With stay-at-home orders still in place for much of the world the past few months, it’s no surprise that people are opening emails at a faster-than-usual pace.

The task for marketers is to study the metrics yielded during this time of plenty and figure out how to translate our current experience into a pandemic-less future, when things return to something closer to normal.

But we’re not here to analyze COVID-19. We’re here to help you apply its email marketing lessons to any future point in time.

Let’s get started.

By the numbers: Email marketing during coronavirus

The one thing you might suspect — and you would be right — is that certain industries are generating numbers that blow the others away. We’ll get to that in a second, but first, let’s make note that email open rates for both March and April 2020 were up 4% over the same time period last year.

You might also expect that the email marketing efforts of certain industries have benefited from the pandemic more than others, specifically in March:

  • Government: 41.5% open rate
  • Education: 36%
  • Financial services: 26.9%
  • Healthcare: 25.6%
  • Media and publishing: 16.6%

The preceding list makes sense when you consider that 61% of consumers prefer to hear from companies and organizations via email rather than other channels, and that everything has become more important than usual to people confined to their home for an indeterminate length of time.

Needless to say, open rates are definitively up across the board. COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown undoubtedly have a lot to do with it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t solid lessons to be learned here that a company can take into the future, beyond this pandemic.

Let’s take a look at a few of those lessons.

2020’s quarantine email marketing lessons

As with any form of marketing, do it long enough and you risk the “you can’t see the forest for the trees” problem. In other words, you become so caught up in the minutia of the task that you lose track of the larger picture.

Viewed from this perspective, you might look at the COVID-19 outbreak as a chance to go back to the basics, or alternatively, pivot into new marketing tactics on a small scale. If you’ve been pushing sales hard, consider backing off a bit and giving pertinent content marketing more of an emphasis.

Furthermore, an overall takeaway from this period of time we’re living in is to see it as a chance to connect with readers through authenticity, but we’ll talk more about that later.

1. Don’t put funny first

A study from MarketingDive.com found that 57% of consumers preferred that brands stay away from lighthearted content or attempts at humor. We say “attempts” because, though we all need a laugh, even in the worst of times, it’s easy to mess this up and do irreversible damage. If you run into a wall of unsubscribes shortly after sending out an email, you might have screwed this up.

So first and foremost, be very careful with humor during COVID-19 and beyond. This all sounds so grim, but the reality is that people want something solid and real to hold onto. The smarmy, wisecracking brand that has been stuck in the “gotta go viral” mindset for too long will need to reel it back in a bit.

This isn’t to say that your email marketing should stay never stray anywhere near a lighthearted or funny moment but take this to heart — now is not necessarily the time for comedy. Humor has it’s time and place, even during difficult times, but in the future, you should take care not to spend so much effort being a comedian that you forget to be authentic first.

2. Don’t put profit over people

Another interesting percentage from the MarketingDive.com survey, is the 71% of people who will abandon a brand they perceive as putting profits before people. This opinion is even more strongly felt than the previous one.

Here’s the thing. Everyone knows that the point of a company being in business is to make money. That’s a given. The problem arises when the pursuit of profit becomes the only point.

If you want customer loyalty, don’t underestimate the power of this idea. If you’re slamming out hardcore sales messages day after day while people continue to battle this pandemic and fight for the safety of those they care about, it’s going to hurt your bottom line because, as we said, nearly three-quarters of the people receiving marketing messages right now are interested in practical solutions to real-world problems. Your marketing messages should be written in a “us versus them” approach with “them” being the pandemic.

People want brands to offer practical solutions to living in the Age of COVID. Whatever product or service you sell, go back to the drawing board and figure out how to angle the message to fit what people want to hear. It might be hard, but stay there in the conference room or on the Zoom call until you figure it out.

Even once coronavirus has passed, don’t let this lesson go to waste. Too many companies send out too many hard-hitting sales pitches that fail to acknowledge the present reality of their would-be customers.

3. Find a COVID tie-in

We all love to talk and dream about the day that everything returns to normal and COVID is receding in the rearview mirror.

Here’s something to think about. We will get past COVID, certainly, but the normal we reach in the future is not the normal in which we lived at the end of 2019.

