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Five 2021 trends that will affect email marketers: Global experts weigh in

We’ve nearly made it to the end of 2020 (exhales). It’s been a long year; the endless hurdles have us crawling past the finish line. We’ve all had to adapt to a strange reality—whether it be personal or professional.

Professionally, email marketers have been through the ringer. With business closures, divergent customer behavior and unsteady business priorities, many email programmes were upended in Q1 and marketers have had to play catchup since.

Now, the days are getting shorter and colder as we enter into a strange holiday season and uncharted territory in the pandemic; but one thing is certain: COVID-driven changes in consumer behavior will persist well into 2021. Everything from work to entertainment, travel to life at home, will continue to look different. With this in mind, how can marketers use what we’ve seen from 2020 to inform their strategic email strategy moving into the new year?

I’m quite sure no one wants an instant replay of the last eight months. But the challenges we faced this year can ultimately help us think smarter for the next. To that end, we’ve aggregated the top macro trends we believe will influence email marketing in 2021. And with that direction in mind, we asked our email experts in the US, EMEA and APAC regions for their advice on strategy, tactics and best practices for email marketers heading into Q1 and beyond.

Trends that will influence 2021

Contactless interactions are now the norm

Consumers will continue to embrace a touch-free, digital lifestyle to alleviate health and safety concerns that come with tactile retail experiences. To accommodate this shift in consumer preferences, many brands have doubled down on eCommerce and contactless experiences. For example, major brands like Target and Kroger have ramped-up their “drive up” and roadside pickup offerings. Others have prioritised eCommerce and focused on creating virtual experiences for customers rather than in-person ones.

Pivoting to contactless experiences has helped brands build loyalty and trust during the pandemic, as it shows they care about the health, safety and comfort of their customers. Of course, health considerations are still front and center for most consumers—but the ease and convenience of contactless experiences will keep people coming back long after the pandemic is over.

ECommerce is king

ECommerce will continue to grow and outperform the growth rate of offline sales. Under the stay-at-home orders, US consumers shopped heavily online: in Q2 of 2020, US retail eCommerce sales grew by 44.5% compared to 2019 . Not to mention, eMarketer predicts that eCommerce will make up 14.5% of total retail sales this year, which is the largest year-over-year increase since they began measuring in 2018.

To take advantage of this upward trajectory that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, many retailers are rethinking ways to use their stores. Some are shifting towards pop-up models, using stores as showrooms to support eCommerce or treating stores as fulfillment centers to accelerate deliveries.  Storefront, a platform that helps major brands find the ideal retail space, now offers custom virtual storefronts people can navigate through and purchase items all from the comfort of their couch. Even popular digital-savvy brands like Supergoop took a stab at brick-and-mortar, opening up their first pop-up shop in Brooklyn earlier this year, where customers could try on and browse their wide array of skincare products.

Download our report: Email 2020 trends guide: Renaissance 

Discretionary spending remains low

While eCommerce sales look promising, consumers will continue to temper their spending on discretionary goods and services.

This will likely force many brands into aggressive discounting. However, that strategy holds long-term risks in deteriorating consumers’ perceptions of brand quality. Some brands are mitigating these challenges by using digital gamification and virtual experiences to make bargain hunting fun and interactive—a strategy that strengthens brand value rather than takes away from it.

For example, Bare Minerals packages its 20% off discount offer with a live virtual event, a prize giveaway and a specially priced bundle.

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Cultural, political and environmental movements endure

On top of a global pandemic, people have also had to navigate widespread cultural movements, protests focused on race and equality, and the climate crisis. Oh, and a US presidential election.

But what does that have to do with email marketing? Surprisingly, a lot. It’s no longer sufficient for brands to stay neutral on social justice issues. According to a survey done by Sprout Social, seventy percent of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues. They also found that nine in 10 consumers are more likely to give brands who are highly transparent second chances after bad experiences, and 85% are more likely to stick with them during crises.

Consumers are looking for transparent communication from brands, to know they are doing their best to make a difference in the world. This will not change any time soon.

Ben & Jerry's is a brand that is not afraid to make a statement, consistently communicating with customers about their brand values and beliefs. 


Personal connections are more important than ever

As consumers continue to be inundated with communication, they will choose to give their attention to brands that craft unique and personalised experiences. They’re looking for personal connection, a human touch in the sea of bulk messages. A  Mintel study found that 64% of consumers shop where brands treat them like a good friend.

For example, Sephora is recommending top beauty picks based on their customers favorite products.

The level of personalisation and investment in technology adoption will continue to be the primary driver for consumers when choosing where to shop moving forward. Additional factors include price point, convenience, cleanliness, sustainability, inclusivity and community support. Keep an eye out for these categories in 2021.

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Advice for your 2021 email marketing plans

Re-think KPIs

Think through your new KPIs and benchmarks for the coming year. Be sure to focus on the growing role of eCommerce and benchmarks that are realistic, and factor in the current landscape. That being said, don’t fall into the trap of using current events as an excuse to lower expectations. Rather, challenge your brand to continue to innovate, experiment and reimagine your email strategy for the times we are in.

From the expert:

“During the pandemic, consumer behaviors have changed in a myriad of ways. The most notable shifts we’ve observed are ones towards digital and virtual experiences. So, as a marketer, if you haven’t previously paid a lot of attention to digital engagement metrics it’s time to do so. For example, it’s more important for a restaurant to be tracking online to-go orders and subsequent conversions than ever before.

