend that you analyze your engagement rates, the total number of conversions, and your email list churn.
It’s important not to overwhelm your customers with excessive communication, but at the same time, you don’t want your brand to be forgotten. Certain projects will have to be put on hold, but consumers are still very much interested in entertainment and events.
The initial increase in volume could be the result of many events being canceled and consumers being worried about the events they’ve registered for. Now, it’s time to come up with alternative solutions to interact and engage your audience and strengthen the relationships with them.
We can say this from our own experience, after two months of lockdown, people can’t wait till they’re able to go out and meet other people – but until then, we need to offer them the next best option, e.g., online events and webinars.
A very stable email frequency
Unlike other industries, it seems that agencies have remained a more stable email frequency throughout the period we’ve analyzed, showing only three short spikes in the email volumes sent within weeks 12, 13, and 15.
The engagement metrics observed for those email campaigns slightly decreased in the first period, but then picked up and continued to rise until the very end of week 19. Simultaneously, while the engagement metrics were growing, the same happened to the unsubscribe and complaint rates.
This is interesting because with most of the other industries we’ve analyzed, the negative engagement metrics were usually affected by an increased volume. But that didn’t often come in pair with an increase in open and click-through rates.
Agencies are often among the first to pick up on new trends and adapt their messaging to fit the new situation.
As such, it seems reasonable to accept that agencies have managed to shift their communication to fit the right tone, e.g., move away from a salesy to a more empathetic approach.
Based on what we’ve seen in our own inboxes, this is the case. Many of the great agencies we follow started tailoring their services and communication to help businesses throughout this time.
Some started offering free advice, writing thoughtful articles and doing free webinars to discuss what businesses can do in these difficult times.
Based on this, our recommendation would be to:
1) pick up your email communication if you haven’t been running any campaigns lately, and
2) make sure your messaging is compassionate, providing help to your audience – even if they’re not ready to become your clients yet.
Restaurants & Food
Fluctuating volumes, low unsubscribe rate
The restaurants & food industry had a huge spike in emails sent February 24 – March 22, from little over 9000 emails on average to almost 15000. Then, it dropped again in week 15, this time to 5800 emails sent.
The highest open rate appeared during week 15, when the average number of emails was on the lower side. The lowest open rate and click-through rate were observed in week 12, with 0.9% CTR when the average number of emails sent was the highest.
However, the unsubscribe rate was steady – between 0.16% – 0.22% throughout the weeks, with one amazingly small number standing out – 0.08% in week 12, when the avg. no. of emails was at its highest.
Restaurants have faced challenging times during the pandemic. Still, while many of them had to stay closed for safety reasons, some have figured out ways to keep their customers close, sending out emails that encouraged ordering food online or buying coupons for future use.
This industry’s marketers sent lots of emails when most of our inboxes were already overpacked. Still, the recipients slowly got engaged for two main reasons – out of their growing interest in deliveries, as the restaurants closed down, and to support their favorite local food makers.
Right now, we think the industry’s emails’ copy should focus on supporting the local community by ordering their delicious food online and, if the company’s financial situation allows it, giving out some of it to those in need.
A steady frequency brought the best results
We can see a slight decrease in emails sent from the real estate industry between weeks 9 and 16. However, between May 4 and May 10, the number suddenly jumps to one that’s over three times higher.
The week with the highest open rate was week 17 when the number of emails sent was near the average for weeks 9-19. The click-through rate for this particular week was the second-highest in all the observed weeks.
As the pandemic situation escalated and people got laid off, intense real estate marketing might have felt a little out of place, which may be the cause of the decreasing number of emails sent by this industry.
Over time, when the engagement started growing, Real Estate marketers felt safer with their audience and got back on track right at the beginning of May. People started opening more and more emails about real estate, and our best guess is that some of them got frustrated with their homes during the lockdown and started looking for something more comfortable for the future.
What the real estate industry should focus on in their marketing strategy is more personalized automation, based on users’ clicks and sites visited to ensure that the emails cater to their interest and don’t feel like a pushy sales pitch during financial hardships of many.
Decreased volumes and a drop in metrics, followed by a high peak
The publishing industry has experienced a rather steady drop of the number of emails sent.
What’s interesting, we could observe a sudden spike in the number between March 16 – March 22, what resulted in a harsh drop of engagement rates – from a high 42.42% open rate and a 6.38% click-through rate the week before, to 22.68% and 2.97% rates respectively.
The engagement rates slowly rose to a second peak during week 18, reaching a 44.08% open rate and a 6.42% click-through rate, which are the highest metrics observed for the publishing industry.
Many marketers from the Publishing industry started coming up with as much engaging content as possible during the first weeks of the pandemic, as reflected in the week 12’s sudden emails increase.
After a few weeks, and especially after the second month of worldwide lockdown came to an end, people got into reading more. That’s why the second peak of interest happened at the beginning of May.
So far, the metrics are steadily growing, and we don’t predict a loss of interest in the nearest future. This is the right time to venture out into different marketing channels like, for example, Facebook Ads. Or maybe even webinars with the authors? The choice is yours, Publishing, and the possibilities are endless!
The lowest number of emails sent
With a rather low average number of emails sent than other industries, the non-profit industry has had astonishingly high engagement rates throughout weeks 9 to 19.
Starting at the lowest numbers in week 9, as the number of emails dropped in week 14, the engagement rates reached their peak. The click-through rate jumped almost four times higher than the previous week’s 5.82% to a staggering 21.42%. Unfortunately, this also caused a high outlier among otherwise stable unsubscribe rates.
