The coronavirus has shown us all that crisis communications are one of the trickiest skills for brands to master… And it’s worthwhile to prepare yourself ahead of time, especially when it comes to the “direct line” to your consumers: email.
You rarely get advance notice of a crisis. You usually have little time to curate a response. And crises often wreak havoc for your teams, your business and your processes… A crisis is a communicator’s and/or marketer’s worst nightmare.
All the more reason to plan ahead… by paying special attention to a super-strategic channel, as it is one of your direct lines to your consumers: email.
The coronavirus pandemic: A crash test… that we mostly failed
Friday the 13th, springtime on the horizon, along with its attending collections and fashion shows, St Patrick’s Day (a major event for English-speaking markets), travel planning for spring break and summer vacation, and the list goes on: mid-March 2020 was particularly conducive to marketing campaigns.
Long in the works, with events already scheduled, all hopes for these campaigns were crushed like bugs on Friday the 13th and the following weekend…
Brands disconnected from reality?
The risk was outright rejection by consumers, who undoubtedly had other concerns in mind than our promotions, deals and other special operations, while they were making arrangements to stay at home, look after their children… and worry about a whole bunch of practical and health-related questions.
In reality, only a handful advertisers communicated about the steps they were taking on March 13. A few more over the course of the weekend. And the vast majority, the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. An eternity in crisis communications…
And the timing didn’t help…
It’s true that the timing for managing the coronavirus crisis was far from ideal for marketing and CRM teams in France, for example: an initial series of harsh but vague measures were announced Thursday night, with the weekend right on its heels, and then further restrictions issued Monday night… It wasn’t easy to organize our messaging, when the ground kept shifting below us.
But, as noted by Gartner’s customer experience expert Augie Ray, “brands seemed to go from COVID-19 denial to COVID-19 FOMO [fear of missing out] in a matter of days.” And the ensuing overload of messages wasn’t necessarily any better than the radio silence of those first few days…
Lesson learned: You need a ready-made crisis plan for your email
What has the unprecedented crisis associated with the COVID-19 pandemic taught us? That marketers have everything to gain from developing a clear plan of action, in the event of a crisis. And that a significant proportion of their communications during a period of turbulence will go through the channels they use to maintain their closest ties to their customers: email and social media.
The Eight Commandments of good crisis communication via email
1. Hit pause on your usual campaigns
If the crisis looks to be a major one, and even if it breaks the hearts of the teams who spent so much time and energy on them, you should ask yourself whether you need to stop all of your planned campaigns in their tracks.
How do you decide if a campaign needs to be sacrificed? At the very least, if either of these is true:
- it makes you look opportunistic (or, worse yet, desperate): you will give the impression of “cashing in on” current events…
- it makes you seem “uprooted” or out-of-step, disconnected from events or on autopilot, due to your lack of responsiveness and agility…
In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly all classic email marketing campaigns fell into one of these two categories. But not all crises will have the same scope or severity, so you will need to assess, on a case-by-case basis and depending on the context, whether hitting “send” will do more harm than good to your brand…
2. Establish whether (or not) you should say something
Yes, the pandemic is THE subject of the moment. Of course, it is important for you to maintain your ties to your customers. Does that mean you need to urgently send an email about the crisis out to your whole customer base? Not necessarily…
In the previously mentioned Gartner article, the author recommends asking yourself these two questions:
- Are you being original? Is your message any different from other brands, or is it just more of the same? Don’t forget that “your” subscribers will be receiving dozens of messages from other brands, on the same subject, at the same time…
- Is the content of your message unexpected? Or is it completely obvious? Did you have to close your stores. Almost every retailer did. Is your priority the health and safety of your teams and customers? The only surprising thing would be if it wasn’t…
And then another two questions before you send out your message:
- Is the benefit to your readers conspicuous and clear in the subject line and first paragraph of your email?
- Is that benefit essential or at least of interest to your recipients right now?
Did you answer “yes” to these four questions? Well, now that you’re clear about the appropriateness of sending a message, and about the substance of that message, let’s move on to the form…
3. Be empathetic
The first condition that you need to meet, in order for your message to find favor with your recipients is that it should consider their point of view, their worries and the problems that they are experiencing during this crisis.
