As brand marketers, business owners, managers and modern-day humans, many of us have not lived through a pandemic, let alone been personally affected by one - these times are certainly trying, to say the least. Millions of us are on lockdown, travel is being restricted left, right and centre and global markets are responding rather unforgivingly.

While an introverted 12 year old Liv would've gladly entertained the thought of being forced to spend the foreseeable future in her bedroom, the sleepover-club vibes wear off quick once you realise you're pretty much hiding from the world outside. It's a seriously challenging time for society, meaning it's doubly challenging for the world's marketers and communicators trying to strike a balance between being empathetic and being ... at the end of the day, a business. 

So while we can't control what's happening right now, the good news is, we do have control over how we choose to respond. But there's no point getting out your Tarot cards and being all 'kumbaya' about the state of the world - this will not be a crisis that'll go away any time soon. While albeit an uncomfortable reality, as responsible marketers, we can't keep marketing with our heads in the sand. Our strategies must adapt! 

How businesses change their strategies during the coronavirus pandemic will separate the pro's from the amateurs. Those "last-one-on-the-shelf" marketing strategies will push out content with tone-deaf messaging and scheduled posts that resemble a pre-coronavirus digital world. Other marketers will simply employ copy 'n' paste strategies which will work hard not to ruffle any feathers, but as a result, do little to cement them as particularly forward-thinking. 

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So what does effective messaging during a pandemic look like? Well, while none of us want crises to happen, there's no better time to demonstrate what you stand for as a company. Communicating in turbulent times means marketing with empathy

But what does empathetic marketing entail? Let's start with a definition. In contrast to being something, empathy is something that is offered. Unlike it's sister, sympathy, which is a third-party emotion of compassion, empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of someone else and truly identifying with their situation. This definition translates almost perfectly to its role in the marketing world - as empathetic marketing is putting the customer at the centre of your strategy and remembering that they are a human being, and not just an end user of your product or service. It's about thinking less about what you would want and more about how it would make the recipient feel. 

Here at Neighbourhood, we certainly bang on a fair bit about Inbound and the art of marketing humanisation, so you can take it as read that we've navigated the empathetic messaging minefield. So let's get cracking on displaying empathy in your marketing and how to appropriately get your message across.


Communicating your Company Update 

There are plenty of legit reasons you may have to send your customers critical info, but it's imperative that you remain considerate in how regularly you're relaying these announcements, what sort of info you're sharing and the manner in which you do it. Let's have a squizz at some of the types of updates you might be sending and some best practices. 


The 'everyone-is-doing-it' Initial Response Email 

While the vast majority of brick and mortar stores have shut up shop, many businesses are remaining operational because either they can't close, they choose not to or they're adjusting their strategies / hours to be more compliant with the circumstances. For example, grocery stores and pharmacies (and apparently bottle shops?) can't close completely, and some really willing retail stores are welcoming customers on an appointment-only basis, or have measures in place to limit the number of people in the store at once. 

For those with a physical presence, it's a glaringly obvious step to keep customers in the loop about their efforts surrounding cleanliness and sanitation so they can carry on business as usual. But how much information is too much information? 

Consumers are currently experiencing an information overload (and a half), with every man and their dog blasting about how often they're manically washing their hands. No one cares that you've taken a newfound 'washing your hands after using the loo' pledge, guys. You need to think critically about what is actually necessary to share. So skip the hand-washing and 'no more high-five' updates, and instead focus on changes in your company's processes and procedures relating directly to your product. Or perhaps you have important updates regarding shipping delays, unavailable or out-of-stock products or policy changes - these are things your customers care about! 


Retail Shut-Downs

Sadly for many brands, their only option is to close their physical locations to limit the spread of coronavirus. While this might be a necessary evil, it may actually be a blessing in disguise - as more brands are using this as an opportunity to drive customers to online stores. In this case, being extra transparent about which stores are closing, how you're addressing staffing and how long stores are expected to be closed for should be on the top of your to-do list (pile). 

While it's understandably a bit of a kick in the shins to close your brick and mortar location if it's a primary source of income, communicating this decision with your customers shows you're doing your part to support social distancing and demonstrates your dedication to your social responsibility. Not only this, being transparent in this process ensures that customers are up-to-date with the best place they can continue to lurve on your stuff, so that they don't end up banging down the doors screeching "LET ME LOVE YOU!". 


As well as this, communicating your reasoning for closure, ensures that your customers know where you stand on important issues. While the resulting implications are far from ideal, your decision is one that'll create huge trust, meaning that long term, your brand will be your customers' first port of call, be it online, or eventually back in person! 

People are also very invested in the wellbeing of employees during times like this, so including info about how your company plans to work with staff is super important in providing transparency around how you're taking care of them. 


