How the global pandemic changed marketing and engagement in 2020
By Pete Winter

How the global pandemic changed marketing and engagement in 2020

Discover how brands have accelerated digital transformation projects, what tech is being used, and which channels and industries are enjoying success.

Measuring consumer change

It’s been well documented that the global pandemic has greatly changed consumer behavior. Most notably, lockdown legislation and the closure of bricks and mortar stores has seen a shift from physical to digital as consumer interactions and experiences now largely take place online.

In response, marketers and business leaders have been working hard to find ways to communicate effectively with their customers and prospects.

As is always the case with marketing, we look to data to tell us how this has been realized throughout the last 12 months. What has this meant for how brands engage with customers (and vice versa)? How does this change across industries? How successful are different channels? What does engagement look like today? And how do traditional channels compare against digital ones?

Marketing’s broad response to Covid-19

A recent report shows that, broadly speaking, marketers have been quick and decisive in their response to the pandemic:

  • 52% have increased their marketing spend.
  • 74% have changed their approach to customer content.

In other words, marketers realize they have to do more to create an impression with their audience. This isn’t really surprising news: the real interest lies in how they’ve done that, and to what extent they have been successful.

Research reveals that marketers have increasingly turned to technology coupled with a focus on customer-centricity.



This makes sense. A customer-centric approach is highly dependent on reliable, high-quality data to ensure accuracy and relevancy of messages. Personalization, for example, needs a detailed single customer view (SCV) or similar to be reliable. Any attempt to become customer-centric means first having the MarTech needed to collect customer data.

Similarly, technology on its own is not a silver bullet solution. It needs to support a well-considered strategy. Just as spending a huge amount of money on new players in the transfer market won’t help a football team unless there’s a concrete idea on how each new addition will form part of a plan, so there needs to be a purpose behind spending a chunk of the marketing budget on tech.

This increased reliance on data could indicate why 67% of marketers are implementing new programs for first-party data capture. With ITP and the removal of third-party cookies limiting access to data from external sources, businesses are realizing that they need to take control of data capture to reliably inform their activities.



Accelerating existing digital transformation projects

Interestingly, 96% of marketers say that marketing innovations are here to stay. This indicates that plans put in place are far from knee-jerk reactions to the global pandemic.

Instead, it supports the evidence that we’re seeing here at Tomorrow People. That the pandemic has accelerated tentative digital transformation plans that companies have been considering for a little while. And in taking such actions marketers will be better placed to engage customers today and build a fit-for-purpose tech stack for tomorrow’s needs.

What technology are marketers investing in?

Let’s dive into the detail and see exactly which tech is being put to use by marketers.



With a 56% increase, chatbots have seen the biggest increase in investment, followed by mobile app functionality. This ties in with the direction of travel we have seen over the last couple of years. In its 2020 Trends Report, marketing technology platform provider Apteco revealed that 44% of survey respondents had chatbots on their action plan.

This further supports the hypothesis mentioned earlier; that the pandemic has accelerated existing marketing projects. Last year, 44% of marketers declared an intent to invest in chatbots. Due to the pandemic, the number of marketers who have since puts those plans into place sits at 56%. Sure, we’re using different surveys and a different set of respondents, but the direction of travel cannot be ignored.

Some industries were more robust than others

Research shows us that not all industries had the capacity to pivot with such speed and flexibility. And for some, adapting at speed was essential due to the very nature of their business.

covid-19-effect-on-marketing-spend-by industry


We can see here that health and insurance were the verticals that invested the most into the marketing activities—which makes complete sense given the nature of the pandemic.

Non-profit, on the other hand, invested the least—and by a considerable margin. With scant resources and reliant on donations, it’s again easy to understand why this would be the case.

We can also see that as well as investing the most money into marketing, insurance was also the most active and quickest to implement changes.



What about email, king of channels?

Email usage increased for 51% of respondents. Considering email has long been king (or queen) of marketing channels, this is no mean feat.

So how has email changed? Another recent report explores how email trends have been affected over the last 12 months. Its conclusions are fascinating and wide-ranging, but let’s concentrate on four specific changes here.

1. Volume increased



As the pandemic spread, email saw a huge rise in popularity. This growth was particularly noticeable at the start of the pandemic, and flattened as an overall average as 2020 continued.

Many brands took the opportunity to connect with their customer base to communicate what was happening and how regular services or offerings were affected. This included contacting dormant or lost contacts, reaching out to everyone in their database. As we know, email is an efficient and cost-effective way to connect with customers, and especially powerful in conveying important messages quickly.

2. Content reflected external events



Prior to the pandemic, email subject lines and messaging spoke about sales, new products, deals, and savings. Typical marketing messages we’d expect to see across email.

From April, however, this messaging changed dramatically. “Covid” and “coronavirus” leap out of the above word cloud. While some explained how customers could still buy—”sale”, “home”, “online”, and “order” still appear—they now fight for attention with “insurance”, “important”, “help”, and even “love”. Brands dropped the sales push to talk of togetherness and reassurance.

3. Opens also increased

And consumers welcomed the updates. Open rates in the first wave rocketed by 30% as the public looked for clarity amid all the confusion and panic.



As consumers got used to safety measures and social distancing, open rates returned to pre-pandemic figures. But for the first three months at least, brands that got their tone and messaging right were those that stayed top of mind for customers.

4. Weekends and afternoons now most popular



Standard practice for many marketers before the pandemic was to send emails mid-morning on a week day, as customers took a break from their morning’s work and looked for a short distraction.

With many now working from home, behavior has changed. The working day is no longer 9-5 for those home-schooling, for example. People work flexible hours, often late into the night, taking breaks at different times throughout the day.

The research shows that the optimal times for email sends are now mid-afternoon. Sending at the top of the hour now performs well too, as people waiting for attendees to join the next meeting click through emails to pass the time.

Furthermore, emails relating to Covid-19 with the highest open rates were those sent at the weekend. A likely reason for this is that readers have more time when not working or home-schooling to absorb important information contained within these emails.

A surprising resurgence in direct mail

Alongside the acceleration of new technologies came a renewed interest in Direct mail (DM). DM understandably dropped 50% in the first quarter of 2020 as many businesses closed their doors and staff worked from home (if possible). With some staff furloughed and facing an uncertain future, brands reduced activities. Plus they would more often than not lack the data and addresses to know where to send items.

However, by mid-November volumes had bounced back to 80% of pre-covid numbers. And engagement also skyrocketed:

  • DM open rates in Q2 went up from 69% to 80%.
  • The average piece of direct mail was interacted with 4.58 times in the period, an 11% increase year-on-year.
  • The average door drop was interacted with 3.19 times, another record and a 15% growth year-on-year.
  • DM lived in the home for 8.5 days on average before it was filed or thrown away, door drops for 6.9 days, and business mail for 9.6 days.
  • Website traffic attributed to DM leapt from 6.5% to 8.7%, representing a 33% increase year-on-year.

This gives us the ‘what’ happened. What is less clear, and needs further explanation, is the ‘why’.

Perhaps audiences working from home find postal deliveries and DM more intriguing than they would do for DM that arrives in the office. Perhaps DM is an escape from the doom and gloom of the pandemic and lockdown, with recipients thankful for something out of the ordinary. Or perhaps our increase in online shopping and home deliveries makes us open more mail as standard behavior.

This is where marketers will continue to deliver value to their businesses. By understanding changes in behavior, measuring those changes, and formulating strategies to deliver the best results for their brands.

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