Why Your Customers Don't Read Your Emails Anymore

Consumers are inundated with emails.

Between newsletter subscriptions, shopping receipts, delivery updates, billing notifications, appointment reminders and marketing messages, consumers receive many more emails than they can read.

An email inbox is full of competition for the consumer’s attention, making it that much harder for businesses to get noticed by their customers and prospects.

It wasn’t always like this. Email has changed and so has the consumer relationship with their inbox.

In the early days of email, it was common for consumers to get creative and spend time devising an email address that best described their interests and tastes. Powering up the home computer to check for new emails was a highly anticipated ritual; and the sound of a new email notification triggered the urge to read that message right away.

Consumer inboxes looked different, too. Businesses weren’t emailing consumers as frequently as they are now, and inbox zero wasn’t the near-impossible achievement that it is today. Cluttered email inboxes have left consumers overwhelmed.

To better understand how email is regarded today, Zipwhip surveyed more than 500 consumers to learn about their email habits, their concerns regarding spam and to catch a glimpse of what inboxes look like today.

Email isn’t going to disappear. It’s still a valuable tool for businesses and it does have its advantages for certain communications. The medium just doesn’t carry the same urgency among consumers as it did before. Timely messages require a different communication tool.

Our hope is that this data will provide context for your own email communications with customers and help you reconsider what type of emails you send: Does your message warrant an email, or could you use another medium instead?

Key Takeaways

Unread messages cause endless clutter in consumers’ inboxes

Thirty-nine percent of consumers have more than 100 unread emails in their personal inbox, with 20% saying they have over 1,000.

Unsurprisingly, the excessive volume doesn’t elicit a positive sentiment among consumers. When asked to describe their email inboxes, words like “cluttered” and “overwhelming” were commonly used.

Most consumers have several email accounts, making it difficult for businesses to get their messages noticed

Seventy-seven percent of consumers have two or more personal email accounts, with 16% saying they have four or more. Consumers also designate separate email accounts for non-personal communications: 62% have an email address they use solely for accounts with businesses or to sign up for promotions.

Consumers receive far more email than they read 

Consumer inboxes are slammed with emails every day, and most of them aren’t opened. Fifty-six percent estimate they receive anywhere from 25 to over 100 emails a day, yet nearly half report reading between zero to five emails per day.

Most consumers trust text messages over phone calls and emails when it comes to receiving important messages

As spam and robocalls continue to be an increasingly irritating byproduct of email and phone calls, consumers no longer consider the two communication channels to be as reliable as they once were. Over half (51%) said they trust texts the most, while 35% said email and only 14% said phone calls.

Consumers don’t find emails exciting anymore

The feel-good days of seeing that a new email message had arrived are behind us. Whether it’s due to receiving more emails than they can read or because more efficient communication tools have grown in popularity, over half of consumers (51%) say they’re less excited to receive emails today than they used to be.

Happy woman on computer

The State of Email Today

Consumer email behavior

In the days before email, if you needed to reach someone you picked up the phone, sent a letter or met face to face. Information sharing took place at a much slower pace. But by the mid-90s, email had become a way of life. It altered how we communicated with friends and family and changed the relationship between consumers and businesses. It was a major shift in how we stayed in touch.

Today, it’s presumed nearly everyone with access to a computer (from teenagers to retirees) has at least one email account. Most employees and students have accounts tied to their organizations, but they also have email accounts for personal communications. Our survey found that 87% of consumers have a work and/or school email account in addition to at least one personal email account.

What types of email accounts do you have?

How many email accounts does the average consumer use?

Having a personal email account is the one common denominator among all our respondents. Each person has at least one, with a majority having two or more. Data shows that 23% of consumers have only one personal email address, 40% have two, 21% have three and 16% have four or more.

