Between a global pandemic, the most controversial presidential election in US history, and a seemingly endless surge of important issues making headlines, 2020 delivered email marketers the perfect email storm.
Some were able to weather the storm, even with the smallest of sea-faring ships, while others ended up shipwrecked along the shores of Inbox Island.
Despite hoping life would return to normal after a few weeks, the pandemic persisted, introducing rapid changes in customer behavior unlike we’ve ever seen before. Entire communities found themselves suddenly not going out to stores, restaurants or social events.
Evolving consumer routines and shopping behaviors throughout 2020 led to drastic changes in how companies engaged with existing (and potential) customers via email.
So what did we learn in 2020? Email deliverability experts from Netcore, Pardot & Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Campaign Monitor, ActiveCampaign, TrueAccord, and yours truly take a look back at the tumultuous year—sharing lessons learned and discussing how email changed in 2020. More importantly, if those changes are expected to stick around.
So let’s begin…
Adapting to the “New Normal”
2020 was a looooong year, and for many, it led to great change. Email geeks who’ve been in marketing for years were saying to throw your marketing playbook out the window. Because, after all, when people’s priorities and budgets change, so do their behaviors with email.
For 2021, the good news is that we’ve had almost a full year of time to re-train ourselves on what our email audience likes in what we now so lovingly refer to as “the new normal.”
For new sign-ups and customers:
- Dig into the lead magnets that drove them to sign-up or make a purchase.
- Also, review the stats related to your welcome emails or welcome series – what kinds of content worked well (generating high opens, clicks and conversions) and what content didn’t work well?
- If you have multiple lead sources or sign-up forms, are there any differences in quality that you can trace back to a problematic list collection practices or an issue with not properly setting expectations at the point of sign-up?
Learn from the behavior of these new sign-ups, particularly if you’re seeing user complaints or unsubscribe rates that are elevated.
It’s never a good sign when someone jumps off the ride so quickly. It’s the same as someone buying a movie ticket and then bailing during the opening credits. There’s gotta be a reason driving that behavior.
For the existing recipients on your list: Reviewing any historical data you have about a recipient’s past engagement from before the pandemic, as well as throughout 2020, will help you identify patterns within their engagement that have stayed the same, as well as any changes in behavior that suggest a major life event has recast the way they may interact with your brand going forward.
Some recipient patterns to be on the lookout for:
- Have they continued to engage, or did you see a sharp drop off in engagement? Or perhaps a reduction in engagement slowly over time? Or have they never really engaged with your brand outside of the holiday season?
- When and how often do they open/click?
- Frequency of conversion, as well as the overall value of those interactions vs. that from 6+ months ago. If you send multiple types of offers or content — or If you’re sending emails related to the pandemic or current events, in addition to more typical sales and marketing campaigns, which emails do they seem to engage with more?
The point is not to drive yourself nuts here, but to use all of this data to better understand the motivations of your email audience and group your recipients into different buckets based on what they have shown you is important to them NOW.
Ultimately, when it comes to excelling at email, providing real value to your subscribers wins the day. And so does data.
The Boost in Email Bares Unique Challenges For ALL Marketers
If there was one good thing about 2020 it proved that email isn’t dead. In fact 2020 gave it another huge boost. Brick and Mortar stores being forced to close their doors, or set limits on the number of in person shoppers made digital communications even more important for businesses to survive and thrive.
The number of new eRetailers and solopreneurs that appeared over the year gave birth to a whole new generation of digital marketers.
Some chose to promote overly image-rich social media photos and videos, others hastily built online order forms to be downloaded, and we also saw a surge in new ecommerce businesses.
While businesses struggled to make this transition in the early part of 2020, it opened a door and provided access to a new audience, each with an identifier that would allow those businesses to have a direct channel to clients they likely didn’t have before.
Closing this door will be challenging for many businesses in a post pandemic world as customers have spent the last year getting used to this new way of interacting with their favourite brands.
What does this mean for marketers going forward?
As a service provider there are a whole new cohort of businesses that have never used email this way, specifically for marketing purposes as their sole income channel. This will lead to a number of rookie mistakes and challenges for these businesses.
Established brands were not left out of mistakes either, many sent messages to long inactive members under the flag of being helpful and communicating with customers. This led to sending emails that damaged reputations, even though they had good intentions.
Being prepared with educational best practices, tools to make things easier for these already burdened businesses, and a healthy dose of patience to help guide them on to success will be important going forward for marketers old and new.
Leave the Bad Practices in 2020
Is anything real?
Email became more important.
Everything in flux.
I don’t think I need to tell anyone reading this that 2020 changed everything, because you lived it.
