Email marketing in the time of COVID-19

Guy Hanson, VP of customer engagement international at Validity, discusses how marketers' emails can hit the right note during the coronavirus pandemic.


In a global pandemic it may seem trivial to discuss matters of brands, customer engagement and subscriber numbers, but the harsh reality is that, as well as a health crisis we’re also threatened with an economic one.

Businesses need predictable cashflow, people need jobs, and consumers need the confidence to spend.

It’s definitely not business as usual right now. Econsultancy reported only 14% of UK marketing campaigns are now continuing ‘as planned’. However, Emarsys’s Covid-19 Commerce Insight dashboard shows online retail transactions are up 39% year-on-year for European retailers.

Both extremes are reflected in the world of email. The channel has a key role to play across the spectrum – supporting promotions, but also providing important communications to help customers deal with changed circumstances.

Why rely on email?

Email has always been valued by both brands and consumers, but in this current climate there are some particularly specific reasons for email’s effectiveness:

Measurable: A recent survey carried out by Advertiser Perceptions found two-thirds (65%) of advertisers agree the coronavirus pandemic will result in advertisers focusing spend on media that can show direct sales outcomes.

This plays to emails strengths. The DMA’s recent Marketer Email Tracker 2020 reported ROI at £35.41 for every £1 spent. Econsultancy’s 2019 Email Census reported that while email accounts for 13% of total marketing budgets, 19% of all sales attributed to the email marketing channel, out-performing all other marketing spend by ± 1.45X.

At a moment of much greater focus on demonstrable performance, email’s inherent measurability will be more important than ever.

Trusted Channel: Email has long been considered one of the most trusted communication channels. Especially post-GDPR, stronger consent, clear setting of expectations, and genuine provision of choice have all built stronger trust between senders and subscribers.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the DMA’s Consumer Email Tracker 2020 report showed consumers prefer email for customer services communications, discounts, offers and sales notifications, order confirmations and updates. At a time when it is essential for communications to be authentic, credible, and willing to share value, trust between senders and recipients will underpin the effectiveness of these messages.

Reach: I spoke with the email program owner at one of the train franchises. Their email activity is currently ticking over, with little to promote while the lockdown is in effect. However, he said he has full support from his business, and a major reason is that email addresses are the only customer data point where they have near-100% penetration. So, any time they need to get out a message to their customers, email is the default channel.

Email with care

Since the crisis began, we’ve seen some distinct changes in the way that email programs have been operating.

Engagement: Consumers have generally responded well to brands’ Covid-19 themed messaging. Validity’s analysis has shown these messages form 5% of total daily activity, achieve better inbox placement rates (2% higher on average), and are generating substantially higher engagement (20% higher on average). They are also 15% less likely to be marked as spam!

Spam Traps: However, senders need to avoid sending emails to large segments of their total lists, especially when the pretext for the send is spurious. We know from Experian Data Quality research that 22% of businesses estimate their contact data is inaccurate. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, we have seen a massive rise in trap hits, especially recycle traps – old addresses that have been re-purposed for monitoring activity. Trap hits determine sender reputation scores, so these senders will be degrading their reputations, and harming their deliverability as a direct consequence.

Bandwidth: With a large part of the country now working from home, internet usage has increased significantly, According to a Virgin Media report, the lockdown has roughly doubled the UK’s daily band-width requirements. Email broadcasts form part of this usage, so finding “bandwidth gaps” will help emails get delivered.

Validity research shows 70% of all emails are sent within the first two minutes following the top of the hour. This is because broadcasts are often scheduled to start at a round number (10h00, 15h00, etc.). Senders should “avoid the rush” – by scheduling their emails to go out at 10 past the hour, for example!

Timing: The big rise in working from home means senders need to reconsider established send-time-optimisation practices too. Many email programs target subscribers during “windows” when they will be most responsive – the morning commute for example.

This has changed over the past four weeks, with more email now being sent in the afternoon. This is clearly resonating with subscribers’ changed circumstances, and average inbox placement rates are 5% higher for afternoon sends.

Tone: Tailoring communications with intelligence and sensitivity is vital. Even in a normal climate, successful email marketing relies on authentic tone of voice to engage credible with customers. The crisis has amplified this requirement, and as it has played out there have been a distinct evolution in messaging:

Initially messaging was about demonstrating awareness – almost a GDPR-style outreach, comprising long-form updates, to acknowledge the changed circumstances.

It then evolved into something slightly more tangible – “We’re Making Changes” – providing information around topics like store closures and product availability.

We’re now shifting into the next iteration “Striving for Continuity” – reinforcing that “we’re all in this together” and using the opportunity to make practical gestures by providing genuine value-added content.

The following recent examples illustrate this new theme:

Body Shop: Understands people are worried about their health while confined, and promoted Vitamin C day. There was also clever use of colour in this email – nice warm hues, intended to help people feel better about themselves.

McDonalds: Recognises customers may be missing their McMuffins, and provides instructions on how to make them at home! They also provide additional instructions on how to make a hash brown too!

Topshop: Lets their customers know they’ve got their backs – they are working around the clock to process orders, eligible for free deliveries on all orders, plus extended time period for returns (recognising lock-down limitations).

A wonderful example came from They made a mistake, sending German copy to English subscribers. This was followed with a great apology, lamenting the challenges of home working, and blaming the error on a cat sitting on their keyboard! The corrected follow-up continued the theme (“no more cheeky cats this week!). It was a really nice way of saying “we’re all in this together, and we recognise everyone could do with a good laugh!”

All these approaches illustrate the importance of the human touch. Now is absolutely not the time to be sending cliched messages from the CEO, making clumsy parallels between subscribers’ personal turmoil and your business needs, and generally using current events as a threadbare excuse to annoy unengaged audiences. If you have any doubts about what you’re planning on sending, don’t send it.

As we all wrestle with this new normal, it’s important for marketers to combine the savviness so vital to our craft, with the humanity and sensitivity that is now required. Things are tough for all of us right now, and people never forget those who were willing to help them. Brands that go the extra mile, genuinely and with empathy, are the ones that will emerge from this crisis enjoying stronger relationships with loyal, appreciative customers.

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