The reasons for having multiple accounts vary depending on the individual. Often, a primary email account is set up to communicate with friends and family or to receive important messages from businesses that a consumer shops with regularly, such as an order confirmation email or delivery update. This primary account may also be used to receive daily news reports, special offers and time-sensitive promotions from companies the consumer is most interested in receiving.

Secondary and tertiary accounts are often created to collect messages that consumers may not need to reply to at all. They’re sometimes used for contest or sweepstakes entries, funny memes or joke emails or to sign up for newsletters they may read occasionally but don’t want to have cluttering their primary inbox. By relegating these lower-priority messages to separate, personal email accounts, it makes reviewing, reading and responding to messages in their primary email a bit easier.

However, if you’re a business and your emails are being sent to non-primary accounts that only get checked periodically, it makes communicating the value that your business offers more difficult. And because a business doesn’t know where they stand on the hierarchy of consumers’ email accounts, they’re often left wondering why their marketing methods are yielding lower than expected results.

How many personal email accounts do you have?

Which email providers are consumers using for their personal email?

When it comes to personal email, consumers prefer Gmail. Nearly 50% use Gmail for one or more of their personal email accounts. This is important because Gmail recently began sorting email into three categories: Primary, Social and Promotions. That means if your customers are using Gmail, your marketing emails are likely sorted into the Promotions folder making them harder to see.

Coming in second was Outlook/Hotmail with 21%, followed by Yahoo! Mail with 20% and AOL Mail with at a measly 5%. The remaining group of “Others” made up 6%.

It’s important to consider that a consumer with more than one personal email address may be using a different email provider for their additional accounts. Their primary email (the one they check most frequently) might be Gmail or Outlook while another might be hosted by Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail. Or, the opposite scenario could be the case. Because email accounts are free, it usually comes down to personal preference as to which email platform an individual chooses when creating an account.

most popular email providers

For convenience, using a primary email address for higher-priority messages makes sense. If an email account was set up for promotional emails, newsletters, contest entries and such, there is less urgency to check it daily or even weekly. While an email account set up to receive messages from family, friends, news organization or package delivery updates is likely to be checked more frequently.

Woman typingBelow is a break down of email providers by generation. It shows how each group uses the various email platforms based on age ranging from the youngest (Gen Z) to the most senior (The Silent Generation). While the chart doesn’t specify whether Gmail is used more for people’s primary email address or for lower-priority messages, it’s clear that the platform is the most widely used email provider for a majority of the email accounts across all age groups.

Most popular email providers by generation

How many unread emails are in consumers' inboxes?

How many unread emails does the average consumer have in their inbox at one time? According to our survey, 29% of consumers keep their inbox completely up to date with zero unread messages after each visit. Yet, some of those new messages never get read; they simply get deleted. Whether individuals open an email or delete an unread one, the result is the same—a more manageable inbox. Fewer distractions help new messages stand out so there’s less competition for your attention. However, most consumers refrain from weeding out unread messages, so emails keep piling up.

Number of unread emails people have

Twenty-four percent of consumers have between 1 and 49 unread messages in their inbox, while 20% reported having over 1,000 unread messages! How likely are they to read even a portion of them before more messages come filing in? Twelve percent of respondents said they have between 100 and 499 unread emails, 9% have between 50 and 99 unread messages, and 7% have between 500 and 1,000. When does that number become unmanageable? At some point, messages near the bottom of an inbox won’t even be visible without scrolling farther and farther down or clicking to another page.

If you’re a business and your emails remain unread in nearly 40% of consumers’ inboxes (the percentage of survey respondents with over 100 unread emails), how effective can your messages be? And one in five consumers has more than 1,000 unread emails in their personal inbox, with nearly 30% of Gen Z falling into that category. If a business is trying to reach this younger demographic using email, the odds that their message will be seen in a timely manner, let alone read, are extremely low.

Average number of unread emails by generation

How many emails do consumers receive each day versus read?

