Mastering the intimacy of the inbox has paid off for Marriott

When the pandemic hit, Marriott had to rethink how it approached customers. For many, leaving their homes and traveling in general gave consumers pause. Sure, people’s day-to-day changed, but their mindsets changed as well. This was uncharted territory.

No matter what industry you’re in, pre-pandemic communication is unfit and outdated to meet the changing psychology of consumers. Business-as-usual updates are no longer what people want or need to know about. Customers expect timely updates on issues they care about most, with an intimate, human touch. Turns out, email is the right—and often the only—channel for the job.

Email has emerged as the No. 1 channel for brands to personally communicate with their customers. Marc Sheinkin, senior director, member and guest communications at Marriott, used email to create a connected customer experience during a time when in-person interactions were almost nonexistent. Focusing on customer service and safety updates, Marriott mastered the intimacy of the inbox during the pandemic—and it paid off.

Creating close connections (while socially distant)

Travel brands took a massive setback to business during Covid-19. Epsilon research from September 2020 showed that only 20% of consumers had plans to travel in the near future. Marriott’s marketing team quickly pivoted to meet the new reality.

Nevertheless, people’s demand for brand-related content actually strengthened. A survey from Mitto noted that 73% of consumers found an increase in messaging to be important during the pandemic. People wanted to know how brands were responding to Covid-19. Were health and safety measures being implemented? What were their favorite brands doing to ease the concerns of their workers?

"Email is not dead—far from it. It’s alive and well because consumers’ email behavior has changed." 

- Marc Sheinkin, Marriott

Marriott understood the need to connect with customers on these topics, but the key was to shift messaging to reflect people’s new mindset. It had to be timely, and it had to be personal—which made email the right channel for the job. “One of the beauties of email marketing, if it’s done right, is it’s a one-to-one communication,” Sheinkin says. “We’re a long way from the batch-and-blast of the early 2000s … email communication should be no different than a conversation you might have with an associate at a Marriott property.”

With Epsilon’s help, Marriott leaned more heavily into email to meet the demands of customers. Instead of cross-border, business or air travel messages, Marriott shifted its focus to:

  • Attracting the leisure traveler, particularly those often not Marriott loyalists
  • Building confidence among travelers by highlighting new safety and cleanliness protocols in its hotels
  • Awareness for the availability of homes and villas, which Marriott offers for those looking at private options
  • Highlighting in-country or drive-market destinations
  • Inspiring people when they are ready to travel again
  • Engaging guests beyond the stay, for example, with credit cards, gift cards and retail products through Marriott Bonvoy Boutiques


“We focus on being timely and sharing relevant information,” Sheinkin notes. “We’re seeing a renaissance for email because it’s very effective. At Marriott, the email inbox is an extension of our customer experience.”

And the strategy is working: open rates have increased and engagement is up. “Over time, we’ve become more sophisticated with Epsilon, moving from batch-and-blast to segment marketing,” Sheinkin says. “Our priority today is one-to-one messaging based on our customers’ previous stays, preferences and the content they’re most interested in receiving.” But this success didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Malleability enables familiarity

There are several reasons email continually rises to the occasion for delivering intimate messages to customers:

It’s flexible. We’ve all seen how quickly the news changes. It’s essential for brands, especially travel ones, to pivot communication on a dime depending on the situation. Email is intuitive, easy to use and responsive. With a customer-centric approach, brands can quickly adjust or create new messaging to accommodate changing customer priorities. And there may come a time when people don’t want to hear from your brand. Email allows brands to quickly pause their messaging and give people a second to breathe.

It’s relevant. Email acts as a connective tissue between brand and consumer. It keeps people informed in a way that is easily accessible for most (i.e., at the top of the inbox), and helps brands maintain that one-to-one connection with consumers while not feelinglike mass communication.

It’s for the person, not the brand. For this kind of communication, you’re messaging those who opt-in to receive your information. However, brands still have to work to break through the clutter and earn lasting relationships with their customers. Brands lose that level of intimacy and connection when opting for channels like display or social. Rather than the whole internet seeing a display ad, an email is in the consumer’s inbox, for their eyes only. 

These affordances made email indispensable in the current climate, and Sheinkin agrees: “Email doesn’t seem that sexy compared to other digital marketing channels. Five to 10 years ago, there were articles written about ‘The Death of Email.’ Email is not dead—far from it. It’s alive and well because consumers’ email behavior has changed.”

The woes of 2020 are still fairly close (and we’re cautiously seeing signs of hope in the U.S.), but this change in behavior is here to stay. Lasting effects of the pandemic show that people want more direct, authentic messaging from brands. Those that lean into email for relevant, intimate communication will ultimately come out on top with customers as we shift to a post-pandemic world.

**This article was originally published on Adweek, April 2021