How to Communicate With Empathy During the Coronavirus Crisis | Coronavirus Series

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 13, 2020. It’s been updated as of the current publish date to reflect the most recent insights. This article is also part of a series that explores the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the world of ecommerce. Explore daily insights surrounding the coronavirus crisis or check out these additional resources to help you navigate your marketing strategy during this time.

Recent weeks have been tough for, well, the world as we navigate a new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic.

From a personal standpoint, many of us are practicing social distancing by staying inside, canceling plans, and avoiding crowded spaces. 

Professionally, most of us are working from home with an indefinite timeline of when we’ll be returning to our offices. If you’re working in ecommerce, you’re likely experiencing interruptions to your day-to-day operations due to supply chain issues, changes in demand, and retail closures, to name just a few of the many challenges businesses are currently facing. 

During this time, there are many questions that arise around how you should move forward—do you continue marketing as normal? Should you address the situation at hand? Do you communicate the measures you’re taking as a brand or make yourself scarce in the inbox? Should you push off that large announcement or new product release? How much communication is enough and how much is too much?

It can all be a bit overwhelming. 

At Klaviyo, we talk a lot about having empathy—for each other, for our community, and for our customers. As you contemplate the best way to communicate with your customers and as we collectively navigate this crisis, we’ve taken a few notes on displaying empathy during this time and how to effectively and appropriately get your message across.

Communicating company updates

There are many reasons you might have to send customers critical information. But it’s also important that you remain considerate in how often you’re relaying these announcements, what information you choose to share, and the manner in which you communicate certain messages.

Keeping customers informed

While it’s important to keep customers in the loop about measures of cleanliness, sanitization, and the precautions you’re taking to prevent the spread of the virus, especially if you’re considered an essential business and continue to have a physical presence, think critically about how much is necessary to share. 

Everyone is being flooded with a vast amount of information and people are probably receiving more emails than usual from brands that they may not hear from on a regular basis. 

The goal of your email should be to provide helpful information to customers. If you’re simply saying that staff are being extra diligent in hand-washing, for example, perhaps it’s something you can skip. 

On the other hand, if there are questions arising around your company’s processes and procedures relating directly to your products, or if you have important company updates such as shipping delays, unavailable or out of stock products, or policy changes, it’s probably a good idea to share those updates with your customers.

Rent the Runway sent out an email marketing campaign outlining their cleaning processes and assuring customers that the virus cannot be transmitted through soft surfaces, like fabric or clothing.

Where Rent the Runway customers are regularly borrowing clothes and exchanging items, it’s no surprise that questions would arise surrounding sanitization. 

Rent the Runway expertly handled the emerging situation by providing fact-backed updates based on customer inquiry to inform subscribers on a need-to-know basis, rather than oversharing obvious or insignificant information. 

 

Retail updates

Businesses across the country that are considered non-essential have been forced to close physical retail locations to limit in-person interactions between staff and other shoppers.

Glossier was one of the first direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies with a retail location to announce they would be closing their storefronts. Other brands including Patagonia, Allbirds, Artizia, Everlane, Benefit, Madewell, and many others have followed suit in an effort to reduce the risk of large social gatherings.

As these businesses made the decision to close their brick-and-mortar locations before it was mandated, they used the opportunity to take a stand on the issue of social distancing before it was widely accepted and showed their customers the brands’ dedication to social responsibility.

Now, though, the time has come and gone for brands to take a stand with store closings. But this doesn’t mean you can’t provide additional transparency about the status of your physical locations and your ability to serve customers virtually.

For example, you may want to consider updating your website to address the current situation if you haven’t done so already. Even just a header bar that addresses store closings and your ability to fulfill online orders will suffice.

Additionally, take the time to update your search listings to reflect store closings, services available, an up-to-date website address for people to shop at, contact information, and any other relevant details that may be helpful to customers during this time.

 

Employment concerns

In terms of taking a more human approach to the situation, consider addressing the status of employment during store closings and including information on how you’re supporting your staff.

For example, in response to the imminent closing of over 80 stores due to the coronavirus, apparel brand Aritzia created the Aritzia Community Relief Fund where 100 percent of proceeds during this time will go to staff affected by the crisis.

Not to mention, they’ve handled this campaign perfectly, opting to include the message as a note in all their email communications rather than sending out a mass communication to all subscribers touting the company’s dedication to its employees. In fact, any mention of the fund is latent from subject lines and primary body copy or imagery.

Where you might find this messaging most prominently besides throughout social media, though, is in their order confirmation emails. This is a great tactic to employ as it shows customers that the money they just spent is going to a good cause—and dissuades any possible feelings of buyer’s remorse.

