Staying in Touch without Touch: Covid-19 Communications

The bad news is most of the business world is staying at home for the foreseeable future. The good news is you have a captive audience.

For example, my investment advisory firm just sent a 9-page analyst note on the CARES act federal bailout and the macroeconomics of the global pandemic. Would I normally stop everything to read a newsletter from my broker? Probably not. They have sent seven market updates this month, up from two in late February and none in January. This is the inverse of the old corollary that everyone’s a genius in a bull market: the investment firm is holding itself out to clients as the sage guide through a crisis. Smart.

Are you too reaching out to clients and in doing so, trying a new approach in light of current events? In my last blog, I cautioned against sending email blasts to every single contact you’ve ever had. I maintain that position, but go ahead and reconnect with past paying customers. For instance, a fine food purveyor has included me on its recent email marketing campaigns. I only made a purchase from them once for a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. Now, they are kicking into high gear with the digital marketing. After all, they are a website catalogue-based retailer. I believe I first encountered them in a Facebook ad. Smart.

Now, they are hosting a virtual happy hour with a chef from a hip restaurant to discuss recipes that no doubt will use the olive oil they sell. I think I’ll tune in. Note: this is effective cross-marketing, especially for the restaurant that cannot serve in-house at the moment.

Stay on point. Offer an immediate solution. I just took a minute to watch a hand-washing tutorial video embedded in an email from Real Simple magazine. I had forgotten I was on their email list. Instead of unsubscribing from their emails, I know feel a heart-warmed desire to keep hearing from Real Simple, to which I used to subscribe in print. And, oh, I now realize I really should be changing the hand towels every day.

What is the net result of these digital interactions? I’m not likely to yank my investments from the firm that demonstrates they are on top of the situation. I might by some fancy foodstuffs online from a business I had forgotten about. And, I might start paying attention to Real Simple magazine again. After all, their brand is all about tidying up and enjoying your home. That’s where we’re all going to be for a while. Enjoy!

Best Practices: Marketing and Communications in COVID-19

You’ve activated emergency plans and all non-essential workers are logged on from home. Any essential workers are socially distanced. You’re using email to update employees and customers what’s going on. What’s next?

If you are rolling out a new service in response to the slow-motion natural disaster, by all means, let people know. Start with your email marketing mailing list. You may also consider Facebook advertising, especially if this product can be delivered or sold as curbside pickup. Or, if you’re in the specialized deep cleaning business, communicate that.

Before sharing examples of good communications, please let me advise on some don’ts.

And, now for the great examples of businesses staying on brand with their COVID-19 communications:

  • Tractor Supply’s latest email addresses its customers with “A Message to Our Neighbors.” If you live in a small town with a Tractor Supply, it’s where you go for everything from chicken feed to overalls, dog food to cookbooks and a bunch of around the farm and house stuff in between. It’s all about basic supplies for survival. And their branding is homey and comforting. The message is about easily ordering online for quick pickup and how they are treating their employees. All good stuff.
  • Team Beachbody wants you to know their on-demand exercise sessions are there for stress relief and exercise. The supply chain for their nutritional supplies is uninterrupted and ready to deliver wellness to you. The email reminds you how their products and services can make you feel healthy.
  • Next Level Urgent Care got right to the point in its message line: “Get Tested for COVID-19!” If ever there was an appropriate use of an exclamation point in a marketing email, this is it. The content of the email is straight to the point. If you are experiencing symptoms, it gives text directions to download the app for a virtual visit. “Once you complete your video visit and receive your test order, we can direct you to the nearest drive-through testing location.” This is the best COVID-19 marketing email I have seen. It immediately identifies the pain point and offers a remedy. Short and direct. Boom.
  • Who else is out in front on good COVID-19 communications? Big Brown, a.k.a., the people who bring goods right to your home. “Many people are asking the same question: is it safe to receive and handle a shipment? The WHO and CDC have stated that the likelihood of catching the COVID-19 virus by touching cardboard or other shipping containers is low.” Comforting, right? So, go ahead and get those things delivered by UPS.
  • Even Discount Tire is reassuring. If you need your vehicle to be able to roll on down the road, you can get your tires fixed… by making an appointment ahead of time, please. Usually, you can just park and walk in, but not so fast anymore. They include the link to book an appointment for “essential customer needs,” which include flat tire repairs and replacement of tires with unsafe tread. You can hold off on tire rotation and rebalancing. Discount Tire is.

All of the good COVID-19 communications share the same hallmarks:

Emphasize health, safety and well-being of customers and employees.

Explain what has and what has not changed with your product offerings or services.

Speak confidently about crisis management and warmly about a shared future in which we can all resume normal operations.

Stay well and keep communicating.

Doorbells, Drip Campaigns and Delivering Value

If you live with dogs, you undoubtedly are frequently jarred by doorbells in television commercials. I’m going to name names: thank you, Walmart and Stouffer’s, who insist on multiple doorbell sound effects in their ads. No doubt the creators of these ads know that dogs will go bonkers each time they hear them and, ergo, dog owners will remember the ads.

But that certainly backfires when your target audience finds your ads incredibly annoying. I have other choices and do not need to go to Walmart, and I certainly wouldn’t serve guests frozen lasagna.

Analogously, are there certain retailers who send you multiple emails each week? If it is for the same offer, this practice is called a drip campaign. If the campaign is promoting a sale from a store I like, such as Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft, then yes, I rather like the email reminders. But, if the email is from an entity I find mildly interesting, then I really do not need two to three emails per day.

Who wants to be touched by digital marketing that often? Some email marketers seem more aligned with robocallers in practice than storytellers. What are you trying to tell your prospects and customers? Too many drips can feel like Chinese water torture for the email recipient.

Also, too much frequency can suggest desperation. Better to go with one to three emails a week, not several per day (you know you have seen that in your inbox).

And only talking about products and offers can get boring. What value are you bringing to people?

For example, if you are selling clothes, your newsletter could include an article about how to dress up or down with key pieces. And, sure, include sidebars with special offers as well as high-end items.

If you’re selling a professional service, include articles that are useful to your target audience. These are articles should be written by your company and posted to your website. The articles should describe how you solve a particular problem. You can illustrate your expertise without giving away the farm.

With storytelling you are inviting prospects to learn something of value from you. Think of it this way: if you ring someone’s doorbell in real life, they would appreciate if you are bringing something of value. (I’m waiting on the UPS truck as I type).

This is why guests bring hostess gifts to parties. You wouldn’t show up, ring the doorbell repeatedly and then try to sell your wares. So, why would you do that with email marketing? The Pavlovian response you are likely triggering is getting people to click delete, or worse, unsubscribe.

Instead, relate something positive and inviting. Did you hire someone new who is a standout in the field? Share that. Do you have an insight about some current event or controversy? Share that. Can you open with an anecdote about yourself in your business? Share that too. Let your customers and prospects get to know you and appreciate you.

Katharine Fraser is a communications consultant, social media marketer and freelance writer and editor.