Like everyone else, marketing and communication professionals have had a challenging few weeks. As the pandemic expands, marketers and customer experience professionals have done their best to keep up with and bridge swiftly shifting consumer and brand needs.We rapidly transitioned from a period when brands debated if they should communicate about COVID-19 to now, with brands tripping over each other to broadcast their coronavirus email messages to customers. If your inbox is like mine, you received almost no brand emails about the virus before a week ago. But in the past week, the volume has exploded. Brands seemed to go from COVID-19 denial to COVID-19 FOMO in a matter of days.

The global pandemic may or may not be a business opportunity for your company, but trying to make it a marketing opportunity for your brand is risky.

On Friday, I received more than two dozen brand emails about COVID-19. The problem is that few of these messages took a customer-centric approach; instead, the race to email consumers reflects a growing sense of brand virtue signaling or outright desperation for business. Consider what customers need and want to hear from your organisation to best help your brand while dodging potential risks.

Avoid Virtue Signaling

Virtue signaling is when your brand conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values. Today, it is not enough to tell consumers you are aware of and reacting to the pandemic — everyone is. We also don’t need to know that your brand is keeping your employees safe — we hope that’s business as usual. Finally, no one needs to hear how your brand is striving to continue its operations uninterrupted — it would be real news worth sharing if you weren’t! If that is all your brand has to report to customers, then you do not need a special COVID-19-themed brand communication at this time.

For example, my mortgage company, with whom I have a completely digital relationship, felt it needed to email me “An important message” simply to say, “The health and safety of our customers and team members is — as always — the most important thing to us.” How does this company, which merely processes my auto-payments once a month, have any impact on my physical health? And why would it be necessary for any organisation to state it cares about the health of its team members? Put that on the list of the many things I assume is true of every brand and thus need not be said, such as that it follows laws and that its CEO puts pants on one leg at a time.

The problem with marketing messages that merely signal your brand’s virtue without doing anything further is that they waste customers’ time and do little to impact your relationship. In fact, messages like that do more to hurt brands because of what’s missing — anything meaningful for customers. What one might expect of “an important message” from a mortgage processor during this global health crisis is information about what will happen if customers are unable to pay their mortgage. This email didn’t address this topic, and the glaring omission of content to help or comfort customers only makes the brand-centric virtue-signaling that much more evident and damaging.

Don’t Signal Your Brand’s Desperation

These are tough times for businesses large and small, and they are going to get tougher in the coming weeks and months. Companies can be excused for wanting to keep customers buying. But they cannot be forgiven for making their self-interest and desperation evident in marketing communications.

About a quarter of the COVID-19 messages I received Friday came from businesses with physical locations that wanted me to know they are regularly cleaning, urging employees who are sick to say home, and are still open for business. Those sorts of notices, absent any offer or helpful content, do nothing to differentiate the brand from every other brand that is saying the same thing.

Furthermore, if your company is considering a message to drive physical traffic to real-world locations this coming week, hit the pause button long enough to consider if that train has already left the station. Here in the US, the CDC is recommending social distancing of six feet, the media is full of guidance that urges people to stay home, and the social pressure to take action that saves lives is growing — this morning on Twitter, “#StayTheFHome” is trending. Unless your business is essential (to others, not just to you), then it may be time to shift strategies away from driving physical visits.

For example, a Sonoma winery sent me a message intended to seem comforting but instead sounded tone-deaf: “Our doors will remain open, the live music will carry on, and our staff would love to say hello and treat you to a cup of coffee.” Nothing conveys how much your brand cares for customers like telling them to violate CDC instructions that save lives amid a global pandemic.

The other three-quarters of COVID-19 messages in my inbox are from digital brands with little to tell me other than “we still want your business.” A clothing brand I love disappointed me by sending a seven-paragraph, 382-word missive that said, well, absolutely nothing. This brand thanked me, told me communication is key in times like this, expressed its commitment to my health and safety, disclosed it set up a COVID-19 task force, suggested I monitor the CDC site, and reminded me it has a website. At first glance, that may seem harmless enough, but what part of the message says anything that isn’t painfully self-apparent? It was a three-minute read to convey nothing unexpected or meaningful to the customer during troubling times.

