Q4 is always the busiest time of year for ecommerce businesses, and for most, it’s the moment to pull out all the stops. With more saturation of ecommerce niches as merchants scrambled to get online, digital marketing and sales channels were more impactful in Q4 than ever before.
We saw these changes across email sending throughout 2020—each quarter experienced elevated email, SMS, and push message sending, not only over 2019 but over the preceding quarter too.
In fact, in Q4 2020, there were 30% more emails sent (both campaigns and automations) over the same period in 2019. However, when you split campaigns and automations, there is a clear difference in what marketers preferred during this shopping-crazed quarter.
The increase in sends for automation in Q4 2020 experienced a YoY lift of nearly 32%. For campaigns, the lift climbed to 3171% over 2019.
While it’s true that stand-alone campaigns might have been well-adapted for Q4’s holiday sales, automation workflows continue to bring in orders disproportionate to their sending: while automation accounted for less than 2% of all sends in Q4 2020, they still engaged nearly 30% of the total orders during the quarter.
Compared to the percentage automation accounted for in other quarters in 2020, this might not seem significant. However, when you compare the proportion of growth between automation workflows and campaigns in Q4, the fact that automation accounted for so much revenue during the quarter is astounding.
In this report, we’ll dive into the Q4 performance of campaigns and individual automation workflows, SMS, and push channels, and compare their performance to previous quarters and year-over-year.
We tracked 4.1 billion emails and nearly 21 million SMS and push messages over Q4 2020 and compared them to Q4 2019 to follow both merchant and customer trends over the past year.
Email Marketing Performance
Email Open Rates:
In Q4 2020, we saw a major difference in the way open rates changed between campaigns and automations. Open rates for automation stayed stable with only a marginal decrease YoY (32.74% in 2019 to 32.37% in 2020). However, campaigns experienced a 24% lift in open rates from the 2019 holiday period.
This shift is quite the opposite of what we’ve seen in the previous three quarters—why was Q4 different? We can attribute the growth seen with campaign open rates to the sheer increase in sending in Q4. Many online sellers chose to send earlier-than-usual hard discount sales, while automation did the background work of converting more engaged customers, brand-new subscribers, active shoppers, and long-time loyal customers. With customers more susceptible to those promotions and actively looking for deals, they behave differently than in any other time period of the year.
With that said, campaign open rates still fall at about a third of those of any automation workflow.
For automation, post-purchase had the highest open rate at 35.93%. Both product and browse abandonment earned over a 34% open rate as customers were ready to shop and eager to purchase the products they’ve already seen from brands they knew well.
A stand-out automation workflow in Q4 2020 was cross-sell, which earned a 33.63% open rate. With customers more receptive to suggestions for gifting (and self-gifting), it’s no surprise that these messages with product recommendations were particularly effective over the holidays.
Cart abandonment, a long-time favorite and often one of the first workflows ecommerce merchants set up, had a slight decrease in open rates during Q4. We can attribute this to the common practice of customers using their carts as “wishlists” during their holiday shopping. As such, they were less likely to open their reminder emails.
It is worth noting that there were 59% more cart abandonment messages sent in Q4 2020 than in the previous quarter, and a whopping 212% more over Q4 2019.
Email Click Rates:
Email campaign click rates were nearly identical between Q3 and Q4, and remained steady through the end of the year—impressive stability considering the significant increase in sending during the last quarter. While merchants are hyper focused on the holidays, they only really have until mid-December to convince customers to purchase gifts for loved ones before they have to shift their messaging to focus on post-purchase, returns, and customer nurturing.
Automation remained stable between Q4 2019 and 2020, with a few surprising workflows hitting harder this year. We expected lifecycle automation workflows like welcome and cart abandonment to be among the front-runners in performance in Q4 (and they were), but birthday was an unexpected standout in Q4. Maybe those with birthdays close to the holidays want to feel extra special, as they’ve likely felt short-changed year after year.
It’s notable that while click rate stayed more or less the same over the course of the quarter, they were higher at peak holiday season during the month of November, when sending was at its highest. Shoppers in Q4 followed the main trend we saw throughout 2020: shopping was based on intent. We had higher open rates because customers were on the hunt for deals, but if they weren’t interested, they ultimately didn’t engage further with the email. However, those who did click ended up much more likely to purchase, as we can see in conversion rates for Q4.
Email Conversion Rates:
While we saw a drop in click rates, we saw a rise in conversion rates. Campaigns reached a conversion rate of nearly 8%, which is a 125% increase over the same time period in 2019.
For automation, nearly every type of workflow experienced a triple-digit YoY lift in conversion rate, except for three: welcome (79% lift), lapsed-purchase (10% lift), and birthday (no change).
Although welcome automations didn’t experience as significant a change in conversion rate, it was still the stand-out winner of Q4 with over half of all recipients converting—58% to be exact.
