How Coronavirus Has Changed Email Behavior

April 20, 2020 | 6 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Marketing Consulting
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The coronavirus has disrupted most people’s lives, changing how they work, socialize, eat, and educate their children. It has also changed email behavior in profound and sometimes surprising ways.

Based on an analysis of hundreds of millions of emails per week from some of our Oracle CX Marketing Consulting clients over the past year, let’s look at some of the changes in email behavior that we’ve seen and how marketers should adjust their email programs:

Open times have shifted.

Because people are at home more than they previously were, their normal daily rhythms have changed. That includes when they check their email.

For instance, many people would check their email during their commutes on public transit. That’s no longer happening. In addition to email, the lack of commutes has also negatively affected podcast listening and music streaming services like Spotify.

What marketers should do:

Reconsider the best time to send emails for your brand. Consider running some A/B tests around send times, being sure to avoid these testing pitfalls.

If you’re using send time optimization (STO), understand that it may take a little bit of time for your STO data to capture this sudden shift in subscriber behavior. 

“Our recommendation for those using STO is basically to stay the course,” says Reed Pankratz, Senior Strategic Consultant for Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “STO is built to accommodate changes in customer behavior over time, so knee-jerk reactions that completely abandon current send time strategy is likely to be more harmful than helpful. Even though it may take several weeks for the model to learn that behavior, tests and analysis have shown that using any data point we have on open time is better than using a default send time.”

Another benefit of send-time optimization is that it will also automatically adjust send times, as customer behaviors shift over time.

Email volume has dipped overall.

After a spike in email volume in mid-March when there was a flood of emails about store closures and other actions taken in response to the pandemic, email volume has started trending slightly downward across all verticals, according to Oracle CX Marketing data. 

For example, travel and hospitality email frequency is way down, which makes sense given that they’re unable to book travel and stays near-term. Telcos and media companies have increased email frequency significantly, as demand and usage of their services increases. Retail email volume was up just slightly during late March, as retailers tried to shift their customers’ purchases online and educate them about new options like curbside pickup, but it has flattened out in early April. Financial services companies haven’t changed their email cadence in any significant way.

What marketers should do:

In my book, Email Marketing Rules, I recommend that brands pay close attention to their customers’ natural buying patterns and then use email to amplify that behavior. The times of the year that they buy more, send more email to reinforce and strengthen that pattern. And send fewer emails when they are less active to avoid annoying them. 

This is still good advice, even in these extraordinary times. You always want to be in sync with your customers. So far, brands have done a good job of this, as evidenced by our email engagement data and unsubscribe data.

Email engagement is up, but revenue is down.

Open rates have increased significantly recently, driven in part by all of the coronavirus crisis messaging sent in mid-March. However, because those same messages had few or no calls-to-action, clickthrough rates were depressed during the latter half of March.

During the first half of April, open rates stabilized slightly up year-over-year, but click-through rates and revenue per email fell significantly year-over year as recessionary pressures mounted.

“Consumers’ needs clearly shifted during March,” says Clint Kaiser, Head of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Our data shows industry categories trending up that were highly correlated with stay-at-home needs—and trending down for categories that didn’t meet those needs.”

Jennifer Lancaster Dana, VP of Oracle CX Marketing Consulting, adds, “But despite all the changes in people’s lives during this pandemic, there’s no question that email continues to drive connection and e-commerce engagement, even if revenue is down. Email is a vital way that consumers stay in contact with the brands that they love.”

What marketers should do:

We understand that some businesses have been severely disrupted and that their budgets are under heavy pressure, and we see brands pulling budget from search and media. However, our data indicates that email marketing continues to perform at a high level compared to other channels. So, at the risk of sounding self-serving, we urge brands to continue using what is likely their highest ROI and best retention marketing channel to connect with their customers.

Unsubscribe rates are much, much lower.

Despite lots of social media chatter from consumers who were ticked off about brands they hadn’t engaged with in years sending them coronavirus crisis messages, we don’t see any evidence of a subscriber backlash against email. In fact, we’re seeing quite the opposite. Unsubscribe rates have fallen by more than 50% across all verticals, according to Oracle CX Marketing data.

This comes as internet traffic is up roughly 25% compared to February, highlighting the expanded mindshare available during this time.

“Consumers appear to have a much lower threshold to maintain their attention while they’re sheltering in place,” says Doug Sundahl, Senior Director of Strategic Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Perhaps because they’re less hurried, spending less time commuting, and generally have more time on their hands, they’re being less critical of the emails they receive from the brands they’ve subscribed to.”

What marketers should do:

Because consumer email behaviors and attitudes are likely to fluctuate in the weeks and months ahead, we recommend that brands continue to closely monitor all KPIs and adjust their strategy accordingly. If negative metrics like unsubscribe rates and spam compliant rates start to increase and your engagement rates start to dip, then that’s a signal to adjust your email frequency and messaging.

Mobile email viewing has morphed—but only slightly.

With more people at home and working from home under shelter-in-place decrees, you’d expect that reading emails on mobile devices would decrease and that desktop and laptop reading would increase. However, that’s not true—at least at the industry level.

While reading emails on smartphones has decreased slightly, use of tablets for email increased, among Oracle CX Marketing Consulting clients through the end of March. But for the most part, there is no material shift in device usage patterns, which surprised us.

“It appears that some email habits are hard to break,” says Lauren Kimball, VP of Agency Services at Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting. “If you’re used to reading emails on your smartphone, you wouldn’t just change because you suddenly have greater access to a laptop.”

What marketers should do:

Just because the overall data isn’t showing a big change in device preferences doesn’t mean that’s not the case among your subscribers. To be sure, check which environments your subscribers are opening your emails in. If you’re using Litmus or Email on Acid, this is easy to find in your analytics.

If you do see a shift to desktops, then pay more attention to the desktop rendering of your responsive email design. If you’re using mobile-only email design, consider reverting to a mobile-aware design to improve the desktop experience.

During systemic shocks like we’re experiencing now, it’s more important than ever to keep a close eye on your email marketing metrics, along with the performance of all of your channels. Use your metrics to guide your tactics and strategies. Stay nimble so you’re able to be responsive to your customers’ needs.

Want more advice on how to deal with crises? Check out these related posts:


Need help with your messaging strategy? Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including Strategic Services and Creative Services teams that can help you develop and execute the right messaging strategy.

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For more information about email marketing, please visit Oracle CX Marketing




Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Marketing Consulting

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Marketing Consulting 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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