Covid-19 has affected nearly every aspect of people’s lives, from how they work to what they purchase.
For marketers who rely on email to reach audiences, trying to figure out how these shifts have impacted engagement can be a challenge. Does the fact that people have been spending more time at home mean they are reading more messages? Or have they been taking breaks from email with so much else going on? If they have been reading campaigns, have they been taking other actions too?
To find out, we looked at research released by a number of different firms since the start of the pandemic. Broadly, the data shows that Covid-19 does appear to have had an impact on email engagement, but also that there are a number of caveats and nuances.
Specifically, the research reveals:
Opens jumped early on but other metrics didn’t necessarily follow
A study from Campaign Monitor found the average email open rate for its clients jumped by 16% between February and March, and that it was up 20% year-over-year in both March and April.
Research from Acoustic tells a similar story: The company found that global email opens rose by 24% between February and March.
However, the Acoustic research also shows that other engagement metrics didn’t necessarily follow this trend. For example, the average click-through rate stayed steady between February and March.
What’s going on with these numbers? The key to understanding them may lay in volume.
As Campaign Monitor notes: “[There was] a marked rise in send volume between February and March (email sends were up 19% from February 2020 to March 2020).”
As the pandemic increasingly impacted communities around the world, businesses emailed more and more updates to their audiences. And the good news is that the spike in opens indicates that people were eager for this messaging. They were looking at more emails even though their inboxes were getting flooded.
However, more opens didn’t necessarily lead to more action taking. This may be because some of the messages were simply informational and/or because the increase in volume meant audiences were spending less time with each individual email.
As Acoustic puts it in their report: “With many brands sending ‘An important message from our CEO’ type emails, recipients were intrigued to open and glance at the message content, but not motivated to click to learn more or take an action.”
Engagement trends have varied significantly by vertical
When looking at Covid-19’s impact on email engagement, it’s important to note that the effects have varied widely among verticals.
For example, Campaign Monitor found that year-over-year click-through rates dropped in March for verticals like Automotive (-1.08%), Real Estate (-0.77%), and Construction (-0.53%) whereas they increased for verticals like Education (+13.2%), Government (+9.9%), and Logistics (+6.2%).
This intuitively makes sense. The pandemic has upended life for many, and it’s no surprise that it’s driven people to take more interest in emails related to certain topics (education, etc.) and less interest in emails related to other topics (automobiles, etc.).
A prime example of engagement varying by vertical is Health. Get Response found that between March 23 and 30, the average number of emails sent by healthcare companies spiked by 66% while the click-through rate went up at the same time (represented by the latter weeks in this chart below). In other words, although health-related emails were filling people’s inboxes, audiences were engaging more, not less, with these messages.
Beyond vertical, other factors have also impacted engagement
Vertical is the clearest illustration of how email engagement has not been uniformly affected by the pandemic. However, it is by no means the only one.
For example, Acoustic found huge variations with email engagement among geographic regions between January and May, with Continental Europe having double the average click-through rate of North America. This could be due to Covid-19 hitting different areas more severely at different times.
Another factor is business/list size. In its analysis, Mailchimp found small businesses/those with smaller mailing lists (fewer than 2,000 subscribers) saw significantly higher click-through rates in March and April compared with big businesses/those with bigger mailing lists (more than 2,000 subscribers).
What’s behind this difference? While it’s not fully clear, the report’s authors suggest that it may have to do with the fact that people often feel stronger bonds with local firms over global corporations. As they put it: “This distinction suggests people are looking for opportunities to connect with the small businesses in their communities.”
So, what should marketers make of all this data? There seem to be a few key takeaways:
1) Covid-19 appears to have impacted email engagement. Most notably, opens have increased when people have been under restrictive lockdowns/cases have spiked up.
2) People have been receiving a lot of messages, especially when cases have been peaking, so more opens have not necessarily translated to more action taking.
3) The pandemic’s impact on engagement has varied depending on many factors, including vertical, geography, and business size.
Ultimately as marketers weather the rest of this storm it could help to keep in mind that email engagement will likely continue to be unusual, with metrics potentially moving in opposite directions simultaneously. Also, strategies such as delivering highly relevant messaging and using bond-building language could prove to be especially effective during this time.