Non-profits are usually associated with doing good things for communities in need. That’s why, by the end of March, when people wanted to show support the most, they started opening and engaging with emails from the non-profits they really care about.
One thing the Non-profit industry did great was not going overboard with the number of emails they sent. Keeping the number on the lower side allowed them to reach such great results.
What the non-profits can do right now is keep the same regularity of their emails and reliability of the information they provide. That will make the audiences used to the steady rhythm of the industry and keep them returning to support you even long after the pandemic is gone.
Case study: Learn how TechSoup Polska, an organization helping nonprofits get access to new technologies, increased their orders’ value by 1200% year over year thanks to targeted email campaigns.
The most consistent email frequency
The internet marketing industry was very consistent when it comes to the number of emails sent – the biggest difference week-to-week was sending 1882 emails less in week 11 than the week before (1882 is 17% of their 10 999 avg. emails between March 2 and March 8)
As for the engagement rates, the trend was very similar to other industries – the fewer emails per week, the more engagement they got.
One surprising event seen in data happened between March 16 and March 22 – the open rate dropped suddenly and came with the second-to-lowest CTR – all despite a very small increase of the average number of emails sent (from 9117 to 9787).
The unsubscribe rates, except for a drop in week 12, increased slowly to 0.30% in week 19.
Internet Marketers tend to adapt quickly to a changing environment and use the trends they observe to their great advantage. It’s best seen in the growing engagement rates week after week.
The middle-of-March drop happened to many other industries as well, which can only be explained by the attitudes and priorities shift in customers during times of uncertainty.
Although the correlation ‘more emails / less engagement; fewer emails/ more engagement’ wasn’t as strong for this industry, it’s easy to see that once the number of emails was slightly lowered by 14% at the beginning of May, the engagement rates were the highest of all the weeks before that.
Choosing email quality over quantity and creating compassionate copy oriented to helping the customers will be a winning combination for the Internet Marketing industry.
Big changes and a 95.56% open rate
The travel industry experienced a dramatic drop in the number of emails sent with an equally massive increase in the engagement metrics.
The average of 6276 emails sent during week 9, was followed by two massive drops. Come week 13, we saw 1820 emails sent, and three weeks later, this number dropped to only 940 emails.
Along with the drop in the number of emails sent, came the increase in engagement with a stunning 95.56% open rate between April 13-20.
The travel industry is among the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic, due to the resulting travel restrictions and decrease in demand among travelers. The shocking drop in email communication closely resembles the situation in many cities across the globe, where planned travel went down by 80–90%.
Technology and High Tech
Steady and high engagement metrics.
In the technology and high-tech industry, we observed irregularity in the number of emails sent with rather steady and high engagement metrics.
A significant drop took place between May 4 and 11. The number of emails sent went down by 47% compared to the previous week. This was accompanied by an increase in the engagement with open rates at 31.01% and click-through rate at 4.45%.
The technology and high-tech industry are also prone to the operational, workforce, and supply chain disruptions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, remote work, online education, and social distancing create demand for products and services delivered by the tech industry offering growth and innovation opportunities.
Sports and Activities
A drop in frequency
Similarly to the travel industry, sports and activities experienced a dramatic drop in the number of emails sent.
The decrease started between March 9 and 16, with the average of 7794 emails sent (36% decrease WoW) reaching the lowest point between March 16-23 with 3794 emails (69% decrease compared to just two weeks prior).
As usual, as the number of emails sent went down, we saw an increase in engagement.
The sports and activities industry is also among the hardest-hit during the pandemic, which resulted in the closure of gyms, stadiums, pools, dance and fitness studios, physiotherapy centers, parks, and playgrounds.
We saw that many businesses took the “adversity is a hidden opportunity” approach and built communities around sports and activities during social distancing.
A steady growth
Retail industry saw a rather steady growth when it comes to email marketing during the COVID-19 outbreak.
As for many other industries, a sudden drop across metrics happened in week 12. Within that time, the average number of emails sent dropped by 4% WoW, the open rate dropped to 18.36%, and the click-through rate was unprecedented at 1.70%.
This event preceded a period of steady growth for weeks to follow. We observed the highest engagement rates in week 16, with a 34.04% open rate and a 3.00% click-through rate.
The social distancing measures and restrictions on business impacted the retail industry, forcing companies to innovate and create online revenue streams. Companies operating online can make the most of email marketing during the COVID-19 outbreak.
When it comes to the remaining industries, we saw a drop in the number of emails sent with a steady increase in the engagement metrics like open and click-through rate.
After week 12, there was a decrease in the average number of emails sent and steady growth for the engagement rates, spiking above the pre-COVID19 average.
We observed the highest open rate between April 20-27, and the highest click-through rate between March 30 and April 5.
There is a correlation between the decrease of the number of emails sent and the increase of engagement. Perhaps companies changed their email marketing strategy towards quality over quantity bearing in mind that everyone was adapting to rapid changes and flooded with various kinds of information daily.
It’s impossible to say for sure what will happen in the upcoming months.
Some argue that we’ll never go back to the way we were before. That the way we live, work, and consume is going to change.
Others say that we’ll go straight back into the way we were before. Excluding the recession, that is.
We’d like to leave you with the recommendation to test, observe, and be very cautious about what and how you communicate with your audience.
Be empathetic. Be human.
Observe, learn, and adapt.
We’ve seen some wonderful campaigns and support from consumers rooting for their local brands.
We can all be part of this and should do whatever we can to make things better.
In the meantime, if you want to see how to make sure you’re making the most out of your campaigns, read Email Marketing Best Practices and see 20+ proven tips for improved results.