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Email marketing for the next normal: How not to be tone deaf

small business owners looking on laptop

Businesses have heard and read a lot about changing their messaging during COVID-19, and a common theme is that companies cannot maintain sales-driven, pre-coronavirus email campaigns. Even during recovery, businesses must adjust their messaging with empathetic tones that deemphasize marketing-speak and seek to gradually reintroduce sales mechanisms for revenue growth and customer engagement. To that end, the following offers ten tips businesses can follow to avoid appearing tone deaf and position their email marketing strategies for the next normal.

1. Understand customer challenges and concerns

One of the primary tenets of successful email marketing is that emails should be about customers, not companies. Email marketing during and after the pandemic, then, should begin with a keen understanding of customer challenges and concerns.

Customers within different industries and segments are likely to face different challenges, so businesses can start by evaluating their specific customers’ current experiences and struggles. For example, a company that develops logistics software for shipping companies needs to address different customer challenges than a company that manufactures after-market computer accessories for consumers.

Still, some generalities can be made about customer challenges and concerns. As of May 28, 2020, Statista lists the following main worries or concerns about the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Family health: 64%
  • National economic stability: 62%
  • Personal physical health: 50%
  • Personal economic situation: 46%
  • Parent’s/older friend’s health: 42%
  • Food shortages: 36%
  • Political stability: 35%
  • Personal mental health: 29%
  • Job security: 27%
  • Rioting or looting: 11%

B2B companies might be more interested in the top small business concerns, as cited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

  • Lack of profitability due to decreased number of customers: 54%
  • Protecting employee health: 36%
  • Another shutdown due to outbreak resurgence: 34%
  • Implementing social distancing: 28%
  • Additional health requirements: 16%

Understanding customer concerns and the challenges they face helps businesses craft empathetic, sensitive messaging that adds value to their lives.

2.  Identify ways to help

Once businesses understand customer challenges, they can develop email messaging that helps customers address those concerns. This isn’t about product promotion, but rather crafting content that adds value to customers’ lives.

For example, if a company knows its customers are concerned about their families’ health, they can send emails packed with health tips. If their customers are worried about food shortages, a business could send an email with a list of resources such as food banks. Similarly, a B2B company might send a series of emails that feature financial aid resources for businesses along with tips for successful applications.

Relevance can help businesses distinguish themselves in cluttered inboxes. For example, a logistics software company might send tips for how shipping employees can protect themselves from the coronavirus during specific situations: at gas stations, during customer deliveries and in receiving bays. A company that sells office supplies might send an email that discusses coronavirus cybersecurity risks. A bank might send emails that help consumers decide what to do with government stimulus checks so they can protect their financial livelihoods during and after the crisis.

Emails that add value to customers’ lives and decentralize products and services help businesses foster trust, establish authority and build long-term relationships. Gradually, products and services that solve specific and timely problems can be introduced into email content; however, they should not be the central focus.

The more businesses help customers now, the more likely customers are to help businesses later.

3. Express empathy and hope

An empathetic tone goes a long way toward earning customer trust. Many customers are concerned, even afraid, of what comes next; businesses that show customers they truly care about their situations and share the same fears and concerns can lend a sense of solidarity that yields future returns.

Though email is a one-to-one communication channel, it’s still a powerful way to demonstrate how businesses are part of their customers’ communities (both online and off). For example, a company that sells office products might reach out to customers to ask for their in-office social distancing ideas. It could then package the responses in a second email that expresses the company’s own challenges with social distancing, lists shared tips from the business community, and bookends them with a message of hope: Everyone is in this together, and together, they will get through it.

During challenging and uncertain times, hope is a powerful message that carries weight with customers. Businesses can express hope by sending emails that announce new and favorable developments, such as a return to the workplace or reopened supply chains. Other ideas include detailed outlines that help customers plan for – and look toward – the future. In this instance, hope is about helping customers envision better days and reinforcing the idea that they’re on the way.

4. React to the news

The daily news cycle is full of ups and downs, stirring a whirlwind of emotion that can leave customers both hopeful and despondent about the future. Businesses can send emails that react to the news and ultimately help customers make sense of new developments, how those developments apply to them and what steps they can take to take advantage of or protect themselves from circumstances.

For example, nationwide protests have recently dominated the daily news. Some have turned violent, and small businesses have been looted and even set afire. A B2B company that caters to small businesses, then, might send an email that apprises its customers of the situation, details high risk areas and lists tips for protecting businesses assets in the event of a riot.

Another example: some recent studies have suggested the coronavirus isn’t as deadly as originally thought. A B2C company might send an email that tells customers what that means for them and expresses its own unique stance, which might be that customers should continue to practice safety measures to protect themselves and their families from the virus.

