Check out our 2021 Email Marketing Guide that will help you master your email strategy.

Email Marketing Crisis Management: How to Handle COVID-19

As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, the crisis is having a dramatic impact on consumer interests and behavior. Health and grocery eCommerce activity seems to be booming in many countries, whereas other industries are experiencing a sharp decline.

If one of the key marketing channels for your business is email, you may be uncertain as to what the impact on email revenue will be both in the short term and in the long run. 

In this post, we will analyze the impact the pandemic is having on our top customers and recommend the best actions to take over the next few days. Keep in mind that you need to handle your communication appropriately and avoid alienating customers with marketing that appears to be insensitive and greedy in a time of crisis.

COVID-19 Impact on Email Revenue

First off, let’s look at the effect COVID-19 has had on the email performance of our customers with an annual revenue of $5 million in the footwear, apparel, and air filtration industries.

The March data for 2019 vs. 2020 doesn’t indicate a decline, but rather an increase in email revenue and the average order value. While this may change in the upcoming weeks, these brands are not currently seeing a decline in purchasing behavior. An indication that the situation may start to influence these rates is the 8.29% drop in click-through rates – implying that customers are open to brand messaging, but are not as interested in learning more about the products. 

Having said that, it is now more important than ever for brands to address customers’ concerns and their changed behavior. 

Here are the steps our eCommerce clients are taking to quickly adapt and pivot their email marketing strategies around real-time trends.

1. Should You Be Actively Selling During the Crisis?

With a lot of brands worried about revenue, you too may be wondering about the best approach for your brand. Should you run your business as usual or should you tone it down?

We suggest the following approaches which one you go with depends on what makes the most sense for your brand:

  • Keep creating campaigns that acknowledge the crisis is happening
    If your brand sells products or services that have to do with staying in, such as books, music, podcasts, home decor, home apparel, an activity typically done indoors (board games), or consumables, you can keep conducting business as usual.

    What is more, your creative team or agency should come up with content that is unique to your industry and brand voice, while remaining sensitive to the current situation. If you are worried about revenue, this is an example of how Freewrite created promotional campaigns and remained aware of the crisis.

email marketing crisis management

Considering that people may be staying indoors for an extended period of time, if you’re in the food and consumables industry, you should be informing customers about the products’ shelf life and emphasize products that can keep for a longer period of time.

  • If your brand practices a high sending frequency, e.g. sending campaigns daily or more than three times per week, you should consider limiting your sends in the upcoming weeks. This is especially true for apparel, accessories, and makeup brands. A smart approach is to create a segment of subscribers who have engaged with your email content over the last 7 to 10 days and continue emailing them at your regular frequency. People who are not opening and clicking are clearly not shopping right now, so it is advisable to tone it down for them, since it may have a big impact on the performance of your campaign. This may not be a long-term situation, and they’ll most likely re-engage when things go back to normal, but it’s important that you are respectful of their current needs.
  • Focus on storytelling rather than sales
    We advise our clients who sell non-essentials, such as makeup or jewelry, to opt for content marketing rather than promotions. By doing this, they’ll remain in touch with their audiences without seeming aggressive or insensitive. Therefore, they are giving customers a respite from the stress and uncertainty. Here is an email from Rothy’s that exemplify this:

Email Marketing Crisis Management

Take a look at another great example from Milk Makeup that’s inviting customers to hang out on Instagram and TikTok. By doing so, they’re positioning themselves as a positive place for customers to turn to.

Email Marketing Crisis Management - example

MAIN TAKEAWAY: Brands that sell products or services related to staying in can keep creating campaigns while acknowledging the crisis is happening. Others should focus on storytelling for the time being.

If you are not sure what is the best way to do it, our team is at your service.

2. Show How You Handle Customer Support

Will there be issues with shipping in the upcoming months? Will deliveries take longer? Will you be low on inventory? Communicate with your customers and show them that you have things under control.

Offers like free shipping might be the best option; by doing this, you are saying that you want to keep your customers safe so that they don’t have to go out and risk their health.

If there will be changes to your customer support system, such as shorter or extended working hours or different ways customers can reach you, communicate that clearly.

Show customers that you too are human and that you care for both them and your employees. If you have a brick and mortar store or a team of people working in an office, share how you are keeping them safe. You can do this by talking about the preventative measures you have taken, their mental health, or checking in frequently to make sure they are ok. Feel free to mention any other measures you are taking.

The campaign you send out should be minimally designed (feel free to use your standard header and footer, but only include imagery if it provides additional value). You should refrain from including any shopping CTAs.

MAIN TAKEAWAY: Address the main client concerns around product availability, shipping, and delivery. Speak openly and sensitively, putting less focus on sales and showing more concern for your customers’ and the team’s safety and well-being.

3. Review Your Automated Emails

Even though automated emails are essential for successful email marketing, this is the time to review your email automations, especially if you are a brand associated with outdoor activities. Here’s what you should be checking for:

  • insensitive and inappropriate content
  • inactive offers
  • products that are out of stock due to high demand
  • products you can’t deliver due to remote working

Welcome, Exit Intent, and Post-Purchase emails

Prioritize the Welcome and Exit Intent emails connected to your signups, because they’re the first touchpoints you have with prospects. The same goes for your Post-Purchase flows. Showing awareness in these automated emails, or simply removing anything that is currently irrelevant, can go a long way in building stronger relationships from the start. 

