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COVID Benchmarks Deep Dive: How Your Email Strategy Must Change

Overview
Transcript

The world has changed—has your email strategy changed with it?

Exploring data from the COVID-edition of the Email Benchmarks Report, we’ll take a look at what exactly has changed in the email landscape and what it means for your marketing programs. Here are a few of the topics we’ll cover:

  • How subscriber behavior and engagement has changed
  • The best days and times to send email
  • Never-before-seen benchmark data from May sends
  • Examples of how companies have met their subscribers during the pandemic

Jared: Hi everyone, and thanks for joining us today as we talk about the changes in email benchmarks during the pandemic and how they should inform and change your email strategy.

Alright, so onto introductions.

Introductions

Speaking right now is Jared Evers, Senior Content Marketing Manager at Campaign Monitor. I’m the author of the COVID Email Benchmarks Report, and I oversee a lot of the blogs, guides, videos, and other resources that you see on the Campaign Monitor site.

And today I’m joined by friend, teammate, and Campaign Monitor royalty, Ros.

Ros: Thanks, Jared! Hi everyone, I’m Ros, the leader of Campaign Monitor’s Customer Experience team and 15-year email marketing veteran. My latest blog post on “The Best Times to Send during the Pandemic” relied on the benchmark data we’ll be sharing today, so glad to be joining you, Jared.

Jared: Wonderful. So today, Ros and I are here to talk about how the world has changed—which is not a surprising statement to any of you watching—but also how email has changed alongside it. We’ll be diving into the COVID-19 edition of the email benchmarks that I put together, as well as other relevant data trends, all analyzed from real emails sent out of Campaign Monitor.

And for any who aren’t super familiar with our company, Campaign Monitor is a modern email marketing platform that makes it easy to send unforgettable emails. The drag-and-drop editor has tools for every marketer, like background images, mobile stacking, countdown timers, and dynamic content. And the visual journey designer takes every challenge out of automation. And it’s free to get started, so that’s actually a great way to explore and see if it’s a good fit for your organization. And you can of course learn more on the website: campaign monitor dot com.

So, let’s get into it.

What’s changed since February?

Jared: While that’s obviously an extremely loaded question, the statement remains an interesting query when it comes to email.

Looking at Tweets, Instagram Stories, and other social posts back in March, it’s safe to say that email marketing was put under the microscope a bit, with those following poor practices sometimes getting publicly scathed. We saw a lot of subscribers get overwhelmed by crowded inboxes, and plenty of complaints about emails from companies they hadn’t heard from in years—complaints which I align with, because, as you’ll hopefully agree with me, that is truly poor email marketing.

But with all this public commotion, the stories, the tweets—the perception was a bit different from the reality.

For context, we took a look at a few different metrics to get to the findings we’ll explore.

The benchmarks report analyzed over six billion emails to gather its findings. Meanwhile, Ros also analyzed emails sent by 160 active brands to see how email changed for the average, engaged sender. Ros, care to comment on how you chose these accounts?

Ros: Sure thing! Well, I chose to look at an anonymized group of medium-sized company accounts that have been actively sending both before and after mid-March. After setting criteria around send volumes, I found a solid data set to look at—and what I saw as far as COVID engagement trends go was understandable, but in some ways, also very surprising.

Jared: Perfect, more on that study in a second. First, let’s look at how that public perception I mentioned varied from what the data shows.

March send volume was expected.

Jared: Despite the commotion around crowded inboxes, March sends weren’t far off from the normal.

When looking at year over year send volume, March was pretty consistent. And the volume still fell below Black Friday sends, which are the heaviest during the year.

Even with May data coming hot off the press, we see that 2020 send patterns—at least in terms of volume—are in line with 2019. Meaning March is typically a high month, with April and May showing up similarly lower on the chart.

But despite somewhat expected sending volumes overall, what we did find, through our more focused analysis that Ros composed, is that active senders became even more active.

Ros: And that makes sense. A lot of the brands that do email well—for example, they keep their list engaged, send regular campaigns and maintain interest—had even more to say during this time period. Meanwhile, the brands that had more sporadic sending habits likely put email on the back-burner as they focused on adapting their businesses.

Opens rose across the board.

