Disaster planning is all about preparing for rare events, whether they’re epidemics, hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, or some other calamity. Crisis messaging should be a part of any disaster planning so you can communicate effectively with your customers and give them the essential information that they need.
Let’s talk about what that should look like in terms of messaging, subject line and preview text copy, tone, design, quality assurance, and segmentation.
The No. 1 goal with any crisis messaging is to address the burning questions that your customers have and to demonstrate that you’re doing your best to address their needs and that of your employees. Doing so will improve customer satisfaction and reduce confusion—which you’ll be able to measure partly from call center volume and the sentiment of the social media activity around your brand.
What those questions are will likely be different depending on whether the disaster has already hit or not. When it’s an event that can be predicted at least a few days ahead of time, it gives you the opportunity to proactively address customer questions such as:
How can your company help people prepare for the coming disaster? Are you extending your store hours or call center hours? Are you providing preparedness checklists? Have you stocked up on high-demand items?
How can you help your customers plan for disruptions to their service, store closures, etc.? Can you alert them to what’s likely to happen so they’re not surprised? For example, during the Nor'easter that affected the 2009 holiday season, Neiman Marcus sent a segmented email to those affected by the blizzard on Dec. 20, saying in the subject line, “Can't get to the mall? Shop online and get FREE DELIVERY by Christmas at any price.”
Are you canceling services or events? If so, are you providing refunds or giving credit? Are you automatically rebooking services for a future date or does your customer need to pick a new date? Are you providing any incentives to encourage customers to rebook or not cancel?
Are orders likely to be delayed? If so, how long is the anticipated delay? What should customers do if they’d like to cancel their order?
Are you changing your cancellation, return, or warranty policies? Are you allowing more time for returns? Are you allowing returns in ways that you don’t typically?
Will you be closing stores? If so, when will they be closing?
How can customers get current information? What webpage can customers go to for up-to-date information? What phone number can they use to contact your company to get their questions answered? For example, Xfinity emails customers who are likely to be hit by severe storms to proactively encourage them to visit their Storm Ready webpage and to download their free apps so they can get updates on outages. They also encourage them to download shows and movies that they can watch offline in the event that they do lose power.
“Xfinity knows how disruptive service outages (WiFi especially) can be for their customers' daily lives,” says Ana Jablonski, Senior Consultant for Strategic Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “By understanding and anticipating what their customers need during a crisis, they are able to proactively provide resources throughout the year so customers can feel calm and prepared in a time of need.”
For disasters that can’t be forecasted and during ongoing disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic, use your crisis messaging to address other questions such as:
What’s the best way to get information on how your business is affected? Are you experiencing delays in customer service? If so, set the appropriate expectations and tell them alternative ways to get help.
For instance, in a Mar. 12, 2020 email to users in the wake of new travel restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19, Expedia said: “We are clearly facing extreme call volumes at this time, and wish we could respond to everyone immediately. Please know that we are working as fast as we can to update our site with options that allow you to manage your itinerary directly, as well as re-deploying Travel Advisors from other parts of the business in an effort to assist those who are calling in. The quickest way to find out if your travel plans can be changed without a penalty will be to check the airline or hotel website directly.”
Are you reducing capacity? If so, by how much? How might that affect your customers?
When will your locations reopen? Will they resume normal business hours or will hours be longer or shorter than normal?
For example, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Lane Bryant sent a segmented email on Dec. 4, 2012 to their customers near Oceanside, NY, announcing in the subject line: “We're Back - Our Oceanside Store Re-Opens Friday.”
Are there alternative ways that your customers can get service? Can your customers get service from you some other way or can they get help from a partner, government agency, or charity?
For instance, after tornadoes hit Nashville in early March of 2020, Comcast sent out a targeted email to customers in the affected area alerting them of new, public WiFi hotspots that had been added to allow for customers, friends, family and first responders to stay connected.
What actions are you taking to ensure customer safety?
For example, during the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, many airlines, stores, restaurants, and other public places communicated that they were increasing cleaning protocols and making more hand sanitizer stations available to customers.
Depending on the circumstances, you may also want to address how you are keeping your employees safe and ensuring the continuity of operations. For example…
How are you keeping your employees safe? Is this why you’re closing locations temporarily? Are you allowing employees to work from home? Are you shifting workers to different locations to protect them (and your operations)? Are you instituting new safety procedures or a new sick-leave policy?
While most of your messaging will be about your company and your customers, there may be opportunities to be broader than that. For example...
Can you direct your customers to trustworthy sources of information? For example, can you direct customers to the National Weather Service, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, or other local, state, or federal websites?
