How to communicate to customers with empathy via email during a crisis

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 13, 2020. It was updated May 2022.

An unstable economy, global shipping crisis, political upheaval and inconsistent social health strategies, added to an audience that maybe dealing with their own personal issues, creates a dilemma for email marketers that need to appeal to an audience that are in diverse geolocations.

If your brand encounters a crisis—whether it’s on a local or global level—the best way you can communicate with your customers is to do so with empathy. If the pandemic taught marketers anything, it was that email marketing strategies need to stay agile, and communications should always appeal to a global audience.

So how can brands make communications more empathetic and ensure they do not create any form of conflict within their own messaging?

Simple rules for communicating company updates

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

Keep your customers informed of any updates relevant to them

While it’s important to keep customers in the loop, think critically about how much information is necessary to share. The goal of your email should be to provide helpful information to customers. If you’re not providing additional value to customers through your communications, it might be something that you want to skip. 

But if there are questions about  your company’s processes and procedures relating directly to your products—or, if you have important company updates, it’s probably a good idea to share those updates with your customers.

Understanding consumer behaviors and trends for marketing

Rent the Runway sent out an email marketing campaign outlining their cleaning processes during the pandemic.

The team at Rent the Runway expertly handled the emerging situation by providing fact-backed updates based on customer inquiries. They informed subscribers on a need-to-know basis, rather than oversharing obvious or insignificant information. 

Provide retail updates to address confusion during a crisis

During a crisis, you may need to provide additional transparency about the status of your physical locations and your ability to serve customers. You may want to consider updating your website to address the current situation. Even just a header bar that addresses store closings and your ability to fulfill online orders will work.

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

Address employment concerns through corporate communications

If you have to take the drastic step of reducing the number of employees during a crisis, consider taking a humanistic approach in your communications with customers. Be transparent about the status of your employees and include information on how you’re supporting your staff.

In response to the closing of over 80 stores due to the pandemic, apparel brand Aritzia created the Aritzia Community Relief Fund where 100% of proceeds during this time went to staff affected by the crisis.

Instead of sending out a mass email to all of their subscribers touting the company’s dedication to its employees, the team at Aritzia added a brief note explaining what steps they as a company had taken to address the pandemic. They emphasized the company’s dedication to its employees, and mentioned its relief fund without fanfare. 

Aritzia included this messaging in their social media channels, but they also included it in their order confirmation emails. This strategy lets its customers know that the money they just spent is going to a good cause—and eases any guilt they may be feeling about shopping with the brand.

Consumers are extremely invested in the well-being of retail staff during difficult times—they want to shop with brands they know treat their people well. Mark Cuban says that the way companies treat their employees during a crisis could define their brand for decades.

Of course, not every company will be able to follow Aritzia’s approach. Companies with a larger physical presence that must account for thousands of retail staff face a different set of challenges. The team at a larger company may hesitate to relay bad news to its customers about layoffs or furloughs that may need to happen in order to keep the business afloat.

Brands that share these updates can let their customers—and the general public—know that their company is providing severance, continued health insurance, and sometimes even mental health counseling for affected staff.

Whether your company is large or small, customers appreciate transparency. People are generally sympathetic if businesses are struggling—and if you make a direct, heartfelt statement on the status of your business, it will demonstrate your brand’s honesty. In turn, your customers will usually meet these kinds of messages with respect and understanding.

Brand-storytelling that helps messages become more positive

Avoid messaging in your email that’s insensitive 

Many brands encourage their customers to support their business by shopping with them online during a crisis—especially if in-store shopping is unavailable. But there are certain messages that you may want to avoid.

While you may want to give customers free shipping, having your discount code refer to the crisis, like making your code “COVID19” or “coronavirus,” may not be the most sensitive or thoughtful way to represent your brand.

There are better—and more creative ways—to offer discounts during a crisis.

