What we owe each other: Marketing during the unthinkable

The last time my city shut down for a while due to ~unforeseen circumstances~ was in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. The subways weren’t running, and it was impossible to get anywhere below 34th street. My office was closed. We were asked to work from home if we could, but for me, that just meant sending a few emails about delayed orders. It was a week after I got back from my wedding and honeymoon, so I happily used the downtime to write my wedding thank you notes.

This time’s a little different. This time – everyone’s affected. This time – it’s not just a forced staycation. This time’s pretty scary.

While companies try to continue “business as usual” (only, you know, at home, and with canceling every in-person event), marketers are trying to navigate the right balance of how to do our jobs. Pretending nothing’s different and sending out normal promotional messages doesn’t feel quite right, but every single brand sending a message about how they’re responding to COVID-19 feels weird too. Like it or not, the reality is, we’re the ones putting a lot of noise out into the world and online. We have an opportunity to influence peoples’ mental states, and a responsibility not to make things worse. We shouldn’t take that lightly. But we also have to continue to do our jobs.

It can feel jarring to see promotional messages about something unrelated when your entire headspace is about something else major going on. I’ve seen this on Twitter, particularly during very sad and difficult moments in time: celebrity deaths, mass shootings, your favorite candidate dropping out of the election (for example… ahem), devastating natural disasters. If you’re grieving and scrolling through an inbox or social media feed that is mostly people talking about the thing you’re grieving, and then suddenly see a brand shouting “BUY MY STUFF!”, it can really make you see that brand in a negative light. Like, read the room, Brand! I’m a little forgiving of pre-scheduled and automated messages in the immediate moments after a crisis breaks, but it’s still something brands should consider, and have a plan for handling when these things arise.

While every company’s situation is different right now based on their business and location, here are some things I would consider as a marketer:

1) Look at all scheduled or automated emails or social posts, including ads, welcome series, and anything else that you normally might not review frequently.
Is there anything that would normally be fine that might seem inappropriate or insensitive now? Are you promoting travel items? Do you have welcome or thank you emails with cutesy subject lines about hugging your customers or shaking their hands, or giving high fives? Trying to get people to buy luxury items, even though many people might be out of work for a few weeks and struggling to pay their bills? Telling new Girl Scouts about traditions involving holding hands in a circle? (Um, for example). Pause and/or rewrite it.

2) Is there a good reason for my brand to comment on this?
We all know that health and safety is of your utmost concern. That should be a given, always. You don’t necessarily need to alert everyone who has ever given you their email address. Some brands do need to comment on it: if your service is being shut down or changed, your event canceled, etc.

If it’s directly affecting a person’s relationship with your brand, it might need an email. Otherwise, you might just be adding to the panic and anxiety a lot of people are feeling right now. If you do have a reason to send an email like this, I don’t mind seeing companies share steps they’re taking to ensure safety and well-being of their employees. Especially if it’s something like ensuring sick leave/PTO for people who are unable to work or whose jobs can’t be done from home. It can help position a brand positively. But just like in any other situation – the best email to send is the one that has a good reason to be sent. If you’ve got nothing to say, then say exactly that. Relevance is always relevant. Et cetera.

3) If you are sending a general message about COVID-19, don’t send it as a transactional email if it’s not a transactional email.
A message from your CEO telling people to wash their hands and that health & safety are of utmost importance, and that you’re going to start sanitizing your store every day (…start???)  is not a transactional email. People who haven’t heard from you in years who have unsubscribed probably don’t need to hear from you now. If you’re alerting someone about a service change or cancellation of something they’ve spent money on – yes, that’s transactional. Send that email.

I’ve gotten several emails this week that are letters from the CEO saying how much they care about their employees’ safety. Great, so happy for your employees, but like – I unsubscribed from your emails 4 years ago. Why are you sending this to me? Don’t.

4) Don’t capitalize on peoples’ fears and anxieties.
I’ll admit – it’s been a rough week for me. I had to cancel my son’s first birthday party we were supposed to have this weekend. I’ve been anxious and had trouble focusing amidst everything that’s going on. I am clicking on just about everything that mentions this virus looking for news and updates. I don’t want you to read that sentence and interpret it as “Cool! More clicks! Let’s do an email about this!” I want you to read that as “My subscribers are real people who might be genuinely very worried right now.” Don’t try to sell them “wellness” packs of yoga classes to prevent illness. Don’t send emails that will make people more anxious, and don’t try to profit off of a worldwide public health crisis.

Here are a few types of emails I would like to get right now, if you’re trying to decide what to send:

  1. You’re probably stressed right now. Here are some pictures of puppies dressed up like doctors. (From any brand really, but probably most relevant from brands I would expect dog content from)
  2. Updates on cancellations of things I’ve signed up for with details about refunds/rescheduling (even if it’s just to say “this event will be rescheduled when we know it’s safe to do so, and your ticket will be applied to that event.”)
  3. Suggestions of songs/monologues from movies that are 20 seconds that can be used while washing hands. I’ve been doing Dolly Parton’s 9-5.
  4. Recipes for things using ingredients with a long shelf life in case of quarantine/difficulty getting out to the grocery store.

In the words of Jerry Springer, “Take care of yourselves. And each other.”





10 thoughts on “What we owe each other: Marketing during the unthinkable

  1. Common sense is difficult when all about you the world seems insane. Thank you for cutting through the clutter and focusing on doing the job of being an email marketer; doing it well and perhaps differently yet remaining focused on our audience, focused on relevancy.

  2. Good points Kristin. As brands, we’re often carried away with what others in our space are doing, and sometimes just want to keep the “pace”. It’s in times like these that we need to step back and reevaluate our communication from afar. Great suggestions especially number 1!

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