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Communicating with your customers during a crisis

Tricia Babischkin | March 17, 2020 

“Until this past week, I was completely unaware that it was critically important for every company who has gotten my email address to share how they are responding to COVID-19.”

We can all agree that right now we are all dealing with uncertainty. Many of us are now working from home, stocking our pantries, and trying to figure out everything from entertainment of children to the locations of essentials, like toilet paper. It feels like everything seems to be changing about every 12 hours, which tends to cause us, as marketers, to have a knee-jerk reaction to want to share information. In a way, I think as humans, we are all having that reaction to want to connect and some of us have a channel to do just that. But communication without a plan has led to my overflowing inbox and real desire to offer to help.

As I’ve been navigating these uncharted waters, I’ve realized that almost every company I’ve ever done business with has been trying to figure out what to say to me and how to say it – and frankly, most could be doing this so much better. Does your inbox look like mine?

My current Inbox overview:

  1. Businesses who are communicating that there is a change in events, hours, or other changes that will directly affect me. This could be the local theater that I have tickets to who have had to go dark or even one of my local shops who is offering up drive-thru pick-up for crafting supplies for entertaining yourself at home.
  2. Large businesses who are communicating what they are doing to slow the spread of the virus – most of these measures don’t affect me personally, like sending their office employees to work from home, or increased wiping of surfaces. Some of these are downright weird, like the large hotel chain who sent me more than one email explaining that they are increasing their cleaning standards. Let me be clear – at no time do I want to have proof that my preferred hotel partner could clean the rooms more.
  3. Business as usual emails promoting products or services as if there’s nothing going on. There have been a few who have tried to focus on ideas like “what to do when you are stuck at home,” but most of them are very obviously already scheduled and come off as insensitive in a time of global crisis.

I have a long-standing rule that I don’t ever unsubscribe to email – after double digit years in the email marketing space, I’ve been firmly committed to follow what is happening with the email industry. However, during this time is the first time in all those years my finger has hovered over the unsubscribe button. With that said, the team at ListEngage is here to help you focus your marketing during times of crisis.

First, let me begin to tell you this is not COVID-19 exclusive. These recommendations are relevant anytime there is a crisis, even when they are isolated to a smaller area – these can be followed when there’s a hurricane coming, rampant wild fires, or even a water main break in the middle of winter. If there’s a crisis, regardless of size, follow these simple rules to create positive communication with your customers and avoid doing harm to your brand.

