Systemic Shocks: Adjusting Your Email Messaging in Times of Disruption

April 6, 2020 | 8 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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The dot-com bubble. 9/11. The Great Recession of 2009. And now COVID-19. When extreme shocks such as these occur, business as usual ceases. These shocks cause prolonged changes in consumer behavior, forcing smart businesses and marketers to adjust, too. 

While these adjustments typically start with crisis messaging, that’s just the beginning. Brands need to make changes to their future messaging, and that can be hard to do when many brands plan their messaging out months in advance, coordinating it across marketing channels and synching it up with advertising efforts. After all the time that’s been invested in that strategy, it can be emotionally hard to reevaluate that—or completely reboot it, which may be necessary in some cases.

Let’s discuss some of the ways in which marketers may need to change their messaging and strategy in the weeks and months following a major systemic shock. We’ll start with a look at automated campaigns and then talk about promotional broadcast and segmented campaigns.

Check Your Automated Messages

The first thing you should do is review your triggered emails and other automated programs, since these are being sent right now. Start with your highest volume programs and work your way down.

“It’s easy to forget what you might be messaging in them that now could be interpreted as insensitive,” says Clint Kaiser, Head of Strategic Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Whether it’s the subject line, the preview text, imagery, the tone, or timing, look through them and evaluate the need for changes.”

Here are some examples of automated programs to update or pause:

  • Are you sending automated renewals for an event that has been postponed or cancelled?

  • Are any of your triggered emails urging subscribers to visit store, restaurant, or other locations that are closed for the time being or indefinitely?

  • Do you have abandoned cart messages that offer free overnight shipping or another service that might not be logistically possible right now?

  • Do you have a welcome series that incentivizes new subscribers to book a service with you that you can’t currently book or fulfill?

  • Are you sending back-in-stock alerts for high-demand items that might only be in stock a very short time before becoming unavailable again?

Re-engagement campaigns are another automated program that you should take a look at, says Kaiser. “Your messaging can come across as insensitive if the person hasn’t been engaging with your emails lately because their house has flooded or they were hospitalized with COVID-19,” he says. “The tone of these emails can suddenly be really off during crises.” 

After you address your automated programs, you’ll want to look at your planned promotional emails. However, before you really get into that, you’ll want to... 

Recognize the Changes in Consumer Behavior

First, before you can make wise changes to your marketing, you need to get into the heads of your customers. Understanding that portions of your audience may be affected differently, ask yourself:

  • How are they personally affected? How is their day-to-day life impacted? How are vacations and travel affected?

  • Are they more concerned about their finances? Do they have less money to spend?

  • What are they worried about? Afraid of?

  • Are there business-mandated, government-decreed, or other restrictions they’re coping with?

  • Are they using certain channels more or less? Are they using them in new ways?

  • What are their new priorities?

Answer those questions without referencing your brand at all. At this point, it’s not about you. It’s about your customer and understanding where they’re at psychologically, emotionally, and financially. In a word, it’s about empathy.

“Empathy provides the window into not just customer behavior, but into how people feel,” says Reed Pankratz, Sr. Strategic Consultant for Strategic Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “That allows us as marketers to provide utility to customers and create genuine moments that forge positive brand relationships.

“In times of disruption,” he says, “empathy is more even important because the repercussions of untimely, insensitive, and off-brand messaging is significantly magnified. By putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and asking yourself the right questions, brands can at the same time protect themselves, and also treat customers the right way and help them in times of uncertainty.”

Now Look at Your Business

Next, look how the answers to those questions affect how your customers interact with your business. Try to determine how best to adjust your messaging and how your business operates to get back in sync with your customers. Ask yourself:

  • Do you need to change the personas you typically use to message or target your audience? For example, has the price-sensitivity of some of your audience segments changed? Or perhaps your audience of in-store-only shoppers is now more open to buying online?

  • Do you need to change your key performance indicators? In some cases, perhaps revenue becomes less of a goal in the short-term, and goals such as increasing engagement, minimizing churn, building intent, and generating goodwill become more important.

  • Do you need to change your themes, calls-to-action, or other message elements?

  • Do you need to change the touchpoints that your customers use to engage with your brand? For example, are web and mobile app channels better than going to physical locations for now? 

  • Do you need to change your partners, advertising channels, or other elements of your business to get in front of new audiences?

Once you’ve answered those questions, reexamine your planned messaging to see how it can be updated to fit the new reality. Some of your planned messaging may simply not make sense anymore and you may have to come up with all-new messaging. If that’s your situation, you may be able to buy yourself some time to adjust by keeping your messaging and designs really simple.

