Acquisition to Attribution: How 2020 Shaped the Biggest Email Trends


First, the good news: The end is in sight! Many of us are looking forward to 2021 and applying what we learned amidst the challenges of 2020 to help our customers succeed and to improve our business operations.

The COVID-19 era that marked 2020 has put the spotlight on the major role email plays in driving customer and subscriber acquisition, retention, and re-engagement. It also showed us how list hygiene and list quality became more important than ever for reasons we never expected.

Those were some of the insights that came out of my conversation with Brian McKenna, VP, Strategic Partnerships, and Zach Labenberg, VP, Client Strategy, both with DMi Partners, a Philadelphia-based digital marketing agency serving both B2B and B2C customers.

Brian, Zach and I talked about the struggles we shared with clients in 2020 as well as the successful strategies for priorities that will help your brands stay on top of their game in 2021. If you'd like to listen in on our conversation, check out the recording. Or scan below for insights and tips from Brian and Zach.

A quick take on email in this tumultuous year

We covered a lot of ground in just 40 minutes, highlighting these trends:

  • Acquisition, re-engagement, and retention are more important than ever for email success in the COVID-19 era.
  • Marketers need to stay on top of segmentation and personalization to win at engagement and value.
  • Engagement at scale is a re-emerging priority to grow a database with quality subscribers.
  • Attribution and ROI modeling are important because they help marketers show how email drives value.

Now for the details!

Acquisition, re-engagement, and retention are more important than ever for email success in the COVID-19 era

These three questions can help you assess your email list quality and acquisition strategy:

  • Is your active customer reach well represented by your engaged email subscriber list?
  • If not, do you have a strategy to make up the difference?
  • How quickly and effectively can you scale up?

Note the italics in that first question. If nothing else, 2020 exposed the weaknesses in many marketers' email lists: the huge number of unengaged subscribers.

Businesses turned to email as the best way to communicate late-breaking news and helpful information quickly with customers. And customers responded by opening emails often to check on the latest news and conditions.

But many discovered that active customers made up a much smaller percentage of their email lists than they expected. That pushed acquisition to the forefront, but it also led to another problem.

Businesses whose acquisition strategy relied solely on a static opt-in form on the home page or a pop-up for new visitors found they needed to change tactics in a hurry. But it doesn't happen overnight. Buying a bunch of lists to double your database isn't the answer. That's why you need a strategy to scale up acquisition without sacrificing quality.

List churn soared in 2020: Churn is an ongoing problem, but the pandemic has made it worse. Bouncing and invalid addresses grew on the B2B side as people were laid off thanks to temporary business closings that lasted for months or became permanent.

Although 30% of the average email list is lost to bounces, unsubscribes, invalid addresses and other problems, FreshAddress saw invalid addresses alone rise 18% through the first three quarters of the year. In the third quarter alone, 20% more email addresses failed our deliverability checks.

This hit retailers hard if their stores were closed during lockdowns. Email became their lifeline to their customers, not just to keep them informed but also to keep the sales pipeline open and the company afloat. And it's still the case for retailers who are operating on reduced hours or capacity limits.

A rising tide of bad addresses, coupled with a large percentage of unengaged subscribers, meant they were reaching fewer customers at the same time that customers became more willing to switch brands if they encountered out-of-stocks or closed businesses.

2 ways to grow a list safely: These tips can help you grow an effective email list safely:

1. Maximize organic opt-ins.

These are the addresses you collect yourself through forms on your home page, interior product and account-registration pages, checkout and confirmation pages – anyplace you encounter customers.

"Never miss an opportunity to collect an email address," Zach says. "You have a million different places where you have engaged customers who would be willing to give you an email address but you're not asking for it."

Also, be sure you have a process in place at opt-in to keep problem addresses out of your database.

2. Test paid acquisition.

You might be doing everything you can to collect addresses organically, but you will likely have to try paid acquisition, like Facebook lead ads, co-registration, sweepstakes or co-branded partnerships, to meet your acquisition goals.

But don't stop once you acquire an address. Look for paid subscribers who engage early and note the sources that delivered them. They likely will behave differently from your organic subscribers because they didn't seek you out. 

Marketers need to stay on top of segmentation and personalization to win at engagement and value.

Although there's no magic formula for email success, the combination of the right email to the right recipient at the right time comes pretty close. Observed behavior on email and websites can tell you much about what customers are interested in and is a solid basis for segmentation and targeted messaging.

Preferences provided through profile or preference center choices can help you make some assumptions about customer interests at the start, but behavior is often the bottom line. "What customers engage with might vary considerably from what they told us they're interested in at opt-in," Brian says. You also can use demographics, geotargeting, lead scoring and appending.

Finding the right frequency: That's another reason to keep a close eye on your early engagers – you can message them at frequencies that match their expectation. With people who don't engage quickly, you try alternatives such as less-frequent messaging or testing for programmatic ad buys or retargeting campaigns. 

Automate personalization: The welcome-email series is a valuable component; one you can customize based on opt-in source. This reinforces the advice to treat subscribers differently based on how they entered your database.

  • Consider segmenting new subscribers by source and sending a welcome program customized for that source. Someone who joined your website by filling out an opt-in from on your homepage might have different expectations from someone who joined through a sweepstakes or an external acquisition program.
  • Look for new ways to trigger journeysOpting in, abandoning a cart, and buying something are popular ways to trigger personalized messages, but your business might have unique triggers that can also benefit from personalized messaging

Did someone use the print function on your product page to print out product specs or an FAQ? Click a share button to one of your social media channels? Both events can trigger personalized email messaging that could lead to a conversion.

Email drives cross-channel personalization: More DMi clients are looking to email in 2021 as the cornerstone of their online marketing, Brian says. Learning personalization is the easiest way to start, but you must make sure you update all your marketing campaigns so the information feeds into other channels and then back to email.

Engagement at scale is a re-emerging priority to grow a database with quality subscribers.

And that brings us back to acquisition. We're seeing more companies pushing to own more first-party data. For that, Zach says, email is "the tip of the spear," the crucial data point that clients are looking for as the key to unlock all their other online marketing channels.

Using paid acquisition sensibly is a start. Establishing KPIs and tracking them immediately instead of waiting can show you which sources deliver quality subscribers and allow you to turn off sources that don't meet your KPIs. Scaling up slowly is another important step, as is removing non-engagers from your regular email streams early on.

Another factor is focusing on email data quality over quantity. Define a quality standard that's appropriate for your company and then hold every source to it, from your organic and paid sources to your web forms, call center, point-of-sale terminals and any other source of email data. If you don’t, you’ll end up wasting money:

  • Sending on emails that end up blocked or in spam folders,
  • Spending it on ineffective programs because your metrics are inaccurate or
  • Losing business because you're missing connections with customers who aren't getting the newsletters, receipts and offers they expected.

Attribution and ROI modeling are important because they help marketers sell the value of email.

After you develop KPIs for both early engagers, you can move to longer-term metrics like opens across all sends or click rates and revenue-based KPIs. Ecommerce brands usually find this process easier because they can tie revenue to source, such as email or web activity.

Brands that don't have an ecommerce operation, or have both in-store and ecommerce will need to use other tools to determine ROI of email and acquisition, like these:

  • Surveying subscribers on what they purchased and where.
  • Coupon redemption
  • Product or warranty registration to estimate revenue from a channel
  • Printing out product information or other content, such as a recipe, that could lead to a sale
  • Estimating revenue potential using panel data showing what customers in similar situations have done

Although none of these are always 100% accurate, the information they provide can help you optimize back to the acquisition source to predict revenue lift.


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