In recent weeks, we noticed a downward trend in brand email engagement. Even with the same promotion plan across all target markets, we’ve observed engagement decreases in some geographic areas versus others.

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To understand what could be causing this decline, especially after such high numbers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we dug into the data to identify some micro and macro trends.

Continued coronavirus concern

The largest factor likely affecting the holiday shopping season is the COVID-19 pandemic. As cases continue to rise throughout the country, many Americans are not optimistic about in-person celebrations.

Concern can be preventing people from opening early holiday emails and engaging with brands they’d traditionally shop with going into the holiday season. This is especially true for consumers who are relying on less income than in previous years due to layoffs, furloughs, and the slowed job market.

U.S. election stress

The stress over the election and potential impacts are high for most (read: all) Americans, and this is beginning to have an increased effect on consumer spending, as well as peoples’ overall engagement with brands.

According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Poll and Bloomberg News, “nearly seven in 10 U.S. adults say the upcoming presidential election…is making them feel uncertain about the economy. Among these consumers, 50% say it’s causing them to be more conservative in their holiday spending this year.”

This poll shows the constant barrage of news updates—which has intensified following President Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis—is likely distracting Americans from planning their holiday spending.

Outdoor distractions

Whereas we saw prominent spikes in engagement early in the pandemic, consumers have been enjoying getting outdoors in the nice fall weather or taking breaks from their devices. The near-constant video-conference meetings for adults working from home and students doing virtual learning has led to device fatigue.

As we’re entering our eighth month of spending more time at home, many people have grown accustomed to this new normal and are choosing to focus on certain offline activities. While this doesn’t mean an end to digital engagement, this trend does point toward less time checking inboxes and engaging with brands.

People simply aren’t paying as much attention to their inboxes as earlier in the year. However, this may be only short-lived as the weather turning colder and we approach winter, as we could see an increase in engagement as people turn to their devices again.

The unplugging trend

COVID-19: Striking the Right Balance in Email

Long before the coronavirus forced many Americans to spend most of their time at home, adults were deliberately unplugging from personal tech and spending their time offline. According to eMarketer, the number of adults who said they unplugged daily remained at 34% or above since March 2020.

Unplugging could be affecting email engagement rates for many of the same reasons stated in the outdoor distractions section above. And unplugging points toward the critical need for brands to create connected customer experiences that are relevant and personalized to each consumer to drive engagement.

Changing holiday shopping behaviors

The shift away from mall shopping is likely also contributing to lower engagement rates. While mall shopping has seen a decline in recent years, a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers found that “45% of U.S. consumers plan to go to a shopping mall this season, down from 64% who visited last November and December.”

This fresh blow to American malls is likely due to the continued coronavirus concern for safety, as well as economic worries surrounding the pandemic.

As a result, consumers are shifting budgets (decreasing) for holiday gifting this year. According to Morning Consult, fewer U.S. adults expect to spend more than $300 on holiday gifts this year compared to 2019.

Decreasing budgets means shopping for the best deals, which could mean shopping earlier—starting with Amazon Prime Day on October 13-14—or waiting for retailers to announce the best deals. Either way, brand email engagement may decrease while people wait to feel more financially secure to make purchases or find the biggest deal on their gifts.

Long term open- and click-rate performance

According to this chart by eMarketer, U.S. email open- and click-rate metrics have been declining precipitously since the first half of 2018. While we can’t break this data into categories to isolate it further to U.S. retail email performance, it may help explain the macro trend we’ve seen since the high in 2018.

What does all this mean for retail brands?

While it can be concerning to see declining email engagement as we enter the holiday shopping season, this provides an opportunity for evaluation of how relevant your brand email content is to your customers.

With expectations rising daily for more connected digital experiences, brands need to ensure their email messaging resonates with people in their send lists. Brands should make sure their email marketing connects with their messaging strategy on social and across their commerce website.

If your email doesn’t match or isn’t targeted to what your customers are seeking, it can fall straight into the trash bin.

Creating connected customer experiences

Download our Holiday 2020 and Beyond ebook

Our DEG retail marketing experts have helped national and global brands—including Dooney & Bourke, PepsiCo, Gap Inc., AMC Theatres, and GORE-TEX—implement engagement strategies to connect with customers across all digital channels.

We also have a full-service email campaign management team that deploys billions of email campaigns throughout the year, reaching customers in the moments of greatest impact with personalized messages that resonate. As your agency partner, we can handle as much, or as little, of email builds, tests, and deployments as you need.

Let’s talk about how we can work together to develop an engaging email marketing program for your brand.

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