What does that mean for small business owners and marketers? It means that even when COVID-19 is gone, it won’t really be gone. Regardless of vaccines or herd immunity or social distancing, this beastie is going to be with us, in some form, for good. Granted, it will hopefully be in a background role and never take center stage again, but it will always be there, so prepare to adapt your marketing accordingly.

Obviously, your product or service might offer no way to tie in a practical COVID angle, though don’t give up on this until you’ve exhausted all possibilities. The best way to acknowledge the “hugeness” of the issue once we enter our new post-pandemic normal is to at least acknowledge it existed for a brief (historically speaking) moment in time.

In practical terms, that just means never forget the pandemic was here. Without obsessing or dwelling, let people understand through your messaging that you still feel their pain and want to be a source of steady support.

4. Get ready for the DTC world

Most are familiar with the B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) selling models but some experts expect the pandemic-enforced isolation will create a rise in the DTC (direct-to-consumer) selling model. DTC means that a manufacturer sells products or services directly to the consumer without wholesalers, retailers, or other third-parties getting in the middle of the transaction.

The coming DTC movement will likely require a shift in messaging, though it will be up to each brand to figure out which adjustments need to be made. The main thing to keep in mind is that the fundamental nature of the transaction will have shifted, perhaps from trying to create more foot traffic in a physical location to presenting more specific information online to aid in the purchase / don’t purchase process.

5. Prepare for recession

This is the big one, so I saved it for last. The extent to which the national and state governments have shuttered the robust economy is unprecedented with stay-at-home orders and forced business closings strangling the biggest economic engine the world has ever seen.

Unemployment claims are creeping into a territory not seen since the Great Depression. The question becomes, is your business ready for the recession that will almost surely follow? Don’t let it be a surprise when it happens.

It’s been so long since the stock market crash and general economic malaise of the 1930’s, that few people alive today have a personal memory of what happened. Though some companies from that time period are still in existence today, the vast majority have no idea what it’s like to try to survive that kind of selling environment.

How do you market successfully in a recession? The first thing to keep in mind is that people will still be sensitive to hard-sell, repetitive marketing messages. Keep it positive and, perhaps counterintuitively, experiment with leaving a longer period between emails. People are still going to be struggling mentally with the effects of a recession and you might notice a better response when you’re not dinging them every week.

Ultimately, it’s all about the open rate

Why do email marketers obsessively focus on the open and click-through rates of their campaigns?

Let’s simplify things for this discussion and only consider the open rate. After all, if an email doesn’t get opened, quantum physics notwithstanding, there is little chance a recipient will click on anything inside.

While we can banter terminology points infinitely, the only point-of-view that matters in this case is that of your Email Service Provider (ESP). What has to happen in order for it to count an email as officially opened?

Generally, the following is required:

  1. The recipient clicks to enable images in the email, which is then displayed in full in the preview pane or full view.
  2. The reader clicks a link within the email.

The open rate is calculated by dividing the number of emails that were opened into the total number that were successfully sent. This throws out emails that bounced because, well, it’s hard to open an email you never received.

Let’s do a quick example. Say you sent 1,000 emails and 900 of them make it through to a reader, with 75 of those emails opened judging by the criteria above. Simple math tells us that works out to approximately an 8% open rate.

And while 2019 showed email open rates in a bit of a decline, thanks at least in part to the deluge of spam email, the first four months of 2020 (especially February, March, and April) have shown strong returns both in month-over-month and year-over-year metrics.

Something has changed and, once again, the supposed death of email marketing has been greatly exaggerated. The truth is that most email marketing services cost less than $20 a month and remain one of the best ways to reach your audience and ensure that they remain engaged with your products or services.

Final thoughts

The bottom line is that the pandemic and resulting global consequences have put us all in a unique time period in modern history. While it would be silly to throw out all the things that used to work in email marketing, those who have been successful under the current conditions have — either accidentally or by design — made changes to bring themselves in line with what the majority of people are comfortable with.

Going forward, give the contents of this article a thought and decide if it makes sense to you or not. Ultimately, the campaign metrics should be your guide. If they move in the right direction, keep doing what you’re doing, but if they are sliding, consider that you might be approaching marketing in the Age of COVID from the wrong perspective. Forget about desperately trying to go viral and focus on doing the most good for the most people that you can.

You can’t go wrong with that approach.