2020 Global Messaging Engagement Report
How and why recipients engage with different messages
Introduction and Background
Since 2016, Twilio SendGrid has developed and published our Global Email Benchmark and Engagement Study so that email senders had benchmarks for measuring the success of their email programs. In 2019, in addition to engagement benchmarks, we performed a study on how people engage with the emails they receive from different senders.
For 2020, the report is evolving even more. As we’ve highlighted in past reports, email engagement is tough to benchmark because each email recipient list behaves differently. Rather than aiming to meet or exceed email benchmarks, we want email senders to listen to their recipients more than anything, and send email that is valuable. As a result, for this year, we’ve decided to move away from providing email engagement benchmarks as we have in the past.
What’s inside this year’s report?
The 2020 Messaging Engagement Report is unique in that it focuses on both email and SMS/MMS messages. Rather than reporting on open rates, click rates, etc., we expanded our research from the 2019 report into how and why recipients engage with different messages and what elements in texts and emails make them more or less valuable to the recipient.
This year’s report aimed to answer a few essential questions: How do people interact with emails? What compels people to open (and click on) certain emails over others? How can we use these findings to provide practical best practices for sending emails and other messages that people will want to read so that companies can stay top-of-mind without crossing the line into “spam”?
Some of the questions we asked our study participants include:
- What are the business-to-consumer communications channels you engage with most often?
- How often would you like to receive SMS or MMS messages from companies or brands you’re interested in?
- What types of SMS/MMS messages are most and least valuable to you?
- What elements of emails influence your decision to open and click on messages?
- What are the top three factors that turn you off from SMS/MMS messages?
Methodology and Data Collection for Recipient Engagement
Methodology and Data Collection for Recipient Engagement
This report’s recipient engagement portion was conducted with a qualitative ethnographic study and a quantitative online survey conducted in the United States of America (U.S.A.), United Kingdom (U.K.), France, Germany, and Japan.
By combining the qualitative and quantitative insights, we put together a clear picture of what recipients want from companies sending them emails and texts.
Qualitative email insights
For this study, we wanted to understand what people consider “best practices” for emails and texts. Namely, what can companies do to improve email and text communications to make them more engaging? To answer this, we interviewed 20 participants in each country: U.S.A., U.K., Germany, France, and Japan. The sample was segmented by age group, divided into generational age brackets:
Participants used a mobile ethnography application to answer questions throughout the day to track daily email usage habits. They were sent 3-5 questions a day throughout the course of a week. Using video selfie-responses (approx. 1-2 mins in length), along with screenshots and phone-screen recordings, participants shared their impressions of emails and texts they received throughout the day. This gave us more detailed feedback than an interview alone, as it allowed us to observe and track attitudes over time.
At the conclusion of the week, we debriefed with participants in an in-depth video interview lasting 30-45 minutes. We went through participants’ responses and asked them additional questions about their likes/dislikes with marketing emails and texts.
Quantitative online survey
The quantitative survey’s objective was to understand consumer marketing email preferences and uncover the key best practices that companies can follow to get ultimate customer engagement from emails and text messages.
The survey was sent to 200 respondents from four age groups: Gen Z (18-24), Millennials (25-35), Gen Z (36-50), and Baby Boomers (51-65) in each of the five countries. The total sample size was 4000.
Email is indispensable. No matter where you live or what you do for a living, it’s a regular part of your day-to-day life. Consumers send emails to stay connected to family and friends. Students use email to stay on top of their courses and job applications. Customers open emails to engage with brands they love and save money on their purchases—just about everyone relies on email in some capacity.
Before even crawling out of bed, consumers open their inboxes to look through their messages—and a quick, last inbox check is often the last thing consumers do before they go to sleep. Email is on your customers’ minds (whether they realize it or not) the entire day—literally.
However, your message is just one of many your customer receives every day. Their inbox is flooded, and each email is competing to be opened and acted upon rather than ignored, deleted, or marked as spam.
Fortunately, there are clear-cut ways to break through the clutter and get noticed.
While consumers in the five countries we spoke to were unequivocal about what makes email unappealing, they also told us about the elements that drive engagement and entice them to read the emails (and text messages) they receive.
Not every country responded to email and text messages the same, which makes it imperative for you to know and understand your audience. Below, you’ll find the key findings we uncovered from our qualitative and quantitative research:
Top 6 Takeaways
Communication Channels: Email is the most popular communication channel globally, followed by SMS. However, Japan, Germany, and the UK prefer social media ads slightly over mobile messaging ads.
Messaging Frequency: Frequency preferences vary by country. US recipients like to receive emails every day, while recipients in Germany, Japan, France, and the UK prefer emails once per week. Recipients around the world prefer to receive SMS or MMS messages once a week or once a month.
SMS Preferences: US and French recipients are the most accepting of text messages, but consumers in Germany and the UK see promotional SMS messages as intrusive and an invasion of their personal space.