There is no need for sleight of hand or fine words to convey your empathy: if your customers aren’t really a “community” or, even less so, a “family” (and, objectively speaking, this is rarely the case), just skip these words altogether. Instead, simply let them know that:
- you are aware that everyone is having a hard time
- in this situation, your message may not be essential, but it might be useful.
France’s Oxybul, Evaneos and Petit Bateau, along with US-based Rhone, did this very well, using very different styles.
4. Offer solutions
Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and considering their difficulties will be all the more appreciated, if you can offer them a response to their concerns.
In your “crisis” email(s), provide practical, usable information:
- if your stores are closed, is it all of them? only some of them (and, if so, which ones)?
- if your shipping terms have changed, how? and how can your clients adapt? what do they need to know before placing an order? and what about their existing orders? what health measures do they need to take for a delivery or a visit?
- if your service has been disrupted, how have you resolved those issues? when do you expect to get back to business as usual? who can they contact for information or compensation?
- lastly, remember to synchronize all of your communication channels: now is the time to remind your customers of your active social media accounts, the communities you lead, the contact information for your customer service team, etc.
Here again, the approaches taken may vary: FAQ-based for Selency, corporate for Fnac Darty, and highly pragmatic for Quitoque and Leroy Merlin… The most important is that you answer the questions that your recipients may have.
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5. Make a gesture
To simplify the lives of those of your customers who get supplies from you, to reassure potential customers and remove any obstacles in their way, or to demonstrate the usefulness of your product and gain new frequent buyers: in times of crisis, any attentions that will ease your customers’ lives will be welcome!
You can also make your gesture to other groups. Once the astonishment of the first few days had passed, a number of brands displayed some generosity (donating masks and fund for first responders). All of these gestures can be highlighted in your emails. Without boasting too much, of course.
Free delivery (Kiabi), expanded premium options (Vestiaire Collective), services (Majelan) and donations (Courir) generously offered: here are four examples of brands that fully understood that they could acquire the most loyal customers by being present in difficult times…
6. Personify your messages
When the situation is serious, do you want your message to be conveyed by some firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or – even worse! – firstname.lastname@example.org? On the contrary, this is a time to bring an executive or your team into your emails… of anyone capable of personifying, representing and humanizing your brand and your message.
That message will differ, depending on your brand identity, your tone and your proximity to your audiences. Here are five examples: where Public Goods showcased its teams (and their appreciated tips for dealing with the lockdown), Tape à l’Oeil, Maisons du Monde, Ponant and Dior shrewdly put their CEOs on the front line. Each with very different message formats that reflect their respective market positioning…
7. Stay in touch
A crisis is rarely limited to a single shock. There are often aftershocks, with changeable, unpredictable situations… to which your teams will have to adapt, and about which you will need to inform your customers quickly. Whence the importance of keeping it touch with them, and the strategic role of email in this type of scenario. And this is true, even if your business has shut down, as has been the case with the travel and tourism industry and, more generally, any “non-essential” goods, during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, see how Center Parcs and Nature & Découvertes reacted to the situation by reaffirming their positioning and their missions in these emails…
8. Pay attention to details
Because you will have a sense of urgency, weighing every word in your subject lines, pre-headers and main bodies of text… in a crisis period, you could easily overlook some details that might carry some real weight.
To give you an example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, countless retailers wrote to their subscribers, informing them that their stores were temporarily closed, but that orders could still be placed online. What’s wrong with that? Well, 9 times out of 10, their footers or “service” blocks continued to offer a store locator, free delivery or express in-store delivery… completely contradicting the preceding message.
Our advice to you is to create an emergency template now, stripped of all excess artifice, so that, in case of need, you can focus your work on as few points as possible. Or else, you could design a special “crisis footer,” to be used in those circumstances…
Our conclusion? Crisis communications are not something you want to improvise. Instead, you need to be responsive, have perfect timing, get some distance and display empathy… In other words, you need to square the circle!
To navigate the pitfalls of the current crisis and maximize your chances of handling the next one as well as possible (which will, we hope, be a long way off!), there is no better solution than to lay as much groundwork as you can, in advance.
Having a whole arsenal of ready-to-use communications will help you avoid many a misstep, when the fateful day arrives. Not to mention preparing for recovery by starting work now that will make your future campaigns a dazzling success: triggers, animation, dark mode, and so on. So many options are open to you!
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