Does it feel like you’re walking on eggshells right now?
On one hand, you want to keep your job, because eating and having shelter are good things we all strive for.
(And I’m not keen on the idea of switching to budget beer anytime soon.)
On the other hand, the margin of error for looking like a tone-deaf, tacky sociopath is razor thin. It’s like shooting for a hole-in-one every shot, and if you miss an alligator eats your golf cart, your best friend and you have to walk home in wet shoes.
So how do we reconcile these two seemingly incompatible driving forces?
We’re going to go through 6 main areas to arrive at a game plan together:
- Auditing your activities.
- Coming up with a positioning statement.
- Creating a framework from which all messaging is created.
- Content ideation by paying attention to your own life.
- Marketing to people who can be marketed to.
- Fun examples of what NOT to do.
Disclaimer: This is my first pandemic-related marketing crisis, so take what you feel resonates, and leave what doesn’t.
1. Audit your activities
Do you remember that time you sent an email or text message to the wrong person? Remember how awkward that felt? Imagine sending thousands, or hundreds of thousands of those messages without even knowing it. You need to audit all your automated or autopilot activities so that you don’t look, and feel, like an idiot.
You should stop reading right now and audit all your advertising that’s on autopilot. I’m talking about AdRoll, Google Ads and any social ads. This is crucial because these are often rolling out of sight and mind. And consumers are hypersensitive to brands with poor taste right now.
Check out this ad I got from Hopper a day after the travel ban went into effect between the U.S. and Europe.
C’mon folks, read the room.
If you have any sort of email automation triggers, drips, autoresponders, etc., you’re going to want to read through them thoroughly to make sure you aren’t saying anything uncouth. Something as seemingly innocuous as a suggestion to “brainstorm with a co-worker at a coffee shop” could get you in hot water.
You want as much control as possible right now, and that means getting a grip on everything that’s on autopilot.
Action step: I recommend building a spreadsheet and noting every activity you have running, determining if it’s automated and reviewing the content that’s going out.
2. Create a positioning statement
You’re getting hundreds of these in your inbox every day. Every company you ever gave your email to (and some that you didn’t), is sending you their thoughts on COVID-19.
Rule of thumb here: If you have customers, you should update them on any possible disruption, or reassure them that there will be no disruptions. If it’s anything other than that, you’re likely opining on something you’re not qualified to opine on, or worse, using the situation as an excuse to email. We aren’t epidemiologists, and we don’t have access to more information than anyone else, so don’t add to the noise.
What we DO get to do is decide who we want to be in this moment. So in reality, this is more like a who-we-want-to-be-in-this-crisis statement.
Who do you want to be?
At Brafton, what we didn’t want to do was manufacture a hollow position statement because of peer pressure. Everyone else is doing it, we should too, right? Anything that resulted from that mindset would look and feel contrived. But we also couldn’t ignore the situation, either.
If we were to create a position statement, it would have to come from the heart, or not at all.
We took a step back and asked ourselves a few questions:
- “What do we do best?”
- “How are we well-positioned to help?”
- “What do we value as a company?”
The answer came quickly: Brafton’s marketing team creates content to help people with marketing. We’ve always strived to be an awesome resource for our readers, and we try to do it in a way that’s conversational and approachable.
Clearly, we needed to double down on how we’ve always best served our audience. Our role in this crisis is to be human, empathetic, to create helpful guides for marketers and talk to our audience like individuals, rather than a faceless email list. Here is the email copy we sent out to our subscribers and clients explaining as much:
Subject: Hello from one remote marketer to another – we’re in this together
Today, I’m writing to you as a person, not an organization. My name is Jeff Baker, and I’m working from a makeshift work-from-home desk at my house in California. We’re currently under lockdown here, just like many of you.
We want to acknowledge that a lot of people (including us) are very scared. The world is in uncharted territory, and to be certain, no one is unaffected.
We spent time thinking about who we want to be in a situation like this. The only answer that felt right to us was to be a helpful resource to our readers.
And we’re in a unique position to provide those resources; we have a team full of great writers, marketers, social media, SEO and video experts who mainly work from home.
We are perfectly set up to create helpful guides on how to work from home, stay productive, keep your marketing going, keep your SEO going and stay positive. We’re going to regularly share some helpful stuff with you, and ask for your collaboration from time to time.
Here are some of the ideas we had:
- Positive examples of organizations handling the crisis.
- In-house generated recommendations on how to best work from home.
- Guides on how to communicate with your audience right now.
- Podcasts that address our audience’s questions.
- Interactive surveys and summaries.
If you have any questions or fears that you want us to address, please respond to this email address at any time.
We’re here with you, as people and a helpful resource, not a faceless organization.
Above all else, we wanted to be genuine and empathetic with our thoughts and messaging. Nothing is easier to sniff out than false empathy.
Action step: Have a free-form brainstorming session with your team about the things your company does really well, and its core values. Your responses from the heart will be your positioning.
