The Big Shift: How Brands, Vendors And Subscribers Changed Their Email Behaviors During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has upturned email marketing as we know it. That’s the conclusion of How The 2020 Pandemic Changed Email, a study released Thursday by Validity.  

To hear Validity tell it, the crisis has changed the way brands, providers and consumers alike deal with email. 

Take the language being used. In late March, the big words in a Word Cloud comparison were new, now, day, free and save.

Soon, firms moved toward changing hours, new safety protocols and product updates. Consumers started seeing words like Covid, Coronavirus, update and home.  

In addition, companies greatly increased their email volumes, reflecting the fact that people were now staying at home. Volume dipped during late February and early March, only to skyrocket by late April.  

More disturbingly, governance faltered and firms began blasting their COVID-19 communications to all subscribers regardless of past engagement. These lists were less scrubbed and were more prone to cause delivery errors and complaints — and to end up in spam filters. 



Finally, firms increased their proportion of COVID-19-related messaging. Government, healthcare and manufacturing were more likely to fall into this. Firms in the travel, gift and social sectors were less likely to do so.

Email mailbox providers also changed their tactics. In the past, high volumes and less discriminating lists could damage a brand’s reputation and land its emails in a spam trap. 

But those providers seem to have loosened their reject logic in response to the pandemic and are letting more email hit the inbox. In March, trap hits flared, but stabilized by mid-April. 

However, even in March, COVID-19 emails were 2% more likely to make it into the inbox, compared with other types of email. 

Now we come to the main focus of all this activity — the email subscriber.  

In the beginning, recipients were highly engaged with pandemic-related emails. This leveled off in time, although COVID-19 remained  a common topic. 

People were 30% more likely to open pandemic-related email during the early weeks, resulting in a spike on weekends as they caught up on their emails. 

Those messages were 11% less likely to be marked as spam. But readers soon began to complain, with the number spiking on weekends. 

What’s next? Email volume is still moving up, reflecting stay-at-home orders and the pivot to email marketing by companies. The holiday season will “smash just about every record out there,” the study notes.  

Moreover, the proportion of emails containing COVID-19-related keywords is creeping up from its summer level of 1.5% of all emails. That’s probably due to increased infection levels in the fall. 

Still brands are again resorting to words like “new” and “now.” And they are driving response with such keywords as “sale” and “today.” 

Send volumes and times have shifted. Late afternoon is now the best time to send, a change from morning. And email engagement has improved at the top of the hour. 

On the audience side, open rates have returned to their pre-pandemic levels. And click rates never changed at all. 

Meanwhile, engagement with crisis-related emails plummeted in March, doing 22% worse than non-COVID-19 emails.  

But now COVID-19 emails are doing 20% better than other emails. Tolerance is higher for such emails, but complaints are rising.

Validity bases these findings on analysis of data from its Validity for Email solution. 


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