Razor brand Supply offered customers the chance to win a “version of a stimulus package” with $1,200 in cash during the pandemic. Supply asked their customers to submit a video using their product for a chance to win the prize.

This contest not only encourages customers to submit user-generated content (UGC), it keeps the brand relevant to shoppers without asking people to spend their money during a global crisis. This campaign is a win-win for both Supply and its customers, as the brand gets UGC to use in future marketing while its customers get the chance to win some “cold, hard cash.” 

During times of fear and uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to be sensitive with the language you use in marketing materials. The last thing you want to do is to appear to be taking advantage of a crisis—or, worse—using the crisis to make more sales. The tone of your marketing should match the gravity of the current situation without sounding flippant or disrespectful.

Highlight relief efforts that your company and others may support

A better way to use your marketing materials during a crisis is to show the ways you plan to give back to your community. Explain how you’ll donate a portion of your proceeds to relief efforts, or give examples of how you’re helping your community. 

While Nuun, a sports hydration company, explains the benefits of their products in an email, the main message is that they sent free care packages to medical professionals during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Ministry of Supply, a high performance fashion brand, worked with their partners to produce, procure, and donate thousands of face masks and respirators for the medical community. They also worked with their domestic partners to design and manufacture custom 3D print-knit face masks for front line workers.

Ministry of Supply’s website had a page dedicated to these efforts, with details on what the company was doing to help during the crisis. There was also an option for customers to donate, with 100% of the funds used for the production and distribution of the masks.

Consumers want to hear how brands are helping during a crisis. If your company is giving back to its community, highlight those efforts—and let your customers know how they can help contribute to the cause.

But be cautious with these communications. You don’t want your customers to think that you’re taking advantage of relief efforts for sales or marketing purposes. 

You may want to reconsider a purchase-to-donate campaign, as these are often met with swift backlash. Many customers will see these campaigns as a brand capitalizing on a crisis, viewing it as a ploy for people to buy their products. Customers may also question why your company won’t make a donation independently. 

Sharing content unrelated to the crisis

Just because you’re communicating critical company updates or announcements doesn’t mean you have to suspend all other activities completely—but it’s important to consider how you will convey these messages.

Reposition planned initiatives if a crisis emerges

You don’t have to interrupt a campaign once a crisis hits, but consider how you can reposition your product launch in a way that feels more appropriate for the moment. It’s also wise to acknowledge some of the challenges consumers are facing.

Clothing company Draper James sent an eloquently-worded email written by its founder, actress Reese Witherspoon. Her note obliquely addressed the pandemic, but in an effort to consistently be a “source of happiness and positivity” in its customers’ lives, the message gently introduced Draper James’ spring collection, asking if the timing was right to share. The company also reposted the email on its social media channels.

The brand handled their new collection launch with respect and understanding for the situation, instead of ignoring the challenges that their customers were going through. The brand welcomed feedback while delicately approaching self-promotion.

A crisis doesn’t mean that you need to abandon your planned marketing initiatives in order to be empathetic. And you don’t have to make a grand statement about the crisis or offer suggestions on how to get through it.

Global shipping crisis and how you can address your customers if your supply chain is effected

Sometimes, simply acknowledging the situation is the best option. When Dagne Dover announced its spring collection in an email, the crisis was addressed directly.

Update email automations to reflect the current climate

If business is not as usual—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 or not the content and automations you have scheduled are appropriate. 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.  

One brand that did an excellent job of adjusting their content is Lunya, a sleepwear brand that put extra effort into optimizing every touchpoint during the pandemic.

Subject lines like, “Soft things for hard times,” “Business not as usual,” and “We’re all in this together” strike the right tone and gave a subtle nod to the current climate, without being flippant. The brand demonstrated that they know their place in their customers’ lives as a source of comfort.

Depending on what products you sell, you could also look at this as an opportunity to promote inventory that isn’t typically high-selling during this season, but may be more interesting to customers as buying behavior changes.

