How should marketing lead during a crisis?
When the first mentions of COVID-19 hitting the United States occurred, I was in negotiations with a new client, thinking about my march madness picks, and closely monitoring the upcoming tradeshows for health tech. I was actually writing a blog here on Medium about HIMSS and had quoted their PR team on the show continuing despite the state-of-emergency issued in Florida and hit the submit button. There were not yet any tags or other mentions of coronavirus on the platform to my knowledge.
That next day, HIMSS canceled the show, I signed a contract with my client, and shortly after I discovered that the basketball tournament and march madness would be canceled. One of my favorite reasons for watching basketball during this time is the bracketology and cheering on a region to see who wins in the end.
I decided to create my own bracket, but for marketing. I called it MarCom Madness. I split it up with four different buckets and another four tactics under each. Each week, I would run a poll on voting for the favorite tactic in each bucket and then the top two would advance to the next round.
My buckets included:
The top two platforms for social included LinkedIn and Instagram with LinkedIn winning the group. The top two tactics for digital were blogs and email with email winning the group. When email and LinkedIn went head to head, email won, securing the digital overall winner.
On the other side of the bracket, the top two paid tactics were social ads and display ads, with social winning overall paid efforts. On the external side, PR and events were the top two tactics. PR won the overall external section as well as beating social ads, resulting in an earned media win over paid.
When email and PR were combined to find out the best tactic in the mix, PR won.
I have a PR background so I have strong beliefs in the power of a compelling message earning brand awareness and establishing trust and credibility among customers. But because we were in the middle of the crisis and I was having discussions with my client on PR and email specifically, it made me wonder about the MarCom Madness results.
In talks with my client, the CEO (like many others) was skeptical of putting too much focus on PR over other tactics. I started working with them right at the beginning of COVID and they realized that many of their conferences were likely to be canceled and lead generation could get stagnant.
Events were a big part of their lead generation. That’s true for most in B2B and especially tech, the industry my client works. Emails along with a steady and growing list is another big chunk of their strategy. So they wondered two things: where would they get new leads and should they even be reaching out to people right now?
We all received emails as soon as the virus started to spread. “We’re here for you during this unprecedented time.” Or the message changed from week to week. “Come on in for a massage, we’re still here to give you the relaxation you need during a crisis!” with a quick shift to “Closed until further notice.” In a changing and fragile landscape, getting the right message and timing is even more important than ever.
So, how do you avoid ending up in a meme for marketing during a crisis?
If you haven’t emailed customers in forever and don’t regularly, then it’s safe to say they aren’t expecting you or know your brand. You don’t really need to update them. You should pay attention to prospects or customers who do regularly engage with you. Offer them an email advising of any changes to your service or offer a value add. If you see that people aren’t engaging, you can limit communication.
You should always aim for quality content, but during a crisis, you want to know what your audience needs are. My client discovered a need from customers and built a free product to help during COVID-19. While it wasn’t treated as a typical product launch. We did let customers and prospects know about it should it be of value to them.
Collaborate with others
A crisis is a time for people to come together not apart. Especially at a time when people are in quarantine, the sense of community is even greater. Whether you create content, products, or experiences, partnering with others to support or educate the community is helpful during a crisis. Virtual conferences are happening from every angle to spread knowledge and positivity. Engaging with your audience and others is so important in the immediate, but in the long run, it will add trust to your brand.
Tell and share stories
Whether you come up with something on your own, join in on a cause, or share, spreading happiness is a good idea. My favorite is the Tik Tok Doc who encouraged staff morale at his hospital, inspired younger generations, and just brought joy to all. And the old adage still resonates, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
If we look back to the top two tactics in my bracket, email and PR, we’ll see that they are trending up during the crisis. Hubspot has a great tracker on how COVID-19 is impacting sales and marketing. This benchmark report is updated weekly and is a wonderful resource.
What they’ve found so far is that customers are seeking out businesses and opportunities more now than a month ago. Deals and closes are down, but marketing email signups, clicks, and opens are increasing. I’ve seen this with my client as well. They originally wanted to pump the brakes on email. While we did pause to figure out messaging and strategy and more passive ways to collect users, we found that as we gave more educational and valuable content, people consumed.
PR pros are used to working in crisis comms. They can probably whip up a response and message quickly to divert any bad feelings or negative brand impact. They can also find interesting articles to share with customers or partnership opportunities to collaborate. At a time when it could be easy to complain, look to pitch, write, or read an optimistic article instead.
And if you received an email from a brand you haven’t heard from in five years, go ahead and hit the unsubscribe button.