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Email Marketing Trends for 2021: Competitive Differentiators

By Chad S. White

In the ever-changing world of email marketing, you might find it challenging to know where to invest your time and energy. It could prove extra challenging in turbulent times like these when consumer behaviors and business goals are shifting.

To help you prioritize your email marketing efforts this year, we asked Oracle Marketing Consulting’s more than 500 digital marketing experts to rate the current adoption of multiple email marketing technologies and tactics, as well as their predicted impact during 2021. We then mapped the results into adoption-impact quadrants.

This post looks at the competitive differentiators in the low adoption–high impact quadrant. The technologies and tactics in this quadrant are not completely proven, but some organizations are already seeing great results from using them. They offer a significant competitive advantage with considerably less risk than our unproven opportunities.

But there are still risks, including:

  • The acquisition of smaller providers

  • Frequent process and feature changes as the technology stabilizes

  • Frequent changes in best practices as knowledge rapidly evolves, changing cost structures

  • Scarcity of needed skills

  • And other issues

These hassles and expenses might be easier to accept because many adopters are already seeing a sizable return on their investment. Their willingness to accept some uncertainty in exchange for good returns gives them a distinct advantage over their competitors, most of whom have yet to embrace these tactics and technologies.

We surveyed our digital marketing consultants about 26 trends, and they rated 12 of them as being in the low adoption–high impact quadrant for 2021. Let’s talk about each of them in turn.

D. AI-powered email copywriting tools

Email copywriting has traditionally relied upon a combination of intuition, experience, and testing. But AI-powered copywriting tools can now act predictively, leveraging your audience’s previous reactions to words and phrases. Sometimes, the reactions of other brands’ audiences also inform wording suggestions.

While we firmly believe that AI copywriting tools have a bright future, we feel several near-term challenges present themselves as the underlying technology tries to grow out of its awkward adolescent stage.

“I’m very concerned with the barriers of entry, as well as the effectiveness versus what these services cost,” says David Chang, Senior Director of Agency Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “Ease of implementation also poses a huge challenge right now.”

Over time, we expect more competition, fine-tuned machine learning algorithms, lower infrastructure costs, and perhaps different pricing models to improve the lackluster returns on investment that have caused some of our clients to walk away from this technology.

For a deeper dive, read our advice on using AI subject line and copywriting tools successfully. Also, keep in mind that this is just the latest of six ways that subject line writing has changed over the years.

E. AI-powered content recommendations

According to our consultants, AI-powered copywriting can help, but AI-powered content recommendations might help more, as they’re more established and significantly more impactful. This is especially true for businesses that offer multiple products like retailers or a significant amount of content like media companies, where even sophisticated manual methods of matching content to recipients leave a lot of money on the table.

While AI-powered content recommendations have always provided increasing relevance, our clients have shown increasing interest in production efficiency.

“Our clients are looking at all aspects of automation, including their content strategy,” says Katie Baril, Senior Account Director at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “They want to do more with API messaging to lighten the manual load.”

Henry Alva, Senior Email and Web Developer for Creative Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting, adds, “Manually created emails may look great, but they’re not always tailored for the recipient. There should be a balance between hand-picked, custom-designed content and AI-powered content.”

F. Personalized landing pages

Landing pages act as the critical last mile of most conversions. Using personalized landing pages allows your company to create interaction journeys that are unified and cohesive by considering not only their action in the email that brought them to the landing page but their historical behavior, too.

Personalized landing pages, like the ones that Oracle Maxymiser Testing and Optimization makes possible, build upon the personalized email experiences customers value so much, says Chris De Marinis, Senior Consultant for Oracle Maxymiser.

“When a visitor engages with a personalized email, you know that messaging resonated with them,” he says. “By carrying that same messaging and imagery through to the landing page—in combination with personalization based on the visitor’s demographics and past behaviors across all channels—you can drive visitors to convert at a higher rate.”

Email personalization is a trend that’s already in our high adoption–high impact quadrant. In time, we expect that personalized landing pages will be there, too, as part of a powerful one-two punch.

G. Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI)

For over a decade, best practices advised to authenticate your emails using the two long-standing standards:

  • Sender Policy Framework (SPF)

  • DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)

Then several years ago, Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) launched to build upon SPF and DKIM to allow senders to clearly identify themselves and help eliminate spoofing.

Inbox providers have long penalized senders who don’t use all three of those standards. Still, now there’s growing momentum to offer an incentive to use all three in the form of Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI).

For those brands that comply with this standard, participating inbox providers display the sender’s logo next to their from name in the inbox and in emails. With brands hungry to stand out in the inbox and eager to boost their brand recognition, BIMI seems attractive. The impact of this incentive has already made waves. Adoption of DMARC increased by 2.5 fold from the end of 2018 to June 1, 2020, according to Valimail.

