Guy Hanson is vice president customer engagement at Validity Inc.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a dramatically altered landscape for Australian businesses, and the rules and expectations around marketing and customer communications have changed as a result.
The pandemic has made the stakes higher than usual — consumers and businesses have been spending less in traditional channels, everyone is more sensitive to communications that come across as insincere or capitalising on the pandemic, and there’s a lot more email traffic to compete with as consumers follow brands online.
When these current conditions start easing, we’re expecting the challenge will become even greater as markets emerge from lockdown and marketers look to make up for lost time. Businesses will need to consistently be putting their best foot forward when it comes to their marketing and communication efforts – perhaps even more so than before.
The Black Friday annual shopping event provides a handy analogy for how marketers and communicators should think about the impending situation — Black Friday presents a huge opportunity for retailers to boost sales and attract new customers. But failure to adequately prepare for this event can be catastrophic, meaning big losses of potential earnings and customer confidence. The difference is that we are possibly going to see a sustained period – months even – where every day is like Black Friday, and marketers need to be prepared.
What’s changed since COVID-19?
Before we consider how we navigate the months ahead, let’s look at some of the key changes that have occurred since the COVID-19 crisis began. Global internet volumes have risen around 50% since the pandemic began, presenting businesses with some tricky technical challenges when it comes to communicating with their customers over email.
This increased strain on the internet’s capacity has had the effect of slowing down delivery of content, including emails that businesses rely on to communicate with customers.
Mailbox providers like Gmail and Microsoft are responding to this pressure by applying greater rigour to their classification of email traffic — making decisions about what messages to prioritise for delivery based on their relevance, data quality and volume. This means that businesses need to be more conscientious than ever when it comes to preparing customer communications to ensure they aren’t categorised as spam.
Keep it relevant
It can be tempting for businesses to reach out more than usual to their subscribers during these uncertain times, in an attempt to leverage a ‘tuned in’ customer base that is consuming more information online than usual. However, this can have an adverse effect on delivery and your sender reputation — mail providers may categorise your email as spam, especially if you’re sending too frequently or using excessively salesy language. What’s more, customers are put off by marketing message that are seen to be opportunistic of adversity.
Think about what you have to offer customers that will be genuinely useful or appreciated right now and only send emails when you can be sure the content is authentic and valuable. It’s essentially the same logic you’d apply to your Black Friday communications to avoid irritating customers with irrelevant or ‘off-key’ offers.
Think about timing
As with Black Friday campaigns, being thoughtful about the send times of your customer emails can improve your chances of prompt delivery. With most senders scheduling email broadcasts on a round number, for example 10:00am, 12:00pm, and so on, you can avoid email traffic jams simply by choosing less competitive times to send, for example 10:15am, 12:15pm, etc. Interestingly, recent insights from Validity’s 2020 Email Deliverability Benchmark Report showed a 5% higher placement rate for emails sent in the afternoon than the morning — a clear indication that isolation measures have been affecting online behaviour and delivery times.
When email traffic is slowed down, it can also take longer for order confirmations to be sent through to customers. Make a note of this on your website when customers are ordering so they’re not alarmed if they don’t immediately receive an order confirmation message.
Be a reputable sender
Sender reputation is key to ensuring your emails are delivered efficiently to customers and is determined by factors such as data quality, volume, and spam complaints.
At peak times like Black Friday when there’s greater competition to deliver emails, the lower your sender reputation score, the more likely your email will be delayed or withheld. Sending emails from an unregistered and unrecognisable subdomain name, sending unsolicited emails, or purchasing lists can also affect your sender reputation. If you’re unsure of your sender reputation, you can check it using Sender Score.
Authenticate, authenticate, authenticate
Authentication is just as important as reputation when it comes to determining whether your emails reach customers. Authentication allows the recipient and the mailbox provider to confirm the identity of the sender, and all of the major mailbox providers now expect email programs to operate authentication tools (such as SPF, DKIM and DMARC). If your emails aren’t authenticated, you risk them being blocked or sent to the recipient’s junk folder. And finally, running your emails through a spam checking tool like Spam Assassin before you send them can help to identify and correct any content that may be picked up as spam by mail providers.
So, while the stakes are high and there are undoubtedly still challenging days ahead for Australian businesses, those that draw on proven, best practice methods undoubtedly stand to reap the rewards.