Marketing Lessons Learned in a Time of Crisis

May 07, 2020
Jeff Haws

With COVID-19 temporarily changing the lives of everyone across the world, people are on edge as the crisis unfolds. Unlike so many disasters of the past, this time there isn’t anyone who isn’t impacted.

It’s a sad reality that major events like this happen often — pandemics, hurricanes, earthquakes, violence, terrorism, etc. — and we as marketers can be so involved in our day-to-day operations that we lose sight of the fact that each email we send (even if it’s sent as part of a larger automated program) lands in the inbox of a real person the crisis is impacting. And, even if they’re not directly impacted in some cases, they may be sensitive to certain content. It’s not hard to spot when a brand isn’t showing empathy toward those affected, and that can turn anybody off.

So, as email marketers, it’s important that we’re aware of the world around us. If there’s a major news event going on, that can sometimes be an opportunity for our brands to connect with our customers via personalized content. But it can also be a time to make significant adjustments to campaigns that may already be planned and scheduled, or to delay a campaign altogether.

A well-known brand learned that when they sent out a “Floating World” email to subscribers just as Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Texas a few years ago, and people were being flooded out of their homes. You don’t have to be purposefully offensive to be pegged as insensitive on social media during a crisis.

Today’s situation is unprecedented, though. Never in the memories of most people alive has there been a crisis that’s had such a direct and meaningful impact on so many people. That should mean that empathy is easy to muster, and it’s hard for anyone to forget what’s happening around us all. But that doesn’t mean that slip-ups can’t happen, and they’ll be costly if they do. How can we all avoid that fate? Here are some tips:

Tone and Language Matter

Always remember that, in times like these, people are hurting. Some have lost loved ones. Others have lost their jobs. Nearly everyone is nervous and uncertain about the future. In most cases, we can continue sending whatever we were already going to send. It’ll almost certainly be completely unrelated to the disaster that’s unfolding.

But if you’re a nonprofit that wants to solicit donations around the event, or a business that wants to offer advice or information, be sure you strike a thoughtful, measured, and empathetic tone in your language and images.

This is even true if, like in the earlier example, you have no intention of addressing the event. If you’re sending emails while lives hang in the balance, nerves are raw, and eyes are on the unfolding crisis. In all likelihood, that Marketing team wasn’t even considering Hurricane Harvey when they put together their campaign. But they still ultimately erred by not considering the content in the context of current events. Because of this, they brought undesired attention on themselves.

Here are some words and phrases it might be good to avoid in the vast majority of your communications for the time being:

  • Viral (Be very careful about saying anything about your product is “going viral”)
  • Contagious (“These deals are contagious”)
  • Anything health related (“pulse check” or “temperature check”)
  • Killer (“killer deal”)
  • Infectious
  • Spreading fast

Don’t Try to Sell During a Crisis

This applies mostly if you’re making any attempt to reference the events in your email campaign. Now is not the time to push your product. Unless you’re a charity involved in helping people get through the crisis, any email you send referencing the event should serve merely as a touchpoint to say that your thoughts are with those affected, and you wish everyone well.

It’s not time to think about the sales funnel or the ROI of this particular campaign. Depending upon your business’s location and customer base, it might be appropriate to send such an email. If you’re trying to help and can crowdsource your email list for donations that could make an even bigger impact, that might be a good time to leverage that list for good.

But a pandemic is not something to be made light of at all when you reach customers’ inboxes. With region-specific crises — and perhaps as COVID-19 evolves into having a greater impact in some areas that others — you might even consider suppressing people from certain places from some campaigns. When you do send, play it straight and compassionate, and you’ll be glad you did.

Run it by Several People

While this is good advice for any time, we can’t stress it enough when the stakes are the highest. Email marketers need to allow some extra eyes to look at a campaign before they hit Send in these situations. There may be something in the content that didn’t strike the content writer as problematic, but somebody else will catch it.

We might even reach out to someone outside the Marketing department. They won’t be as close to the campaign as we are, after staring at it for the past few weeks. We can tell them to read it in context of the crisis, and tell us if there’s anything insensitive.

It may seem like overkill, but taking time to have someone review our work before hitting Send could prevent us from going viral for the wrong reasons.

About the Author

Jeff Haws

As MessageGears’ Senior Marketing Manager, Jeff is focused on producing engaging and thoughtful content that resonates with enterprise marketers, helping them to better understand how MessageGears makes their jobs easier. He’s passionate about understanding the way data impacts messaging, and he’s also hopelessly obsessed with baseball.