Consumers are extremely invested in the well-being of retail staff during this time—they want to shop with brands they know treat their people well. And this isn’t unique to the coronavirus crisis—a company’s treatment of its employees can make or break its reputation.

Don’t just take it from us. Mark Cuban has even said that how companies treat their employees during the pandemic could define their brand for decades.

Aritzia ultimately stays humble yet effective in its community campaign, which gives shoppers a good reason to spend their money with the brand.

Of course, this is a difficult time for a lot of businesses, and not every company will have the allowance to set up the same kinds of systems for their employees—especially those with a larger physical presence that must account for thousands of retail staff. In this case, you may hesitate to relay bad news to your customers about any layoffs or furloughs that have to happen to keep the business afloat.

But that might not be the right approach to take with consumers. Again, customers appreciate transparency, and now more than ever they want to see it from brands. People are generally sympathetic to the fact that businesses are struggling right now, and making a statement on your decision-making when it comes to these hard choices shows that your brand is honest. In turn, customers will usually meet these messages with respect and understanding.

Additionally, this gives you a chance to highlight how you’re making things right by your employees. Brands that have chosen to communicate these updates with the general public have also been able to address that they’re providing severance, continued health insurance, and sometimes mental health counseling for affected staff.

Messaging to avoid

Whether stores are closed or remain open, many brands are encouraging their customers to shop online.

While this is a great way to encourage shoppers to support businesses while practicing social distancing, there are certain messages that you may want to avoid.

For example, while you may want to give customers free shipping, making your discount code “COVID19” or “coronavirus” is not how you want to represent your brand when it comes to conveying sensitive subject matter.

Additionally, be sensitive to the current situation in all possible ways—not just in reference to health-related issues and the coronavirus itself. Blasting emails and texts to all of your customers and encouraging them to use their stimulus checks on your flash sale is entirely out-of-touch when many are depending on the money to help them outlast financial hardships as a result of the economic downturn.

Alternatively, there are ways to inspire creativity in almost every situation when you dig a little deeper, like razor brand Supply did in their recent campaign.

When it comes to stimulus checks, the brand doesn’t ask that you spend all your money with them. Instead, they offered customers the chance to win their “version of a stimulus package” of $1,200 in cash. In order to win, all you have to do is submit a video using Supply’s products.

Not only does this contest encourage customers to submit user-generated content (UGC), it also remains relevant to shoppers at this time without asking people to spend their government-allocated money during a worldwide crisis. This campaign serves as a win-win for the brand and its customers as people who submit could win money while Supply can use the UGC in future marketing.

Again, this is a time of much uncertainty, fear, and anxiety for people, some of whom have been personally affected by the coronavirus or have loved ones that are at high-risk. This means that we all need to be sensitive with the language we choose to use in any marketing materials.

What you don’t want to do is be seen as taking advantage of a crisis or using it as a way to push sales. Brands must be careful that their tone matches the current climate without being flippant or disrespectful.

If you are pushing products or messages, think about how you can do so in a way that shows some awareness for the struggles and challenges being faced by disadvantaged members of our society.

Highlight relief efforts

Highlight the ways you plan to give back, donate a portion of your proceeds to relief efforts, or help your community. For example, while Nuun talks about the benefits of their products, the main message of this email is that they’ll be sending free care packages to medical professionals to help keep them healthy.

Meanwhile, other businesses are reallocating their manufacturing resources to go towards creating personal protective equipment (PPE) to directly assist frontline workers.

For example, Ministry of Supply has started working with their partners to produce, procure, and donate thousands of face masks and respirators for the medical community. They’re also working with their domestic partners to design and manufacture custom 3D Print-Knit Face Masks with a pocket for a filtration membrane for front-line workers.

Ministry of Supply’s website has a page dedicated to these efforts with details on the work they’re doing and an option to donate—with 100 percent of the funds used for continued production and distribution of the several types of masks.

Consumers want to hear how brands are helping and giving back to their communities, whether you’re supplying your own products or reallocating resources to create new ones. If you’re doing something to give back right now, highlight your efforts and let customers know how they can help contribute to the cause.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is to be cautious about how you communicate these causes and what you ask of customers in return. When customers perceive brands to be taking advantage of relief efforts for marketing or sales purposes, it could backfire.

Think twice before going through with a purchase-to-donate campaign. Brands that have taken this route are often met with swift backlash. Consumers often see this as capitalizing on the situation and ask the brand why they don’t just donate the supplies if they have them rather than making it a ploy to get people to buy their products.

 

Sharing content unrelated to the impact of COVID-19

Just because you’re communicating critical company updates or announcements doesn’t mean you have to suspend all other activities completely. 