Nearly a third of consumers, 31%, receive between 10 and 24 emails a day. A majority, 56%, receive more than 25 a day, and over a quarter of consumers in our survey, 26%, said they receive between 50 to 100+ messages a day. That’s a lot of messages to sort through, assuming individuals even check their inbox every day. Imagine those consumers going a few days or even a week without checking their inbox; the number of unread messages would quickly become overwhelming.

Now consider how many messages the average consumer takes the time to read each day. Our survey found that only 26% read more than 10 messages. The vast majority of consumers, over 74%, read 10 or fewer. If we pick the middle range of 25-49 emails received each day, and only 10 of them are read, that leaves 15 to 39 unread emails each day.

What happens to those unread messages? Do they eventually get deleted one by one or in bulk? Are they ignored and simply pushed down the list as newer messages take their place at the top of the inbox? It depends on the email hygiene habits of the consumer. But businesses should be asking how they can ensure their messages are being read when surrounded by a sea of competing emails.

The industry-reported open rate for business emails is 20%, with some industries seeing slightly higher numbers and others seeing lower. That means only one out of every five emails a company sends is opened.

Another thing to consider is the click-through rate. Most business emails are designed so consumers will click a link that directs them to their website where they’ll consume more information or make a purchase. Yet, according to Campaign Monitor, the average click-through rate is only 2.6%. Given these statistics, it might be a good time for businesses to consider whether email alone is the best tool to use for their customer communication strategy.

How many emails do you receive per day?

The disparity between the number of emails received each day and the number of messages that are read shouldn’t be overlooked. Why are so many messages ignored? One answer may be that consumers have multiple ways to receive information: email, messaging apps, social media, etc. With so many options, it’s no surprise that email has lost some of its original appeal.

When you consider that many people multi-task, and combine that habit with increasingly shortening attention spans, it’s easy to see why consumers are spending less time wading through email inboxes, especially when many of the messages don’t seem to be that important to them.

How businesses use email

The difference between marketing and information emails

Despite email being a low-priority medium for many, companies still use it as one method to reach consumers. Below are some examples of the types of messages that are most often sent.

Emails can be used in a variety of ways depending on the stage of the customer life cycle. They can start out as a marketing tool and transition to an informational one. Initial marketing messages are designed to engage consumers and inform them about what the company has to offer. Marketing emails are most effective when they include a value proposition that describes key benefits and explains how a product or service can solve an existing problem or fill a need.

An email marketing campaign can involve a single message or a series of emails that gradually provides more information to move the consumer down the marketing funnel from the awareness stage to consideration and then finally to a purchase. After a consumer becomes a customer, the emails usually shift from marketing to informational unless there are upsell marketing opportunities.

Informational (sometimes referred to as transactional) emails provide details that customers expect to receive while waiting for their order. They include order confirmations, shipping notifications, delivery confirmations and may even include requests for product reviews or feedback surveys. Informational emails are also used during the onboarding process to assist customers with new subscription services. For example, the emails may help explain some of a product’s features that consumers may not be fully aware of or even use.

Artisan carpenter in his woodwork studio using digital tablet

How Email Has Changed Over Time

The age of "You've Got Mail!"

In the 1990s, America Online (AOL) became a household name. For many Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, it was their first introduction to life on the internet. By 1997, AOL Mail was the largest email provider worldwide with nine million users. Its “You’ve Got Mail” alert became ingrained in pop culture, sparking feelings of anticipation and excitement that many of us remember fondly today.

Since those early days, the makeup of our email inbox has changed. Messages from friends and family, once a majority in our inboxes, are now outnumbered by emails from businesses. And that feeling of suspense upon checking our inboxes has slowly faded. More than half of consumers in our survey said they are less excited to receive emails than they once were.

Email statistics

When we asked respondents to share a single word they would use to describe their inboxes today, the sentiment leaned heavily negative. Words like “cluttered,” “overwhelming” and “spam” appeared again and again. Here’s a look at the top words we saw.

