Email Marketing Trends for 2021: Proven Essentials

March 2, 2021 | 10 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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In the ever-changing world of email marketing, you might find it challenging to know where to invest your time and energy. It could prove extra challenging in turbulent times like these when consumer behaviors and business goals are shifting. 

To help you prioritize your email marketing efforts this year, we asked Oracle Digital Experience Agency’s hundreds of digital marketing and communications experts to rate the current adoption of multiple technologies and tactics, as well as their predicted impact during 2021. We then mapped the results into adoption-impact quadrants.

This post will look at the proven essentials, which are those tactics and technologies in high implementation–high impact quadrant. The technologies and tactics in this quadrant might be mature but still deliver tremendous results.

Our proven essentials stand in stark contrast to our unproven opportunities, which still have significant risks associated with them and benefits that haven’t fully materialized. 

Our proven essentials also have a risk profile that’s the inverse of our competitive differentiators. Where our competitive differentiators offer a competitive advantage to early adopters, our proven essentials put late adopters at a competitive disadvantage.

We surveyed our experts about 26 trends, and they rated 11 of them as being in the high adoption–high impact quadrant for 2021. Let’s talk about each of them in turn.

P. Account-Based Marketing (ABM)

Rather than focusing on industries or markets, account-based marketing focuses on, well, accounts. It helps businesses focus on building and maintaining opportunities at select high-value accounts rather than a huge number of small-value accounts. For the organizations that find it appropriate, it can have a significant impact.

Our clients turn to data-appending tools, like Oracle DataFox, and web identification tools, like Oracle Infinity and Oracle Unity, to help power their ABM efforts.

Q. Send Time Optimization

What is the best time to send an email? This is one of the most popular email marketing questions ever. It has also become a somewhat dated question. Email marketers should now ask: What is the best time to send an email to each of my subscribers?

Answering that question requires machine learning, which examines your subscribers’ open-time histories for each day of the week. As your subscribers engage with subsequent sends, machine learning adjusts to the optimal send time for them, so it’s constantly adapting to your customers’ changing behaviors—which have been changing rapidly during the pandemic.

With millions having experienced joblessness and a considerable portion of the workforce now working from home, changes in open times stand as one of the more prominent ways that the coronavirus has changed email behavior. And as we gradually establish a new normal on the other side of the pandemic, send time optimization will again pay huge dividends as it automatically adapts without the need for lots of A/B testing.

However, send time optimization (STO) isn’t appropriate for every campaign or even every brand, says Myles Libby, Account Director at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Some brands launch more than one time-sensitive promo where STO simply isn’t appropriate,” he says.

R. Advanced Performance Analytics 

Basic analytics provide basic insights. And as more companies shift from simple campaign marketing to more sophisticated audience and relationship marketing, those basic insights aren’t nearly enough. The pandemic has only made this clearer, says Bryan Moreci, Account Director at Oracle Digital Experience Agency.

“Due to the current economic turmoil, brands will strive to do more than ever with less than usual,” he says. “Leveraging analytics data and modeling will allow marketers to understand better how the past year has affected both email and customer value. This updated view will be key as companies decide how to evolve their strategies and programs to obtain the most value from their marketing efforts.”

As companies uplevel their performance analytics, they’re focusing on metrics that:

  • Are farther down the funnel

  • Account for performance across channels

  • Are customer-centric rather than campaign-centric

To ensure that you’re asking the right questions about performance, check out our “Questions to Ask Instead” series on email performance measurement, frequency and list building, and return on investment.

S. Animated GIFs and CSS Animation

Along with their more technical and less-widely-supported CSS-based cousins, animated GIFs are surging in usage for three main reasons:

1) Video is huge, and animation is a natural way to promote video content and show snippets of video.

2) More B2B brands are realizing that animation has serious business use cases and isn’t just for B2C brands to have fun with.

3) Social media’s love of the GIF has spurred their popularity among Millennials and Gen Z. 

For a deeper dive, check out our recommendations for the best uses and best practices for animated GIFs.

T. Modular Email Architectures

Implementing a modular email architecture to reduce email production time has risen to the top of our clients’ to-do lists for two reasons:

1) Due to economic turbulence, they’ve had to reduce the size of their email marketing team and do more with less.

2) With the social turbulence of the past year, they want to adapt their messaging more quickly to changing market conditions and consumer sentiments.

Rather than having different traditional templates for different types of emails, modular build systems allow you to create various content blocks that you stack to create a particular email. When we implement them with our clients, it reduces email build times by about 25% on average.

They also make updating and maintaining email source code much more efficient, particularly for smaller teams. However, saving time is really just the most alluring benefit that modular email architectures offer, says Patrick Colalillo, Associate Creative Director for Creative Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting.

“Having a modular email architecture is still the most important step to starting a lot of the other trends on this list,” he says. “Once that’s in place, A/B testing, automation, and AI-powered content are much easier to implement.”

To learn more, read about how modular email architectures make for more efficient workflows and are the foundation for personalization, or watch our webinar on how modular email architectures are the next-gen template.

U. Inactivity Management

You want subscribers to do more than tolerate receiving your marketing emails. If you're going to avoid serious deliverability problems, you must engage with them. 

“Soaring email volumes and continuing security threats to email will drive additional tightening of spam filters,” says Daniel Deneweth, Head of Email Deliverability Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “To navigate these upcoming deliverability challenges, email marketers must re-evaluate their sending practices with a focus on better inactivity management.”

