'Email plays well with other channels – some don’t'

The latest performance benchmarks for email marketing shows resilience in the channel post pandemic, but the aggregate numbers are only part of the story.

“Email has been ‘dead’ for as long as I’ve been in this industry,” Tim Bond jokingly tells PMW.

 The Data & Marketing Association (DMA)”s Director of Content Strategy and Insight does agree that social media is – according to data – becoming more significant for younger generations, even highlighting that “social overtook email for the first time a couple of years ago”. 

However, this hasn’t changed over the past two years, Bond notes and that “as soon as you get [users] over 35, social drops like a stone and email goes up”. With email enjoying its long standing role as a marketer’s “digital passport – name me any service you can sign up to without an email”, Bond challenges, it is also increasingly serving as a digital “archive”.  

With the event of e-receipts, transaction information and the introduction of ‘tabs’ across many email providers that essentially separate emails into ‘promotional’ or ‘primary’ – email is an information-seeker’s dream, and remains an essential communication channel for many a marketer beyond the sell and promote objectives. 

So email is not going anywhere, and the latest Email Benchmarking Report from the DMA notes healthy increases in the measures of ‘email success’ compared to a pandemic-hit 2020. But, with every set of benchmarks comes caveats, and Bond is clear that “marketers using email need to be very clear on what the objectives of their campaigns are”, to hit an understanding of true impact, performance and effectiveness. 

“Ultimately you are your own benchmark”

Based on data provided voluntarily by nine email service providers, covering more than 158 billion emails sent in 2021, the DMA’s analysis reports healthy increases in all measures last year compared to the pandemic-hit 2020, when notable dips were observed. 

2021 was then a good year for email marketing, relatively speaking, though depending on what sector you are in could have an impact on its effects. All the measures bounced back to pre-pandemic rates in 2021.

Starting from the bottom of the ‘funnel’, click rates hit an average 2.8% (up from 2.2%) in 2021, while open rates jumped to 19.7% on average compared to 13.2% the previous year.

Bond warns however that the figures are indicators only, with in some cases quite disparate ranges hiding true performance.

“It’s not just an arbitrary line, actually if you're somewhere in [the range], you are within a reasonable range. But as I say to any organisation that asks ’how do we stack up’, ultimately you are your own benchmark.” 

Email metrics: think like a purchase funnel

Bond points to both the benchmarking and the work the DMA has promoted around meaningful measurements.

Certain email benchmark metrics – delivery and opens in particular – may be considered to be a “vanity” measure that don’t always point to a “business effect” such as a sale, a “response effect”or a “brand effect” such as long term awareness. But Bond argues that all should be taken into account to assess an overall impact of performance, rather than an email in isolation.

Average email benchmarks: the numbers

The 2021 results from the DMA show an improvement on the year before. Here are the averages:

  • Delivery rate 2021 (2020): 98.1% (97.9%)
  • Open rate 2021 (2020): 19.7% (19/0%)
  • Click to open rate 2021 (2020): 13.2% (11.7%)
  • Click rate 2021 (2020): 2.8% (2.2%)

Bond tells us to think of email metrics in a similar way to a purchase funnel.

“If you don’t get delivered, they can’t read the subject line, so you don’t get the ‘open’, and then you don’t get the clicks.

“You’re not going to get awareness, unless you get there, and then you’re not going to get consideration, unless you’re in the right place  – when you think of it in that funnel process, it all starts to make sense.

“Those campaign delivery metrics as we call them, belong in any sort of media planning or assessment of a campaign. They can tell you the nuance of why it did or didn’t deliver – so if you didn’t see the response or business effects that you expected – or if you did – you can go back to some of those to start to see how that changed.

“When we're talking about business performance and marketing performance for the business it should be those other three areas [response, brand and business effects] that we're focusing on actually having tangible effects to the business, but all data is important.”

The glue that binds channels together

Marketers should not lose sight of what a “red thread channel” email is, Bonds tells PMW.

“As part of a multichannel mix, email plays really well with others, There are some channels that don’t. It’s not only really an effective channel in itself, but when you combine it with some others, with a clear strategy and clear objectives, it can raise [a campaign’s] effectiveness.

Indeed, as part of the DMA’s Meaningful Marketing Measurement analysis earlier this year, campaigns that included email were found to show a 29% rise in effect than when email was used in isolation. 

The return to the office: a shift for B2B?

Emails delivered in a B2C context had a positive 2021, with the delivery rate of 99% reaching the highest average level in five years. 

By contrast, B2B saw a slight downturn (95.7% form 97.1% inn 2020), indicating the shift in behaviours towards not only mobile versus desktop viewing but also less exposure for B2B communications as workers moved towards working from home, in the long-reported shift of working practices that has – and perhaps never will – return to the ‘pre-pandemic’ days.

However, both B2C and B2B saw an uptick in average open rates last year compared to 2020, though click rates remained static (2.3% in both years) for B2B focused emails. 

Sector focus

Despite emails in general ‘reaching’ users (delivery) and seeing a rise in being opened, it’s clear that some sectors are seeing some decline in engagement. 

Click rates for the retail sector hit an average 3.5% in 2021, one of the most significant upward shifts across the research when compared to pre-pandemic performance (2% in 2019). However, not for profit organisations fared less well, with click rates surging to an average 5.9% in 2020 before markedly dipping by three percentage points in 2021, though this is still ahead of the average click rate those emails saw in 2017.

One of the biggest credits to retail’s improved performance in the ‘click’ has got to be the shift to an ‘online retail’ experience that many had to adapt to at the heights of lockdown, with many consumers pledging that online shopping is the route for them. Email was therefore a significantly used communication channel not only to advertise or promote, but also to communicate with customers as a service channel.

Conversely, not for profit organisations tend to have fewer resources to adopt test and learn approaches to email communications, and it remains to be seen whether the current cost of living crisis will hamper engagement with this sector further as people tighten their purse strings or get more selective about the purposes they support.

That Apple change

The report notes that while click to open and open rates on average saw healthy rises last year compared to 2020, this may have been exacerbated by the changes Apple made in the later half of 2021, introducing its Mail Privacy Protection (MPP). In Apple’s words, MPP “hides your IP address so senders can’t link it to your online activity or determine your location. And it prevents senders from seeing if and when you’ve opened their email”.

The change affects any email opened on the Apple Mall app, regardless of the device it’s being opened on, though not those apps by other providers, like Gmail, even if they are being opened on an iPhone. It prompts users to choose whether or not to protect mail activity once they’ve opened the Mail app after installing the update.   

It means essentially that there may be less confidence in the reporting of open rates seen for emails sent to these devices. With Apple accounting for just under half the market across mobile and tablet devices according to the DMA’s research, it is then unlikely that we won’t see the ‘real effects’ of the change until 2022’s research, says Bond, but the research is highlighting that marketers are already renewing a focus on ‘click optimisation’.