Abandoned cart conversion was also notable in Q4, reaching 43.24%, a 158% lift over Q4 2019. Across all lifecycle automations we saw similar YoY growth, which was a consistent finding in every quarter of 2020. This, combined with the falling click rates, is telling: customers in 2020 expressed higher intent as shopping habits moved online.
Ecommerce merchants would be wise to invest in lifecycle automations (welcome, product, browse, and cart abandonment, etc.), lest they leave money on the table this year.
Overall Campaigns and Automation Performance:
In Q4 2020, ecommerce merchants heavily relied on promotional stand-alone campaigns to drive holiday sales. And with conversion rates reaching 8% for those campaigns, customers were turning to tried-and-true opt-in channels for their seasonal shopping.
While campaigns did much of the heavy lifting in Q4 due to seasonal or time-sensitive promotions, automation worked to convert new, indecisive, and lapsed customers.
Post-purchase messages held the highest open rate of any automation at 35.93%, while birthday was a surprising front-runner in click rate at 23.9%—slightly edging out welcome (21.12%) and cart abandonment (20.15%).
In Q4, merchants often rely on incentives to capture sales—especially when it comes to new email subscribers. This explains why welcome messages saw a conversion rate of nearly 60%, followed by the typical high-performing cart abandonment, which saw a conversion rate of 43.2%.
With the influx of new customers and those using shopping carts as whishlists, it’s no surprise that welcome and cart abandonment were the top two performing workflows of Q4. Merchants used these workflows to their advantage—welcome and cart abandonment made up 50% of all automation workflows sent in Q4.
Merchants looking to make the most of automation will optimize their welcome, cart abandonment, and other lifecycle workflows early this year.
Transactional Message Performance:
If there was ever a renaissance for the transactional message, Q4 2020 was it. Ecommerce merchants took advantage of the heightened visibility that shipping and order confirmation offered—and it showed.
In 2020, open rates for transactional messages reached higher than ever before, though they were already significant in 2019. As with most messages in 2020, click rates experienced a 5.14% drop from 2019, but the real story is in the conversion rate.
We’ve predicted throughout 2019 and 2020 that merchants who take advantage of the high open rates in transactional messages to cross-sell and upsell would be winners this holiday season. With a 559% YoY lift in conversion rate from those messages, it’s safe to say that some took our advice.
Order confirmation alone experienced a 962.63% lift over Q4 2019, with more merchants using these messages to get product recommendations in front of customers’ eyes.
With transactional messages accounting for 7.5% of all automated messages (keeping in mind that welcome and cart abandonment account for nearly 60%), it’s worth using these high-engagement messages to their maximum revenue-generating potential.
SMS and Push Message Performance:
In 2020, SMS became a trusted go-to channel for ecommerce merchants. Another trend we predicted early on in the year, SMS was a hard revenue-driver for merchants that incorporated this channel into their email marketing strategies. Push messages were adopted at a slower rate in 2020, but the rise in sending over 2019 was significant as merchants began experimenting with this channel.
While merchants largely experimented with SMS in 2019, they fully embraced the channel in 2020. Three hundred and sixty-six percent more SMS messages were sent in Q4 2020 over the same period in 2019.
Great for quick and timely messages customers are sure to see, merchants relied on SMS heavily for their holiday promotions in 2020—and customers responded with higher engagement and orders. Click rates increased by 4.63% in Q4 2020, from 10.16% to 10.63%.
Conversion rate for SMS rose from 1.43% to 2.9%—and while that might not seem like a lot, it’s a YoY increase of 102.8%. Usually we see engagement fall when there’s such an increase in adoption of a newer marketing channel, but instead conversion rate doubled YoY.
The message is clear—ecommerce merchants are ready to use SMS as a core marketing channel, and customers are ready to receive them.
Push messages in 2020 are in the same state as back in 2019. In 2020, ecommerce merchants were ready to start experimenting with push messages, which we saw more of in Q4 than ever before.
This past quarter, merchants sent 977% more push messages than in 2019. While open rates dropped to just under 52%, conversion increased by 107%. In fact, over a third of those who clicked ended up converting in Q4 2020.
We won’t be shocked if ecommerce merchants, emboldened by their holiday success with push, carried on to experiment and incorporate this channel into 2021 campaigns.
The Final Word: Ecommerce Takeaways
Email, SMS, and push marketing were strong revenue driving channels throughout 2020 as merchants and shoppers moved online for everything from necessities to spontaneous frivolities. With 2021 already underway, here are some key takeaways for your strategies this year:
- While email campaigns are great for the one-off promotions, such as during the holidays, key lifecycle automation workflows should be enabled to capture revenue that would otherwise slip through the cracks.
- SMS is no longer an optional channel but a must-have part of your messaging marketing strategy. Great for time-sensitive offers and updates, if you’re not taking advantage of SMS at this point, you’re simply missing out on revenue.
- Push messages will be bigger than ever before in 2021. Ecommerce merchants serious about honing that channel will begin experimenting with it and capturing opt-ins now. The open, click, and conversion rates are too high to ignore.
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