The Australian retail market is far from business as usual. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, sales in bricks and mortar stores have plummeted, while according to research by Australia Post, online sales have been up a whopping 80% compared to this same time last year.

While businesses everywhere have had to act quickly to adapt their marketing programs, email has remained critically important throughout the pandemic — both in supporting promotions and generating sales, but also in providing important information to keep customers informed of changing circumstances.

So far, this series has explored how the rules around email content has changed as a result of COVID-19, and the technical considerations senders need to take into account to ensure their emails cut through increased traffic and noise. While the future still holds a lot of uncertainty for retailers, the past few months have provided businesses with valuable insight into which email marketing practices are performing well, and which ones are doing senders more harm than good.

Here is a snapshot of some of the key learnings we’ve observed so far.

Email is still king

Email has long been heralded as one of the most effective and efficient marketing channels, particularly for retailers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only cemented this status. For one thing, email is measurable. Businesses everywhere have been forced to make cuts, including their marketing budgets, therefore channels that can demonstrate direct sales results (like email) will continue to be favoured over those that can’t prove their value as easily.

Another key attribute of email is that it continues to be one of the most trusted communication channels. Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, the DMA’s Consumer Email Tracker 2020 report demonstrated that consumers prefer email for customer services communications, discounts, offers and sales notifications, order confirmations and updates. At a time when establishing and maintaining trust with consumers is critical, email remains an essential channel.

Consumers haven’t shied away from COVID-19

Validity Inc.’s analysis has found that so far consumers have generally responded well to COVID-19 themed communications. In mid-March when the pandemic began, 5% of all global email traffic carried a specific COVID-19 theme and inbox placement rates for these emails was 2.5% higher than average. What’s more, engagement rates for these emails was a huge 20% higher than emails that didn’t carry COVID-19 related content, and were 15% less likely to generate spam complaints.

Emails specifically related to COVID-19 now account for 1% of global email traffic, hopefully indicating that businesses have resisted the temptation to mention COVID-19 in every communication. As mentioned in previous articles, this will fatigue your subscribers and run the risk of losing their trust if they feel your messages are opportunistic and insincere. Only send emails about COVID-19 when you have a valid message!

Senders need to be even more careful of spam traps

While emails containing COVID-19 content may be less likely to generate spam complaints, this isn’t an excuse to reach out to large swathes of your subscriber lists with messages of little importance. A recent report by the DMA and Validity Inc., Email Deliverability: A Journey into the Inbox, showed that 11.1% of email data that businesses hold is inaccurate or invalid and since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve seen a significant rise in spam trap hits, especially recycle traps — old addresses that have been re-purposed for monitoring activity. Spam trap hits determine sender reputation scores, so these senders will be degrading their reputations, and harming their deliverability.

Optimal send times have changed

With so many of us set to continue working from home for potentially months to come, the windows when subscribers will be most responsive have changed. While previously the morning commute was thought to be the best time to target subscribers, we’ve observed that average inbox placements in the afternoon are currently 5% higher than in the morning.

To work out whether your optimal send time has changed and when this now is, it could be worth changing up your scheduling and analysing the results to see which send times are resulting in the highest performing emails. Also consider adjusting the start time for your email sends. Validity Inc. identified that a massive 70% of marketing emails go out within the first two minutes of every hour, therefore scheduling your emails to go a little later, for example ten minutes past, means less competition for increasingly scarce bandwidth.

Marketing messages have evolved

Since the beginning of the crisis we’ve witnessed an evolution in the types of marketing messages that have been sent. Initially, emails were about demonstrating awareness and acknowledging the changed circumstances. Messages then developed to contain more tangible content, such as communicating changed operating hours, new cleaning processes, and new online and delivery services for example. Most recently, emails have begun to carry messages about ‘striving for continuity’ and have started tentatively looking towards a post-COVID-19 world. These latest emails have also used the opportunity to provide value-adding content such as home DIY tips and holiday inspiration for the future.

Subscribers want more humanised communications

In addition to striking the right tone, what’s become overwhelmingly evident from analysing the best performing email campaigns during the pandemic, is they all carry a very human element. They’re compassionate, empathetic and even humorous when the situation calls for it (such as when they’ve made a minor error!). Now is absolutely not the time to be sending cliched messages from the CEO using the situation as a thin veil to try and sell more products. If you have any doubts about what you’re planning on sending, don’t send it.

While none of us have been in this situation before and we’re all feeling our way as we go, the past few months have taught us some simple lessons we’d all be wise to follow. Email has proven that it will continue to be a powerful medium for retailers but there is a difference between simply sending an email and doing this well in order to maintain your customers’ trust and loyalty.

Guy Hanson is vice president for customer engagement at Validity Inc.