WWTT? So Many COVID-19 Emails … But Are There Any ‘Good’ Ones?

Right now, the world feels like a very scary, uncertain place, as we all make adjustments to our daily lives during this pandemic. But there is also a lot of room for hope and positivity. For today’s “What Were They Thinking?” post, I want to look at some COVID-19 emails I’ve received from brands and nonprofits to my personal email account, showcasing a couple that I think did an excellent job at standing out in my inbox and offering value.

Right now, the world feels like a very scary, uncertain place, as we all make adjustments to our daily lives during this pandemic. And while each day often seems weirder or scarier than the one before it, there is also a lot of room for hope and positivity. For today’s “What Were They Thinking?” post, I want to look at some COVID-19 emails I’ve received from brands and nonprofits to my personal email account, showcasing a couple that I think did an excellent job at standing out in my inbox and offering value.

Because if you’re not offering up value right now (and no, I don’t mean a sweet sale on a pair of shoes), then maybe think twice about what campaigns you’re running, especially if they include COVID-19 messaging.

Also, a little tip I’d like to offer: Consider removing inactives from your list BEFORE you message your entire list. I don’t need to know that you’re keeping your establishment clean and being decent to your employees if we interacted maybe once, back in 2014. If you can wash your hands, you also can take some time for list hygiene.

So much like an episode of MTV Cribs, step into my inbox with me, and let’s look at some examples of COVID-19 emails done right:

COVID-19 email message from Lush I received this email from Lush on March 14, and the headline reads: “Be safe, get clean.”

Already I’m thankful the subject line isn’t the usual canned “[Company name] and COVID-19 update.” Yes, in some cases we do need an update from a particular company we do business with — for example, when my hair salon emailed me how they were were taking care of their staff and the salon, how this would affect services, hours, etc, I definitely read that email. My salon is a very personal marketer to me … some others who email me, however, are not.

Back to Lush. So the subject line is great and has me curious enough to open. The main message is simple: “Wash your hands for free at Lush.” The rest of the short email says that their stores are still open in North America, come on in and wash your hands for free with no expectation of purchase.

Now yes, this can be looked at as a way to increase foot traffic, but they are offering a service that is very relevant right now (How many of us have replaced our usual goodbyes with “Wash your hands!”?) Sure, some people might make a purchase, but the focus of this email is about a beneficial service Lush wants to provide the community, wherever one of their brick and mortar stores reside.

Unfortunately, the next day I received a second email from Lush alerting me to North America store closures from March 16-29, but even that didn’t feel like a boilerplate email. You can check it out here.

The bottom line about Lush is that their emails were compassionate, offered value to their customs, and were on-brand.

Now, let’s look at a nonprofit I support:


The Western New York Land Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that permanently protects land with significant conservation value in the Western New York (WNY) region of the Empire State. It’s a second home to me, due to the fact I went to college there and I have friends and family in the area.

While the WNYLC’s subject line is a bit closer to some of the boilerplate ones I’ve seen out there on other COVID-19 emails, what works so well is the message. It starts with a note from their Executive Director, leading off with a cancellation of a specific hike for the safety of others, as well as information about how future events will either be conducted via phone or video, or rescheduled. All important info, especially if you’re a donor who actively participates with this organization.

But what I appreciate the most is how this email ties into part of the land conservancy’s mission — to experience the land. The call to action to go outside and take it in during these uncertain times is what a lot of people need to hear: to take a break, step away from the constant news cycle or ding of email, and go breathe some fresh air. The specific mention of the Stella Niagara Preserve (land the WNYLC has protected) is fitting, and the P.S. includes a reminder that social distancing is great for the outdoors, so send photos of your favorite moments.

This call for photo submissions isn’t only user generated content, but when the WNYLC posts these images, their follows can enjoy them and feel a little less distant. Something we all need.

As marketers, before all of “this,” our jobs were to educate prospects and customers about our services and products, and to often help people be their best selves, whether professionally, personally, or both. Our creative and analytical minds were put to work building campaigns and helping support sales teams. And yes, those are all still our jobs right now.

But I think we have some new ones. We need to be there to help lift up our customers and donors (when appropriate and relevant, don’t just barge in out of nowhere). We need to make sure we share good, accurate information, no matter what the topic is. And we need to be positive … because I think keeping a positive attitude through the darkness is the only way through this. And we’re gonna get through.

Marketers, what do you think? Tell me about some thoughtful, well-executed COVID-19 emails you’ve seen in your inboxes (and if you’ve seen some cruddy ones, tell me about it on Twitter, over at @sass_marketing). And take care of yourselves, each and every one of you (Gary, stop touching your face.).