Again, the more relevant, the better. Companies should identify how news directly and specifically affects their customer bases, then send highly relevant emails that helps their customers respond and take any necessary action.

closeup of typing on laptop keyboard

5. Ask customers for feedback

One way businesses can show customers they care about their needs is to ask for their feedback. Doing so not only helps illustrate how companies are in tune with their customer bases, it also lends useful insights that can be leveraged into valuable email content and factored into business decisions.

For example, a local restaurant or retailer might email a poll or survey that asks customers how they prefer to receive their products: In-store, curbside pickup, delivery or shipping. They can report the results in an email that also includes relevant tips for safe and smooth transactions according to the preferred delivery method. That information can also be used to help the company decide which delivery method to invest in next or whether to continue curbside pickup services once the pandemic ends.

Of course, the results email can also demonstrate how the business is catering to customer needs, which can in turn influence sales. For example, if a restaurant discovers its customers prefer curbside pickup, it can follow up with an email that introduces its new curbside pickup service or shows customers how easy it is to order curbside pickup.

6. Support the community

Customers embrace businesses that support their local communities, so it’s no wonder the National Federation of Independent Businesses says community involvement is good for business. Companies, then, can identify ways to support their communities and announce their community involvement initiatives via email.

Ideas include donating to local food banks, organizing (social distanced) events that benefit community members and offering free or reduced-price products and services to those in need. Another idea is to rally the community together for a matched fundraising drive or other purpose-driven campaign, then send weekly email updates on donation levels and the positive impact participants are making on their communities.

Businesses should consider challenges unique to their communities and identify ways they can help, whether it’s providing support for families, helping local businesses survive the pandemic or leading an environmental cleanup. Email marketing can then serve as a powerful way for businesses to promote community involvement and earn credibility with local customers.

7. Carefully consider email images

Images are worth a thousand words, but often, images are afterthoughts in email marketing. Some companies use stock images to “fill in the blanks” or add visual appeal to their messaging, and while there is nothing wrong with that practice, it behooves companies to carefully consider what their images might represent to customers in today’s climate.

For example, a children’s clothing company might be tempted to use an image that depicts several children at play. However, that might send the wrong message in an age of social distancing: indeed, it might even turn some customers away if they feel the brand is tone deaf to the current situation.

Any images that suggest group gatherings or other restricted activities could be detrimental to a brand’s image. Companies should focus on email images that reflect contemporary realities: individualism, family and rediscovered hobbies, for example. Our children’s clothing company, then, might send an email that depicts a single child beaming in her new outfit.

8. Check automated emails

Autoresponders, abandoned cart emails and other triggered messages can be easy to overlook, so businesses should audit their automated email campaigns to ensure their messaging is consistent and sensitive to customer circumstances. That last thing they want is to send a series of empathetic emails, only to have that earned goodwill hijacked by a barrage of unattended marketing pitches.

That doesn’t mean businesses should turn off their automated emails; rather, they should review them and tone down the marketing hype and massage content for empathy and sensitivity.

For example, an abandoned cart email that formerly attempted to influence sales with an additional discount might be transformed into a message that states the company understands now might not be the right time to buy, then present customers with options to cancel the cart, save the product or even sign up to receive an email or text reminder at a later date. The email might also include links to helpful resources on the company’s website to increase engagement without overtly selling.

9. Send to segmented lists

Businesses have long known that list segmentation can bolster email marketing results, and segmented lists are perhaps more relevant than ever for marketers who wish to balance sensitivity with the need to maintain sales volume.

Companies can revisit their list segments – or create new segments – and adjust messaging accordingly. For example, if some customers have continued to make purchases throughout the pandemic, they might be segmented into a new list of recent buyers who receive marketing-centric emails. Those who have not recently purchased can receive emails that are not sales-oriented and rather seek to serve as relationship-building resources.

That’s a simple example of how segmented email lists can be leveraged to send unique messages to different types of customers so businesses can simultaneously generate trust and revenue.

10. Gradually inject marketing initiatives

As customers adjust to a new world, companies can begin to gradually inject marketing initiatives into their emails. At first, emails can continue to de-emphasize sales in favor of value-added content. Then, marketers can begin to add small advertisements and linked product mentions that are relevant to inbox content – especially if their products and services can help customers solve contemporary problems. Finally, they can begin to add marketing-centric emails to their normal newsletter rotations. With this strategy, businesses can evaluate performance and avoid any potential backlash caused by over-aggressive marketing efforts.

In addition, businesses can take a new approach to email marketing product messaging: rather than focus on traditional customer needs and product benefits, for example, they can promote how products and services make customers feel. This is particularly relevant at a time when many people are seeking freedom, liberation, a return to normalcy or new and unique experiences they’re unable to get due to social distancing and other restrictions.

The coronavirus crisis has changed customers’ worlds, and therefore it has changed the world of email marketing. Businesses that recognize how their customers are impacted and seek to help with empathetic messaging can foster trust and customer loyalty, then gradually reintroduce sales mechanisms for revenue growth and customer engagement that yields huge dividends during and post-pandemic.

The information provided in this blog does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice.

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