2020 will forever be defined by the COVID-19 pandemic—one that will permanently alter both life and business, especially for retailers.
The retail sector was forced to adapt, seemingly daily. They had to adjust to store closings, shifts in fulfillment options, an increase in shipping demand, and supply chain limitations. Some smaller merchants were forced to either expand their online presence or create one, to remain in business.
As consumers increasingly stayed home, their online shopping habits changed, causing ecommerce to soar. Consider this:
- Worldwide traffic to ecommerce websites rose nearly 12% from January to March.
- The number of unique digital shoppers in Q1 rose 40% year-over-year (YoY).
- Year-over-year unique page views and order count reached 15% and 21% respectively in March before skyrocketing in April to 96% and 88% percent.
But what role did email marketing have in driving online sales during the COVID crisis, and how did they feel about email as a communication channel during a time of crisis? Were consumers willing to engage with brands through this digital marketing channel, and if so, how did their engagement impact email open, click and conversion rates?
As an omnichannel marketing platform that sends tens of millions of emails each day, these are the questions we at Omnisend wanted to answer.
We analyzed email send data from over 2.5 billion promotional emails sent from the Omnisend marketing platform. This data included sends, opens, clicks, and conversions from January 1 through April 26 for both 2019 and 2020.
We also created two periods; pre-COVID and post-COVID. For the period-based timeframe, we used a cutoff date of March 15, which was when the first stay-at-home order was announced in the US. These two periods are:
- Pre-COVID: January 1 – March 15
- Post-COVID: March 16 – April 26
Here’s what we found.
How Open Rates Were Impacted
Overall, open rates from Jan. 1 – Apr. 26 steadily increased in 2020, with the largest increase starting in March. Year-over-year, open rates in 2020 realized a 13.64% lift—mostly carried by the post-COVID period.
Year-over-year open rates for the pre- and post-COVID periods:
- Pre-COVID: +2.44%
- Post-COVID: +31.54%
Year-over-year open rates for the pre-COVID period (Jan. 1-Mar.15) were up 2.44%, while the post-COVID period (Mar.16-Apr.26) saw a 31.54% lift.
Same-Year Post-COVID Lift Over Pre-COVID Period:
- 2019: -5.38%
- 2020: +21.5%
We also wanted to identify whether there is a natural increase in same-year open rates between the pre- and post-COVID periods. In 2019, the open rates for the post-COVID period decreased by 5.38% from the pre-COVID period. In 2020, the post-COVID period saw an increase of 21.5% in open rates over the pre-COVID period.
There were substantial email marketing open rate increases due to COVID-19. We’re not surprised by the fact there was an increase in open rates. As consumers across the country became increasingly relegated to their homes, and in-store shopping mostly unavailable, they were forced to turn to online shopping.
As consumers continued to spend more time online for retail purposes, marketing emails naturally became a go-to resource for product discovery and potential discounts. Aside from the now-common need-based items (e.g., toilet paper) came the need for other products, such as homeschooling accessories and other at-home activities like puzzles and exercise equipment—leading to consumers increasingly opening related retailer emails.
How Click Rates Were Impacted
Overall, click rates from Jan. 1 – Apr. 26 were sporadic, with a significant 18-day shift in March. Year-over-year, click rates in 2020 declined 17.19% compared to 2019.
Looking into the data a bit deeper, click rates in 2020 were slightly down to start the year and began following the same, slight downward trend as seen in 2019, before realizing a quick and negative impact toward the end of the pre-COVID period.
This significant YoY drop in click rates happened between March 12 and March 29, with many days seeing over a 30 and 40% drop. The likely cause—other states and cities began issuing stay-at-home orders of their own.
Year-over-year click rates for the pre- and post-COVID periods:
- Pre-COVID: -17.01%
- Post-COVID: -16.89%
Year-over-year click rates for the pre-COVID period were down 17.01%, while the post-COVID period saw a decrease of 16.89%.
Looking at the YoY pre- and post-COVID periods, there is an indication that although the decline may be seasonal, it was exaggerated during those 18 days starting in mid-March.
Same-Year Post-COVID Lift Over Pre-COVID Period:
- 2019: -4.36%
- 2020: -4.22%
We wanted to identify whether there is a natural decrease in same-year click rates between the pre- and post-COVID periods. In 2019, the click rates for the post-COVID period decreased by 4.36% from the pre-COVID period. In 2020, the post-COVID period saw a lesser decrease of 4.22% in click rates over the pre-COVID period—even with the significant 18-day drop, indicating same-year click rates were actually improving in 2020.