Extracting the core values of your positioning statement serves as the backbone of your messaging, from which all content is created. For example, the core values we identified were:
Every piece of content we create will be written with these 3 words in mind, from topic ideation through execution and delivery. Our messaging to the world will be shaped by these 3 sentiments.
Action step: Create a document you can share with your entire company that summarizes your positioning statement, and list the main values you want to adhere to with content creation.
4. Content creation
Everyone’s focus is on COVID-19, making it so very tempting to take the bait and stuff news-based topics into your content queue. Don’t do it. Here are a few of the main problems you’re going to run into if you can’t resist temptation:
- You’re not credible: Unless you’re a top news agency, you’re only going to be saying the same thing as everyone else, only you’re less credible than they are. Do what you do best, and that’s likely not reporting the news.
- You’ll never be able to use the content again: It doesn’t matter how well-written the content is, if you have “COVID-19” slathered all over your titles, body copy and URL structure, your content is perishable.
- You’ll look like an exploiter: Whether you mean to or not, a blog feed that has a dozen variations of “X ways to sell during COVID-19” smacks of exploitation.
This type of content is not empathetic. It’s talking at your audience, rather than with them.
Create with your audience
You don’t necessarily need to survey them, but rather turn inward and think about your life right now. Being vulnerable makes you human, and relatable.
- What’s different about my daily life?
- What things am I worried about?
- What do I need help with?
There’s a damned good chance these questions are shared by millions of people in the same situation as you. And you don’t need to be an expert to teach these things to people. Become an expert on a topic and share it with your audience.
Here are a few examples of things people want help with right now:
Concern: “Work from home”
For those who work online, this is our new reality. For many, this will be their first foray into social isolation during the workday, and it’s scary. It can be lonely, unproductive, and frustrating.
The tempting headline (talking at your audience):
“COVID-19 causes 4x interest in working from home queries”
A better headline (talking with your audience):
“What we learned about working from home for two weeks: Definite ‘do’s’ and definite ‘don’ts’”
Which version do you prefer? I would say that the second version works better for a number of reasons:
- It reframes the conversation from talking at your audience to empathizing and relating with them. It feels human.
- It addresses an important topic related to the crises, without making it all about the crisis.
- It’s timeless. You’ll be able to reap benefits from this article down the road.
Concern: “Creative outlets”
People are trying to fill the void created by not being able to go to the gym, play group sports, travel, socialize (in person) and, frankly, just fill the time.
The tempting headline (talking at your audience):
“COVID-19 quarantines result in renewed interest in puzzles and games”
A better headline (talking with your audience):
“Here’s 10 games and puzzles Brafton employees have been playing”
At the risk of bludgeoning this concept to a pulp, note how this headline moves from a one-dimensional reporting of a news topic, to a multi-dimensional conversation that addresses an interest, and adds value to the topic.
Engage your audience
Most people are longing for some type of interaction with other humans, and to see how they are faring. The easiest way to do this is to survey your audience on how they are dealing with certain aspects of work and life. When you publish this content, it can be extremely helpful for your readers to get a better understanding of how others are handling the situation.
You may start feeling the twinge of self-preservation sneaking in again, right? “I just created this content, I need to promote the hell out of it to justify my existence at this company.”
Go back to your messaging credo. Why did you create this content in the first place? Who is it going to benefit? Approach your distribution with the same level of care and empathy you used to create it.
Our core intention was to be a helpful and relatable resource for our audience. So with that in mind, we are creating and distributing daily resources to our readers.
If your intentions are genuine and your content is strong, you will truly help people, and they will help you.
Action step: Brainstorm with your team (or alone) about how life is different for you. What concerns do you have? What are you struggling with? Use Google Trends to confirm that others are sharing your sentiment. Become an expert on that topic for yourself and your audience.
An objection: You might be saying, “These topics won’t relate to my industry!” Granted, as a content marketing company, we have more latitude to jump around from topic to topic.
The second you said “my industry,” you disregarded your audience and made things about you again, and not about your audience. We are in a unique situation in which you and your audience are more in alignment than they ever have been before. That means shared interests and fears.
Explore what their unique interests are right now. Talk to them like humans.
Example: You’re in the industrial Ethernet node design and manufacturing industry. You tell me, “My audience doesn’t want to read an article about puzzles and games.”
No, they don’t. But you know that manufacturing plant operators are debating slashing their workforce to keep solvent. You’re afraid of that. They’re afraid of that. Here is your new headline:
“Here are 150+ years of research on how manufacturing plants kept solvent during global crises”
You could also research the hell out of tax breaks, stimulus package options, forgivable loans, etc. to create an insanely helpful guide for your audience.
5. Marketing to people who can be marketed to
You can’t market to companies that are going bust. That’s like throwing an anchor at a drowning person rather than a life vest. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore them, either. When they rebound from the crisis you’re going to want them to remember who was there through thick and thin.
I recommend splitting your marketing into two intention groups:
- Customers/prospects in industries that are not being negatively impacted by the crisis.