The major downside to BIMI is its low adoption by inbox providers. Currently, only Verizon Media Group’s Yahoo Mail and AOL Mail support it. However, Gmail launched a pilot of BIMI last summer that left companies feeling more optimistic about the standard’s future.

“With Gmail seemingly onboard, BIMI should continue to grow in popularity,” says Jonathan McClure, Director of Analytic & Strategic Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “It’s an easy way to also help validate that an email is secure and sent from a brand, which helps combat the massive spike in phishing that has taken place during the pandemic. It is also a relatively easy and aesthetically pleasing way to stand out in the inbox.”

The excitement around Gmail’s support helped propel BIMI from being an unproven opportunity last year to a competitive differentiator this year. It was the only email marketing trend to make that jump.

If the long-standing talk of the Apple Mail and Outlook desktop email apps supporting BIMI comes to fruition in the next year or thereabouts, BIMI could very well surge into our proven essentials quadrant within two or three years. Of course, if Gmail pulls the plug on its BIMI pilot and pushes Email Annotations for inbox logo control, that could stymie BIMI for years.

H. Dark mode-optimized emails

Instead of the usual dark text on a light background, dark mode features the reverse: light text and a dark background. It’s a significant trend in user interface experiences across a wide range of apps, including email clients. Between 6% and 14% of email opens occur in email clients with dark mode on, according to Email on Acid.

However, support for dark mode for email appears far from universal, and email marketers implement dark mode differently across the inboxes where it is supported. That means, like so many other solutions in email, marketers use a range of email client–specific fixes to have their emails look good in dark mode everywhere.

“Dark mode is something a lot of clients have ignored, but they now realize just how terrible their email renderings look, especially in Outlook and Gmail apps,” says Lauren Castady, Associate Creative Director for Creative Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “Image-based emails are a quick fix, but you sacrifice email accessibility and personalization when you don’t use live text. The brands that are unwilling to make such huge sacrifices are seeing a major need for email design modifications to accommodate dark mode.”

For a deep dive into this issue, check out our advice on how marketers should adapt to dark mode for email.

I. CSS-based email interactivity

One of the most dramatic changes to email over the past several years has been the rise of interactive emails. Using CSS and HTML, email marketers add interactive components to their emails that consumers are used to seeing on websites, including:

  • Hamburger menus

  • Carousels, accordions, and tabbed content

  • Hot spots and hover effects

  • Radio button selections and form fields

Despite email interactivity’s ability to make an email stand out, our consultants generally see it as a tactic that has seen less use and has had less of an impact during the pandemic.

“With many companies reducing marketing budgets and team members because of COVID-19, they’re putting a lot of the ‘extras’ in email on the backburner,” says Suzanne Felter, Senior Account Director at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “That includes interactive emails, animated gifs, and AMP for Email, as companies invest their time and budget elsewhere.”

Pam Hint, Manager of Experience Architecture at Oracle Marketing Consulting, adds, “Content will be a bigger focus in 2021. End users are less concerned with the design of the content and much more concerned that you’re giving them personalized content that piques their interest.”

J. Omnichannel orchestration

While the average consumer in the early ’00s typically used two touch-points when buying an item, consumers today use an average of almost six, according to research by Aberdeen, Oracle, and Relationship One.

The pandemic, which has constrained stores and led to a vast expansion of curbside pickup, has made it even more essential to see customer activity and respond across channels to create a seamless and smooth omnichannel customer experience. The financial strain of the pandemic has also increased the urgency for businesses to break down operational and line of business-centric silos.

“While omnichannel orchestration will continue to be a significant focus for brands, it continues to have its challenges,” says Jennifer Healey, Director of Analytic & Strategic Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “Attribution models are murky, and increasing concerns around privacy and the diminishing role of cookie-based targeting will require new thinking to manage paid media budgets. And as we see hope for an end to the pandemic, we’re sure to see more shifts in consumer behavior.”

That said, advancements in technology and integration make the more technical aspects of omnichannel orchestration much easier, says Celestina Chu, Director of Campaign Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “Vendor consolidation and integration across vendor suites,” she says, “is helping our clients and other brands operationalize a unified customer experience across channels like they never could before.”

K. Subscriber acquisition source optimization

Email unsubscribe rates fell during the early months of the pandemic, and opt-outs stayed low throughout the holiday season. However, while email churn has been lower, email acquisition has been a significant struggle due to store closures and event cancelations.