Re-Engagement and Win-Back emails

Pay close attention to your Re-Engagement and Win-Back emails. These automations usually contain phrases such as “Time is running out!”, “We miss you”, and “It’s been a while”. It is probably best to update or pause anything that is anxiety-inducing or sounds negative. We recommend optimizing by focusing on the value you are providing rather than the shopping experience. 

While you are at it, you may also want to check your pop-ups and sign-up forms and make sure the messaging is fitting.

Lastly, review any seasonal banners on your site, especially on pages you often link to in your emails. Easter is soon upon us, but you should assume not everyone will be able to celebrate it. 

You can optimize your content further, keeping in mind that you should be talking to customers in their current state of mind, and not to the customer personas you originally created for your brand. With the uncertainty of the current situation, your customers are looking to regain a sense of control in their lives and to keep a sense of normalcy. All of your messaging should be helping them do that, or provide a respite from the boredom and anxiety they’re surely experiencing. 

MAIN TAKEAWAY: Review your email automations, signup forms, and landing pages, and remove any insensitive content. You can always come to us for help with your email automations

4. Review the Campaign Calendar 

When reviewing the campaign calendar, do it for the next 4 to 8 weeks. 

Bearing in mind that emails can take several days to produce, anticipate the content you may need for different scenarios. If the situation worsens, you’ll want to create content that will be relevant even if people can’t leave the house. 

Additionally, make sure you have a plan on how you’ll adjust the communication when things start getting back to normal. You don’t want to be seen as aggressive or insensitive; think about what is appropriate and on-brand during and after the crisis.  

It’s now more important than ever to have variety in your email campaigns. Most of your customers are at home, with more time to check their emails – as a result, we’re seeing an increase in open rates across industries. However, we’re also seeing a drop in click rates,  making it very clear that you should focus on the quality of content in the emails themselves. In every industry, this is a time for relationship building – so make the most of your opportunity to do so. 

MAIN TAKEAWAY: Review your campaign calendar, remove inappropriate promotional content, and add variety to your email campaigns.

5. Tone of Voice

Now is not the time for humor, as it might come off as insensitive. Even if your brand is playful, a dose of seriousness and thoughtfulness will go a long way in the upcoming weeks. In this time of uncertainty, you should consider addressing your customers’ desire for control in their lives, both in your email content as well as on other platforms. 

We also recommend you do not use words like ‘COVID-19’ or ‘coronavirus’ in the subject line or preheader text, while still making it very clear what you are referencing. People are anxious enough, so unless you are government or health officials, there is no need for such strong language.

Using warm vocabulary focusing on community and empathy is the preferred choice at times of crisis.

MAIN TAKEAWAY: Adjust your brand voice and stay true to your brand’s value pillars. Regardless of the industry you’re in, people are paying more attention than ever to who you are as a brand. It’s incredibly easy in a crisis situation to come off as insensitive or too self-important.

6. Monitoring the attrition metrics

Along with the adjustments you’ll be making to the tone of voice of your campaigns, you should also be specifically monitoring the unsubscribe rate, as that could be an indicator of either a too-high sending frequency, or a misalignment in terms of the content or language used.

Checklist of key action points

  1. If your brand sells products or services that have to do with staying in, keep creating campaigns but acknowledge the crisis is happening.
  2. If your brand practices a high sending frequency, limit your sends in the next few weeks. Alternatively, create a segment of engaged subscribers and continue emailing them at your regular frequency, while toning it down for the rest of your list.
  3. We advise our clients who sell non-essentials, such as makeup or jewelry, to opt for storytelling rather than sales for the time being.
  4. Check your ‘set it and forget it’ content – comb through your automated emails for inappropriate content and inactive offers. Specifically, check your Welcome, Exit Intent, Post-Purchase, Re-Engagement, and Win-Back emails.
  5. Review your campaigns calendar for the next 2 months and anticipate the content you may need for different scenarios.
  6. Monitor the unsubscribe rate, as it can be an indicator of either a too-high sending frequency, or a misalignment in terms of the content or language used. 
  7. Mind your tone of voice, as now is not the time for humor. Regardless of the industry you’re in, people are paying more attention than ever to who you are as a brand.
  8. Address questions customers may have in regards to shipping, delivery, and product availability.
  9. Address the situation openly and caringly, with less concern around sales and more concern for your customers’ and your team’s safety and well-being.
  10. Give your best when it comes to customer focus. That’s what’s going to pay off when people come out of isolation; the connection they make with brands now is going to impact their choices post-crisis.


Marija Pajkovic is the Head of Strategy at Essence of Email, driving 38x email marketing ROI for eCommerce clients. With over five years’ experience in marketing, ranging from content marketing to conversion optimization, Marija is an expert in generating 7-figure annual revenue for online stores.


Let’s Talk Email

Our clients earn a 38X monthly ROI from their email program.

Book now


Top stories from the email marketing world.

No ads. Only news that matters. Sign up.