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COVID drives major spike in email as a service channel, study finds


As email celebrates its 50th anniversary, it shows no sign of dying off as a customer service channel of choice.

10th Jun 2021
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It’s half a century since software engineer Ray Tomlinson, in a windowless room in Massachusetts, introduced the @ symbol into some programming he was testing as a means of sending a letter to colleagues via his computer.

It may have taken a while from that momentous event in 1971, but ‘electronic mail’ has gone on to become the central communication channel for the digital age, with over 300 billion emails now sent and received every day.

However, as a medium for delivering customer service, email has often been derided, criticised for being too slow and expensive to warrant its use above and beyond live chat and the traditional phone line.

Despite this, new research from Kitewheel has found that in specific cases, email’s use increased exponentially in 2020 and 2021, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Analysing almost 10 billion customer journey interaction points via its network of customers, Kitewheel discovered a huge spike in email’s use as a service channel in interactions ‘designed to drive engagement and retention’ – from 20% of all its interaction points in 2019, to 51% in 2020.

In comparison, web usage dropped from 56% to 31% and social media dropped from 19% to 10%. Other channels made up 8% of interactions designed to drive engagement and retention.

Kitewheel’s report describes the trend as indicative of a “greater reliance on email communications” during various stages of the pandemic, as many people around the globe were forced indoors and our methods of communication transformed.

Of all the journey types that Kitewheel tracked, journeys aimed at customer engagement and retention represented 97% of total growth in the customer journey space, in terms of interaction count. The report states that this trend indicates “that brands are embracing CX as a key source of value rather than focusing solely on marketing and sales to drive business outcomes”.

“This is perhaps our most important report yet as brands consider how to change and optimise their strategy for this new world we’ve living in,” said Mark Smith, president of Kitewheel.

Long live email?

With email celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021, further research also highlights the channel’s continual importance, in amongst all manner of other cultural communication changes.

A recent study from Twilio, for instance, found that email remains the number one preferred channel for business communications, and that crucially, 83% of consumers prefer to receive communications from businesses via email, followed by text at 39%.  

SMS messages were still deemed more important by consumers if an event was an ‘urgent’ matter, but as Len Shneyder, VP Industry Relations for Twilio SendGrid, it would be remise for any businesses to deprioritise email as a service channel in the near future, despite the increasing usage and reliability of other channels such as chatbots:  

“Last year’s Twilio State of Customer Engagement Report also found that 97% of consumers said email was essential to daily life - and the pandemic has only solidified this. Email engagement doubled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. To put a number on it, Twilio SendGrid sent over one trillion emails on behalf of its customers last year, compared with 731 billion in 2019 - and that kind of volume is unlikely to disappear overnight.

“The simple fact is that everyone still uses email - and nobody has yet come up with a technology to displace the ease of use and the ubiquity of it.”

Wherever you look, current data seems to suggest we shouldn’t be surprised if email remains as vital to communications in 50 years’ time, as it is to us now.

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