The results point to a glaring conclusion: consumers are inundated with email today, so much so that their inboxes have become unmanageable. It’s worth noting, that words like “useful,” “essential,” and “convenient” also showed up, but less frequently. We believe email is still an important tool for both businesses and consumers and we’ll talk about that more later on.

 

So, what’s caused this shift from a tool that was once exciting and fun to one that’s now overwhelming?

Spam and marketing messages

Spam and messages from businesses now make up a majority of consumers’ daily messages.

Email spam, often called junk mail, is unsolicited email that’s typically sent in bulk. We’ve all seen these messages in our inboxes—emails promoting work from home opportunities and low mortgage rates that are too good to be true. And who could forget the wayward Nigerian princes with their investment opportunities that you simply cannot refuse. Despite efforts to reduce spam, Cisco Talos reported a global average daily spam volume of 312.17 billion in May 2020.

So why should this matter to businesses that aren’t spamming? Well, even if you’re not intentionally sending spam, your emails could be flagged as such for a number of reasons. Not collecting opt-in, having low engagement rates and using misleading subject lines can all cause your emails to be marked as spam and banished to the dreaded junk folder.

In our survey, 60% of consumers said their email provider sorts valid email into their junk folder.

Junk email statistic

And if your business’s emails are mistakenly being flagged as spam, don’t expect the majority of your audience to see them. When asked how often they check their junk folder, 43% of respondents said “not often” and 12% said “never.”

Junk email statistic

But it’s not just spam. Regular emails, such as promotions, are clogging consumers’ inboxes too. All of this makes it more difficult for consumers to see the emails that matter to them.

Thirty-two percent of respondents said they miss important emails “often” or “somewhat often” because they’ve been wrongly categorized as spam or buried beneath other messages. While 32% may not sound like a huge number, the distinction of “important messages” should be noted. These are messages that a third of consumers want or need to read that are being missed.

How often do you miss important emails

Consumers are now so concerned with promotional messages cluttering their primary email inboxes that 62% create a second email inbox just to register for accounts with businesses or sign up for promotions. This allows consumers to keep their primary inboxes clutter-free and relegate marketing and promotional emails to a separate inbox.

Email survey statistic

Consumers want to receive deals that are relevant to them, and when those promotional emails become irrelevant or annoying, they’re quick to unsubscribe. Sixty-eight percent say they unsubscribe from emails “often” to “somewhat often.” Only 3% said they never unsubscribe.

If your business relies on email to send important timely messages like appointment and billing reminders, or flash sales, it’s important to take all these things into consideration. Is email the best way to get that message across?

How Email, Texts and Phone Calls Work Together

Email has its strengths for certain uses, such as sending large files and providing marketers with an unlimited amount of space to share a message. But for other scenarios, a phone call or text should be used, either as a replacement or as a segue into an email. Ideally, businesses should be using all three (email, phone and text) to effectively communicate with their audience.

Getting someone to read an important email (or even getting them on a phone call) may first require a text. Whether its alerting them of an upcoming appointment or letting them know you just emailed the next steps in their loan process, a text is the fastest way to get someone’s attention.

Consumers are receptive to text messages. Eighty-three percent reply to text messages from a business within 30 minutes or less, and texts generally have a 98% open rate (compared to an email’s 20% open rate).

Happy woman texting

Plus, texting is the way consumers prefer to be contacted by businesses, and it’s largely because of convenience. For example, we asked participants which medium they would prefer to receive alerts (such as delivery updates and emergency notifications). Sixty-three percent said text messages, while email came in second at 32% and phone calls received only 5% of the vote.

Choosing a text message over an email in an alert scenario has to do with the timeliness attached to such messages. Since email isn’t a high-priority medium, the recipient might not see the message in time. They could miss a scheduled appointment or updated delivery time, and emergency notifications (such as weather alerts) could easily be overlooked. It’s imperative that emergency alerts are seen right away, not when someone gets around to scrolling through their email inbox.