“Additionally, your existing metric benchmarks may need to be adjusted to the new realities. For example, it may not be realistic for a travel company to achieve the same conversion rates next year compared to last year. Or an online gaming company may want to elevate their benchmarks up in a way that’s more commensurate with the increased popularity of online entertainment.”

-Kara Trivunovic, managing director, Epsilon U.S.

Content innovation based on insight

Building a contextual email marketing calendar with the latest trends and insights is key to ensure success in 2021. Here are some questions to ask yourself when prepping your calendar:

How are consumers behaving? Your calendar should account for many different consumer segments and their unique behaviors. For example, consider spending levels, top purchase categories and purchase location to inform your strategy.

Can you create goodwill? We’ve already discussed the need for brands to raise awareness for social issues. Crafting stories of community involvement, customer care, and action plans will be highly effective in the coming year—just make sure they’re genuine.

What are ways we can innovate? See if there are areas to expand digital innovation in your calendar. Gamification is catching fire in the industry, along with virtual events and celebrations. Push some boundaries and try something new if it makes sense for your brand.

Are there valuable incentives to encourage loyalty? Long-term customer loyalty is always the goal. But people need a reason to stay loyal to your brand. Think of new ways to incentivise customers in the new year.

From the expert:

“Brands have often been in unchartered territory, where a typical calendar of email campaigns is focused on sales, discounts and events or times of the year—think summer, back-to-school—but this no longer makes sense. Those events are not happening. The most agile and innovative brands are taking a different approach to email, quickly changing as the global and local context changes with them. They are using new types of content to keep consumers engaged and are ultimately coming out on top.”

-Valerie Popeck, senior director, strategic consulting, Epsilon EMEA

Evolve personalisation

We’ve seen customer preferences change on a whim. Do you have a personalisation infrastructure in place to ‘listen’ for changing consumer behavior and enable a quick response? Think about someone browsing your site, adding items to their cart or maybe taking some away; how are you using content, images, hierarchy, and more to fit that experience? AI and machine learning can allow brands to get granular with their personalisation, and ultimately win with consumers.

From the experts:

“COVID has caused a dramatic increase of people going online. Consequently, digital interactions across brands have skyrocketed. This means consumers have greater autonomy in choosing which brands they interact with—an Accenture Pulse survey found that 91% of consumers are most likely to shop with brands who recognise them and provide relevant offers and recommendations. The positive thing is, brands have access to more data than ever. But how can they make it actionable? This is where AI comes in. It’s a magic bullet for personalisation and optimisation of content, subject lines, send time and discount offerings.”

-Matthew Simons, SVP, client services, Epsilon EMEA

“COVID-19 is further accelerating the digital transformation, enabling brands to collect better behavioral data and analyze it. Brands leveraging AI and machine learning to activate that data to create a personalised experience that caters to an individual rather than a segment, will earn consumer loyalty.

“In Asia, loyalty is built ‘moment-by-moment’ because consumers may not have a particular brand in mind when they start their search. Therefore, brands will need to develop a strategy that anticipates consumers’ needs by identifying their key micro-moments along their consumer journey. As consumer expectations increase, the brands that can give them what they’re looking for right at the moment they need it will win the day.”

-Waseem Khan, director - solution consultant, Epsilon APAC

Build scalable processes

The concepts we’ve discussed in this piece must be scalable in order to truly provide impact. Do you have assets (e.g. templates, creative) and processes in place to enable quick responses to breaking news like store closures, inventory changes, or COVID outbreaks? Take it a step further and infuse those templates with personalisation and localisation to provide real value to customers.

From the expert:

“As we look back at the year, the brands that performed the best were those that created customer-centric emails and aligned their organisation with what was most important to their customers. In order to deliver great experiences, brands need to have flexible, prebuilt templates that can call on for rapid response to any type of event. Marketers that focus on prebuilt and automated templates can definitely expect to see an increase in conversions in 2021.

"In addition, brands need to ensure they have a trigger-based automation programme in place and up to date. These email campaigns converted 335% better than “standard promotional” campaigns in Q2 of 2020 (eMarketer). It’s evident this approach to building scale in email marketing programmes will improve business outcomes, but I’d venture to guess it will also help marketers sleep better at night, too.”

-Lauren Gannon, VP, executive creative director, Epsilon U.S.

Think Mobile

People buy an experience rather than a product. This holds true in the digital world, but more specifically with mobile experiences. Studies show that consumers are more likely to buy from brands whose mobile sites, apps or communication help them easily find answers to their questions. Consumers are making decisions all along the path to purchase, so your brand can’t miss a beat. Mobile is going to be front and center in 2021. Make sure all programmes planned for the coming year are optimised for these mobile experiences, but also think about how it fits into your omnichannel experience. Start small, like following up to email openers with SMS updates.

From the expert:

“With mobile internet usage in APAC projected to grow from $2 billion in 2019 to $2.7 billion by 2025, eCommerce to reach $2.3 trillion in 2022, the rollout of 5G to reach a quarter of total mobile connections by 2025 and contactless payments rising exponentially, it’s imperative for brands to create a frictionless experience for their consumers of various ages and demographics.”

-Waseem Khan, director - solution consultant, Epsilon APAC

Lots can be learned from this year. As we move into 2021, be sure to think holistically about your email strategy: what’s working, what’s not, and how it can evolve. The macro-trends we’ve identified in this blog will set marketers on the right path to start the new year successfully.