This Q&A with Lindsay McGovern, the Senior Director of CRM & Lifecycle at Thrive Market, is part of a series highlighting the people behind the amazing retail and media brands that work with Sailthru. Click here to read our Q&As with Raise’s Kelly Hickey and Conde Nast’s Sabrina Daryanani.

In February, eMarketer forecasted that food and beverage would make up just 4.8% of online retail sales this year, a tiny sliver of the ecommerce pie. But as the coronavirus pandemic kept consumers homebound, grocery ecommerce became more popular than ever, with sales increasing by more than one-third from March to April, a record high for the vertical. Thrive Market saw such a surge in demand overnight that the online grocery retailer actually had to pause its marketing, in order to let the operations teams catch up.

“At first, turning off email and mobile marketing seemed like the worst case scenario. We didn’t want to lose out on engagement, especially with so many new members,” explains Lindsay McGovern, Senior Director of CRM & Lifecycle at Thrive Market. “However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We used that time to really reimagine our strategy. Operating in such a high-demand, fast-paced startup environment, we hadn’t ever had that opportunity before.

I recently spoke with Lindsay about how her team used that hiatus to reimagine its messaging strategy. Read on to learn about Thrive Market’s shift to more personalized emails, how returning members are re-onboarded, what’s in the works, and more.

How has your email marketing strategy changed as a result of the pandemic?

We’ve historically sent email promotions to the entire membership base seven times per week, which has proven to be a top revenue-driver. But with surging demand coming in organically, and with member experience top of mind during the COVID-19 crisis, we pivoted to focus entirely on providing access to healthy essentials and simply meeting the demand. This meant pausing our email marketing while we worked to reimagine the program to drive more long-term engagement as opposed to short-term gain.

Our new campaign calendar strikes a much better balance. We mix in more educational and inspirational content along with the amazing deals and free gifts our members love. Additionally, we rethought our personalization approach. With Sailthru’s Personalization Engine, we target users who have an interest in a particular product or who have purchased from a similar category. We use interest-based tags to do list targeting of who’s getting that offer, instead of sending it to everyone. We’re really happy with our new weekly calendar structure. We think our members are, too; the engagement metrics are higher than ever.

Is your email marketing different from your mobile messaging strategy? How do all of your channels work together?

We’re creating a more balanced cadence of communications and using more advanced segmentation targeting to stay hyper-relevant. We have just started to develop SMS marketing and are very excited about its potential. However, we know we can’t syndicate the same message across all channels. In many cases, we use Lifecycle Optimizer to send a push notification, but only if a member hasn’t opened the email. If they still haven’t engaged, we’ll send an SMS. We’re working to optimize the experience. Our vision for the future involves developing channel preferences and prioritizing accordingly, rather than assuming email is everyone’s preferred channel.

I imagine some of that growth is from returning members who have previously cancelled. Are you onboarding those returning customers differently?

At the start of the pandemic, we saw our reactivation numbers climbing every day. We quickly prioritized building a reactivated member experience with re-onboarding communications that were really specific to people while communicating all the value messages of Thrive Market. Making sure to send those re-onboarding messages, rather than just dropping members into some other promotional stream, was important. And we’ve seen really, really high engagement; so far, so good.

The same is true for this influx of brand new members. There was some initial concern that they would come, get their toilet paper or disinfecting wipes, and then just cancel. We started digging into the data very early on and so far, it looks really promising. We’re monitoring continued orders and lifetime value to make sure members come back every month and stay in the habit of buying on Thrive Market.

Speaking of happy customers, the letter from your CEO about the Relief Fund really touched my heart. How has that been received by your customers?

The COVID-19 Relief Fund was designed to further our mission to make healthy living easy and accessible for everyone, by deploying free memberships and grocery stipends to those hardest hit by the pandemic. To date, as a community, we’ve raised over $750,000 and distributed grocery stipends to over 6,700 families. In April, Nick decided to donate the rest of his salary for the year to ensure every single Relief Fund submission could receive access to healthy food and essentials. He was inspired by our members, who have donated at nine times the usual rate at checkout.

We’ve received such positive feedback from our community via social, through our member services team, directly to Nick’s email inbox. People are writing to tell us how happy they are to be aligned with a brand making such a big statement led by an executive team that is unwaveringly committed to the cause. It’s an incredible feeling, knowing we are amplifying our mission and helping those in need.

Coming from the fashion side of retail, I think that Q4 will be even more important this year. Does Thrive Market have a big holiday season push?

For us, holiday is really about helping people make healthier choices during the season. We understand that many people have limited ability to access healthy, organic options for many reasons: food deserts, financial constraints, lack of education around nutrition, the list goes on. We now offer gift memberships and plan to continue our mission to combat food inequality and provide access to healthy living by working to donate healthy meals and memberships to those in need. As you can probably guess, our biggest time is typically January, when everyone thinks about New Year’s resolutions after indulging over the holidays. We usually see huge spikes in January when people are really recommitting to making healthier choices in the new year.

Do you have anything big you’re testing or working on launching?

Right now, when you come through the site, there’s a quiz that helps us personalize your shopping experience. Our product team has been working to improve this, while my team works to ensure that personalization carries through the onboarding experience. We’ve explored this strategy in the past by hiding or highlighting products based off people’s selections. But of course, there’s always room for improvement. We’re excited to see how this new guided shopping improves our new member experience in the coming weeks!

As a seasoned retail executive, I strongly believe that Thrive Market’s willingness to test and learn will absolutely contribute to long-term relationships with their customers. For 14 examples of tactics email marketers can test right now, download Business Not As Usual, a guide I recently developed along with the Sailthru marketing team.