Sadly, brands have faced an increasing number of circumstances in which they’ve decided it was in their best interest to cancel or delay their digital marketing campaigns, either on a national or regional basis. At the same time, in the heat of the moment, some brands have failed to pause their campaigns and faced allegations of insensitivity, suffered brand damage, and audience losses.
To increase your chances of responding in a way that’s most appropriate for your brand, your company should agree on the circumstances that would typically lead it to take action before you’re faced with them for real. You’ll still be forced to make a quick decision about what to do, but you’ll deliberate less because you will have clarified your corporate values and risk tolerances.
Consider these seven reasons that brands have halted marketing campaigns in the past and decide which might be appropriate reasons for your organization to hit pause on its email, SMS, social, and other digital marketing campaigns:
1. Natural Disasters
Hurricanes, typhoons, tornados, floods, blizzards, wildfires, and other natural disasters are by far the most common reasons to suspend digital marketing campaigns to audiences in the affected locations. Campaign pauses are certainly common during the aftermath of natural disasters, but brands also pause them in anticipation of life-threatening weather that’s forecasted, such as hurricanes.
It’s critical to recognize the difference, say, between a heavy snow and a blizzard or polar vortex. The former may be cause for a light-hearted Snow Day sale or tips on entertaining kids that are off from school. The latter is much more likely to result in deaths. For example, swept up by the novelty, a number of brands regretfully promoted Polar Vortex sales in 2019, when temperatures plunged in the US and caused more than 20 deaths.
2. Business Scandals & PR Crises
When a brand suffers a serious scandal or public relations nightmare, it can be prudent to pause marketing campaigns to avoid giving people the opportunity to express their displeasure or outrage by unsubscribing or marking your campaigns as spam. Anytime your company issues a public apology or finds itself in the national news for the wrong reasons, consider if a regional or national pause is appropriate for your marketing campaigns.
For example, last summer when there were record numbers of flight cancellations across the US and Europe, it would have been prudent for airlines to have suppressed promotional emails for a few days, especially to anyone who had a flight cancellation.
This same logic could be applied to poor customer experiences of all types at the individual level. For instance, when a customer submits a negative review, that could automatically trigger a suppression of campaigns for a time to keep that person from unsubscribing in anger. Brands could even go so far as to empower store associates or call center agents to pause promotional messages to individual customers who they know have just had a bad customer experience.
3. Mass Protests & Civil Unrest
Numerous brands paused their marketing campaigns when Black Lives Matter protests turned violent during June of 2020. Many also hit pause during the uncertainty around the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Given the polarization of the US electorate and the declining faith in the electoral system, future presidential elections might also cause national anxiety or the potential for unrest worthy of a marketing pause. In particular, B2C brands should have contingency plans in place for what they’ll do if that happens and understand how any action they take will affect their holiday promotion plans.
4. National Health Crises
The declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and national public health emergency in March of 2020 caused brands to put their marketing campaigns on hold. When campaigns started back up, many brands’ messages had a very different tone and much more empathetic feel that better aligned with how consumers were feeling.
5. Domestic Terrorist Attacks
Many brands suspended their marketing campaigns for days following the 9/11 attacks, and more recently in the wake of the Jan. 6th storming of the US Capitol by insurrectionists. The failure to do so can make your brand seem indifferent or, even worse, unpatriotic.
International terrorist attacks have been much less likely to cause brands to suspend their campaigns, but it does happen. For example, the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel caused some US brands to pause their marketing campaigns, particularly in geographies with large Jewish communities like New York City.
6. Declarations of War
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine caused some brands to pause their marketing campaigns. Of course, the size of the conflict, the countries involved, and those countries’ relationship with the people to whom you’re marketing should all factor into your response.
7. Death of National Leader
The passing of the president, prime minister, monarch, or other national leader in the country of your subscribers is also a reason to consider pausing your marketing campaigns to them. For example, the Sept. 8, 2022 passing of Queen Elizabeth II prompted many UK brands to suspend their digital marketing campaigns out of reverence.
Beyond Your Scheduled Campaigns
In addition to pausing segmented and broadcast campaigns, brands should also consider whether to pause certain promotional triggered campaigns—or at least review them to make sure they don’t contain copy and images that would be offensive in the context of whatever is happening.
For example, in the early months of the pandemic, consumers complained on social media that some brands’ reengagement and re-permission emails were insensitive, self-centered, and tried to shame them for not engaging. These consumers weren’t engaging because they were hospitalized or caring for loved ones who were.
Two Alternatives to Pauses
If you’re unsure of whether you should be pausing your campaigns, or if you’re unsure of the size of the geographic area to suppress campaigns to, then consider giving your subscribers the option to snooze your messages for a period of time.
For example, in June of 2020 in the aftermath of destructive protests against police brutality, the Biden campaign included a preheader message acknowledging that it is “a difficult time for our country” and saying “it may be an especially difficult time for many of you personally.” They then gave their subscribers the option to snooze his campaign messages for 2 weeks.
Another option—either in addition to or instead of pausing your campaigns—is to convert a regularly scheduled campaign into a message of support, unity, or remembrance. For example, instead of sending their usual Friday newsletter, UK-based ActionRocket sent a message expressing their sadness at the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
Depending on the situation, you could also direct your audience to resources that can help them or to related charities you’re supporting and recommend they support as well.
Decisive Action Expected
With all the pressures that marketers are under, these kinds of contingency planning issues often don’t seem very pressing—until you’re faced with a crisis. But that’s the absolute worst time to try to work out a response. You’re just not at your best when under that kind of pressure.
That’s why it’s wise to consider this list of reasons to pause your digital marketing campaigns and determine in more detail what might and might not cause your brand to take action and what that might tentatively look like.
Of course, if you do pause your campaigns, the next decision is when to resume. Thankfully, that’s a much easier decision in most cases. Generally, pauses only last 1 to 3 days, just long enough for the shock of the event to wear off.
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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.