What to Avoid 

Whether stores are closing or remaining open, the general consensus is to encourage customers to shop online. While most brands do this with the right intention of supporting social distancing, there are certain messages and turns of phrase you need to be wary of! 

For example, while you may be feeling super charitable by offering free shipping, making your discount code "COVID19" or "coronavirus" is not only terribly tasteless, but also not how you want to represent your brand when you'e conveying sensitive subject matter.

Instead, highlight the ways you plan on giving back. If you're in the position to, think about donating a portion of your proceeds to relief efforts or help the community. This is a time of uncertainty like we haven't faced before, so we have to be seriously sensitive with the language we use in marketing materials - particularly as some people's health is being affected or they have loved ones at high risk. 

What you don't want to do is be seen as taking advantage of a crisis by using is as a way to push sales. If you're pushing products or messages, be sure to do it in a way that shows some level of awareness and recognition of the hardships being faced by members of our society. 

As well, pencil in some time to audit your automated email flows. Have a once-over of your content calendar and check, even if the content is coronavirus-related, is it fitting and appropriate? Ask yourself honestly, whether the content is still relevant, whether it could be deemed at all insensitive or whether there's something you can put forth that's more helpful. Ensure you strike the right tone with your people at this time, don't play to their possible liking for wit and pleasantry, keep it simple and think it through. 


Sharing Content Unrelated to COVID-19 

But just because you're communicating critical company updates doesn't necessarily you have to suspend all of your other activities entirely.  As I've harboured on about, ensure you think proactively about how you will convey these messages. 


Planned Initiatives 

Before coronavirus came and tipped our worlds upside down, I'm sure you were busy strategising various campaigns to pursue or deciding which efforts would best help you achieve your 2020 goals. There's no point throwing your hands in the air and going 'aw those goals were cute while they lasted', this isn't a time to feel sorry for yourself.

The good news is that you don't have to pull the plug on all the progress you made in the last few months - 'you shall go to the ball, Cinderella!' You can still push out that product lunch or new collection ... but take the time to consider how you can position it in a way that feels more appropriate for the moment and acknowledges the challenges people are facing. Be sure to tread lightly on the line of self promotion. 


Sharing the Love 

When it comes to building customer relationships that last in the best of times and especially in the worst of times, it's imperative to show empathy and understanding for how they might be feeling and what they may be dealing with personally, professionally and as a human. With so much of the content we're consuming being heavy and depressing, market your brand as a welcoming distraction to help consumers get their mind off the state of the world. 

Find that sweet spot between lightheartedness and compassion to delight your customers on a small-scale to ultimately make a world of difference. 


Asking your Community what resonates with them 

Pop quiz! What's the best way to communicate with your customers? It's easy really - ask them exactly what they want to hear from you. While it sounds like cheating, none of us really have the answers for how you should be communicating during these unprecedented times, we're all watching the same news!

As well as this, you have to remember that people are different, as is the nature of people, the way they'll want to hear from you will differ - some may want a long, hard breather from constant communication, while others may crave the certainty of frequent updates and communications. Small efforts to ask your customers what they want will open up the dialogue between you and those you value, and ensure that whatever it is you're sending out is in line with what they care about. 


How to Segment? Focus on Relevance 

As people scramble to make sense of the world around them when issues arise, determining who needs to know what is so often lost, despite it being simple common sense. People are being next-level bombarded by information coming at them from everywhere - the news, social media, their friends, their family and all of the brands they know and love. While it's super important to communicate information with your customers, ensure you do so on a need-to-know basis by segmenting your audience. 

For example, if you're closing all of your retail stores, consider only notifying customers who actually live near those locations. So say you were closing down your Brisbane store, you could email that list directly with the specific info regarding what the closing means and then send a more general statement to everyone else. This stops you from adding to the email clutter your customers are already harbouring and allows them to read statements pertinent to them and not add to the already great deal of stress they are feeling. 

For other messages and announcements, consider sending to a VIP list of people who have purchased in the last [however many] days. If you're a large brand with a long list of subscribers, this will help you ensure that your message is both hitting the inbox and definitely being sent to the people who need it most! 


What to Remember 

Just because everyone else might be doing the same bog-standard response strategy, does in no way mean that you have to do the same. The best advice I can give as you adjust your messaging, is to stay true to who you are as a brand. Be as real, transparent and authentic as possible with your customers to foster those relationships you've already built and nurture new ones - these will grow as a result of how you choose to respond in this time. 

It is undoubtedly a difficult time for us all, and the world of marketing is no exception. While it may be a difficult road to navigate, consistently learning, adapting and listening to your customers will give you the insights you need to keep driving forward in the best possible direction. As crises represent a 'show-not-tell' moment in the corporate reputation process, it's so important you let your true values shine through to reactivate your company's purpose in the world. Peace and love friends,  and stay inside!