Jared: The second thing we found is that opens increased during a time where inbox fatigue was at an intense high.

Across the board, the benchmarks showed more and more people opening email. As I mentioned, March is typically a high send month, but—as you likely know—more sends don’t usually correlate to more opens. So the 16% increase in opens from February to March shows that subscribers are more interested in what brands have to say than ever before.

Ros: Even with the focus group of active email marketers, their average open rates fluctuated from an already-high 31% to 30% during the time lockdowns were being enacted. With a nearly flat change in open rates and clicks, we continue to see from all angles that, in an evolving crisis, subscribers are eager to hear the latest news, updates, and information.

Jared: Even as we look at data from May, open and click metrics are nearly flat month over month, and still up multiple points versus last year, so this new level of engagement is likely here to stay so long as the state of pandemic remains.

Speaking of click metrics, it’s also worth noting that we saw clicks stay fairly flat. And when both sends and opens go up with maintained clicks, that reflects the nature of many of these emails: they likely centered around updates, and focused less on calls to action. This is also when many cities were moving into lockdown status, which makes clicking through to learn more about an event or buying something for fun a bit less enticing.

More focus was given to essential industries.

Jared: As we take a close look at specific sectors, we find that the industries most prevalent in current daily life are seeing big increases in engagement.

Government, Healthcare, and Financial Services have each sent more emails during the pandemic—while still seeing significant increases in open rates, and maintained decreases in unsubscribe rates.

Meanwhile less “essential,” yet equally important industries like the Nonprofit or Media and Publishing sectors capture their audience interest, with open rates increasing three to four points, and clicks rising around just one point year over year.

And all these metrics show that subscribers are more interested than ever in receiving and reading email—if it contains the information they’re looking for.

In fact, interest in email has also changed in terms of when subscribers are engaging with email, likely reflecting the shift for many to work from home schedules.

Ros: That’s true—based on the data I looked at from 160 active senders, we saw that not only did sending behavior change, but subscriber engagement changed as well.

Subscribers want email during their work day.

Ros: Campaign sends are now focused more during the standard workday, with the bulk of email being sent between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Meanwhile, subscriber open habits have changed more dramatically.

Opens are now spread through the work day, with large spikes at 9 a.m., then evenly between 1 and 4 p.m. The 6 p.m. spike is also new—you can see there was no one opening emails from these senders at 6 p.m. prior to lockdown orders.

As people have adapted to working from home, we can assume the 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. spikes represent the beginning and end of computer time for the day. But the bottom line here is that subscribers are interested in email as soon as they get it. They have a need to stay updated (as we explored earlier), and this should directly impact your email strategy.

Jared: Exactly. So we’ve covered a lot of data—let’s get to the takeaways.

Takeaway 1: Subscribers are interested in receiving and reading more email—if it contains the info they’re looking for.

Jared: First one: Subscribers are interested in receiving and reading more email than ever before—if it contains the information they’re looking for and are interested in.

We’ve seen new heights in open and engagement rates, and we’ve even seen how that behavior has changed to be packed into the work day. And it all adds up to this need to stay up to date in a constantly changing world.

Applying this to your strategy means considering your audience and the information they seek from your brand. Which leads into our second takeaway.

Takeaway 2: Know your audience. Know what they’re interested in. Adjust to their needs.

Ros: As always, you need to be keen on your audience. Know them. Know what they’re interested in and adjust.

Not sure how to do that? Look at which content and campaigns have received the best engagement to identify trends and send more of what’s working. You can also A/B test different components of your campaign to see what resonates most. Try out different content, headlines, subject lines, or imagery to see what gets the greatest response.

You can also just ask them. A lot of brands have been asking audiences how they’re feeling, what they’re interested in hearing and learning during this time. You can do this by simply inviting subscribers to reply back to your email, or even taking it a step further and linking out to a survey.

Jared: The more you know your audience, the more you can cater to their needs. And this will build loyalty and affinity while keeping your brand top of mind, which may be the most many of us can ask for during this time.

Takeaway 3: Branch out with intention and try new things.

Jared: The final takeaway I want to look at is this: As subscribers are so honed in to email at this time, this is truly a good opportunity to experiment with new strategies.