Dealing With This Season’s Burned Out Subscribers

In September, all email marketers have good intentions. They meticulously map out segmentations; plan a logical calendar to support strategic initiatives; and commit to holding firm on protecting margins, avoiding the trap of ever increasing sweeteners as we near the end of December.

In September, all email marketers have good intentions. They meticulously map out segmentations; plan a logical calendar to support strategic initiatives; and commit to holding firm on protecting margins, avoiding the trap of ever increasing sweeteners as we near the end of December.

Then reality sets in. Although this year has been significantly better than last year in terms of business buying and consumer spending, most email marketers are quickly caught up in the email marketing return on investment trap. When times are tough, the pressure goes up to send just one more email campaign in order to boost revenues and response.

That strategy can work in the short term, but come January, the reckoning takes hold. This is when email marketers must rebuild relationships sullied by overmailing and lack of targeting. Hopefully, your business can pause and take a deep breath in order to both slow down the frequency as well as improve customization and relevancy. If you still see low response rates and list fatigue, then it’s time for a strategy to win back your audience.

Strategies for winning back subscribers
A win-back strategy can be anything from a friendly reminder to visit the preference center to a full-on bribe, like offering a steep discount or free service if the subscriber clicks now. Test a few of these ideas on subscribers who didn’t open or click on your emails in December and January. After a few attempts to win them back, if you still don’t see any activity, it may be time to clear the dead wood from your file.

While suppressing data is an anathema to direct marketers’ hearts, clearing nonresponsive subscribers from your email marketing file can help with everything from reducing churn to lowering costs to improving the new engagement metrics used for inbox placement and deliverability. Logically, it makes sense. More active subscribers are more likely to respond.

Surprisingly, however, clearing nonactive addresses from your file also improves response. That boost in response isn’t just on the rate off of a smaller base, but is also on absolute response and revenue per subscriber. Why does this happen? By focusing on the needs of active subscribers, marketers improve relevancy and lower frequency. They start to segment their files with tighter subscriber profiles. Be sure to note that this is the opposite of what you’re able to do in the rush of end of year.

Even permission files end up with anywhere from 25 percent to 65 percent of inactive subscribers. These subscribers, despite giving permission at some point, haven’t opened, clicked or converted from email in the past year or more. Unfortunately, the fourth quarter is when most subscribers burn out. The overflowing inbox at a busy time of year just becomes too much. They tune out your messages if you’re not offering value. Pretty soon, ignoring your emails becomes a habit.

For a long time, it was widely believed to be reasonable to keep all those dead addresses on your file, as it didn’t cost much to mail them and having a larger denominator made complaint rates and other deliverability metrics seem lower. Plus, marketers are ever hopeful. Even if a subscriber hasn’t responded to their emails in a long time, they still believe that today’s message will be the one that rouses them to profitable response. Of course, very few of these sleepers ever wake up.

However, internet service providers and mailbox providers like Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail have long been suspicious of marketers who keep such nonresponsive data on their files, believing that they’re trying to game the system and escape penalties of higher complaint rates. In the past six months, all three global providers have introduced new metrics as well as new inbox management tools to help them see subscriber-level activity. MSN/Hotmail was the first to announce the use of activity measures to block senders from a particular subscriber’s inbox (I wrote about this in early September).

I’ve seen some success in win-back campaigns that respect subscribers, are honest about the offer in the subject line, and keep the message and tone in line with the brand. Test a few alternatives and segment as much as possible to improve relevancy as well. For example:

  • A publisher tested several approaches and found that “We hate spam, too. Change your email settings now” in the subject line was the best way to encourage 90-day nonactive readers to adjust frequency and title choices. Typically, I find that clarity trumps cleverness in a subject line. Just say clearly what the subscriber is being asked to do.
  • A retailer sent an email campaign to six-month inactive subscribers inviting them to vote for the brand’s next catalog cover. The engaging campaign consistently earned 25 percent clickthrough rates. By focusing on the click (the action needed to prove that the subscriber isn’t truly dead), the campaign earned a very high response rate. As a bonus, while many subscribers were on the company’s website they took advantage of specials offered on the landing page.
  • A retailer tested the effect of a win-back campaign versus lowering frequency to six-month inactive accounts. Lowering frequency is a commonly used tactic to respect nonresponding subscribers level of interest, but, of course, does nothing to actually engage them. The win-back strategy was the clear winner, earning a 10 percent response rate and $900K in revenue versus a 2 percent response rate and $150K in revenue from the segment that received lower frequency.

Let us know how you’ve successfully re-engaged subscribers by posting a comment below.