3 Things to Watch in Email Marketing in 2021


Here we are in 2021, getting ready to celebrate the 43rd birthday of email marketing. Who would have guessed back in 1978 that email would become the first digital marketing channel, helping to pave the way for every other digital channel in the next four decades? Maybe even more impressive is email’s staying power. Despite the constant rise of shiny new marketing channels and tactics over the years, email marketing just keeps on producing. Every year, there are sure to be numerous articles published with headlines involving the death of email marketing. And yet, here we are.

While we take a minute to appreciate the marketing powerhouse that email has become, it’s also important to remember one reason why the email channel continues to be successful - it has adapted time and time again to meet the changing needs of both consumers and marketers. The future success of the channel will continue to rely on that adaptability in the face of a constantly evolving landscape.

While you could write a book (or at least a really long article) discussing all of the likely developments in technology, society, consumer behavior, legislation, and other areas that could impact digital marketing in general and email marketing specifically, here are three particular themes to keep an eye on in 2021 and beyond. Each has the potential to change the email marketing landscape.


1. Changing Consumer Engagement

For this one, you just need to take a step back and look at the bigger marketing and communication picture that surrounds consumers every day. We are all inundated with marketing messaging through most of our waking moments. From the moment we pick up our cell phones to turn off our alarms in the morning to when we go to bed the next night, most of us spend a lot of our days being exposed to marketing messages through traditional channels like TV, radio, billboards, print, telemarketing, and direct mail, and digital channels like streaming, banner and video ads, native ads, in-app, podcasts,  social, SMS, and of course, email. With messages coming at us from every direction, it’s no wonder that consumer attention and engagement are a bit fractured.

Despite the constant battle for consumer attention, email continues to deliver generally consistent results for marketers. While metrics certainly vary by industry, type of email (transactional vs. acquisition), advertiser, etc. many studies continue to show that open rates remain between 17 - 22% on average, click rates range from 2 - 3% and opt-out rates remain extremely low, at 0.5% or lower. There are also over 4 billion email users around the globe, with that number forecasted to grow to 4.6 billion by 2025.

As consumer behavior continues to evolve, email marketers can ensure their messages continue to grab attention by focusing on effective audience segmentation and targeting with engaging content, at the right time. Using advanced analytics and targeting capabilities, email marketers can create campaigns that rise above the noise and deliver valuable content to their audiences. That is always a recipe for success, even as consumers learn to ignore many types of marketing messaging that fail to provide value.


2. New Laws and Regulations

Many of the rules of the road in email marketing have been in place for years. In the U.S. the CAN-SPAM Act provided guidelines for email marketers to follow back in 2003. Around the world, laws like Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL; 2014), Australia’s Spam-Act (2003), and France’s Law for confidence in the digital economy (2004) provided rules around how marketers could engage with audiences through email. This means that the email marketing industry has a long history of complying with regulation, while still producing outstanding results. In fact, many email marketers point to following the best practices established by these regulations as a reason for their success, since they empower recipients to have a say in how marketers communicate with them and the ability to opt-out of future messaging.

While the email channel itself relies on a strong regulatory foundat3. ion, we have all seen the emergence of more wide-ranging legislation in recent years, focused on consumer data privacy, that impacts marketing across virtually every channel. Whether it is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and its successor, the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) marketers are being impacted by more and more legislation at both regional and national levels in various countries.

For email marketers, the key to ensuring continued success in an increasingly complex regulatory environment involves establishing that they are already in compliance with all existing regulations (like CAN-SPAM, etc.) and using that as a foundation for adapting to emerging rules regarding the use and storage of consumer data for marketing purposes. Adopting industry best practices around email list hygiene and management is also an important step in adapting to new rules on data privacy.


3. Developing Technology

Email has a strong track record of adapting to new and evolving technology. Just one great example is the smartphone. When it arrived, that was one trigger for another round of ‘the death of email’ prognostications. But, the industry simply changed to accommodate the smaller mobile screen and now users access their inboxes on their mobile devices more often than their desktops or laptops. So, it’s not surprising that the industry carries a lot of confidence when it comes to addressing and incorporating new technology.

While there is nothing as revolutionary as the emergence of a new primary internet-connected device on the horizon, there are still many changes that will impact various aspects of the email marketing industry. One interesting thing for marketers to be aware of relates back to the developments in data privacy. Perhaps largely driven by the evolving regulatory landscape, many companies are taking a longer look at how they collect, store, and distribute customer data across all their internal and external channels. Through this evaluation, companies are making decisions about what data they really need to keep and also how best to secure that data. When it comes to data storage, data encryption and hashing have entered the conversation with marketing teams. If you aren’t already familiar with terms like SHA-512, it’s probably a good time to get acquainted with various data security practices. It may come up as part of the conversation when evaluating new ESPs or other email vendors, with regard to how they are securing your email data, whether it is encrypted, or what hashing methodology is being used. SHA-512 hashing is becoming a commonly discussed topic when it comes to ensuring that data leaving the advertiser’s own database is secure.

It should be interesting to revisit this article in 2022 and see how these three areas have (or haven’t) impacted the email marketing industry this year.

Cover photo by Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash