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The Modern Marketing Blog covers the latest in marketing strategy, technology, and innovation.

How to Adjust Your Email Strategy When Coronavirus Restrictions Ease

Chad S. White
Head of Strategic Research

We’ve talked in recent weeks about how marketers should respond to the systemic shock caused by coronavirus:

Now businesses are facing questions around how to handle the easing of coronavirus restrictions as economies re-open.

Oracle’s CX Marketing Consulting experts see companies as needing to make adjustments that are similar to the adjustments they made at the start of the crisis, but with some notable differences. Many of those differences stem from this critical fact: While the stay-at-home orders on the frontend of this crisis were a sudden and largely national experience, the reopening will be a gradual experience at the local and regional level.

While it adds complexity, the phased reopening will allow brands to test and learn in a way that was simply impossible early on in this crisis when everything happened so quickly. The more gradual nature of the re-opening is a huge factor in our advice for brands, which starts with your...

Reopening Messaging

In many ways, your re-opening messaging will be quite similar to the crisis messaging you sent in response to the coronavirus shelter-in-place decrees. You’ll want to use clear subject lines and preview text, and you’ll want to use geosegmentation to get these emails to the right subscribers, if you have locations that are re-opening on different dates.

Most of all, you’ll want to once again make sure that you’re addressing your customers’ most urgent questions. That might include questions like:

  • How are you going to keep shoppers and employees safe at your locations? What do they need to know before they arrive? For instance, do they need to wear a facemask? Are their temperatures going to be taken? Are they going to have to take a coronavirus screening test to use your service and, if so, what will that look like? Is there going to be a limit on how many people are allowed in your locations at once? How are you enforcing social distancing? For instance, are you removing seating capacity, blocking off seating that can’t be removed, or making shopping aisles one-way?

  • Are you going to help enable contact tracing by requiring reservations or keeping a log of visitors? Is it mandatory for visitors to participate?

  • Are you using new contactless payment methods? Where can customers find more information on what’s supported and how to use it?

  • Are there new buying policies customers should know about? What’s your cancellation and rescheduling policy, especially for services like travel and entertainment that aren’t taking place until weeks or months in the future? Are you allowing refunds on purchases for an extended period of time? If you’re a retailer, what’s the current return policy, especially for purchases made before the lockdowns? Will returned items be quarantined for a period of time before they’re placed back on store shelves?

  • What are your days and hours of operation? (Even if they are the same as before the lockdowns, it’s probably best to reiterate them since so many businesses have changed hours.)

  • Will you continue to support the new fulfillment options that you put in place during the lockdowns such as curbside pickup?

As you’re seeking to answer these questions for your customers, make sure you have a firm grasp of your operational capabilities, says JT Capps, Director of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“It is also necessary to ‘test’ your customer experience to ensure that the messaging created during this critical time does in fact align with operational realities in order to best manage the expectations of your customers,” he says. “Take the opportunity to make timely and relevant updates that demonstrate real action and material changes that provide the best experience possible.”

Beyond those similarities to crisis messaging, your re-opening message will be different in three key ways. First, you’ll have more time to prepare this messaging. That means that you’ll be able to focus group it, either formally or informally, and refine the messaging. This also means that you’ll have more time to invest in email design and quality assurance. 

Second, reopening messages historically have tended to be significantly more upbeat than crisis messaging, using more imagery and more color. However, the current re-openings are taking place in less than triumphant circumstances. While more imagery and color aren’t out of the question in these circumstances, a good rule is that the more you try to communicate in your reopening message, the more it should look and feel like crisis messaging. That should help you streamline your email content and, more importantly, keep the appropriate tone. 

And third, as mentioned earlier, this will be an iterative process because of staggered re-openings. That means that A/B testing and post-send analysis will be key to learning how best to communicate this critical messaging to your customers so that your business is able to maximize the bounce they get from the reopening.

