As the coronavirus burst on the scene and states ordered communities into lockdown, most organizations fired off emails to customers and employees. Companies, nonprofits, educational and health organizations and government agencies sought to inform and reassure their constituencies. Results were mixed. Some succeeded; others fell flat – or were outright offensive.
An analysis by rbb Communications of 150 email communications released as the Covid-19 crisis emerged reveals what worked, what didn’t, and some surprises.
Some Surprises in Brand Covid-19 Messages
Almost half the communications did not cite a source for its COVID-19 information. Those naming a source most often cited the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
While people hunger for accurate information about the epidemic, misinformation and outright falsehoods proliferate on social media. The World Health Organization has said the world is fighting an ‘infodemic’ of fake news in addition to an epidemic. Citing authoritative sources such as the WHO and CDC is a requisite in informational communications.
Interestingly, rather than citing the WHO or CDC, broadcast news outlets relied much more heavily on the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease in the form of Dr. Anthony Fauci. That was largely because of Dr. Fauci’s visible role in White House coronavirus briefings and his reputation as a knowledgeable and reliable spokesperson.
What Didn’t Work
Overt selling: Sales-oriented call to actions almost always fell flat. They contained messages like “Spots are filling up fast, and are available on a first-come, first-scheduled basis” and “Conditions are changing quickly, and you need to act now.”
Misdirection: Several email messages had subject lines with reference to content about Covid-19. Viewers felt uncomfortable when they opened the email and expected one message and then read information about a product or service.
Lack of compassion: Emails from some companies lacked any expression of compassion, concern, hope or encouragement. Even more surprising, some of the worst offenders were in one of the hardest-hit industries, the cruise lines.
The messages that expressed and asked for support for others, including teachers, front-line healthcare workers, restaurant workers, and small business owners, came across as compassionate. Communications are more effective when they express empathy.
Most CEOs appearing in TV news and business broadcasts did manage to express empathy in their comments. Most stated their support of science-based policy decisions.
What Did Work
These are some effective techniques in Covid-19 related messages:
Video: Few messages incorporated video. Those that did effectively conveyed information from a CEO or other senior leader, giving the communication an additional level of engagement and personalization.
Optimism: While the subject of the coronavirus messages was universally serious, rbb analysts found that those expressing optimism, such as “We’re optimistic that we can as a business survive this.” — were among the most effective. Also effective were expressions of solidarity, such as: “We know this is hard for everyone but we’ll get through this together.”
Relatability: While most messages struck a fairly corporate tone, some used more personal, relatable language to good effect. For example, one message opened with “Waking up this morning in my L.A. home with my office closed and kids at home, I was admittedly feeling pretty anxious.”
“While not a typical message from a CEO, it effectively broke through the clutter,” says Laura Guitar at rbb Communications.
The Sender is Key
C-suite members or other high-level individuals, such as mayors or superintendents, sent 43% of the messages. Having a senior leader author the message was most effective, given the gravity of the situation.
Many messages (39%) came from the organization itself, with no attribution to a specific person. These were generally more transactional and lacked much of the sentiment expressed by senior leaders.
Messages sent from lower-level personnel, such as vice presidents, managers or directors, were the least effective. They were far less all-encompassing and often were covert sales pitches, which came across as tone deaf and somewhat desperate.
Common Brand Message Shortcomings
Lack of meaningful information was the most common shortcoming in the ubiquitous Covid-19 brand messages, says Augie Ray, vice president of customer experience at Gartner. Many engaged in “virtue signaling,” or announced their supposed brand values without taking any concrete actions. They were more likely to harm than improve relationships with customers.
But the worst shortcoming was including sales pitch in barely concealed desperation. “Companies can be excused for wanting to keep customers buying, but they cannot be forgiven for making their self-interest and desperation evident in marketing communications,” Ray says.
As the U.S. economy faces multiple issues concerning opening back up, companies and non-profits will again be required to communicate with their constituencies. Those corporate messages and decisions must reflect the importance of making decisions based on science and the need to protect the safety of employees, customers and the general public.
Bottom Line: An analysis of brand messages about Covid-19 reveals what worked and what didn’t. Relatable messages from CEOs that expressed empathy and optimism were the most successful. Efforts to market products or services mostly produced “ugh” reactions.
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William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.