On the simplest level, that means marketers stop mailing subscribers who haven’t opened or clicked in a long time. However, savvy marketers are using engagement levels to segment their sends, reducing frequency to less active subscribers to minimize their impact on engagement and opt-out rates until they hopefully become more active again.

In addition to smart segmentation, many marketers also use re-engagement campaigns to reduce the number of chronically inactive subscribers since it’s far cheaper to retain a subscriber than find a new one. But if those efforts fail, marketers increasingly attempt to re-permission their least engaged subscribers before suppressing mailings to them.

As much as possible, try to automate your inactivity management with pre-set segmentation filters and triggered emails, says Jessica Stamer, Principal B2B Consultant at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Things like re-engagement campaigns feel more like administrative functions than marketing functions, so I don’t see marketers devoting more time than necessary to them.”

Protect your sender reputation by learning how to manage both long-term inactives and never-actives

V. Legal Compliance with CCPA, GDPR, etc.

The groundswell of stronger privacy regulations is undeniable and will likely continue as lawmakers struggle to catch up with how their constituents feel about the effect technology is having on them. 

First, it was CASL in 2014 and GDPR in 2018. Then strong, GDPR-like privacy legislation arrived in the US with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) at the beginning of 2020 and was reinforced with the passage of the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) at the end of last year.

And even more significant changes are likely on the horizon, says Brian Sullivan, Strategy Director of Email Deliverability Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “With the growing anticipation of federal-level privacy legislation, plus legal actions against tech titans mounting, compliance burdens are set to increase with privacy laws changing faster than ever before in the U.S. and abroad.”

With new laws requiring informed consent on data collection and giving consumers the right to be forgotten and the ability to opt out of having their personal data sold, first-party data has become more important than ever, says Kaiti Gary, Director of Analytics & Strategic Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Overall, that’s good news for email marketing and for the value of an email address, which is becoming an even more critical identifier for driving advertising and marketing activity.”

W. Email Personalization

Like several other of our proven essentials, dynamic content within emails isn’t remotely new. However, the ability to personalize email messages has progressively become more sophisticated and easier to execute and manage. 

During the pandemic, personalization has become even more imperative as marketers struggle to stay relevant while consumer behaviors and desires change rapidly.

“Last year, we had clients redesign their entire wireframe to incorporate live text personalization,” says Lauren Castady, Associate Creative Director for Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Personalization is top of mind for many clients.”

As part of the evolution of email personalization, brands are using an ever-broader set of data to customize their messaging, says Suzanne Felter, Senior Account Director at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “Knowing their customers’ web behavior, email engagement, profile attributes, lifestyle affinity, and more—coupled with look-alike modeling—brands can create highly relevant messages and offers that keep customers coming back.”

X. Email Segmentation

Segmentation and personalization are two sides of the same coin, says Mindy Kowalski, Senior Designer for Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. “More of both,” she says, “helps create a more focused and personal experience for the subscriber as it helps marketers get more of the right content in front of the right people.”

However, while both can help with content strategy, segmentation is essential, as it allows marketers to send the right number of emails to individual subscribers to maximize conversions and minimize fatigue and opt-outs. In particular, segmentation and suppression help maintain good engagement rates, which is one of the seven key factors affecting email deliverability.

Y. Responsive Email Design

Responsive design is the status quo in email design. While not universally supported, it is widely supported and a graceful way to create experiences appropriate for widely different-sized screens. It has become the gold standard for both email and web, where Google penalizes the search authority of companies whose websites aren’t responsive.

That said, responsive design requires more work, both in terms of coding and troubleshooting. Some brands who see the vast majority of their emails opened on mobile devices are considering mobile-only email design. In a way, it’s a return to simpler times when marketers design a single email rendering—but this time, it’s optimized for mobile devices, not desktops.

Responsive will continue to dominate, but as the mobile internet becomes the only internet for more people, and as mobile screen sizes continue to increase—hello, folding screens—we’ll likely see fringe adoption of mobile-only email design grow.

Z. Automated or Triggered Emails

Whether they’re triggered by an action, inaction, date, or internet-connected IoT machine, automated emails deliver just the right messages to customers and subscribers at just the right time. And just like personalization and segmentation, automation is only becoming more powerful thanks to AI, machine learning, and an increasingly 360-degree view of customers.

That will help marketers move beyond simple retargeting to send more lifecycle messaging based on activity data, says Jeff Dean, Senior Solution Engineer for Oracle Digital Experience Agency.

“For example, after I buy a car, they should stop sending me ‘buy a car’ promotional messages. Instead, they should start sending me ‘how to use’ educational content, accessory promotions for my model, and servicing information that ensures I stay a satisfied customer until it’s time for me to buy another vehicle. Being able to collect and act on personal data and interests through automation and AI is the future of marketing and loyalty.”

In addition to setting up new ones, be sure to optimize your existing automated messages. Don’t settle for good enough with such high-ROI campaigns.

For a full look at all 26 email marketing trends to watch for in 2021, check out our posts that examine our:


Need help with your digital marketing campaigns? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers, partners, and employees, even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from creative and strategy to content planning and project management. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.

For help overcoming your challenges or seizing your opportunities, talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or email us at

Want to better understand your email marketing risks and opportunities, take advantage of our free Email Marketing Assessment. Our experts will check your deliverability, review your email creative, audit your signup process, do a partial competitive analysis, and more. If interested in this free assessment, reach out to us at

Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.

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