As mentioned, it’s important to think about how you will convey these messages, but brands have already made an example of how to do this in a way that resonates with their customers.

 

Planned initiatives

Before the coronavirus became so dominant in our everyday lives, you were likely strategizing which marketing campaigns to pursue or deciding what efforts would best help you to meet your 2020 goals. 

You don’t have to put a pause on all of the progress you’ve made in the last few months, but consider how you can position your product launch or new collection in a way that feels more appropriate for the moment and acknowledges some of the challenges consumers are currently facing.

For example, Draper James sent an eloquently-worded email that they reposted on social media with a personal message from the founder, Reese Witherspoon herself. Her note addressed the current situation, but in an effort to consistently be a “source of happiness and positivity” in customers’ lives, the message also introduced their spring collection and asked their audience if it was alright to share. 

The brand handled their new collection launch with respect and understanding for the situation, instead of ignoring the challenges their customers are currently going through. It treaded self-promotion delicately while welcoming feedback.

While times are certainly difficult for many right now, it doesn’t mean you need to abandon your marketing and planned initiatives in order to be empathetic. It also doesn’t mean you have to make a grand statement about the crisis or how to get through it.

Sometimes, all it takes is acknowledging the situation at hand and offering brief sentiments, just like Dagne Dover did in their email announcing the new spring collection.

Update automations to reflect the current climate

Business is not as usual, so your email communications shouldn’t be either.

Perform an audit of your regularly scheduled emails. Take a look at your content calendar for the coming weeks and decide whether the automations and the content you have scheduled—whether directly related to the impact of the coronavirus or not—is fitting.

Ask yourself whether the content is still relevant, whether it could be considered insensitive, or if there’s anything that could make it more helpful. Are your automations still appropriate, or should they be modified for the time being?

You can normally tell which brands have adjusted their content for the current climate. One brand that has done an excellent job of this is sleepwear brand, Lunya. While their product offering lends the brand a natural fit for customers during a time when people are wearing loungewear more often than normal, they still have put the necessary effort into optimizing every touchpoint.

Subject lines like “Soft things for hard times,” “Business not as usual,” and “We’re all in this together” strike the right tone and give a subtle nod to the current climate without being flippant. The copy of every email touches on the “stay in” mentality without getting too in-the-weeds with heavy subject matter. The brand shows they know their place in customers’ lives as a creature comfort.

Depending on what you sell, you could also look at this as an opportunity to pivot your product offering or promote inventory that isn’t typically a high-selling during this season but may be more interesting to customers as buying behavior favors new essentials.

For example, a home goods brand might want to focus content around different candles available. While candles are typically a seasonal item that would normally perform better in the fall or winter, people are spending more time inside than they typically would right now and might enjoy spring-scented candles throughout their workday.

Perhaps adjusting your content calendar consists of making certain tweaks to your copy to be more empathetic to your customers’ potential situations, or maybe it means rethinking your email strategy for the upcoming weeks, but it’s important that you are smart about striking the right tone with your customers at this time.

If you’re releasing a new collection, for example, consider how you can reframe your story to resonate better. Say you plan on releasing a spring apparel collection. Copy that promotes your spring collection for enjoying parties, barbecues, and vacations is no longer relevant to consumers who are uncertain when they’ll be able to enjoy those activities again—plus it comes off out-of-touch.

Try instead promoting your spring collection to be enjoyed on patios, in backyards, and to dress up conference calls. Making minor adjustments like this to your messaging shows that there’s a human behind your marketing and customers will be much more likely to engage with these types of messages.

Leveraging different channels of communication

In addition to your email and website, there may be other ways you communicate with current and potential customers such as through social media or paid advertising which might require you to reassess the messaging you’re using.

For example, SMS marketing has been gaining popularity among brands who want to reach their customers more immediately and engage with audiences that have shown a high interest in receiving access to sales, promotions, and other exclusive events.

But because a text message is a much more personal way to get in touch with your subscribers than email, it requires you to think critically about how often you’re communicating through this channel and what you’re choosing to say, especially now.

While you should always send your best offers to SMS subscribers, think about what that looks like more recently.

Activewear brand Alala promoted their giveaway with three other DTC brands over text, asking subscribers to submit their “everyday hero” for a chance to win $5,000 in prizes.

They used SMS as an opportunity to connect with customers in a way that was valuable to them while also celebrating essential and frontline workers. Not only was this partner giveaway a great way to help multiple brands build their lists, but it also didn’t come across as too overly promotional of their products.

