How to communicate during a disaster

Robin Emiliani  /  Mar 27, 2020

Here’s a fun game to kick off another week of self-isolation: what’s the worst brand email you’ve gotten during the pandemic?

If you’re having trouble choosing, you’re not alone. An informal poll of the marketers I know tells me we’ve all had our fair share of cringeworthy, eye-roll-inducing, dear-god-why-did-they-send-me-this emails, pop-ups, and social media ads in the last few weeks.

Which is why we thought today might be a good time to weigh in on how brands should be communicating during a disaster—and how they oh-so-should-not.

  1. Stay in your lane.

Real talk: we are all inundated with information right now—much of it conflicting. And sifting through who we should and shouldn’t listen to is exhausting. So make it easy on your customers and prospects and stay in your lane.

If you’re a financial advisory firm, give us financial info. If you’re a travel company, by all means, let us know about travel advisories, closures, and CDC recommendations to stay home. If you’re a therapy organization, now’s the time to remind us that you do virtual therapy sessions. If you sell toilet paper, let people know how they can get their hands on some if their stores are out.

And, please, dear goddess, do not give us medical advice if you’re not a medical professional.

  1. Understand customer pain points as they relate to your business.

There’s an old communications adage that’s particularly relevant right now: try to serve everyone and you’ll serve no one.

General messages of solidarity are actually just inbox clutter. Nobody wants to hear overarching philosophies about the resilience of mankind from their plumber or patronizing speeches about hand washing from their accountant.

So skip the general messages and go straight to your customers’ pain points as they relate to your business.

If you’re Netflix or Zoom, it’s time to talk about how your platform can handle the uptick in use while everyone’s working from home and staying in to watch movies every night. If you’re Schwab, it’s appropriate to offer educational resources about bear markets and investment expectations. If you’re Hello Fresh or Home Chef, it might make sense to let your prospect list know you’re still up and running and accepting new subscriptions if they can’t leave the house.

  1. Know when to fold ‘em—and how to talk about closings.

One of the best emails I’ve gotten in the last few weeks was from Switzerland’s tourism organization. They were writing to let me know that trips to Switzerland aren’t possible at the moment (useful information), but since half the fun of planning a future trip is dreaming and planning, they also offered up some of their best content—soothing lakeshore photos, essays about mountain hikes—to keep us all dreaming while we wait for the crisis to pass.

Similarly, a nearby restaurant has closed its doors for public safety (though we’re not in a zone where restaurant closure is required), but let patrons know they’re still doing donut deliveries, since handmade donuts are one of their most popular offerings.

In both cases, the businesses were sending messages with not-so-great news. Closed borders. Closed doors. But in both cases, the information was useful, and the pivot was to something positive. Future trips. Delivered gooey, sugary donuts.

  1. Don’t email just to email.

In the past two weeks, I’ve gotten approximately a thousand emails from brands just checking in. Every email is the same. Our hearts are with you! We acknowledge the pandemic! We care about your health and safety!

And while that’s a nice sentiment and all, it’s also useless. Those emails didn’t teach me anything new. They didn’t engage me more with those brands. They didn’t offer useful information or actions I needed to take. In fact, I find them irritating. Because in the midst of all this chaos, I don’t want to have to wade through 100 emails each day that don’t add anything to my life.

If you don’t have anything to say, you don’t need to say anything. You don’t have to publicly acknowledge COVID-19 for customers to know you know about it. Unless you’re providing something useful, resist the urge to create more content for content’s sake.

My favorite emails right now are the daily deal emails from BookBub and Chirp, both of which are humming right along offering me deals on the escapist novels I so need right now.

  1. Talk like a human.

We talk a lot about ditching jargon and talking like a human, and this is especially true when you’re talking to people who are under stress. Because stress impairs cognitive function, according to pretty much every scientific study ever.

If there’s ever a time when you need to ditch the jargon, disaster communications are it.

Bonus tip: keep your lists clean

If I had a nickel for every brand email I’ve gotten from someone I didn’t recognize, I could retire tomorrow. Financial advisors I spoke to 10 years ago, car companies whose cars I no longer own (this side-eye is for you, Honda), and quite a few emails that left me going “how the hell did I get on this list?” In short, everybody seems to want in on the conversation. And I am so the wrong person for them to be talking to.

Those irrelevant emails aren’t just neutral. They’re irritating. And they impact how I feel about the brands sending them. Which is a pretty damn good argument for keeping your email lists healthy.

If we haven’t heard from you in five years, now’s not the time to ask us to figure out who the hell you are. And don’t even get me started on brands that subscribe people without their consent, a practice one podcaster aptly calls digital STDs.

What you should be doing instead is cleaning your email list regularly. If people aren’t opening, engaging, and connecting, they don’t need to be on your list. Period. As communications maven Sarah Von Bargen puts it, “You’re paying for hundreds of people who never open your newsletters. Whhhhhhhyyy?”

Bonus tip two: be kind to yourself

So, hey, we have lots of advice. And some of it might feel a little harsh. Because what if you already sent that totally useless inspirational email to your whole list and reaped a reward of high unsubscribes?

The answer is that we’ve all been there. And we all need to practice some self-forgiveness along the way.

As someone who’s feeling salty about her inbox, I’m also here to say it’s okay. And it’s time to look at how we can improve our future communications, not mourn our lost opportunities.

And if all of this feels overwhelming and you need a little help with your communications? We’ve got your back. Reach out anytime.


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