Communication Turnoffs: Half or more of residents in each country would unsubscribe if they started receiving emails daily. Across all countries, the top email turnoffs are irrelevance, grammar/spelling errors, and an unknown brand or company.
Email Opening Decision-Making: When deciding to open an email, consumers worldwide agree that a recognized sender is the most influential factor, followed by the email’s content.
Stickiest Elements of an Email: Offers and discounts are the most memorable and click-influencing elements of an email, except for in Japan and Germany, where they’re more concerned with the content of the email. Deep discounts (40% or more) are perceived to be more legitimate.
The coronavirus has created greater email dependency. Consumers are doing more online shopping and ordering more takeout, communicating with friends and family outside of their zones, using email to stay on top of the news, their schoolwork and job hunting, and subscribing to online activities/events that bring normalcy into their lives. Tight budgets are demanding better deal-hunting, even for day-to-day essentials. This increased reliance is also creating elevated scrutiny, and several UK respondents state they evaluate emails in the same way they might a magazine ad. A few French respondents were irritated by the insensitive timing of emails promoting travel destinations and luggage discounts when borders were closed.
United States of America
Email holds steady in the US as the most preferred communications channel for engaging with businesses. However, Americans differ from other countries in how often they like to like to receive messages and what elements of these messages matter most to them. Below, we’ll highlight the key nuances you should consider when engaging with your US customers via email and SMS:
- Emails Every Day: Unlike all the other countries in this study, US recipients prefer to receive emails daily instead of once a week.
- SMS’s Growing Popularity: SMS is the second most popular channel for customer engagement. More consumers in the US are gradually opting into SMS marketing texts from businesses, but they’re often unsubscribing quickly because of the high frequency of messages.
- Fulfill Your Promises: Americans were very upset when they found the email’s content (or the destination of a link) didn’t match the promise made in the subject line, image, or body copy of the email.
I feel like it doesn't make sense if it doesn't match...I think that's just sloppy in my eyes. If they do have an image, it needs to correspond with the promotion, because sometimes I'm just going through my email really fast and when I see a picture of pants and then you find out it's not even about pants, I'm just irritated.
USA Gen Z
- Fun Subject Lines: American Gen Z and Millennial recipients like to see variety in their subject lines with a mix of standard text, all caps, and the occasional emoji. However, older generations don’t find emojis professional.
- Mobile-Friendly: 21% of US respondents read emails almost exclusively on their phones—other countries don’t check emails on their mobile devices nearly as often.
- Discount Big or Not at All: Discounts above 40% are enticing enough to earn a click, but anything less will likely be ignored.
- Less Is More for SMS: Americans want well-branded SMS messages on a less frequent basis. Unlike with emails, US recipients prefer text messages just once a week. Links should be branded, and images (if used) should be consistent with the brand’s other campaigns.
UK recipients have high expectations when it comes to email. Consumers are judging email campaigns with the same criteria they’d apply to a high-quality print ad—raising the bar for how emails should look and feel in the inbox.
Promotional text messages are a big no-no in the UK. These messages are perceived as too intrusive, and UK recipients would prefer to reserve their SMS space for private conversations with friends and family. Below, we’ll share a few of our discoveries for how best to engage your UK audience:
- SMS is Personal: SMS messages are reserved for friends and family, making social media ads the second most popular channel (after email) for engagement. In our quantitative survey, 71% of the UK respondents said they interact with SMS or MMS messages seldomly, frequently, or very frequently.
- More Images, Please: UK recipients had the greatest appetite for images in emails. 49% prefer 2-3 images in an email, and just 5% (the lowest of all countries) prefer no images in an email.
- Turn Down the Frequency: UK recipients prefer emails once per week rather than once per day.
- Competition to Get Opened: Most respondents report receiving an average of 20-40 marketing emails every day, but they only open a select few.
- Mobile Device Usage: UK recipients read emails on their mobile devices more than recipients in France, Germany, and Japan, but not quite as much as US recipients.
- High Spam Reports: Consumers in the UK report marking more emails as spam due to unsubscribing issues. Unsubscribe links at the bottom of emails are either hiding, missing, or fail to work, leading recipients to banish emails to the spam folder instead.
In France, there are few generational differences in email behavior—most differences arise when it comes to lifestyles and how different people use email. Emails are seen as intrinsic to everyday life and offer many benefits, including:
- Organization and Management: Email makes organization and day-to-day management easy (settlement of online invoices, appointments, organizing children’s school activities, alerts, reminders).
- Shopping: Email, especially during the time of COVID-19, offers a substitution for physical shopping
- Professional Improvements: Many use email to help them in a professional way, receiving job alerts or updates.
People generally check their email every day, around three times a day (morning, midday, and evening). Gen Z is the only exception to this rule, as they tend to check multiple times per day with no real schedule. France had the highest percentage of respondents that said they switch between devices to view emails.
