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Open rates on marketing emails rose over the past four weeks as companies lean toward email to connect with customers, a report from HubSpot found. HubSpot, which provides CRM and marketing automation software, has been running numbers on marketing emails through the COVID-19 crisis and found steady growth in both marketing emails sent and marketing emails opened.

“Much to our surprise, open rates on marketing emails continue to rise,” HubSpot CMO Kipp Bodnar blogged May 7. “Even as marketers sent 27% more emails than they then did pre-COVID, engagement remains strong. ... We've been expecting to see open rates decline as consumers grow wary of marketing emails, but the data indicates that hasn't happened yet.”

Fickle Times for a Crowded Email Marketing Space

Don’t get too confident, marketers. The "send more emails" playbook may not be the be-all. Lessons can still be learned regarding email marketing tactics and strategies beyond volume. What works one week may not the next, and that’s really always been the case, much less during a world health pandemic. Plus, marketers have to contend with a bit of competition: The Radicati Group released a report in March that found the total number of business and consumer emails sent and received per day will exceed 306 billion this year and is forecast to grow to over 361 billion by year-end 2024. The number of worldwide email users will top 4 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow to over 4.4 billion by the end of 2024. 

“This situation’s changing so rapidly,” said Jon Dick, vice president of marketing for HubSpot. “The biggest thing that we found in talking to customers right out of the gate was just uncertainty. You just didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Related Article: 9 Common Email Drip Campaign Mistakes to Avoid

More Marketing Emails Leads to Better Open Rates

Marketers' response in these uncertain times? Send more marketing emails. HubSpot data on 70,000 of its global customers’ found a steady increase in the number of emails sent from March 9 through the first week of May against pre-COVID benchmarks. HubSpot calculated those “pre-COVID benchmarks” using weekly averages from January 13 to March 9 of this year.

Notably, the big jump came from March 9 to March 16. Email sends were up from pre-COVID levels a little over 10% the week of March 9 but skyrocketed to more than 30% the week of March 16. This is around the time many governments around the world issued stay-at-home orders and advisories, and many companies sent their employees packing for their home virtual offices. The weekly increases have remained at least 20% since that time.

And, to boot, people keep opening the emails. Email open rates have risen dramatically over pre-COVID levels. Now the question is why. Wouldn’t email overload be a bad thing? Aren’t marketers taught more is less? Not quite, at least for right now.

“I'm getting so much email from marketers right now,” Dick said. “It’s so intense. But the most interesting finding for me was it’s working. People have a real hunger for it.”

Courtney Beasley, VP of marketing for marketing agency Walker Sands, agrees that email continues to be a trusted channel to share messages with varying audiences. “We're seeing that email open and engagement rates are up, especially in B2B tech and professional services industries,” she said. “Regardless of how your business has been impacted, most everyone is still trying to move the needle on something, whether it be a new hire, new tech solution or new business. Email continues to be a great way to communicate as long as your message is built to resonate.”

graphic from HubSpot showing marketing email send and open rates over March and April 2020 vs. pre-COVID-19 average levels from January 2020 to March 2020.

Why Marketing Emails Win, Sales Emails Loses

Dick’s hypothesis for this success? Of course, more people are glued to their inboxes, he said. So the audience is there. That's number 1 and needs to be considered.

However, Dick added that marketers, including his own team, are finding success shifting the messaging from overly promotional emails to educational and “content we think would be relevant for people.” “So I think it's kind of this 1-2 punch where people have more time in their inbox and what they're getting is more helpful to them, more educational for them and more relevant than in previous times.”

This is evident in data HubSpot found on sales emails, which tend to be more promotional. Over the last few weeks, HubSpot saw sales email volume jump to levels more than 50% higher from pre-COVID numbers. At the same time, however, sales emails responses plummeted more than 25%. “We have seen some open rates on sales emails from the HubSpot CRM lower than Christmas week of 2019,” Dick said. “We’re used to seeing this huge dip every year week of Christmas when everyone shuts off… We’ve seen a little bit of a bounce back with sales emails open rates which is encouraging. And not to overly categorize but sales emails tend to be more promotional and more focused on buying and less focused on education. And so when you see those two email types stacked on top of each other (marketing vs. sales), the difference is pretty stark.”

Related Article: The Hidden Importance of Email Response Times

Segmentation, Targeting Remain Staples

What's going to keep helping open rates? Segmentation and targeted messaging is the recipe for email success, especially now with email volume up across the board, according to Beasley of Walker Sands. “Look at all the ways you can slice and dice your lists and create messages for each of their unique needs and level of engagement with your company for optimal impact,” Beasley said. “Consider audiences who are already familiar with your brand like those who are currently active on your website and interacting with sales-related collateral, stale leads, disqualified leads for things like timing, need, or even previously closed lost opportunities.”

For cold outreach, run a segmentation analysis on the industries you serve and to what degree they've each been impacted, Beasley said. “This analysis will give you guidelines on which companies are suitable for outreach,” she added. “A persona exercise running through their new challenges and pain points will quickly reveal the types of messages you should be sharing with those varying audiences.”

Tone Matters, Especially Now

Recent findings from Walker Sands show that helpful, educational and empathetic tones are what are currently resonating with most companies. “Putting your prospects' needs ahead of your own desire to open an opportunity or close business, will build the relationships your company needs to ultimately weather this storm,” Beasley said.

HubSpot’s Dick said that while the right tone matters, that doesn’t mean every email needs to lead with the boilerplate, “we know this is a trying time.” However, he added, “This is a stressful time for everybody. Even the companies that are blessed to be doing well are stressed, and the companies that are struggling right now are stressed. Everybody's stressed. This has a big additional emotional burden on them so having some level of empathy for that I think goes a long way to being able to connect with people.”

Use Multiple Calls to Action

While some may be in the camp of including one, prominent call to action (CTA) in marketing emails, Dick suggested providing multiple CTAs for those receiving emails. “For a long time there was kind of a narrative of maximize click-through rate with one CTA, but we’re kind of seeing the opposite where actually giving people choice in email has increased our click-through rates pretty dramatically.”