We’re going to be hearing a lot about digital transformation from now on; it’s a concept that’s been about for a while, but Covid-19, lockdowns and shifts to online shopping have very quickly brought a new sense of urgency. And that figures – with many traditional brick-and-mortar competitive advantages like store location and footfall-drivers gone, it’ll be vital for retailers to set their sights online to survive and thrive.

In its State of Fashion 2020 coronavirus update,  McKinsey writes, “The strongest players will quickly scale up and strengthen their digital capabilities, which will allow them to capitalise on future opportunities and protect their businesses from risks. Investing more in existing digital capabilities — such as improving the customer journey and the broader customer experience — should happen alongside pioneering new ways of engaging with consumers online.”

We’re already seeing a huge investment in digital innovation from the front-runners like Nike and Amazon, who are focusing not just on a frictionless online customer experience, but also re-imagining what the retail experience of the future will look like.

Digital pioneers are undoubtedly going to pave the way for exciting new marketing channels and technologies to spring up. But amidst the talk of AR and VR and hyper-connected concept stores, retail – which is looking down the barrel of a serious recession – cannot rely on ‘shiny’ new technologies alone.

Post-lockdown email strategy

The truth is that to survive what’s coming, the majority of retailers will have to work with what they’ve got from a channel perspective, which will bring a new relevance to the retail old faithful: email. And the great news is, it’s entirely possible and relatively easy to optimise the email channel to create better customer experiences and drive more sustainable revenue. What will be needed, however, is a mindset shift for many retailers, who have traditionally treated the channel as a megaphone for broadcasting undifferentiated, impersonal messages to their customer base.

Let’s talk about some of the things retailers should consider when thinking about their post-lockdown email strategy.

Customer relevance

Before the onset of Covid-19 and resulting lockdown, sending contextually-relevant messages was a ‘nice to have’; most retailers relied upon generic sales-driven emails to a mass mailing list, with the occasional sprinkle of personalisation. The pandemic meant that consumer behaviour changed overnight, and retailers now have to consider context and optimum relevance as a ‘must have’.

Lockdown meant that many brands found it difficult to promote products in the ways they used to – either because their product offering didn’t fit the bill, or simply that they were doing so well that they needed to take their foot off the pedal to be able to fulfil orders.

Under lockdown, marketers across the board have had to spend more time thinking about context and ensuring that email content is relevant to the current situation. As a result, Covid-19 has encouraged brands to think more about each person on the receiving end of their messages – email marketing has had to become customer-centric rather than product-centric. Many brands have been reaping the rewards of taking a more relevant approach to marketing.

At Ometria, we worked with boutique marketplace Trouva, for example, which saw success by pivoting to a more responsive, agile email marketing strategy that was informed by customer behaviour and trends.

Enabling customers to discover new products from over 900 independent boutiques means finding the right product for the right person in any context. Therefore during Covid’s initial lockdown Trouva focused on making its emails as responsive and relevant as possible to each individual in the context of the pandemic. It combined detailed customer insight from Ometria with internal search data and social trends to create campaigns that reflected its customers current interests and purchases. The brand curated relevant category information and reframed creative email campaigns based on real-time insight about the products and categories that were trending in any given moment. This clearly communicated that Trouva was ‘open for business’. As a result, the brand saw email engagement skyrocket, with over a 50% increase in click through rate and a 74% increase in sessions from broadcast emails.

Focusing on lockdown-specific products and activities is just the start. The opportunity to personalise the customer experience to each individual customer’s unique context is there – and brands should grab it.

Value, creativity and emotional connection

In place of the mass emails that tended to bombard people with products they had little interest in, we’ve seen a resurgence in creativity, which will undoubtedly seriously up the stakes when it comes to consumer expectations.

Brands have been forced to re-focus on providing entertainment, interest and value to their subscribers – building engagement and emotional connection through a curated and personal approach. We’ve seen everything, from brands building lockdown playlists to launching home workouts; sharing recipes to providing activities that keep kids entertained in lockdown.

Stationery retailer Ryman, for example, treated its subscribers to printable templates for scavenger hunts and colouring in exercises, as well as sending curated emails that were relevant to lockdown themes like home schooling and gardening.

Customers have become accustomed to brands becoming more creative and putting more effort into providing them with value rather than pushing products. It’s clear that in marketing, as much as any area of life, we cannot go back to the way things were. Customers just won’t tolerate it. 

What’s more, this time has heightened peoples’ sensitivity to social connection; to essential workers, supply chains and to those who get products to customers’ front doors. Retailers that behaved badly, or seemed to be trying to profit from the situation were met with Twitter mobs and criticism.

Retailers now more than ever are appreciating the need for human and emotional connection. As such, they should be showcasing the people behind the brand, pursuing CSR initiatives and encouraging customers to get involved within their email campaigns. Luxury handbag brand DeMellier ran an email campaign highlighting their support for women in business, putting the spotlight on female photographers, stylists and artists that had contributed to their campaigns in the past.

Now is the time to consider how retailers can tell the story of their social values – from sustainability to diversity and inclusion.

Focusing on the customer insight

Lockdown has massively impacted consumer behaviour in a very short space of time – from the products customers are buying to the channels they engage on, it’s clear that marketers can no longer rely on hunches or previous seasons’ performance to inform their marketing strategy.

Retailers were already sitting on huge amounts of customer data that they’ve typically struggled to leverage for personalisation and automation, a challenge that will only be compounded by more digital activity, and a growing number of digital touchpoints and channels to incorporate into the single customer view.

This data offers a huge opportunity for better understanding customer behaviour and creating better email experiences, but also amplifies the challenge of centralising and analysing customer data for meaningful insight.

As a result, making the right technology choices will become vital to getting ahead. Being able to access and use customer insight in real-time in email campaigns will be increasingly important for letting marketers respond to customer trends instantly, rather than being reliant on other departments or third parties to relay information.

Reducing inefficiency will also be important – personalisation brings with it the potential for huge amounts of manual work spent on data aggregation and analysis, as well as ensuring that the right customers are targeted with the right message. The right technology should shoulder this work, leaving marketers to focus their attention and resources on creating amazing customer experiences that will help set them apart in increasingly competitive times.

Brands have ultimately seen the lockdown as a time to raise the bar on their email strategy – in turn, raising their subscribers’ expectations. They can’t go back to merrily batching and blasting their database in the hope that something sticks. As digital touchpoints expand, and brands do more work to join up the online and offline customer experience, it will become increasingly important for brands to be able to interpret and respond to customer behaviours and preferences. It may not be the end of product-led comms, but the retailers who thrive will be the ones that focus on community-building and relevance. That means showing empathy, understanding and providing what customers really want.