The 2020 holiday season was chaotic and irregular because of the pandemic, a contentious election, and consumers’ financial challenges. Email marketers struggled with those issues, which led to mixed performance results, although email marketing still delivered a high return on investment.
Overall, email volume was up 9% year-over-year during the fourth quarter holiday period, according to data from Oracle Marketing Consulting based on a panel of more than 40 major national B2C brands using the Oracle Responsys Campaign Management platform. In fact, email volume was up every week except during election week, when now-proven-false allegations of election fraud and the threat of violence caused retailers to close stores and pull back on their marketing efforts.
Over the holiday period, email open rates trended nearly identical to last year, finishing up 0.8%. On the other hand, email click rates over the holiday season finished 6.3% below last year’s level, and revenue per email was down 5.8% year-over-year as well.
Due to a long list of business risks—including postal delivery delays, store capacity constraints, and an anticipated surge in coronavirus cases and restrictions—most brands encouraged their subscribers to buy early.
“While retailers rarely promote the holidays and gift-buying in October, that messaging was very strong during this past holiday season,” says Clint Kaiser, Head of Analytic & Strategic Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “With the delivery delays and out of stocks still fresh in their minds from earlier in the pandemic, subscribers responded to this messaging.”
Year-over-year, email campaigns performed best during the first three weeks of November. In particular, the B2C brands in our panel saw significantly higher revenue per email in the second and third weeks of November, a timeframe that includes Veterans Day/Singles Day (Nov. 11), which saw strong results.
“Even though the effort to lock in early sales was deliberate,” says Doug Sundahl, Senior Director of Analytic & Strategic Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting, “some of our clients were alarmed to see the effect that this had on subsequent weeks, including Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, as well as the year-over-year comparisons for the months of November and December. More than ever before, we advised our clients to look at the performance of the holiday season as a whole and not focus too much on year-over-year changes for particular days.”
The big three—Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday—turned in generally disappointing email marketing performances. Open rates, click through rates, and click-to-open rates were down year-over-year for all three days, according to our panel data. Revenue per email fell 21.9% year-over-year on Thanksgiving and 27.4% on Cyber Monday, but grew 5.3% on Black Friday.
“These traditional tent pole dates didn’t do nearly as well as they typically do,” says JT Capps, Director of Analytic & Strategic Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “However, let’s keep some perspective. These days still generated massive revenues for brands, and the weeks of Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday were the top weeks of the year in terms of revenue per email generation.”
Unsubscribe rates during the holiday season were well below year-ago levels, down 20%, a continuation of one of the trends in email behavior we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic. In particular, unsubscribe rates were much lower than usual during the last two weeks of December, when there’s typically a surge in seasonal subscribers opting out.
“With people wary of visiting stores, customers have been more accepting of email marketing as a way to stay up to date on what their favorite brands are doing and offering,” says Kaiser. “That translated into lower unsubscribe rates. However, with store traffic down and in-person events cancelled, many brands are struggling with new subscriber acquisition.”
With lost growth challenged, we recommend both making changes to reduce email list churn, as well as looking for opportunities to reduce barriers to new signups. For example, try to convert more of your email addresses on file to opt-ins and optimize your email signup forms.
One of the characteristics of the pandemic is that it’s affected industries and companies quite differently. For example, email send volume from travel and hospital brands fell 45.5% year-over-year during the fourth quarter and revenue per email was down a hefty 65.4%.
However, other sectors like apparel retailers and B2C technology providers thrived. While email open rates from apparel retailers was up only 1.2% versus the 2019 holiday season and click rates were down 7.8%, revenue per email for the season was up 69.7%, an indicator of both higher conversion rates and higher average order sizes. For B2C technology providers, open rates were up 5.1% and click rates up 14.7%, plus revenue strongly outperformed the 2019 holiday season, increasing 152.9%.
The gut reaction of some brands may be to write off the 2020 holiday season as an aberration, but we believe that would be a mistake for several reasons. First, many pandemic-fueled consumer behaviors will still be at work this upcoming holiday season—and for some consumers, it may persist for years, or even permanently. The increases in online shopping and curbside pickup are two such trends that were already growing before the pandemic supercharged them.
Second, the pandemic forced brands to experiment in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise and some of which produced great results. Don’t ignore those learnings.
Here are three trends that we see affecting the 2021 holiday season and beyond.
Christmas creep - While some people bemoan ever earlier mentions of holiday gift-buying, there’s always been a significant percentage of consumers that have begun their shopping before November. Brands did a great job of serving those customers this year, in addition to all of those consumers who bought early because of this year’s special concerns.
Depending on the pace and extent of coronavirus vaccinations and infection rates heading into the fourth quarter, we could see plenty of early gift-buying messages again. We might also see brands crafting messaging explicitly for their early holiday buyers, creating those segments based on either 2020 purchase behavior, or progressive profiling efforts where brands simply ask their subscribers when they’re going to begin their gift-buying.
Nov. 11th’s rise - Rather than waiting to kick off the holiday season on Black Friday, which was clearly too late last holiday season, many brands created big promotions around Veterans Day (or Single’s Day). We expect that digital marketers won’t abandon this holiday in 2021 and that November 11 could become the new unofficial start of the holiday season going forward.
Thanksgiving Week and Cyber Week - Rather than creating one-and two-day shopping events, many brands extended promotions into full weeks. While the motivation was to smooth out web and store traffic, some audiences responded very favorably to the change. For example, one of our retail clients saw their Cyber Week sales surpass the prior year’s revenue that week by 60%. We expect that some retailers will adopt week-long promotions again this holiday season.
To determine if these three trends affected your 2020 holiday season, we recommend doing a holiday post-mortem on your digital marketing efforts. This is a critical first step in starting to prepare your marketing program to have a successful 2021 holiday season. For more steps to consider, check out our Holiday Marketing Quarterly checklists.
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