“Test send time, personalization tactics, and messaging against various segments—from your engaged subscribers to recently engaged to unengaged,” says Autumn Coleman, Consulting Technical Manager at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Take the learnings to apply to larger segments, to segments that are reopening later, and to later campaigns.”

After your reopening messaging, prioritize...

Adjusting to Your Customers’ New Normal

Just like we saw changes in email behavior and shifts in consumer preferences during the lockdowns, we’ll see more changes. In many cases, we’ll see behaviors reverting, either partially or completely depending on what the change was. But at the same time, some people have made lasting changes to their behaviors because of this ordeal, especially if lockdowns were longer and outbreaks were more serious where they live. Also, many people are in a very different financial situation now than they were in February. For all those reasons, some of your customers’ needs, priorities, and values will be changing. 

However, many of these changes will be more gradual due to the staggered re-openings and the responses of individual consumers. Rather than thinking of your customers’ establishing a monolithic new normal, it’s strategically much more helpful to think of each of your customers as establishing their own new normal.   

Approaching it with that mindset presents a great opportunity to use a variety of strategies and tools to boost your performance, especially on the regional and individual level. Here are some of the needs that we see:

Create new personas and adapt existing ones.

Because of all the behavior shifts, you’ll want to revisit your personas and ensure that they’re still in line with your customer base. For example, after the re-openings, retailers’ online-only buyers are likely to be motivated by new factors like safety, and not just by convenience and inventory transparency. Early recreational travelers may be motivated by attractive deals or less-crowded destinations. Understanding the motivations of these different customer segments allows you to effectively engage them with messaging.

Virtual focus groups, surveys, and other tools can help you get a handle on new and shifting personas within your customer base.

Partner with your customer service operations to collect customer intel.

We recommend regularly meeting with your customer service colleagues, who are valuable sources of information about the attitudes, concerns, and needs of your customers. Insights from your customer service team can help flesh out your personas and can give you ideas of potential trends and behaviors to search out in your analytics that you can then build messaging to address. 

Improve your analytics and performance visibility.

Because the reopening will be so noisy from a data perspective, you’ll want…

  • Regionalized reporting aligned with the reopening of cities of states and with the reopening of your locations so you can understand how each region is performing

  • Persona-based segment reporting so you can see changes within these groups

  • Detailed reporting on actions taken throughout the funnel

This will allow you to see emerging trends that you can amplify. It can also tell you if there’s confusion among your audience, says Otilia Antipa, Principal B2B Consultant at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“Are they opening your email several times? Are they visiting your website more than usual? Are they forwarding your email?” she says. “These could all be indicators you need to follow up with them in your communication more clearly.” 

Do progressive profiling and surveying.

Analytics are great and vital for getting feedback on what you’ve done, but if you want to get the right message to the right subscribers on the first attempt, then the most effective way is to simply ask your customers directly about their plans and concerns. This is especially true when customer priorities are making big shifts like they are right now. 

Surveys, quizzes, and other progressive profiling devices are great ways to accomplish this among your subscribers, says Reed Pankratz, Senior Strategic Consultant for Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“I recently received one such survey from a golf retailer, which gave me 50 loyalty points for filling it out,” he says. “They captured a lot of information that would be really useful, not only for understanding their customers at large, but for targeting individual subscribers with targeted messaging based on their answers.”

Based on that survey and others that we’ve seen, here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you plan on shopping in-store when stores reopen? If not, how long would you wait?
  • What is your biggest concern about going in-store?
  • Which of the following would make you more comfortable shopping in-store?
  • What type of product would you buy first?
  • Which of the following activities do you plan on doing more now? Less?

If you don’t already have your subscribers’ zip code or, even better, preferred store, that’s another question to include in your progressive profiling efforts. Once you’re armed with this kind of data about customer intent, it enables you to effectively leverage segmentation and personalization, which are our next two recommendations.

Send more segmented emails.

Act on your persona, analytic data, and progressive profiling results by sending more segmented emails. If nothing else, heavily leverage geosegmentation to reach your audience as lockdowns ease and your locations reopen.