Germans take a less is more approach with all their digital communication channels. Frequency is a major concern for emails and SMS, and recipients expect content to be high-quality, clear, and concise. Email is the most popular channel for receiving business communications, but SMS marketing has come and left the country already.
While SMS marketing is considered intrusive and out-dated, Germans love email and have strong opinions and preferences about the channel.
- Once per Week: Like the other countries (excluding the US), German recipients prefer emails once per week rather than once per day.
- No Emojis: Germans recipients strongly reject the use of emojis—both in the subject line and in the body of an email message. All four surveyed generations agree that they’re inappropriate for marketing emails.
- Less Phone Usage: 29% of German respondents spend 0-10% of their time reading emails on their phone, lower than any other country except for France at 28%.
Grammar mistakes and unknown brands were the biggest email turnoffs for Germans, while irrelevance tended to be the biggest complaint for most other countries.
German recipients are more likely than others to have a spam-specific email account, with 59% of respondents stating they have a separate email address for spam or other unwanted emails from companies.
Japanese consumers cherish the same qualities in the emails they receive regardless of their age, but email usage and attitudes about email are strikingly different between younger and older consumers in Japan. The importance of email in Japan seems to increase as consumers get older.
While Gen Z and Millennials are more phone-based and into texting, older consumers prefer to check and browse email on their computers. This also impacts their approach to managing email and dealing with any unwanted messages. Younger generations are quick to delete, while the older generations are more organized, create folders, and do more unsubscribing.
Almost all check their email first thing in the morning or during their commute, occasionally during their lunch/work breaks, and then finally, once again after work or before going to bed.
- Fewer Images: In Japan, 18% preferred no images in an email, in contrast to the rest of the countries where 10% or less preferred no images.
Unlike emails, Japanese respondents wanted to see a picture or two in their text messages—anything besides just reading a bunch of text—to keep their interest, but not to the point where they overwhelm their data plans.
- Good and Bad SMS/MMS: For SMS and MMS messages, different generations have different opinions on “good” and “bad.”
Countries and generations worldwide have different communication preferences, and it’s important you accommodate their needs however you can. The findings in this report are deep and extensive, but here’s a list of high-level dos and don’ts for quick reference.
In the United States, there were only minor differences between study participants. Most value the communications they receive from retailers, restaurants, and other businesses. Recipients appreciate messages that direct them to sales or provide discounts/coupons that help them save money, suggest items they might need, or simply help them track the many purchases they make.
- Email US recipients daily or once a week, but only send promotional SMS messages once a week.
- Have fun and experiment with emojis occasionally with younger generations.
- Optimize your emails for mobile devices.
- Promote discounts above 40%.
- Make promises in your emails or texts that your link or content doesn’t fulfill.
- Use emojis with older generations.
- Send SMS messages with the exact same content as a previous text or email.
In the UK, participants were differentiated by mindset and less by age differences. United Kingdom participants felt that emails and SMS/MMS should embrace personalization, and there was a general expectation that emails should benefit from AI technology.
- Send emails just once per week.
- Include more images (ideally 2-3) in your emails.
- Design your emails with well-branded elements to satisfy growing quality demands.
- Optimize your emails for mobile.
- Send UK recipients promotional SMS messages.
- Make unsubscribe links difficult to find and access.
Our French participants told us that receiving commercial emails/newsletters from brands is welcome. All see email as a service, especially when offers and promotions are personalized and targeted. However, for social connections, younger consumers tend to use other media such as WhatsApp versus emails.
- Optimize your emails for desktop and mobile—as some French recipients switch devices to view messages.
- Send personalized and targeted offers and promotions via email.
- Send well-designed emails and include humorous content to help make messages more memorable.
- Send promotional SMS messages, especially to older generations.
- Send email to recipients you don’t have a relationship with.
Germans typically believe that less is more. They are concerned about the frequency of the emails they receive and say the content should be concise and clear. The subject line and the sender are key in Germany. Offers and promos are also essential, as is the content.
- Send email messages once per week.
- Optimize emails for desktop. German and French respondents don’t spend as much time viewing emails on their phones.
- Use emojis in the subject line or body copy of your emails—it’s seen as juvenile and inappropriate for business communication.
- Send German recipients too many texts or emails.
- Use SMS for promotional campaigns.
Email usage and attitudes about this channel are strikingly different between younger and older consumers in Japan. The importance of email in Japan seems to increase as consumers get older.
Japanese participants want messages that make them feel exclusive and that the message’s content is exclusively for them.
- Prioritize emails with older generations and text with younger generations.
- Include images in your text messages.
- Send personalized emails and text messages.
- Use too many images in your emails. 18% of Japanese respondents prefer no images in an email, which is almost twice as much as any other country.
- Assume all Japanese generations are the same—each generation has distinct preferences for receiving email and SMS messages.
Want more information about communication preferences in each country? We’ll soon be releasing country-specific guides that’ll uncover deeper generational nuances and email and SMS insights. Stay tuned for these guides in 2021!