That sort of message may have seemed helpful and differentiated last week before customer inboxes were flooded with soundalike brand emails. But, broadcasting such a message now will only make your real intent clear — not “We care deeply for our customers,” but “We’re still here, need your business, and hope you’ll spend money with us.” This isn’t to say your brand doesn’t have something important and valuable to say during this crisis, but the onus is on you to make sure your message is essential and useful to your customers and not just to your brand. Don’t forget the WIIFM.

Four Questions to Ensure Your COVID-19 Marketing Communication Has WIIFM

It is becoming impossible for consumers to separate the useful and crucial signals from the noise during this health emergency as their inboxes overflow with brands competing to be top of mind. Your customers are growing more fearful and anxious by the day (just like you are), and the brands that gain trust are the ones that bring comfort and clarity rather than adding to anxieties and buzz. Littering your customers’ inbox with indistinguishable and interchangeable emails won’t reduce customer worries; what will do that are messages that lead with customers’ WIIFM — “what’s in it for me?”

Take that mortgage company email message, for example. It was labeled “important,” but what is most important to customers right now? It certainly isn’t that the brand cares for the health of its employees and customers, just like every other company on the planet. At a time when many are growing fearful of their income stability and ability to meet obligations, the WIIFM questions a mortgage company should answer are: What do I do if I can’t pay my mortgage? Are you willing to waive late fees? Do you offer assistance programs to customers in need?

The same is true of companies encouraging customers to visit their real-world locations. Unless your physical operations are vital, such as medical facilities or retail selling essentials, it may already be difficult or impossible to drive foot traffic. Instead, think of what your customers need right now, shift to WIIFM messaging about physical alternatives, and make useful promotional offers. Restaurants concerned about short-term cashflow might offer a free gift certificate for people who buy one, encouraging spending without suggesting people take risky actions that ignore necessary social distancing. That winery who messaged me missed an opportunity to boost its wine delivery or shipping, and rather than promote live music events, people quarantining at home may appreciate live streaming concerts, instead. Free streaming concerts won’t cause the winery’s cash register to ring, but they may create brand affinity and help struggling musicians simultaneously.

If you’re a retailer that wants to encourage people to do essential shopping, now is an excellent time to give a discount on your pick-up or delivery services or extend a promotion on products that can help assuage the anxieties customers feel right now. Consider how to craft offers in ways that will appeal to anxious customers but also reduce your employees’ stress about managing stockpiling havoc. Promoting deals and communicating buying limits on in-demand necessities like toilet paper and hand sanitizers can make life easier on employees while providing WIIFM content and offers for customers.

Some brands are showing how to strike a balance between brand-oriented goals and customer-oriented WIIFM messaging. Laugh (or cringe) all you want, but Pornhub offering free premium content to quarantined people in Italy is an example of a brand raising awareness with a clear WIIFM giveaway to consumers. Spectrum is extending free internet service to students who must attend school from home.  SAP is opening up free access to its Ariba Discovery platform so buyers can more easily satisfy their sourcing needs. As consumer worries continue to escalate, the demand will only become greater for your brand to do something and not just say something.

The global pandemic may or may not be a business opportunity for your company, but treating it as a marketing opportunity risks reputation and relationship damage. This isn’t to say your marketing and communications teams shouldn’t consider and execute helpful and timely communications about COVID-19, but don’t miss the two operative terms — helpful and timely. It is okay to carefully and appropriately promote your brand and its products or services if you are helping customers deal with the health, economic, and emotional issues they are experiencing.

Launch your COVID-19-themed marketing email campaign only if you can answer yes to four questions:

  • Am I telling customers something different from other brands versus saying the same thing as everyone else?
  • Am I telling customers something they don’t already expect of my company or brand?
  • Is the WIIFM conspicuous in the subject line and opening paragraph?
  • And, most importantly, is the WIIFM attuned to your customers needs right now?

For many customers, last month’s campaign or offer may be as relevant as last decade’s. Consumer context is changing day to day, and it will into the foreseeable future. Broadcasting a brand message that helps customers deal with their situation today requires speed and agility, but the brands that do this will improve their chances to exit the pandemic with stronger relationships.

*This article is reprinted from the Gartner Blog Network with permission. 

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