That would be on top of segmentation based on engagement, says Coleman, who points out that many brands made a mistake by sending customers who hadn’t purchased in years crisis messaging about their store closures, service cancellations, and other changes back in mid-March.

“Continue to message your active contacts as a priority and mail your inactive subscribers less frequently until they engage,” she says. “Keep the segments separate to measure effectiveness of communications.”

Add dynamic, AI-driven content.

Given how consumers in different parts of the country are experiencing coronavirus differently, AI-driven personalization is a highly effective way to respond to the full spectrum of consumer behavior changes.

“We’ve seen our clients leverage dynamic content in order to provide the necessary information to specific segments and drive them to the appropriate online resources,” says Antipa, who advises marketers to focus on addressing your subscribers’ pain points.

For example, use dynamic content banners to provide updates and links to policies and procedures that affect each of your subscribers locally. Also, many retailers appropriately removed personalized store location maps from their emails during the lockdowns. As your locations open back up, think about how you can use that module to communicate store hours, policies, and other information that would be valuable for visitors to know before they arrive.

Continue to update and actively manage your triggered emails.

When stay-at-home orders first went into effect, we recommended to marketers that you check your automated messages to ensure that none of the messages could be considered insensitive under the new circumstances. Now, as the economy reopens, it’s wise to continue to keep an eye on these messages, how they’re performing, and run some A/B tests to validate theories.

“From pausing triggered campaigns that seemed insensitive to embracing a more caring and less promotional tone in messaging, we’ve seen many brands show some vulnerability and humanity,” says Wade Hobbs, Senior Strategic Consultant for Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Now, as many businesses resume operations, they will want to go back to business as usual, sending the same emails as they did before, and for a few that may work. But getting the message right will be more important than ever. Consider revisiting that triggered email before you turn back on and make sure it meshes with all the promises made during the pandemic. Review your tone on promotional messaging to make sure it still reflects the needs of customers and not a frantic rush back to lost revenue.”

Use send time optimization.

With many employees working from home and others furloughed or let go, email open times may have likely shifted considerably among your subscribers. Implementing send time optimization allows your email program to automatically adjust to your customers’ new open patterns. 

This will be especially valuable during this reopening phase when cities and states aren’t coordinating their efforts very closely. Plus, send-time optimization (STO) will adapt to individual behaviors, which are also likely to vary wildly based on employment situations and personal perceptions of risk. 

“Even though it may take several weeks for the send-time optimization model to adapt to changes in open behaviors,” says Pankratz, “tests and analysis have shown that using any data point we have on open time is better than using a default send time. So, our recommendation for those using STO is to stay the course, as abandoning it is likely to be more harmful than helpful.”

If Your Email Program Went Dormant

Some companies, like those in the travel and hospitality industries, have reduced their email frequency dramatically. Some even stopped sending entirely for a few weeks or more. If that describes your business, then you’ll want to gradually warm up your sending IP addresses and domains again, says Dan Deneweth, Head of Email Deliverability Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“Volatility in email sending patterns has the ability to disrupt long-established sender reputations,” he says. “As restrictions ease and your sending volumes begin to ramp back up, you may find yourself running into deliverability problems you haven’t seen before. To avoid those issues, you’ll want to ‘re-warm’ your IPs and domains over several days or weeks before filling up your mailing calendar and ramping sending volume.”

The first stage of this crisis demanded quick action and human empathy to connect with consumers as people on a mass level. This next stage will require analytics-powered empathy and micro-targeting so you can connect with consumers at the level of small groups and individuals as the economy reopens in a patchwork.

Want more advice on how to deal with crises? Check out these related posts:

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Need help with your messaging strategy? Oracle CX Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including Strategic & Analytic Services, Creative Services, and other specialized teams that can help you develop and execute the right messaging strategy.

Learn more or reach out to us at CXMconsulting_ww@oracle.com

For more information about email marketing, please visit: https://www.oracle.com/marketingcloud/.

 

 

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