Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How marketing and sales are bouncing back from the COVID lull

By Inken Kühlmann-Rhinow, Marketing Director, EMEA, HubSpot

As many organisations know from bitter experience, the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions have been catastrophic for many industries. It will come as no surprise that there has been a significant knock-on effect to marketing activity in both B2B and B2C sectors. 

Thankfully, we finally have some good news: following the initial pre-COVID dip, marketing activity, customer interactions and sales deals are on the rise again. 

We looked into data from before the start of the pandemic up to the end of April to understand the impact of the crisis on sales and marketing activity. After surveying email send and open rates, deal opening and closure, web traffic and customer-initiated conversations, we’ve found that marketing and sales teams that implement a “grow better” strategy – that is, providing their customer and prospects with genuinely useful content and insights rather than opportunistic marketing – are seeing greater customer engagement. 

On the other hand, while initial increases in outreach are paying off, there’s a danger that momentum on these early gains will be lost. And for the UK there is still ample room for improvement compared to other countries across the world.

Raising their game

Many UK businesses have responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a renewed focus on email marketing. The volume of activity peaked in the third week of March, during which the British government’s first social distancing advice was announced, with marketers sending out 17% more emails than they did pre-COVID. This push was extremely successful, with open rates as high as 42%. 

Recently, marketing teams are continuing to focus on email outreach, but at a less dramatic rate than the mid-March peak. The end of April saw 8% more emails sent than the pre-COVID average, with open rates up by 20% compared with pre-COVID levels.

While there is plenty to be optimistic about, there is also cause for caution here: people are paying more attention, but marketers need to ensure they’re using this attention wisely or run the risk of upsetting their audience. Informative, relevant content is what will win the day and leave people feeling happy with communication from businesses. 

In the B2B space specifically, shrinking income and budgets in the wake of the pandemic have been a profound source of concern. UK sales teams have dramatically ramped up email activity since the beginning of March, reaching a high of 62% more emails than the pre-COVID level at the end of April.

Of course, it’s a tough balancing act – there needs to be a balance between mass outreach and respectful and relevant contact, but it does seem like sales teams are finally getting it right. Response rates, which at the start of April were 43% short of the pre-COVID level, are creeping up, and are now only 27% lower than they were before the pandemic.

Receptive customers

Much of the growing success of email marketing and sales activity could be attributed to a growth in customer interest and web traffic in the wake of the pandemic. After dips in recent weeks, traffic to UK websites is 16% above pre-COVID levels, as brand websites become a valuable source of information for customers. 

There are, understandably, stark differences across industries. Globally, computer software (42%) and consumer goods (30%) have seen the largest increases in traffic as customers search for ways to improve their experience of living and working at home. Unsurprisingly, hospitality (-45%) and travel (-30%) have seen the biggest falls. 

The general increase in web traffic has finally started to translate into deeper customer engagement. Hanging just below the pre-COVID levels (-1%) for several weeks, UK customer-initiated conversations for sales and support spiked to 30% above the pre-COVID average towards the end of April. 

More leads, more deals 

The UK sales space is also showing signs of recovery. Deal creation figures at the end of April were 33% below the pre-COVID average, growing from -44% and -49% in the first two weeks of the month, and deal closure is also beginning to rise, up to -41% in at the end of April from -53% and -52% previously. 

However, there may be trouble ahead. The third week of March saw growth in new contacts added to UK CRM systems, peaking at an incredible 124% above pre-pandemic levels. But since then this figure has dropped off dramatically, dipping to -18% in late April. Uneven and low contact acquisition in recent weeks could create a slim sales pipeline with unpleasant effects in the future.

UK data in context

The UK’s clear progress in both sales and marketing is good news at this challenging time. However, the even greater successes of other regions show there is still significant room for improvement, especially in B2B sales. 

In terms of deal creation and closure (-33% and -41% respectively in late April), the UK is still behind averages in EMEA (-19% and -24%). British contact growth is in line with EMEA, but other regions are managing to hold steady, or even increase the rate at which new contacts are added: 

  • UK: -18%
  • North America: 0%
  • APAC: 27%
  • Latin America: 150%

In marketing the picture is more hopeful. EMEA and the US have matched the UK’s 20% increase in open rates (19% and 22% respectively), but only after a significant increase in email outreach (24% and 27%). Yet there is room to improve in more general engagement metrics. In web traffic the UK is marginally ahead of EMEA neighbours, but behind the global average of 24%. Meanwhile, increases in customer-initiated conversations are still behind other regions:

  • UK: 30%
  • EMEA: 38% 
  • North America: 43% 
  • APAC: 53% 

Contrasting the UK’s performance with that of other countries offers important context, but it is not always an accurate way to measure how well the nation is recovering. In any case, these figures give a clear sign that sales and marketing have plenty they can work on to continue recuperating their losses.

Maintaining momentum

Looking at the data, there is much for UK marketers and sales teams to be optimistic about. Engagement with sales outreach is seeing a slow return to pre-COVID levels, with marketers often enjoying greater rates of engagement over web and email than they did before the pandemic. 

However, the bulk of this success in marketing followed the dramatic increase in outreach during the third week of March, when the UK lockdown first became a reality. Marketers and sales teams need to tread a fine line when it comes to the volume of their communications, and it’s crucial to ensure they’re giving customers and prospects useful, informative content in order to see sustained, positive results.

Notes on the data

All data is drawn from HubSpot’s user base of 70,000 global customers. Unless otherwise specified, all percentages refer to the increase in certain metrics against their pre-COVID average in w/c 20/04/20, not the metric itself (e.g. the open rate of emails has risen by X% against its average, the open rate itself is not X%).