- Customers/prospects in industries that are being negatively impacted by the crisis.
The concept is simple: One group can be pitched for services tastefully and tactfully, the other cannot. Common sense will certainly go a long way in determining which is which, but you can also use financial reports and news (like Finviz).
It’s important to note that these segments can be marketed to, but the manner in which you do it can make or break you (see section 6 for examples of what not to do).
Here’s what we’re doing
For starters, we are using our messaging as a guiding light for how we pitch. That means a few guiding principles we are adhering to:
1. Acknowledge the situation: We aren’t going to bury our heads in the sand and pitch products like nothing is happening. We respectfully acknowledge the situation and ask our prospects how they themselves are handling business and customers.
2. Never imply the prospect is benefiting from a crisis: This one self-explanatory. You’re never going to say, “Your industry is exploding right now, let me sell you some stuff because you have more money than you know what to do with.”
3. Don’t exploit: It’s very easy to appear to be exploiting a crisis when your true intention is to just continue operations as usual. Revert back to using empathy, and being helpful.
Being genuine and helpful means finding out what’s going on in your prospects’ industries. How are your prospects managing? How are their customers managing? If you truly offer goods or services that can help these prospects, show them how you’re helping them and their customers.
Example communication with a non-impacted prospect:
We haven’t chatted in a few weeks, how have you and your coworkers been holding out over the past few weeks?
I’ve been chatting with customers on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Some have been hit really hard, and are really worried, and some are actually busier and trying to fill demand.
We’ve been trying to address both ends. For the hard-hit customers, we’re trying to keep them on board by minimizing monthly retainers and sometimes writing free content. For other customers, we’ve actually had to ramp up and hire people to help them with the increased demand on their products right now.
There is no playbook for this kinda thing. Anyways, thought I would drop you a line to see if we can be helpful right now. Hope you are safe and healthy.
What I tried to do here is: be empathetic to everyone involved, be relatable and be helpful (if possible).
There are no two ways about it; these people are scared. And not in an “Oh no, I’m not going to get a promotion this quarter” kind of way. They are scared in an “I’m a single parent, if I get fired I don’t know how I’m going to feed my kids” kind of way.
That means don’t pitch them.
For this group, you need to turn your empathy up to an 11 and be as supportive as possible. Going back to the content creation guidance above, make sure you create content that is going to truly be helpful for them right now.
There’s not much you can do for them; it’s out of your hands. But what you can do is support them with helpful content. Write it and send it.
Action step: Segment your customers and prospects into two lists: negatively affected and not negatively affected. For those that can be marketed to, do so with skill. For those that can’t be marketed to, be helpful.
Interesting examples of what not to do
Most bad marketing I’ve seen recently is merely the result of innocent naivety. At worst, these communications come off as tacky, at best, people will ignore them.
Being disingenuous or using the crisis to your advantage
A small fraction of these seem to be using the crisis as part of their marketing messaging, which is about as dirty as it gets. Here’s a LinkedIn pitch I got recently, and my response:
Starts with acknowledging the problem as an intro, then dives headfirst into a clunky pitch with a painfully loose tie to coronavirus. Bad, Lynn. Bad.
I would rather a person ignore the situation altogether and pitch me normally than having to read a couple lines of false empathy with clear ulterior motives (more on that later).
Here’s a cold email I got a couple of days ago that goes well beyond being tone-deaf:
To be 100% clear, this is not a company that specializes in sanitizing gel who is on a mission to save the world from a pandemic. They sell promotional products. More specifically, they spammed me with a product that is in short supply to increase their bottom line.
I think you get the idea. We don’t need to dwell on the bad here, but it was worth looking into.
Interesting examples of good marketing
There are a few companies leading the way when it comes to showing true leadership. Check out some examples of companies doing amazing things right now.
In the States, we have been woefully unprepared for this crisis. We can’t even get hand sanitizer and facemasks in the hands of health care professionals. Fortunately, Tito’s is helping by creating hand sanitizer – and they even managed to tastefully market it.
Loom is a video recording service. You can record videos and share them with your audience. They announced that they will be giving away their product for free to teachers and students in K-12. Not only is this a solution that helps a badly impacted segment, but they are guaranteed to come out the other side with more customers.
Ahrefs is an SEO/keyword research tool that I’ve been using for years. Being a regular user, I found this when I logged in a couple days ago:
You can feel the love in that message: “It’s automatic, no questions asked.” Sure, they haven’t shut down their servers and started producing face masks, but they’re doing what they can, in an act of solidarity. Good on you, Ahrefs.
If I said marketing during a pandemic is like walking a minefield on stilts, I still wouldn’t be doing the situation justice. But if we’ve learned anything through this exercise, it’s that empathy and compassion are the two driving forces that should serve as a framework for any marketing campaigns.
Again, this is my first marketing experience during a global crisis, but I believe we have created a vision that we can be proud of when we look back on this horrible crisis.
I think we will look back and say “I’m glad that’s who we chose to be.”