In just a few short weeks, the world was upended by the Covid-19 outbreak, and not one industry has been unaffected by the uncertainty and chaos. On top of being the worst global health crisis in decades, the economic fallout from the coronavirus is predicted to be worse than the 2008 financial crash.

Amid that ominous backdrop, businesses are having to carefully strike a balance between staying in touch with their customers, while at the same time, understanding the sensitive situations that their consumers may be in.

All eyes have turned to how email marketing can help businesses strike the right note during the pandemic, as email is now the only channel available for many brands to stay in contact with customers. From supporting promotions to providing important communications to inform and help customers deal with changes – email marketing is the best channel for businesses in these challenging times and this article will explore why.

The role of email marketing

Despite its proliferation, email’s effectiveness should not be understated, especially under the current climate.

A key benefit of email is that its results are measurable. A recent survey by Advertiser Perceptions found 65% of advertisers agree that the pandemic will result in advertisers focusing their spend on channels that show direct sales outcomes, and email’s strengths when it comes to measurability and attribution are undisputable. With budgets contracting, there will be greater focus on demonstrable performance. The DMA’s latest Marketer Email Tracker report found ROI is now at £35.41 for every £1 spent.

An email program owner at a train franchise told me that while their email activity is currently ticking over, with little to promote during the lockdown, he retains full support from his business as email addresses are the only customer data point where they have close to 100% penetration. Email’s reach makes it the default channel whenever they need to send important messages to customers.

Email has also been long-recognised as the most trusted communication channel, particularly following GDPR. Stronger consent, a clear setting of expectations and genuine provision of choice have all helped to establish better trust between senders and subscribers.

The DMA’s Consumer Email Tracker 2020 report showed that, even before the Covid-19 outbreak, consumers prefer email for customer services communications, discounts, offers and sales notifications, order confirmations and updates. With greater focus on factors such as authenticity, credible, and willingness to share value strong trust between senders and recipients is an essential element of messaging effectiveness.

How to navigate email through crisis

Since the pandemic, there have been distinct changes to how email programs operate.

• Engagement: Overall, consumers have responded well to Covid-19 themed messaging. Validity research found these messages currently make up 5% of total daily activity. They are achieving better inbox placement rates (2% higher on average), generating substantially higher engagement (20% higher on average), and are 15% less likely to be marked as spam which is good news for senders.

• Spam traps: That said, businesses need to avoid sending emails to large groups of their complete lists, especially if there are questions marks against the age or quality of parts of those lists. Research from Experian Data Quality found that 22% of businesses estimate their contact data is not accurate. Since the pandemic began, there has been a sharp rise in trap hits, particularly recycled traps where old addresses have been re-purposed for monitoring activity. These senders will be harming their reputation and deliverability as trap feed in to sender reputation metrics.

• Bandwidth: The sudden shift to remote working means internet usage has surged. Virgin Media’s report states that the lockdown has roughly doubled the UK’s daily bandwidth requirements. That includes emails, and senders should attempt to find “bandwidth gaps” to get delivered successfully. Validity research shows 70% of all emails are sent within the first two minutes after top of the hour, with email broadcasts often scheduled to start at a round number, such as 10h00. To avoid the rush, senders should schedule their emails at different times, such as 10 minutes past the hour.

• Timing: Mass working from home means daily routines have been substantially reshaped so senders should reconsider established send-time-optimisation practices. Many email programs target subscribers during periods when they are likely to be responsive, for example the morning commute. However, this has changed, and more emails are now sent in the afternoon which has been resonating with subscribers as average inbox placement rates are 5% higher for afternoon sends.|

Striking the right tone

Being able to tailor communications with intelligence and sensitivity is crucial. Even during normal circumstances, successful email marketing relies on an authentic tone of voice to engage with customers. This requirement has been amplified by the pandemic and we have seen a distinct evolution in messaging.

Initially, messaging was about demonstrating awareness and reflected an almost GDPR-style outreach - long-form updates acknowledging the changed circumstances. This evolved into something more tangible - “We’re making changes”, and providing information around store closures and product availability – or rather unavailability!

Now we’re seeing the next phase as businesses reinforce the idea that we are all in this together and take this opportunity to make practical gestures and provide genuine value-added content.

Some of my favourite “striving for continuity” examples include:

• Body Shop: To help people who were worried about their health while confined at home, the Body Shop promoted Vitamin C day. The use of nice warm hues was a great touch intended to make people feel better.

• McDonalds: Recognising customers may be missing their McMuffins and hash browns, McDonalds shared the recipes so people could recreate them at home.

• Topshop: The retail company informed its subscribers that employees are working around the clock to process orders which are all eligible for free delivery. Understanding the lockdown limitations, Topshop has also extended the period for returns.

• The travel company accidentally sent German copy to English subscribers. This incident was quickly followed with an apology and blamed the error on a cat sitting on the keyboard – reflecting the challenges of homeworking of which many can relate. The amended follow-up email continued the same thread (“no more cheeky cats this week!”) and was a nice way of the company reminding everyone that we are in this together and can all appreciate some humour.

These examples all demonstrate the importance of the human touch. Businesses should avoid sending cliched messages from CEOs, making clumsy similarities between subscribers’ personal turmoil and the business’ needs, and using current events as a weak justification to message unengaged audiences. If there is any doubt on what is about to be sent, then rather don’t send it.

While we all navigate through this new normal, it is important for marketers to combine the savviness of the craft with the humanity and sensitivity that is now required. These are tough times for everyone, and people will remember those who were there to help them. Brands going the extra mile in displaying authenticity and empathy will be the ones to emerge from the crisis with stronger relationships and loyal customers.

By Guy Hanson, VP of Customer Engagement (International), Validity

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