For example, on Mar. 18, 2020, beauty and grooming products ecommerce company BirchBox sent an email with the subject line “Hey, whatever you need, we've got your back.” Design-wise, the email was in the mold of a crisis messaging email, with no product images. The copy was tight at just 120 words and promoted a 20%-off promo code in a way that was empathetic, uplifting, and supportive.

“Those are the kinds of feelings a lot of marketers are trying to evoke right now,” says Kathryn Alva, Associate Creative Director at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“I’m seeing a lot of marketers adapting the tone of their messaging to one of community-focus, unity, and solidarity,” she says. “With so many Americans feeling the stress of social isolation, this is a great opportunity to reach across the screen and offer a little reassurance and encouragement—to take a quiet moment to remind your customers that they’re not alone and we’re all in this together.”

Here are some great examples of subject lines that have taken this messaging approach:  

While in some cases you may need to come up with completely new tactics and strategies, in other cases you may be able to at least partially...

Repurpose Existing Playbooks

While COVID-19 is causing unprecedented challenges, even our current situation isn’t wholly unique. First, the recession that we’re entering into because of the virus won’t be entirely unlike consumer behavior during past recessions, such as the Great Recession of 2008. Some consumers will be looking for bargains, more value-oriented products, DIY alternatives, and other ways to save money but not feel deprived.

Second, airlines were shut down for several days after 9/11 and there was prolonged anxiety about air travel in months and years that followed because of heightened security and ongoing risks. For those not in the travel and hospitality industry, staycations and nesting will likely be themes to explore, since many American won’t be doing any traveling for a while and will be focused on making their homes more comfortable and enjoyable.

In each case, ask yourself: 

  • What happened to your email engagement, revenue, and list churn during those periods?

  • How did your brand adjust its promotional messaging to better fit the mindset of your customers? How did your competitors or peers adjust?

  • Were your adjustments successful? 

  • Are there learnings that you can apply to today’s situation?

Another parallel that may be helpful to some brands is that our kids are out of school and home with us now just as they are every summer. If you have messaging that your brand has used in the past to engage parents who are looking for ways to entertain their kids, now’s the time to try it out. 

For example, Michaels sent a Mar. 13, 2020 email with the subject line “Need Boredom Busters? We’ve Got ’Em! (And a Coupon, Too!).” That email, which is full of crafting ideas for kids, surely resonated with many parents who were suddenly trying to entertain their kids and work remotely.

The added twist is that parents, more than usual, are likely looking for educational activities to replace some of the learning that’s being lost due to school closures.

Also take a good, long look at your existing resources, whether it’s blog posts, videos, infographics, animations, or whatever. Can you reuse or repurpose any of this content to create a message that’s relevant to the current situation?

Frequency Considerations & Audience Preservation

In my book, Email Marketing Rules, I advise companies to “Look at your customers’ natural buying patterns. The times of the year that they buy more, send more email to reinforce and strengthen that pattern. And send fewer emails when they’re less active to avoid annoying them.”

Even during turbulent times, I stand by that advice. Email is not magic. It doesn’t create demand out of nothing. Trying to use email as a brute-force tool causes unsubscribes, spam complaints, and brand damage. The working assumption is that your business will survive whatever crisis you, your industry, or the broader economy is experiencing, so you’ll want to have preserved as large of an audience as you can to fuel your rebound when the troubles are behind you.

That said, you don’t want to stop sending emails, even if your business is temporarily shutdown for some reason. You’ll want to maintain a minimum email frequency to avoid having your sender reputation on your IP addresses and domain fall to zero, says Daniel Deneweth, Head of Email Deliverability Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. 

“If that happens,” he says, “you’ll have to spend two to three weeks warming up your IPs and domain and rebuilding that reputation with inbox providers again.”

If your business offers the option to snooze your email subscriptions, during crises may be a wise time to highlight that option, says Chris Wilson, Strategic Director of Strategic Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“To help mitigate opt-outs during the holiday season, we added the options to say subscribed and to pause emails for 30 days to one of our retail client’s unsubscribe page,” he says. “The average unsubscribe rate dropped 82%, which was so successful that we left it in place year-round.

It also might make sense to shift some resources away on short-term promotional messaging to more future-oriented projects, such as optimizing your automated emails, experimenting with new tactics or technologies, or preparing for the holiday season.

Whatever changes you end up making, be sure to monitor how your customers react by watching your performance metrics. Pay attention to not only your positive metrics, but your negative ones like unsubscribe rates, complaint rates, and inactivity rates.

"Your metrics will tell you if you’re striking the right balance between meeting business needs and minimizing any negative impact to subscriber engagement and reputation,” says Clea Moore, Director of Deliverability Strategy for Email Deliverability Services, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Being flexible and nimble with your message content and email frequency will serve you well."

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


Need help with your 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 Strategic Services and Creative Services teams that can help you develop and execute the right messaging strategy.

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Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

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.

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