We’re still at the point of people rolling their eyes over the word “unprecedented”, and I am in no way a better bartender, no matter how many Zoom happy hours I’ve attended. So I’ll skip past that and just say 2020 was basically about throwing your hands up and rolling with it.
How do you shift your entire retail strategy and business when people are unable to leave the house? What even is workwear anymore? With the massive shift in life, email had to shift along with it.
Carefully planned calendars, creative, and campaigns had to be scrapped. For many companies, email became their lifeline to keep the business alive, and I saw that shift in terms of complaints.
In normal circumstances, abuse desk summers are relaxing because everyone’s on vacation and aren’t scrambling to do anything. The tradeoff is that mid-September to late January is insane. In true 2020 form, that was turned completely on its head.
July, in particular, marked a MASSIVE increase in spam complaint activity. Anecdotally, it seems like senders needed March-May to re-plan everything so they could smush all of a year’s worth of marketing activities into six months while going ahead and reaching into the depths of their database to market to everyone they’d ever come in contact with.
Data cleanliness practices were thrown out the window, businesses bought lists in desperate efforts to reach inboxes, and everyone suddenly had (not generally well informed) opinions on how email campaigns should be run.
I’m very hopeful we don’t deal in that particular brand of chaos again, and that’s something we can absolutely leave in 2020. Especially when it comes to list-buying, please stop.
On the flip side, I had the calmest November I’ve ever had, likely because Black Friday just wasn’t as big of a deal, and there was no real need to massively ramp up sending as there has been in years past.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Black Friday was still a massive day for email volume overall, as I think it always will be. This year, however, we’d gotten all of our email-based chaos (Massive bounce rates! Blocklistings! Direct complaints!) out of the way early, so from where I sat, it was smooth sailing.
Anecdotally, looking at my inbox, that more relaxed Black Friday experience seemed to hold: in years past, the deluge of emails starts as early as 3am. This year, the earliest email was at 8:30.
It was really interesting to see the shift both accidentally (as much as I advocate for prepping for November in July, no one’s really done it until they had no choice this year!) and intentionally (why send a 3am email when you absolutely don’t have to?).
My hope is that we’ll semi-keep this- maybe people will see the benefits of keeping their databases clean, or at least not waiting until November 1 to start thinking about the state of their database for their big Black Friday campaigns.
Leave! Bad! Practices!
Keep maintaining your data.
Also, stay relaxed. 🙂
2020 Reinforced Tried & Tested Truths
2020 was a tough year for a multitude of reasons. We leave it behind with a sigh of relief and enter 2021 with cautious hope.
Both as individuals and industries we’ve had to adapt to changing rules on what we are allowed and not allowed to do, and one of the things that changed the most was the amount of time we spent online and our relationship with emails.
Many countries introduced new restrictions in March and April 2020 and industries like Government, Healthcare, and Media and Publication showed a marked increase in engagement and a drop in unsubscribe rates.
At Campaign Monitor we saw an overall increase of 20% in open rates in this period compared to 2019.
As brick and mortar stores shut down, many industries like retail, hospitality and in-person services had to change their marketing strategies, focusing on their online presence and promoting new ways to engage and support their customers.
More restaurants offered take-away service, retailers made it easier to shop online, and fitness classes were available on-demand or streamed live into our homes.
However, there were also fluctuations throughout 2020 in email volume and user engagement as waves of events impacted individuals and industries.
We all felt mail fatigue from the constant updates about COVID19 and some companies reached further back in their database to find more addresses to email, which led to poor engagement and delivery issues. This isn’t surprising as the rules of deliverability still apply during a pandemic.
It’s too early to say what long-lasting impact 2020 will have on the email industry but we can be sure that for the near future brands will continue to rely heavily on technology to promote their business and cater to their customers.
2020 taught us new lessons while reinforcing some tried and tested truths.
Firstly, consider whether your email provides wanted, valuable and meaningful content to the recipient and is worth sending. Sending unwanted or irrelevant emails will quickly result in low open rates and high spam complaints, damaging your sender reputation and shrinking your list size.
Secondly, be mindful of the subscriber experience, providing the reader with personalised and targeted content that is clear, concise and accessible.
The inbox is a crowded place and it will only get busier. Quality over quantity is key to make your emails stand out above the noise.
Thirdly, it’s important to re-engage and reconnect with your subscribers on a regular basis, every 6 months as a minimum. To do this:
- Identify your unengaged subscribers
- Temporarily ramp down or stop sending them emails to make them miss you
- Create a compelling email with value-add content and a clear CTA or confirmation link
- After a couple of attempts to re-engage your subscribers remove them from your list
Finally, list hygiene and maintenance is critical to sending successful emails. Marketing to an unused and older database may result in some opens and clicks, however the risk of damage to your sender reputation from the overall low open rates, high bounces, high spam complaints and spamtrap hits is still real.