Maybe this is your chance to launch a new newsletter with resources, insights, and information specific to the pandemic, if that aligns with your brand’s products and expertise. Or maybe you could try adding a new section to your regular emails that has more timely details or a revolving update. Or you could test sending from your CEO, founder, or prominent spokesperson to see if that results in more engaged subscribers.

And while there are plenty of options out there to try out, before taking this too literally and throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, think about the last takeaway: Make sure you get to know your audience first. If you test out anything that’s in opposition to their characteristics or needs, it’s going to land you in the hot seat.

Meanwhile, it’s also important to test intentionally. I touched on this in a post about bounce rates during the pandemic, but the key here is to branch out just a bit from your normal sending habits. This isn’t a call to drastically change from a once-a-week newsletter to multiple sends every day, or from, you know, a short blog highlight to a massive, image-heavy newsletter. The invitation is to take your current strategy as a baseline and iterate slowly, testing methodically, to see what sticks.

Ros: Finally, try testing out different send times. As we saw earlier, the average subscriber’s day has changed drastically, and your sending time can meet them where they’re at. The afternoon, for example, is now much more of a clutch time, and subscribers are in the habit of viewing emails more throughout their day.

So try sending an email in the early afternoon, and see how it goes. Or use segments to send the same newsletter to half your subscribers in the morning, and another half in the afternoon. Test with intention, and see how your audience responds.

Next steps

Jared: As we get closer to wrapping up, I took some of those takeaways and put them into next steps for you to start implementing today.

Always think of your audience.

Think about your audience. Get to know them. Step inside their shoes to determine what they’re interested in so your content is relevant.

newsletter examples from Barre3 and GlamCorner during the 2020 pandemic

Fitness center and Campaign Monitor customer Barre3 met their audience online when their doors closed during the lockdown. Another customer, GlamCorner, an Australian fashion rental brand, highlighted how their customers chose to dress up at home. Both brands took time to consider their audience, where they’re at during this pandemic, and how they can meet their needs or fit their products into the subscriber’s current way of life.

Send them content they deem vital.

Ros: It’s more important than ever to send content that’s deemed vital by your audience.

 newsletter examples from Girlboss during the 2020 pandemic

One of our customers, Girlboss, pivoted their weekly newsletter to highlight their Girlboss Guide to Now, giving a daily, deep dive look at topics and questions their subscribers had in the height of lockdown measures.

Meet subscribers online.

Jared: Finally, with more and more people going online (especially when, in some cases, they literally can’t step foot into brick and mortar locations), it’s paramount that you meet your audience online. With more web traffic, make opportunities to subscribe clear and abundant on your website. Update your welcome email to make sure you’re addressing subscribers where they are in the current environment.

And try setting up a preference center to let customers choose the type of content or cadence they prefer, so if their inboxes do feel overwhelming, you have more options for them than just unsubscribing.

Wrap up

Jared: So, that’s a wrap on our findings and takeaways. You can of course head to the Resources page on our site for more, or you can go to campaignmonitor.com/covid-19 to see the COVID benchmarks report and other resources about keeping subscribers engaged, marketing your business pivots during this pandemic, and way more. Lots of really helpful content there, and we’re adding to it weekly.

Question and answer

Jared: Alright, let’s move into Q&A.

We’ve got a bunch of questions from you guys, so we’ll try to get to a handful that we think are beneficial for the whole group. If we don’t answer your individual question in this webinar, just hang tight and we’ll have one of our team members answer it for you in the chat window.

So, first up, we have a question from Katie at Cerebral Palsy Alliance. She asked,

“What kind of content have you found people responding to in emails more recently?”

Ros: As Jared mentioned earlier, there are verticals that have seen high engagement rates as of late, the top three being Government, Nonprofit and Education. And that’s very understandable, given the sensitivity of messages from these sectors at this time.

What has been notable is that there has been a lot of crossover as of late. For example, restaurants raising money for causes and nonprofits, while almost everyone is including messaging that’s in-line with government health mandates.

Katie: for you and your mission at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, the good news is that there is a lot of interest in giving back within our community right now. And as before, impactful storytelling is key. In particular, how will a donation, or other form of giving, support people affected by our current crisis?