    • If you do nothing else, please respect that everyone’s inbox is being flooded with emails and you don’t want to be the reason the recipient misses an important communication – or stops reading yours. Keep your emails simple, few, and to the point.
    • Once you decide the content is email-worthy, tone is key to respect. There is almost always a time for a little bit of humor, sometimes in crisis a bit of tongue-in-cheek wisecracks are just what is needed. A few of my favorite emails this past week has struck a good balance with key information and humor. Two thumbs up for the shop who was offering a roll of toilet paper with every $100 online order (while supplies last). But proceed carefully when it comes to humor and when in doubt, stick to the facts and keep your brand tone.
    • It is entirely OK – and perhaps preferable — to pause your regular promotional emails. You would be doing two incredibly positive things right now to do so – letting everyone’s inbox calm down a little AND maybe letting your designers catch their breath a bit. We recommend reviewing all trigger-based and automated emails to ensure you are not inadvertently sending a tone-deaf or insensitive message during this time.
    • If you are in online only business, there is no reason for you to send an email sharing how your company is addressing the COVID-19 crisis. You are not physically coming in contact with the subscriber, so this email is not needed. Instead, consider sending an email about how to use your goods or services during this time – Are you a technology company with a product that could be leveraged to help share information about this crisis? Are you a brick and mortar retailer who can provide food distribution to children who can’t eat at school due to closures? Can you offer your yoga services via video webcam instead of face to face? Or, offer licenses to help companies facilitate collaboration of a workforce new to home offices?
    • Consider shifting channels for communications. Right now, I firmly believe that email should be used for the very important communications: closings, hours changes, refund and/or rescheduling options for travel or events, and confirmations of orders/deliveries. Maybe leverage your social channels to talk about the human side of your business and your response planning. This is an opportunity to connect with your customers directly and build a “we are all in it together” spirit.
    • This is also a great time to look at your data. Let’s say you have a brick and mortar location, segment your list to share information about that location to those who have either done business there OR live within the radius to go there.
    • Think about what you can do to help your customers and maybe that extends beyond YOUR products or services. With so many things that are unknown, one of the most positive things you can do is to communicate to your customers things that can relieve anxiety. This could be everything from ideas to refocus new found free-time at home to something productive and empowering: food banks, blood donation centers, or even ways to support those who are most at risk during this crisis.
    • Speak to small actions that we can take, especially if you have a way to aid these actions, that are for the greater good. Can you connect people via video chatting? Can you set-up food delivery to keep servers working? Can you offer a way to entertain children at home? If you can solve a problem (even if it’s small) during a time of crisis, you are building brand loyalty that cannot be bought in time of non-crisis.
    • This is a time everyone’ attention is divided. Those of us who can are working from our homes, but we also may have our children under our feet while we do it. Businesses are already telling me that they are focusing on essential “keep the lights on” activities; so, what’s the marketing department to do?
    • This is the prime time for all of us to clean our virtual closets. Just as I have my kids scrubbing their rooms (hey, we all need an upside to them being home all day); we are focusing on the work projects that have been on the back burner, only after tackling your immediate communication plan. This is a great time to data cleanse your email list; build new segments; cleanse email contact data including the removal of duplications and updating email addresses; build new email templates; and maybe work on some of those triggered messages that you’ve not had time for with the hustle of day to day promotions.
    • Sit down (virtually) with your team and plan what your post-crisis marketing plan looks like. You have the time now to pull together a calendar and communication strategy that allows you to get back in the game, so to speak, as soon as things begin to return to normal. You may not have hard dates for when the plan will launch, but all the prep work can be done in advance and hold it for the launching. Your customers will appreciate receiving those thoughtful, relevant messages with in our experience almost always translates to making a positive impact to your bottom line.

There is no way for anyone to predict how long the ‘urgency’ phase of this pandemic will last, nor how long it will be until the new normalcy is reached; but the best guess is that will be many months before things truly calm down enough to return to our old lives. So, this is a time to think about how you can use these months to be prepared to when we can start sending promotional messaging again. I suggest these three C’s to focus your attention and make the most positive uses of your time:

CLEAN – Clean your data, clean your folder structures, clean-up messy automations and journeys. Use the time that we aren’t pushing so many emails out to focus on the infrastructure of the email program so that when it comes back, it’s cleaner and easier to use.

CREATE – Challenge your team to think of new content, new journeys, new triggered messages that you want in the queue ready when things are calmer. Have you been wanting to build an Abandoned Cart Campaign? What about a Next Best Product Recommendation? This is the time to thoughtfully pull together those big ideas and get to working on them.

COLLABORATE – Right now, with so many of us hunkering down into our homes the isolation can be the hardest thing to overcome. Consider working across departments in your organization to get some of these projects done. Reach out to your external partners to help you get to the finish line on your ideas. Even think about leveraging your social messaging to personally connect with your customers.

So – you get through this and now you are saying, “This is great, but I’m still not sure if I should send this email OR what I should do.” Well, I’m here for you. No, really – me, personally, I’m here for you as are my colleagues. Right now, ListEngage is willing to offer at no cost to you a consultative virtual session to help you design a strategic plan for communication through this. No big sales pitch, no hard sell – I promise – just a little bit of my time to hop on a video chat and talk about your message, your goal, your business and our suggestions.

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Tricia Babischkin

Tricia Babischkin | Strategic Consultant

Tricia Babischkin is a Strategic Consultant for ListEngage and recently named one of Salesforce's 2020 Marketing Champions. With over 20 years in marketing, most of that time in digital, specifically email marketing, she has helped hundreds of companies improve their conversations with their customers. At the end of the day, after she’s read the hundreds of marketing emails in her inbox, Tricia firmly believes and promotes that there is no more powerful digital marketing tool than email when used responsibility and properly. Contact her, if you would like to have her expertise enhance your email program at