Marketing’s new challenge: Moving to the next normal

Email Marketing

At the recent Discover MarTech virtual event, where I was honored to host a roundtable discussion, I was intrigued by a marketer who wondered whether marketing would be harder as the economy begins to reopen.

He suggested it was because the polarization that divides our society on so many issues now extends to the pandemic, and ranges from people who think the pandemic is overblown to those who think we aren’t responding the way we should. 

How do you market to both audiences without disenfranchising one of them? And, in this world where people take to social media within seconds of feeling offended, how do you avoid accusations that you’re pandering to one group or another? 

This is becoming more important now that businesses that shut down all or part of their operations are beginning to look at the best ways to reopen them.

In communicating how you’re going to approach reopening or ramping up your business, you have to consider this deep polarization.

You can’t appeal to all of these audiences. Pick the one you feel aligns closest with your customers and web visitors. That translates into how you will communicate your reopening message. 

Your communication strategy should call for developing a set of coordinated statements, differentiated according to the communication channels you use (email, social media, video, etc.) to drive home your message.

This will also give you the opportunity to practice empathy at the same time. In my last two posts (A new KPI for marketers: Humanity and Authenticity is now more important than ever during the coronavirus) I’ve talked about empathy, not just in your brand equity and brand voice but also as a marketer.

Whatever the direction you receive from your executive or legal team, you must find ways to tailor it in a way that’s appropriate for your company, your market and your customers.

These three steps can help you do that and will lead you to my final point:

1. Communicating a reopening message tailored for each channel 

Don’t repeat what brands did early in pandemic communication – pasting a long statement from the CEO into an email and knocking it out to the entire mailing list. 

What strategies can you use to make your message resonate with your customers? You can’t just send an email with the facts. You must communicate with empathy, to use all the tips and tricks you have as a marketer to make your messages stand out and connect with your customers. 

Here’s one example: Instead of the CEO letter, shoot a short video of your CEO speaking directly to customers and then use video-in-email technology to embed the video in an email.  

Also, we as marketers need to think beyond the message to how best to communicate it. What do customers really need to know? Will our stores maintain the same policies or adjust things like store hours, extended returns and mask and social-distance requirement? Do we have real-time content like a store finder that will link to their nearest open locations?

Thinking beyond the flat medium of email, how can you successfully use third-party technologies that can help you differentiate and connect in a unique way, such as real-time or dynamic content?

2. Don’t be stupid

Think about the unspoken message you’re communicating beyond the content in your message. For example, using a countdown timer that counts down the time until your stores open might come off as a little tone-deaf. It could work with some brands, but it illustrates my point about the need to walk a fine line about the message you’re trying to communicate.

This can tell people, “We are counting down to when we open the doors and you can spend money with us again.”

This purchase-based approach clashes with global research that shows a majority of customers either won’t go out shopping in public for a while or will be judicious in their spending because of economic constraints.

Think through the perception of your message and how it aligns with your authenticity, empathy and the public position your brand is taking. Perception is a hard thing to have as a marketer. We have been taught that we are not the customer. Now, in this shared experience, we are our own customers in some respects. 

We need to be able to project what our customers are going through. It has to be a team effort, however. One person’s feelings can’t direct your entire approach. If there were to be any greater example of a team putting a message together, this will be it.

A peer review can give you honest reviews of the perceptions your message could elicit. Sharing the content with outsiders could be a good thing, too.

3. Change your segmentation plan 

So many variables go into segmentation: states, cities, consumer sentiment and the sentiment characteristic of a demographic region. The cuts you have to do in your segmentation plan are as numerous as the stars, but one thing we must think about is this: what determines who gets which message? 

In traditional customer segmentation, you would segment by highest spending, most frequent buyers and new buyers. Those all have to be considered in the messages you deliver.

Your best customer might want a white-glove service. My wife is one of Nordstrom’s best customers. She got messages that explained how she can order online and get contactless delivery at the store. So, she went shopping like crazy.

Messages to different cohorts can show a connection while, at the same time, communicating policies meant to protect teams and customers.

What parts of your message can you dissect and emphasize to different segments? Customer- and interest-driven segments are subsets of top-level segmentation, which are demographic regions, business conditions and other factors.

Everything points to a cacophony of sophistication 

Regardless of your past efforts, today’s business challenges are raising the bar for everyone. This is the perfect time to retain outside agencies or strategists to help you navigate this independently.

When you seek help, you work with a team that share the expertise they’ve developed from working with clients from other verticals and their approaches. They can review your work independently, anticipate mistakes before they happen and help you with speed to market. 

The sophistication level you need right now is at its highest level for most marketers. An external company can help you bridge any gaps your team might have.

I’m not pitching you to hire an agency. I’m just addressing the reality we’re all facing right now. 

As I think back to my time on both the client and agency sides, and in my current post. I would have wanted help on the client side and would have loved to provide it on the agency side. I’m not saying you can’t do the work. But if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

This option provides for greater velocity of messaging and a team that can fill the skills gap you might have on your team right now.  Today’s fluid market doesn’t give us a lot of time to adjust strategies. What we need is speed to market at a scale that we have never seen.

Wrapping up

This is an incredibly challenging time for marketers all over the world. The definition of the right thing to do is different for every company, city, state and household. Customers are looking to you to assure them that their needs are being taken care of, whether they’re doing it themselves with your help, in combination with your government or other services, or wherever it comes from.

It’s up to you to use your intelligence and experience, your team and your data to define what “being taken care of” means.

There’s no single right or wrong here, just companies living up the values of business they want to run. We need to let the needs of our companies and our customers guide our decision-making. Let’s not judge or copy what others do.

It’s not an easy path to fight our way out of our immediate crisis and on to the next normal. Let’s use our collective intelligence and business experience to find the right way.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan is co-founder of Origin Email and brings nearly two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board. Ryan also works with start-up companies as an advisor, board member and investor.

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