For years, we’ve collected data to help set benchmarks for publishers’ email programs. We know it’s helpful for publishers to see how their email is performing compared to industry standards, and we hope the benchmarks have helped set publishers’ roadmaps for improving their emails.

When we set out to analyze last year’s data, we knew it would be quite different than 2019 or any other year before it. While we aimed for consistency in the actual data collection, we knew that everything around the data had changed. 2020 was an anomaly in so many ways, upending some consumer behaviors and accelerating other trends. We saw that first-hand in our personal lives, of course, and also in the data we collected. 

Friday, for example, became a prime day for digital marketers to send their emails. With so much of the country under lockdown, and with so many white-collar workers stationed at their kitchen tables, the concept of the weekend took a pretty strong hit. There was no more rushing out of the office on Friday to be somewhere else, because there was nowhere else to go.

Email Open Rates by Day of the Week

DaySundayMondayTuesdayWed.ThursdayFridaySaturday
Open Rate21.5%21.6%21.1%21.4%21.1%22.1%20.4%

 

That shows us that even in an anomalous year, there is plenty to learn. And there’s plenty to learn for publishers in particular, because the media strongly outperformed other industries during 2020. Media companies have accumulated a raft of data, probably including new cohorts of audience members that they haven’t been able to analyze and appeal to personally before.We don’t expect Friday to stay quite this strong coming out of COVID, but as a substantial share of people opt for hybrid work situations, we think Friday will be a better day for email than it has historically been. 

2020 Email Performance, Media vs All Industries: 

Email benchmarks for media and publishersEmail benchmarks for all industries
Average open rate: 21.3%Average open rate: 18%
Average click-through rate: 3.7%Average click-through rate: 2.6%
Average click-to-open rate: 17.5%Average click-to-open rate: 14.1%

 

As this data shows, publishers’ email programs had a very strong year. Media companies’ open rates grew 19.7% between 2019 and 2020. This performance is at least partly due to the fact that 2020 was packed with major news events, making it a very media-hungry year.  Between COVID, Black Lives Matter, the Presidential election and a heightened awareness of disinformation campaign, audiences were very attuned to the news. And they were more conscious than ever of the need for trustworthy sources of information.

We can use that outperformance — that wealth of data — to give us clues as to what audiences want next. We see three emerging trends.

In a time of upheaval, there is a terrific need for reliability and consistency

Audiences craved predictability in media so much that they were willing to pay for it. In just one year, publishers saw a 16% increase in subscription revenue. Many publishers successfully experimented with monthly billing, rather than annual, perhaps making the initial expenditure easier to accept. Media companies that were able to convert higher web traffic into paid subscriptions included News Corp., The New York Times Co., and Gannett.  

Ease of use is critical

The importance of ease-of-use, and its relation to email success, has been building for some time. But it has never been more critical than it was in 2020, when no one had the patience or bandwidth to click through 20 links only to be met with a request for a password they’d forgotten. 

Recognizing this, publishers created emails that were standalone products – not just teasers for content contained elsewhere. This is something that will persist in the new normal. Digiday’s newsletters show what the way forward might look like: the email begins with a summary of the most important points in the newsletter, but readers who scroll down will find entire stories – not just links.

Individual brand-name writers came to this same realization — that email is the product — en masse in 2020, fueling the growth of email publisher Substack. The number of active writers on Substack doubled between March and June, and Substack now has 250,000 subscribers. And some 60% of journalists now say that their readers first followed them as individuals, not because they were affiliated with a particular publication.

One counter-intuitive result of massively better email: click-to-open rates were down. This is a trend that has been building for some time: In 2020, click-to-open rates were 17.5%, compared to 19.1% in 2019 and 21.5% in 2018. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If email engagement is good, readers might not need to click over to a web site. They’re getting value from the newsletter itself.

Your audience needs to feel spoken to and seen

With everyday life suddenly so much more taxing, thresholds for cultural noise were extremely low in 2020. Broadly speaking, we expect heightened impatience with irrelevant content to continue as we wade into a new normal.

Publishers can best help their audiences feel seen and acknowledged by using personalization. While not every publisher is currently using personalization to its full extent, the wealth of email data accumulated during 2020 should help provide a strong foundation for those looking to build a stronger connection with their audiences. 

Many media companies saw record signups for their email lists last spring, but have since seen engagement drop. In those cases, the challenge is to use the wealth of data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic to build new products and experiences that will be similarly personal and engaging.

One tactic is to examine the sources of audience sign-ups to your newsletters, and to use that analysis to create new cohorts. If a reader searched “COVID and children” and eventually came to your publication and signed up for your Covid newsletter, maybe it’s time to try to engage them with a newsletter with a parenting angle.

While just about everyone was more engaged with the news in 2020, it’s worth taking a deeper look to understand exactly which news mattered to which audience. Which members of your audience care about a national perspective, and which read primarily state or local news? Was their interest strictly related to health during the pandemic, or can the data turn up other topics of interest? This sort of analysis can help publishers build stronger connections with every audience, develop new products that are most likely to be engaging, and pave the way to long-term financial health.