“One item that is really top of mind for all clients right now is channel acquisition,” says Lauren Kimball, VP of Oracle Marketing Consulting. “Those that are highly dependent on brick and mortar are struggling with how to get new subscribers in an ecommerce-driven world. They all value email as a channel tremendously but aren’t changing up how they’re making acquisitions on the sites and aren’t doing enough testing on that front.”

In addition to optimizing your email signup forms to maximize appeal and minimize abandonment, try to turn more of your email addresses on file into opt-ins. You can also boost your list growth by reducing list churn. This is an issue that you should attack from multiple angles and see where you get the most traction.

L. Live or real-time content

Marketers determine email content at the time of send, but they determine live content at the time that an individual subscriber opens the email. It can increase the relevance of your emails by keeping your content up to date.

“With audiences’ attention spans decreasing while content volume skyrockets, the timeliness of the information we serve our subscribers can have a significant impact on our messages’ effectiveness,” says Jessica Sung, Senior Copywriter for Creative Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “Real-time content can help email stand out and stay relevant.”

The best use cases for live content involve content that changes rapidly, such as:

  • Live countdown timers

  • Account dashboards

  • Real-time inventory

  • Live poll results

  • Live sports scores

  • Local weather

  • Social media feeds

For a deeper dive, check out Live Content in Emails: The Best Use Cases.

M. Multivariate email testing

A/B testing is an effective way to listen to the preferences of your subscribers. But it can be slow since you’re limited to testing two versions that differ in only one way, such as the hero image, headline, or call to action.

Of course, you don’t have that limitation if you’re doing multivariate testing, which allows you to test multiple elements within a single email at the same time. In addition to allowing you to iterate and learn more quickly, multivariate testing offers more significant insights into the combinations of the elements you’re testing. For example, it can tell you if hero image A works better with headline A or B or C, and which ones work better with hero image B.

In addition to other A/B testing pitfalls, multivariate testing has the added challenge of needing lots more data to reach conclusive results. So, this tactic is only for those brands with large lists.

N. Inclusive design and email accessibility

Accessibility is mostly about after-the-fact accommodations for people with disabilities, while inclusive design involves designing with the full spectrum of human abilities in mind from the beginning. It’s the difference between adding wheelchair ramps to a building and designing a building that doesn’t need ramps, so people in wheelchairs or using crutches, delivery workers, and parents with strollers all have easy access.

While there are legal repercussions for not making your emails accessible, what drives the trend of inclusivity is that it’s a way to reach a broader audience, says Katie Anderson, Designer for Creative Services at Oracle Marketing Consulting. “In 2021, even more business will be done over email, and making sure everyone can read, click, and understand will be more important than ever.”

For advice on adapting your email designs to be more friendly toward people with visual, cognitive, hearing, and motor impairments on a permanent, temporary, or situational basis, check out “Email Accessibility: Fulfill Your Legal Responsibilities and Expand Your Reach.”

O. RFM modeling for targeting

Recency, frequency, and monetary (RFM) modeling gives you an effective way to measure the engagement and value of your email subscribers. This data can help create audience segments for email segmentation or personalization purposes.

The value for marketers is that it allows you to send more relevant messages and optimize your sending frequency for different subscribers. This enables you to boost your engagement rates, which increases your deliverability. It also allows you to reduce email fatigue and list churn, which improves your list growth and subscriber lifetime value.

Subscribers are constantly giving senders feedback on whether they’re sending the right email content at the right frequency for them. RFM modeling is a helpful way to read that feedback and use it to send email more strategically.

Moving down and moving up

Readers of our post on 2020’s Competitive Differentiators might recognize that four trends are missing from this year’s group of low adoption–high impact trends: Email Annotations in Gmail, account-based marketing (ABM), send-time optimization, and advanced performance analytics.

Email Annotations fell into our Unproven Opportunities quadrant, while the other three trends all grew enough in terms of adoption to push them over into our Proven Essentials quadrant.

For a full look at all 26 email marketing trends to watch for in 2021, check out our posts that examine our:

  • Unproven Opportunities (low-impact trends with low adoption).

  • Proven Essentials (high-impact trends with high adoption). Coming soon!

And for a better understanding of how these email marketing trends are evolving, check out last year’s posts:

  • Email Marketing Trends for 2020: Unproven Opportunities

  • Email Marketing Trends for 2020: Competitive Differentiators

  • Email Marketing Trends for 2020: Proven Essentials

  • 2020’s Highest-Impact Email Marketing Trends

Need help exploring these email marketing trends? Oracle Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including teams dedicated to Strategic Services, Email Deliverability Services, and Creative Services.

Reach out to us at CXMconsulting_ww@oracle.com.

For more information about email and digital marketing, please visit Oracle Marketing.

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