As we move into 2021, senders have an opportunity to review and learn from yesteryears how to improve their marketing programs by following best deliverability practices. These include being honest and upfront with your subscribers, providing them with valuable content, and maintaining an authentic relationship with them.
C’est la vie, 2020!
We can all agree that 2020 was a year that we will never forget no matter how much we may long to leave it behind. A multitude of events shook communities to their core. The email community was no different.
Collectively, we watched as entire industries experienced devastating declines nearly overnight (travel, hospitality, retail, etc.) due to the pandemic while others encountered rapid growth beyond their wildest dreams (remote working technologies, delivery services, etc.).
We witnessed resiliency like never before. Businesses pivoted their marketing and operational efforts when they could no longer safely provide their services face-to-face.
Local bookstores, shops, restaurants, and historically in-person businesses switched to online ordering and curbside pick-up. We even saw never-before-seen widespread Black Friday store closures and longer sales periods to make up for the inability to provide safe in-store shopping.
Throughout 2020, email compliance & deliverability experts experienced an increase in difficult conversations with our customers.
While many customers were successful with making the necessary adjustments to their email strategies given current events, we did see that for some customers this led to an increase in spam complaints, bouncing to now-undeliverable email addresses, and filtering to the spam folder.
The main issue identified was sending emails to older unengaged contacts and purchasing or scraping contact lists. A lesson that many of us in this industry have been coaching for years is that the ‘spray & pray’ method of sending to any and all contacts is one of the least effective ways to reach and connect with recipients. The events of 2020 only reaffirmed this.
We also saw a number of social and political issues erupt in 2020 that led to companies voicing their support and opinions through email on issues such as racial injustice, voting rights, climate change, healthcare, and more.
We all saw our inboxes fill with emails from CEOs identifying weaknesses in or a complete lack of DEI policies and vowing to be better, encouraging communities to work together to provide PPE equipment to first responders, and new initiatives to raise or match donations to racial justice and social funds.
Two key takeaways on sending email from these events would be the importance of sending relevant content that connects with recipients as well as being a transparent and inclusive brand for your customers.
As our society continues to grow and evolve these principals must come forefront in your operations.
Unfortunately, tragedies and triumphs are often followed by the scavengers of the internet community – fraudsters and scammers.
Too many emails made it out into the world with the intent of scamming people of their COVID-19 stimulus money and abusing government aid and relief packages. Across the board, email service providers and mailbox providers saw an increase in attempts to scam people out of their sensitive information for nefarious means.
Across the industry, we learned from these new patterns and were able to increase anti-fraud/abuse efforts as we all continue to strive to do our part in protecting recipients from malicious senders.
Overall, 2020 taught us that email communication has proven to be an absolute necessity for companies of all sizes. Continued planning for online services and communications are now pivotal to keeping businesses surviving and thriving for the foreseeable future.
While we are all clinging to the hope that 2021 brings let’s not forget to remember the heartwarming connections and technological advancements made to further support businesses, communities, neighbors, family, and friends, during 2020.
Email Marketers Needed To Pivot in 2020 & A Lot Did!
2020 was well a year many would like to forget and for the majority of us, life had to pivot, be it finding a new comfortable home to shelter in place or figuring out what’s next day after day. Email Marketing had a similar direction.
Once companies understood that this pandemic is not going anywhere for a while, they realized that what worked before would no longer work this year since people were forced to be at home and do their shopping.
Businesses had to pivot to e-commerce solutions that helped shoppers find a way to still attain their products and services. Those who were able to adapt quickly and effectively not only survived but did exceedingly well, including creating loyalty.
One of the major things that was a change in content, understanding what the consumer needs and being sympathetic to it. 2020 taught businesses to look at different approaches to email content, focusing less on products and more on “human-centric and emotional content.”
Personalization was a huge factor in many marketers’ minds as understanding what is important to whom the message is going to and trying to relate to their consumers’ essential wants.
For TrueAccord, it was continuing to understand the struggles of our consumers and help them with our mission statement, which is delivering a great user experience and empowering consumers to regain control of their financial future. TrueAccord’s objective keeps being the same, which is to make debt collection empathetic and customer-focused.
To do this, we made sure to have content in all our emails that help our consumers understand we are sympathetic to what they are going through during this time and we are here for them.
The best approach for email marketing moving forward is to continue to take the lessons learned from 2020 and be sympathetic to consumer’s needs. Best of all, treating consumers as humans and not opens and clicks with their brands.
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