There were substantial email marketing click rate decreases due to COVID-19. The decrease in click rates were likely factors of economic and need-based shopping versus poor CTAs or marketing copy. The increase in open rates indicate consumers had an interest in shopping and were receptive to receiving trusted brand communications, but there was more browsing of emails than action within them.
When factoring in the sudden rush of product need, be it hand sanitizer or homeschool products, consumers may have been opening emails to see the types of products advertised (and whether they fit into their new lifestyle) but were saving their clicks for purchase intent. This became especially evident during the 18 days of significantly decreased clicks. Yet, even with this 18-day decrease, click rates eventually rebounded and improved to where they started the year at—something not seen in 2019.
If our assumptions are correct, we should expect to see conversion rates increase.
How Conversion Rates Were Impacted
Overall, conversion rates from Jan. 1 – Apr. 26 steadily increased in 2020, peaking in March. This is in stark contrast to 2019, which, while steady, saw only a slight increase.
Year-over-year conversion rates for the pre- and post-COVID periods:
- Pre-COVID: +11.81%
- Post-COVID: +22.66%
Year-over-year, conversion rates in 2020 increased 17% over those in 2019—accelerating sharply in March. And YoY, conversion rates for the pre-COVID period (Jan. 1-Mar.15) were up 11.81%, while the post-COVID period (Mar.16-Apr.26) nearly doubled that with a 22.66% lift.
Same-Year Post-COVID Lift Over Pre-COVID Period:
- 2019: +4.912%
- 2020: +15.09%
We wanted to identify whether there is a natural trend in same-year conversion rates between the pre- and post-COVID periods. In 2019, the conversion rates for the post-COVID period increased by 4.91% from the pre-COVID period. In 2020, the post-COVID period saw an increase of 15.09% in conversion rates over the pre-COVID period.
In both 2019 and 2020, conversion rates increased through March before declining slightly in April. However, COVID seems to have created a wider disparity between the peaks and valleys. For instance, in 2019, the conversion rate in January was 3.05% and continued to increase before peaking at 3.14% in March. It then dropped to 3.10% in April. In 2020, January’s conversion rate was a comparable 3.18%, yet increased and peaked at 3.92% in March before sliding to 3.79% in April.
Finally, when looking at the 18-day span that saw significantly decreased click rates we found the average conversion rate lift was nearly 31% during that time—with some days recording over a 70% lift. It is safe to say that email marketing had a direct and significant impact on driving sales.
There were substantial email marketing conversion rate increases due to COVID-19. With the trends observed with the open and click rates, it’s expected that conversion rates would increase—and they did. To start the year, conversions were likely powered by the natural post-holiday shopping season and a strong economy, before eventually shifting to more focused COVID-related purchases.
Conversion rates increased as we moved closer to the heart of the pandemic. The YoY and period-over-period increase in conversion rates and the decrease in click rates indicate a consumer shift to intent-based shopping. That is, when consumers identified products of interest or need inside of an email they went through and completed their orders without hesitation.
The Final Word: Retailer Takeaways
As the COVID pandemic spread and stay-at-home orders were issued, ecommerce purchasing accelerated—as did the reliance on digital marketing channels such as email.
Email marketing has always been a significant online revenue-driver for retailers. Seeing the increase in open and conversion rates as the pandemic increasingly impacted the retail landscape, it is evident that email marketing was a significant driving force behind consumer online purchasing decisions, and will likely continue to be a trusted marketing channel by consumers in the future.
Now is the time for retailers to focus on continuing to build their email program and begin implementing other channels into the communication stream.
- Ensure your automated messages are up to date and note which ones may need to be updated if another crisis hits (think tone of voice).
- Focus on customer retention strategies, such as with automated post-purchase messaging.
- Look to build trust by automating other lifecycle email messages, such as lapsed-purchase, welcome series, cart and browse abandonment, and more.
- Expand your opt-in channels by building out or strengthening your SMS program. Incorporate it into your email marketing strategy, such as by combining SMS and email communications in the same automated workflow.
- Begin testing other marketing channels, such as Facebook Messenger and push notifications.
For retailers, both large and small, building a solid omnichannel marketing program that keeps customers engaged with their brand, drives revenue, and helps protect against the unknown may never be more critical than it is today.
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