COVID-19 and customer messaging: getting it right

March 26, 2020

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For everyone stuck at home right now, it has become all but impossible to escape the subject of COVID-19. TV news outlets devote the lion’s share of their broadcasts to it. It’s the topic of most every tweet or post in our social media feeds. And brands have moved swiftly to adapt their communications to the moment. As we discussed last week, there are many valid reasons for them to do so.

But while it’s important for marketers to stay engaged with their customers, it’s just as important that they do so correctly, in a manner that accounts for the stress, anxiety, and needs of people at this time.

Let's be clear: there is nothing wrong with marketing your business right now, and existing content might be just fine. You'll notice that there is still plenty of marketing and advertising running out there that has nothing at all to do with COVID-19. In fact, with the world so consumed by the current situation, messages that convey a sense of normalcy can even be a welcome breath of fresh air. Still, a measure of extra care should be taken.

As mentioned in this piece by EY, being thoughtful about how to protect your brand in the short term may be the best course action for building it in the long term. That means being deliberate and intentional with the messages you put out in the world.

Here are our guidelines for messaging the right way during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The right tone is everything.

It’s impossible to know just what your customers are going through. Some could be out of work. They might know people who are sick. In any case, anxieties are at an all-time high. If you haven’t audited the messages you currently have in market, do it now. Look for anything that doesn’t match the mood of the moment, and remove or replace it. Spots used for driving foot traffic into your brick and mortar stores? Pull them.

This isn’t the time to worry too much about staying “on brand,” especially when it comes to brands known for being playful, irreverent, or edgy. Far more important is staying true to your values as people working to make a bad situation better for your customers. They want to know that you feel what they feel.

Nor is this the time to go big on production. At a moment when the national news is being shot on phones and tablets from the living rooms of reporters, no one is expecting communications that are big and splashy. Indeed, the more down to earth the better. So if you're going to produce something new right now, save those productions dollars for better days, and focus on being timely and on message.

Have something relevant to say.

Beyond tone, having the right message is just as important. Make sure not to create COVID-19 messaging just for the sake of it. Merely saying “we’re with you,” is not enough without putting any substance behind it. Consumers are already getting that left and right. They don’t need or want generic messages of support from every single brand they’ve ever dealt with. What they want is relief.

That said, if you have something important or useful to communicate, by all means do so. Prioritize important messages about safety or disruptions from the norm. Do customers have questions or concerns about using your products right now? Let them know what you’re doing to address this. Conversely, you may have customers with immediate needs, but don’t know the best way to go about fulfilling them. Inform them about how you’re adapting business to the changing conditions.

To stay relevant when communicating with customers at this time, we suggest filtering your messaging through these three questions:

How are we helping our customers? How are we helping our employees? How are we helping the situation?

If your message has an answer to one of these, it’s probably worth sharing.

Know when to be brief and to the point.

In some cases, customers will seek your content out. In other cases, you'll be putting something in their way, perhaps through paid placements or directly into their inboxes. When you're the interrupter, it's important to be extra mindful.

While your customers might be at home with all the time in the world, odds are they’re also dealing with serious email fatigue. If you choose to reach out via this channel, you can help mitigate that fatigue by keeping things brief and simple.

This starts with a clear subject line that lets them know exactly why you’re reaching out, followed by content that gets right down to business.

Should people want more information, make it easy for them to find it. This is where your email initiatives and website need to work hand in hand. You don’t have to rebuild your homepage; a simple, easy-to-digest landing page can do the trick. In this way, you can keep them informed in a way that respects their time and doesn't bog them down.

Be willing to lead.

The more uncertainty that exists out there, the greater the need is for leadership. That’s true for brands as well as people.

Bill Ford Jr., has been widely praised for his servant leadership of Ford in recent weeks. The automaker has worked to repurpose factories to produce much needed ventilators. At the same time, Ford’s marketing initiatives have focused on promoting credit support programs that help car owners delay or defer payments. Put together, we see a major automotive brand wisely prioritizing service over selling.

Ford COVID-19 response

Other companies, like Apple and Nike, have taken a similar approach by closing stores before any government orders to do so. Not only is this level of corporate stewardship the right move, the goodwill earned will pay off down the road with everyone from customers to policymakers.

People are still searching and shopping.

As we mentioned before, people are still shopping, and it's perfectly okay to be in market reaching out to them. That also means to make sure your messaging is properly optimized based on what they're looking for.

Some people might be searching for your company’s COVID-19 response, while others might be on the hunt for a new pair of designer jeans. So pay special attention to the content people are served up based on how they’re searching. And make sure that this is reflected in other efforts, such as retargeting. As always, serving the right message to the right audience is the key to success.

Again, remember that there is nothing wrong with engaging with your customers right now. In fact, for many brands, doing or saying nothing can be the most tone deaf thing of all. Just keep in mind that it has never been more important to strike the right tone. Be informative, stay relevant, and above all else, show that you care.

At Slingshot, we're here to help, too. If you have any questions about how to create the right message for your customers during this crisis, just let us know.