Can you direct your customers to trustworthy charity organizations? For customers who may want to help those affected by the disaster, can you point them to reputable charities? If your company is donating to one or more charities, that’s a great way to strengthen this call-to-action and get people thinking civic-mindedly. For example, during the wildfires in California, grocery delivery company Good Eggs sent an email about how they are working with relief centers in Oroville, CA to bring Thanksgiving dinners to people displaced by the Camp Fire. The company encourages subscribers to donate to the effort as well.
Consider ending your messages with a reminder that crises and disaster recoveries are fluid situations, says Doug Sundahl, Senior Director of Strategic Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.
“Make sure you let them know your organization is keeping a close eye on the situation,” he says, “and will continuously work to adapt in the best interest of customers, employees, and the community as new information comes in.”
Especially in times of crisis, clarity is the order of the day. Don’t be vague with your subject line or pull punches. Be direct.
For example, the subject line of REI’s Mar. 15, 2020 email was “We're Closing Our Retail Stores Until March 27.” That is much clearer than “An update on our retail stores,” which was the subject line of another retailer that was also closing its stores.
Continue this philosophy of directness in your preview text, which allows you even more characters to give your subscribers the most critical information.
If your brand is funny, irreverent, zany, or really casual, it can be easy to get tripped by up disasters. It’s best to dial down your brand personality and be heartfelt and serious.
Whatever the situation, the chances are high that property and lives are being lost, so the last thing you want to do is be indifferent or make light of things. Imagine that you’re good friends with your most affected customers. You should express sympathy for those affected.
“We typically see a lot of these messages come from CEOs and presidents,” says Sundahl. “In and of itself, that usually puts a more conservative and serious tilt to the messaging, which is exactly what’s needed.”
Most of all, you’ll want to avoid any perception that you’re profiteering off the disaster. “Make sure the messaging never appears to be opportunistic,” he says, “but value- and benefit-focused in an effort to help consumers. It could very easily come across as trying to capitalize on a bad situation, which would likely hurt your brand image and jeopardize long-term sales.”
Your message design should be simple. Now is not the time for flash or creativity. Clarity of communication is the goal, so anything that distracts from that should be jettisoned from your design.
“It’s important to formalize the email versus making it look promotional,” says Jason Witt, Senior Director of Creative Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.
Generally, what this leaves you with is an email with clear branding at the top of the email, often followed by a headline, and then your body copy. We don’t recommend using hero images in these emails, as they push your copy down, can distract from your message, or project the wrong tone. You can see this design aesthetic in action at a glance in this collection of COVID-19 messages on ReallyGoodEmails.com.
Because these messages tend to be text-heavy, make thoughtful use of subheads and bullet points to break up text and to create easy-to-digest chunks of information. And make sure your font size isn’t too small or all the text will look impenetrable, says James Wurm, Head of Coding Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.
“Depending on how much copy there is,” he says, “I find 14pt to 18pt to be appropriate.”
Using reverse copy, where it’s light text on a dark background, is okay, but you’ll want to pay extra attention to legibility and contrast ratios, says Witt. “It needs to be ADA compliant,” he says. “That’s key!”
Remember: It’s a time of crisis. Your customers are likely stressed. They may not be at their best. Make your email easy to scan and easy to read. Cut extraneous words and ideas wherever you can to highlight the most important messaging.
In times of crisis, you’re moving fast. But make time for QA, even if it’s less than usual. Thankfully, crisis messaging is fairly simple in terms of design, so most of your QA is simply copy proofing. Make sure there aren’t any typos, missing words, or bad grammar.
Most disasters are regional in nature, so segmentation is key to getting your message in front of the appropriate subscribers within your overall audience. Do your best with the geographic information that you have about your customers.
“If the disaster affects all of your customers, as COVID-19 does for many senders, then you’ll still want to use some segmentation. However, in this case, you’ll want to exclude your inactive subscribers to avoid causing deliverability problems and driving up attrition,” says Clea Moore, Director of Deliverability Strategy, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.
“With any large, full-file send, there is the potential for a performance and reputation hit, especially if the email is sent as a service message from a transactional IP address that usually has low send volume per day,” she says. “So, loop in your deliverability expert or consultant and assess which subscribers you’re going to send to and determine if throttling the campaign is necessary.”
Sending your crisis message may only be the beginning of your adjustments, as some crises have a lasting impact on consumer behavior. And because we always want to be in sync with our customers, that may require you to adjust your messaging, frequency, and other elements.
Want more advice on how to deal with crises? Check out these related posts:
Need help with your crisis messaging strategy? Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including a Campaign Deployment & Monitoring Services team that offers crisis and rush campaign support to get your emergency campaigns out the door in 2 hours or less.
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Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.