If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that email found its way back to the digital marketing forefront. 

Now, two years after the pandemic began to make itself felt, many brands have found the time and money they had invested in email automation and optimization paid off in higher engagement and stronger connections with their audiences. Email could do more than sell – it was also a trusted channel for building stronger relationships with its customers.

Although engagement and weekly campaign volumes have leveled off since the early days of the pandemic, marketers are using what they learned in 2020 to improve their email programs, stay connected to their audiences, and continue to drive value.

We’ll go over the historical data and trends first, but if you’re here for the 2022 tips—scroll to the bottom!😉


The opening bell: Email responds to sudden economic and opening shifts in 2020

The pandemic itself is credited with advancing digital transformation by three to four years, according to McKinsey’s estimate. Email was a major player in that transformation, for several reasons:

  • Lockdowns and quarantines gave people more time to go through their inboxes and open messages they might have scrolled past before. 
  • Email engagement soared. One report showed engagement grew 200% from March to April 2020, while web traffic, search and pageviews fell.
  • Sending volumes and frequency increased as brands turned to email to keep customers up to date. More than half of the marketers in a 2021 Mailgun survey said they sent more emails during the pandemic. 
  • Email marketers quickly revamped and repositioned their campaigns to reflect sudden changes and regional variability, such as store closures and lockdowns in one region but business as usual in another.
  • Although email volume rose, promotion rates – the percentage of weekly campaigns that included a promotion such as a discount, dollars-off, or free shipping – nosedived quickly in the first few weeks of lockdowns and quarantine. Although rates in some industries have recovered, many industries are still sending fewer promotions in 2021 than they did in 2019.
  • “Empathy” became the name of the game as marketers changed the tone of their communications to reflect how their customers might be thinking and feeling and the struggles they faced coping with sudden isolation, health and economic concerns, and the shift from going out to staying in for work and entertainment.



MailCharts data shows how e-commerce industries responded to pandemic 

Few industries were untouched by the pandemic. Some, such as subscription streaming or meal kits, surged as businesses went into lockdowns, while others like travel and tourism saw business grind to a halt. 

Historical data on three industry groups in the MailCharts Index illustrates how businesses used email to prevail throughout the pandemic:


Travel and Tourism (105 brands)

These brands were among the hardest hit when cruise ships went into drydock, planes filled aviation parking lots, and hotels cut back services. That’s when they turned to email to stay in touch with customers.

Although many Travel and Tourism brands put the brakes on email campaigns as soon as lockdowns and stay-at-home orders went into effect in March 2020, they went back to emailing by April, as this comparison of weekly email volume from 2020 and 2021 shows:

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But brands continued to stay in touch via email, whether to help travelers travel virtually, promote allied services like VIP programs or credit-card services or explain their COViD-19 safety precautions and procedures, as in this email from Princess Cruise Lines:

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Promotion rates also nosedived as lockdowns and stay-at-home orders went into effect but for only a short time. Travel and Tourism is one of the few industry groups that had a higher year-over-year promotion rate in 2021. The rate increased 6.3%, from 31.6 in 2020 to 33.6 in 2021, according to MailCharts campaign volume data.

The green line in the chart below shows brands recuperated quickly, often offering “buy now – travel later” discounts and incentives and removing change fees should travelers need to change their plans at the last minute:

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Home (231 brands)

Unlike Travel and Tourism, Home industry group brands saw their ecommerce businesses take off even as physical store locations shut down. 

Many brands, like those in the Home Improvement subgroup, added editorial content such as do-it-yourself home projects or tips on recreating out-of-home experiences, like dining out, at home. Williams Sonoma did a series of DIY emails, complete with tips and product suggestions, throughout the year, like this one:



Home brands were among those that jumped on the email volume bandwagon and never got off it.

Weekly email volume for Home brands continues to run above its 2019 weekly average. In 2021, for example, brands sent an average 8% more email campaigns than in 2019 and 6% more than in 2020.  



But, while email volume is up, brands have backed off on promotions and the editorial/DIY content they were sending while their customers were stuck at home, a move that picked up steam as stores reopened and people were able to go outside or find other distractions.

In 2019, the average weekly promotional rate – the percentage of weekly email campaigns that include promotions like discounts, dollars-off and free shipping – for Home brands was 66.7%. In 2020, that fell 6.4%, to 62.4%. In 2021, the average promo rate was 60.2%, or nearly 10% below the 2019 rate. 



