[Updated 3/31] What We See with Email Rates During COVID-19

Mar 31, 2020
Nick Ziech-Lopez


As we enter another week where the world is mostly under shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, we’re continuing to monitor delivery and engagement rates for email marketing sends. We wanted to know:

  • How are brands communicating with users during the crisis?
  • Are users more likely to interact with mailings now that many are sheltering in place?
  • Are users more likely to unsubscribe from mailings?

Email continues to be a critical tool for enterprise brands during these uncertain times. For most industries, consumers are clicking and buying, and even in sectors like travel and hospitality where marketing has essentially been paused, email will be one of the most important channels in getting things ramped back up.

The bottom line: email is thriving right now as it is one of the few ways brands can reach their customers during the crisis.

Let’s look at what we’re seeing:

Email marketing volume in most industries (aside from Travel & Hospitality) remains high.

Retail stood out as a surprise in that it is essentially business as usual. Many retailers are seeing a flurry of online activity/ordering and are continuing to respond to consumer demands. Not only is volume strong, but engagement from end users also remains at pre-COVID levels, and consumers are less likely to unsubscribe.

In the Travel & Hospitality sector, marketing volume has been cut dramatically, highlighting that the hardest hit industries largely pressed pause on marketing campaigns. After a big email week to talk about what their responses were to COVID-19, brands in this industry have understandably taken a step back from promoting near-term travel or bookings.

This will be an interesting space to watch in the coming weeks. Brands we’ve talked to have already started to see increased searches for Fall travel and may lean into that as a way to start getting people to start booking trips again. Others are using this opportunity to retool their entire programs in ways they couldn’t when they were going full speed. Because they’re in a pit stop, they’re able to change the tires, doubling down on what they know will work and cutting back on things that they would have a harder time doing if volume was still at full capacity.

The messages that are going out garner mixed reviews from recipients. Although the open and engagement rates for those mailings are very high, we’ve seen around the industry that spam complaints for COVID-related mailings are high as well, indicating that some people just don’t want to hear about it.

Other industries include a mixture of political mailings, education, local government, and healthcare — among others where the data isn’t interesting or compelling enough in each one to break out separately. This group seems to be holding at higher volumes and is even seeing a major uptick in open rates.

As these industries may be holding events or cancelling engagements, they are likely sending out updates to their user base — these are examples of COVID-related content that users are happy to receive. Relevant and impactful information on how the world is adjusting.

As many people would expect, there’s been a shift in open engagement from mobile to desktop/laptop computers as more people shop from home instead of on the go. Although the majority of emails are opened on mobile devices, we’ve seen a nearly 10% week-over-week jump for desktop computers. What’s really interesting, though, is that the majority of click activity is occurring on desktop:

Although the majority of emails are opened on mobile devices, users are more likely to interact with their mailings on desktop computers. Perhaps the mobile device is a quick check for relevancy before diving deeper on the computer.

CONCLUSION: As a critical tool for reaching customers while physical stores are largely shuttered, email is thriving right now. Marketers should be tactful in what they’re sending and, in industries where most marketing has paused, use this time to retool their programs for the better. When those channels come back online, email will continue to be one of the most important ways in which brands can reach customers.

Large enterprise brands send billions of monthly marketing and transactional messages through MessageGears’ platform. This is an analysis of mailings across users of our core Message cross-channel marketing product.


Like most people, you’ve probably noticed your inbox fill up with emails from nearly every brand that has your address, explaining how they’re dealing with this unprecedented situation and reassuring you, their customer, that they’re taking every precaution necessary. Some offer advice or comfort. Others may provide you with the steps you need to take if your plans with them have suddenly changed, with many waiving the fees they’d normally charge to alter your plans.

The travel and hospitality industry is undoubtedly one of the most heavily impacted of all sectors of the economy, with trips in the near term being almost universally canceled — particularly if they involve a flight — and people staying as close to home as possible. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tour companies, travel sites, even ride-sharing companies are feeling the pain acutely.

In retail, companies that sell staple items like groceries, pharmaceuticals, and common household products may have even seen a surge in sales, but retail companies that sell less essential items or that rely heavily on in-person brick-and-mortar sales are struggling to find willing buyers as they try to figure out how to adjust their messaging efforts. But were users more likely to open these mailings?

The data suggests that people are opening emails at a particularly high rate, suggesting that if your job is to build email marketing campaigns, people are still paying attention. Some may even be looking for a bit of distraction or normality in their inbox, finding some comfort in old routines. And those COVID-19 emails do provide a service, giving people the information they need to make smart decisions, and perhaps a bit of comfort in an uncertain time. For all of these opens, were they more likely to interact with the mailing?

While open rates rose, click-to-open rates fell pretty significantly during this time. There are many possible reasons for this drop, but we think it actually speaks well of the brands that were sending the emails. Because those brands were focusing on providing content that was helpful, empathetic, and comforting, there was very little sense of including the usual clear calls-to-action that you’d expect in email communication. They were just being human, conveying the sentiment that we’re all in this together, and we can look out for each other in a difficult time.

Now that we’ve covered positive engagement, it’s time to look: were recipients more or less likely to unsubscribe from a post-COVID-19 mailing?

Somewhat surprisingly, the data suggested that unsubscribes nearly doubled in the travel industry but dropped elsewhere. This could perhaps be due to worries about international travel, or recipients not wanting to think about leaving the house right now. Contrapositively, recipients in retail and other industries might be welcoming the new information that marketing messages bring, as weeks of self quarantine may welcome any distractions. Speaking of self-quarantine, logic may dictate that more time in the house would lead to more time in front of a desktop computer. Does the data back up that assumption by showing more emails being opened on desktop vs mobile?

Although it is unexpected, we observed a nearly 20% drop in opens on computers/desktops, with a correlating rise in opens on mobile devices. Perhaps more users are trying to stay active instead of sitting in front of the computer? That’s potentially the case, but it’s tough to know for sure.

Back to the original question: Is this a good time to be sending email? Yes. As brands respond to the crisis, consumers are opening and interacting to these messages at higher rates than before — a reminder that brand/consumer relationships are important even in times like these. In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to analyze new data to keep our readers informed on what is happening throughout the industry.

Do you have thoughts on this article? Reach us on Twitter @messagegears.

About the Author

Nick Ziech-Lopez

Nick is the Senior Director of Product Marketing at MessageGears. He applies his background in engineering and data analytics to organizing his product backlog, understanding user experience, and obsessing over the Chicago Cubs.