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind SMS marketing specifically:

  • Use fewer links and more information and sentiment.
    Use this time to build relationships with customers instead of worry about click-through rate.
    Don’t overdo it. Ensure emails and texts are well spaced out.

 

While SMS is just one other vehicle that you have to consider, it shows the importance of thinking critically about every marketing channel you engage with customers through—to create a cohesive brand experience, you have to think about every touchpoint and reassess your communications as needed.

Spreading some joy

When it comes to building deep, long-lasting relationships with your customers, even in the best of times but especially in the worst of times, it’s important to show empathy for what your customers may be dealing with personally, professionally, and as a global citizen.

But when so much of the content we’re consuming is heavy and dark, people are also welcoming distractions to get their minds off thinking about the news cycles. 

Find little ways to delight your customers if it makes sense for your brand, like how this email from Host strikes the perfect balance between lighthearted and compassionate.

The brand’s website typically allows people to hire bartenders for their events, which means they can’t currently provide their normal service. But they realized that they could still provide value to customers who are willing to make their own concoctions at home, especially if they’ve just stocked up at the liquor store.

And right now, many of us would welcome a baby Yoda-themed alcoholic beverage.

Asking your community what resonates with them

Possibly the best way to communicate with your community? Ask them exactly how they want to hear from you. 

Nobody has all the answers as to how you should be talking to your customers during these unprecedented times. Additionally, the way in which people will want to hear from you will likely differ—some customers may have a less-is-more attitude, while others will want frequent updates and communications.

To get a better read on what their customers actually want, Reformation sent out an email to subscribers addressing how they’re responding to the coronavirus (by closing all retail locations) with a note at the end asking customers what they should be talking and posting about.

 

 

The email asks, “What’s resonating with you? Do you still want to hear about new collection launches and sustainability related stuff? Or do you need a break? Please let us know.”

This small effort opens the dialogue between Reformation and their customers to ensure that whatever they’re sending out—whether it’s new arrivals or business updates—that they’re being cognizant of what people want to hear about and see during this sensitive time. 

 

Segmenting based on relevance

One question that remains when thinking about your email strategy and other marketing communications is who you should be sending your emails to.

People are overwhelmed by information coming at them from everywhere—the news, social media, their families, their peers, and the individuals and companies they follow. While it’s important to communicate information with your customers, consider doing so on a need-to-know basis by segmenting your audience.

If you’re closing your retail stores, perhaps you could only notify customers who live near those locations. For example, if you only have a physical retail presence in New York City, you could email that list directly with specific information regarding the closings and then release a more general statement to your larger list.

For other messages, you may want to consider sending to a VIP list as well as customers that have purchased in the last 90 days. Especially if you’re a large brand with a long list of subscribers, this will help ensure your message is both hitting the inbox and only being sent to your most engaged subscribers. 

If you want to segment your lists but you’re worried about greater visibility, post your updates on social media. This allows you to get your message out on a more public platform, while also ensuring you’re not adding to the anxiety of an overcrowded inbox.

Additionally, consider updating your website to reflect any and all updates related to the coronavirus under a single page. Using a header bar at the top of your homepage that links to a resource where current or prospective customers can find information about store closings, shipping delays, policy changes, FAQs, and other relevant details all in one place. This way, you can skip sending out every coronavirus update through email without skimping on transparency.

In a recent interview, Senior Retention Manager of toilet paper brand Who Gives a Crap, Mike Altman, shared his method for keeping these updates easy to find online.

“We’ve been nimble by trying to get as much information on our websitein our pop over and our banners. We also have a blog that we’re updating regularly,” said Mike.

The blog, cleverly named Talking Crap, keeps current and prospective customers informed with everything need-to-know back in stock updates to more lighthearted posts about how to work from home with kids.

Navigating a fluid situation

Just because everyone else does things a certain way doesn’t mean you have to do the same. The best advice we can share as you adjust your marketing strategies in the face of such unprecedented uncertainty is to stay true to who you are as a brand.

Be as authentic, empathetic, and transparent as possible with your customers to continue fostering the relationships you’ve already built and to nurture the new ones that will grow as a result of how you operate your business and respond during this time.

Naadam did this well in their recent email.

There’s no official guide on how to communicate with your customers, what information is the most important, or how often you should send an update because what’s best for one business might not be right for another. Many more changes are likely to unfold in the coming weeks, which means smart business owners and marketers will need to constantly adapt to the current situation and adjust marketing strategies as needed.  

While it can be a difficult course to navigate, constantly learning, adapting, and listening to your customers will provide the insights you need to move forward in the best possible way. 

Looking for more information? These resources may be helpful to you as you adjust your marketing strategies to navigate the coronavirus crisis.

 

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