Ecommerce Spectrum (286 brands)

Ecommerce brands jumped on email during the pandemic and have not looked back. The brands in the Ecommerce Spectrum 300 industry group reflect the same email volume and promotional rate trends as brands in the other 95 industry groups that make up the MailCharts Index – volume is up while the promo rate is down.

Collectively, these brands, which on average email their customers almost daily, sent 2.3% more campaigns per week in 2021 than in 2020. 

What’s notable about this pattern is that email volume didn’t drop off the way the promotional rate did, mainly because brands began to use email for relationship-building as well as sales, especially when they had temporarily had nothing to sell. 


The promo rate is another story, but one that reflects trends in specific industry groups. The chart below shows the premium brands in the Ecommerce Spectrum group sustained the same sudden drop in promotions in March 2020, when lockdowns and stay-at-home orders went into effect. For 2021, the promotion rate for e-commerce brands in this group fell 4%, from 60.2% to 57.8%.



Pandemic trends from 2020 have become standing operating procedure in 2022

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the pandemic helped change the way brands used email to reach out to customers, not just to sell to them but also to build trust, to reassure customers that they could shop just as successfully online as in stores, and to connect e-commerce to in-store activities.

It wasn’t the only factor in play, however. Economic and social upheavals that the pandemic and public response created or exacerbated also affected the way consumers viewed and interacted with brands.

These are three ways email marketers in 2022 can capitalize on the changes the pandemic caused or accelerated in 2020 and 2021:



  1. Use email to highlight all the ways a customer can buy or receive purchases.

Curbside or in-store pickup was already becoming a popular feature for many hybrid operations, especially with Millennial and Generation Z shoppers who wanted to save time by buying online but didn’t want to wait or pay for delivery.

When stores closed to in-store shopping, curbside and in-store became necessities, not nice-to-haves. Some retailers, like Best Buy, already had a curbside program but revamped it to accommodate more shoppers. Others cobbled a system together quickly. Both used email, along with SMS notifications, to tell customers how to get their goods. 

Today, many customers still want a curbside and in-store pickup, whether they want convenience or to avoid other shoppers. A Package Concierge study in 2021 found that 64% of consumers use BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store, plus curbside). Another 60% say they would pick a retailer that offers it over one that doesn’t.

Although many brands no longer dedicate one-off emails to explaining how to buy online and pick up in stores, this information is now a standing feature in their email footers, like this one from Dick’s Sporting Goods:



  1. Empathy with customers changes the message.

Brand marketers, especially those closest to customers like the email team, were quick to recognize the effect the pandemic was having on their customers, even if they did not fall ill from the coronavirus. 

Although it hasn’t become a universal change, brands that succeed with email marketing have become those that show their customers they know what they’re going through and have changed their messaging to show this greater understanding.

For many brands, this meant adding a human voice to the message, showing how their own employees were adjusting to life under lockdown, as in this email from Burrow, which puts employee faces in the email and explains how they’re in the same boat as their customers:

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  1. There’s no “new normal.” There’s just the “next normal.”

As 2022 dawns the pandemic is still affecting the way people live their lives. Although customers are back in stores (but not at 2019 levels) and traveling (ditto), they’re still looking for reassurances on safety, social distancing, mask requirements, and environment cleanliness. 

That means brands can’t go back to pre-pandemic standards for email messaging. The rise of new COVID-19 variants means some countries are returning to lockdowns or other restrictions on public activity. Government policies continue to vary from country to country and from region to region within a country. 

Brands still have to stay on top of all of these changes and make sure their messages reflect changes and regional variations, as with this Lowe’s email, sent in the holiday 2021 shopping season:

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Wrapping up: Email survived and thrived in the pandemic

Besides “empathy,” the other keyword for marketing teams in 2020 and 2021 was “pivot.” Brands first had to pivot from their 2020 marketing plans to adapt to the disruptions the pandemic wrought in just a few weeks, and then to pivot again as the pandemic evolved, spread, repeated, and returned. 

Email showed marketers that it could do more than sell – that a brand could take advantage of its direct connection to customers through the inbox to create a better customer experience based on trust, empathy, and data that show the brand knows its customers as individuals, not just numbers in a database.