Trust also plays a role in consumer preference for communication tools. Fifty-one percent say they trust text messages the most when it comes to receiving important messages at any time of the day.

Consumers have grown accustomed to daily interruptions by robocalls, and spam has been a mainstay in email since its inception. Text message inboxes, however, don’t fall prey to those tactics.

Determining which tools to use and when with customers, clients or prospects can be drilled down to several factors:

  • Whether a timely response is required
  • Whether the business wants to ensure that their timely message is seen right away
  • The length or complexity of a message
  • The communication preference of the audience

There are many use cases for business texting but one way to think about it is as an alert system. It can be used independently or to draw attention to an email inbox or to schedule a phone call.

  • Need a customer to fill out a form you just emailed them? Text your customer that it’s waiting in their inbox.
  • Want to find out a good time to have a phone call? Ask your customer via text when would they prefer to chat.
  • Need to reschedule an appointment with a client? Send them a text to get it sorted out quickly.

Texting speeds up communication by eliminating the time spent waiting for a response to an email and ending the time-wasting game of phone tag.

Closing Thoughts

Until recently, many businesses saw email as the bread and butter of their marketing strategies. But one doesn’t need a crystal ball to know that new communication tools will emerge in the years ahead. Technology will continue to move forward. As Bob Dylan wrote in the 1960s, “The times they are a-changin’.” We can be sure that the ways consumers use and consume information will change, too.

When email was introduced, people eagerly signed up for personal accounts so they could be part of a technology revolution. Businesses poured money into marketing teams and IT departments to send emails and show how their products were better than those of their competitors. For millions of companies, the opportunity for exposure and a direct connection to consumers seemed limitless.

But marketers soon began sending an abundance of unwanted messages and email fatigue started to set in. An entirely new industry had been formed, one where email addresses were compiled and sold to companies so they could market their products to new consumers. Companies that people had never heard of began emailing them, including unscrupulous ones with malicious intent. Consumer groups fought back, and the CAN-SPAM Act was signed into law in 2003. To keep up with the times, the law has been updated to address advancements in technology that didn’t exist at its introduction.

While protections exist to help make email a safe and effective medium, consumers remain wary amid privacy concerns due to the increasing number of phishing scams. The question remains whether individuals will consider email an effective messaging medium in the future. Perhaps consumers will flock to newer technologies. Smartphones have already changed the communication landscape.

Time will tell how email and other communication methods introduced in the last century will fare. For example, how many voicemails will be completely ignored this year? Business texting and AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools such as conversational interfaces and chatbots are gaining traction and increased market share. Because of this, email may end up taking a back seat to newer technologies that make communicating faster and easier.

Who is Zipwhip?

Zipwhip Employees in Group Photo

Zipwhip invented Texting for Business™. Since 2014 when it first enabled texting to and from existing landline, VoIP and toll-free phone numbers, Zipwhip has empowered more than 35,000 businesses to communicate with their customers in the most effective way possible.

Zipwhip’s intuitive cloud-based software, enterprise-grade API and direct network connectivity allow businesses to use any computer or mobile device to securely and reliably reach their customers by text.

Texting is a universal technology that continues to evolve over time, and Zipwhip is at the forefront of the next big iteration: RCS. We are committed to innovation and will continue to enhance our texting platform to serve businesses well into the future. In addition, Zipwhip is dedicated to protecting the texting medium. We offer tools to help businesses maintain compliance, as well as industry-leading anti-spam safeguards to protect both businesses and consumers.

Our Methodology

For the purpose of this report, Zipwhip surveyed more than 500 consumers about their personal behaviors in relation to email. We surveyed each participant individually and blind from a purchased panel sample through SurveyMonkey. All respondents are from the United States and followed a census breakdown of gender and age. The survey was conducted in May 2020. No participants were compensated for their participation.

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