Given the financial uncertainty right now, is there the option to give a smaller amount and still be impactful?

That said, this may also be the time to focus on rallying volunteers around your mission. With people feeling determined to give back and in many cases, finding themselves with more flexible work schedules, you may want to look internally at roles that motivated supporters can fill. In my experience in the non-profit sector, providing ways that people can support their community at this time has resonated very strongly.

Jared: And it looks Katie’s follow-up question asks:

Is there a big difference between industry open rates? I never know what to compare our open rates to.

Ros: That’s another great question, and a good reminder that each of our scenarios are unique. The honest answer is that the open rates you should compare to are your own. Remember, metrics like open rates are largely dictated by the relationship you have with your audience and the quality of your lists. While the average open rates for say, the retail sector, may seem to lag behind other industries by 10 percentage points or more, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a retailer and get open rates of 30%. But it will take consistent, thoughtful messaging and a willingness to re-engage or remove inactive subscribers when necessary.

Jared: I’d also say industry rates should act as a baseline. The email manager for our own marketing team, uses benchmarks in her weekly reports to say, “This is how the industry is doing, but based on our own performance history, we should aim for X.” So you should always approach benchmarks with a grain of salt, and use them in tandem with your own metrics.

Alright let’s get to another question:

With all the big issues going on, should I be emailing people at all—and how should I go about that?

Ros:  You’re right—it’s a tough call. Recent campaigns like #blackouttuesday have created debate on whether well-meaning expression can cause more harm than good. Showing solidarity for causes is affirming, but can it come from a place that’s genuine? And beyond that, can we back up our conviction with actual productive work?

An example of a brand that we respect is Bandcamp, who are donating their Juneteenth profits to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. Previously, they had profit donation drives to support musicians on their platform. Their messaging is clear, their strategy is consistent and their actions affirm their words.

Can we be genuine, clear, consistent and affirm our stance on issues? More than ever, these are important questions for marketers to answer.

Jared: All great points. I definitely want to reiterate your point on backing up conviction with actions. Because the point there is: Don’t say something just to say something. Make sure if you take an empathetic and supportive stance that you actually have skin in the game and actionable ways you’re either currently contributing or planning to contribute.

And now for our last question:

What is one thing I should be doing to lift engagement right now?

Jared: I’d be interested to hear how we both might answer that, so Ros, why don’t you start.

Ros: Gosh, that’s a difficult question. And of course, it’s all based on your email marketing history and experiences. But with that preface, I think it may be a good time to develop and use your brand voice. I think the top industries in our benchmarks report often have a well-defined style and sense of purpose—and empathy, which is something that comes more naturally for nonprofits.

Often email newsletters will get high open rates, but not many clicks or replies. Mastering your brand voice and writing style is essential to convincing subscribers to take action; it will also help you respond to some of the big issues as they unfold.

Jared: Branding, especially brand voice, is very near and dear to me, as someone that works in marketing content, so it’s hard for me to disagree with that answer.

But I think my one thing might actually be personalization. And, you know, that feels almost like cheating, because it is a pretty encompassing term—but it goes back to our takeaway about knowing your audience and putting yourself in their shoes. Think about the ways your subscribers might be approaching your messages, then put people into segments based on those responses.

So, if there are people that are avid openers but aren’t clicking on anything, then maybe you can include more detailed content for them to consume, without actually having to click on anything. If you have folks that haven’t opened an email since March, maybe it’s time to suppress them temporarily and only send them every third or fourth campaign. Personalizing your campaigns and your strategy to your audience will show them you’re thinking about them and they’ll see that as a connection with your brand.

Well, we’ve covered quite a bit in this webinar. And if you’re looking for access to any of the reports, posts, or even email examples that we talked about in this webinar, you can see all the content we’ve made to help you succeed during this wild time by going to campaignmonitor.com/covid-19. And, of course, if you’re considering a new ESP and want to try out Campaign Monitor, you can create an account for free on the website.

Thanks everyone for joining us—Ros, thank you so much for your time and for co-hosting with me.

Ros: Thank you, Jared. As always, it’s a pleasure to join forces with you! And to everyone out there, stay safe- we’re looking forward to the next opportunity to help you with your email marketing.

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