Take a look at your content calendar and see where you can make adjustments. Tweak your copy to be more empathetic to your customers’ situation, and rethink your email strategy. It’s important to strike the right tone with your messaging, and these minor adjustments will show that there’s a human being behind the brand. Customers are much more likely to engage with these types of messages. 

Maintain email list hygiene to ensure your messages are relevant

Leverage different channels of communication

In addition to your email and website, there may be other ways you communicate with current and potential customers. SMS marketing has been gaining popularity among brands that 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.

Because a text message is a more intimate way to connect with your customers than an email, it requires you to think critically about how often you’re communicating through this channel—and what you’re choosing to say.

While you should always send your best offers to SMS subscribers, think about how that may look  in a crisis.

Activewear brand Alala promoted a giveaway with three other direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands over text during the pandemic, asking subscribers to submit an “everyday hero” for a chance to win $5,000 in prizes.

Alala used SMS as an opportunity to connect with customers in a way that was valuable to their brand, while also celebrating frontline workers. This giveaway was a great way to help multiple brands build their lists, and it didn’t come across as overly promotional.

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

  • Use fewer links and more information and sentiment
  • Use this time to build relationships with customers instead of worrying about click-through rates
  • Don’t overdo sending texts and emails

While SMS is just another vehicle, it shows the importance of thinking critically about every marketing channel you use to engage with customers.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, it’s important to show empathy for what your customers may be dealing with personally and professionally. But when times are tough, people welcome distractions to get their minds off thinking about what’s in the headlines. 

Find small ways to delight your customers. This email from Host Events, a team-building service, strikes a balance between lighthearted and compassionate.

baby yoda focused email
Cocktail recipe sent in an email

Host Events couldn’t provide its usual service, but it could still offer value to its customers with a recipe to make their own specialty cocktail at home.

Ask your community what resonates with them

Nobody has all the answers as to how you should be talking to your customers during a crisis. Some customers will want to receive frequent updates from your company, while others prefer a more hands-off approach.

Reformation, a clothing company, asked their customers directly what they wanted from the brand during the pandemic. In an email, the company explained how they were responding to the crisis and asked customers for advice on what sort of communications would be appropriate.

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. It ensures that whatever Reformation’s sending out—whether it’s new arrivals or business updates—that they’re being cognizant of what people want to hear about during a sensitive time. 

Segment based on relevance

During a crisis, people can get overwhelmed by information coming at them from everywhere. They’re bombarded by the news, commentary from friends and family, and messages on social media. This is where segmenting your audience can filter messages to communicate with your customers in the most effective way.

If you’re in the unfortunate position of having to close one of your retail stores, you can use segmentation to notify only the customers who live near that location. For example, if you’re closing a store in New York City, you can email a segment of your subscribers with specific details about the store’s closing, while sending a more general email to your larger list of subscribers.

You may also want to consider sending a VIP list to customers who have purchased from you in the last 90 days. If you’re a large brand with a long list of subscribers, this will help ensure your message is  being sent to only your most engaged subscribers. 

If you want to segment your lists but you’re worried about greater visibility, you can post your updates on social media. This allows you to get your message out on a more public platform, while avoiding clogging your customers’ inboxes. 

Send your personalized email messages to a VIP email list

Consider using a single location on your website to post updates about the crisis. Use a header bar at the top of your homepage with links to resources. This will allow your company transparency about your response without having to email every single update to your customers.

Who Gives a Crap, a toilet paper company, used this strategy to help keep their customers informed of the availability of their product during the pandemic.

“We tried to get as much information on our website—in our pop over and our banners,” Mike Altman, Senior Retention Manager, explained. “We also have a blog that we updated regularly.”

That blog—appropriately named Talking Crap—kept their customers informed during the crisis, while keeping things lighthearted.

Out of stock email

How marketers can navigate a fluid situation

Staying true to who you are as a brand is the best strategy to employ during a crisis. Be as authentic, empathetic, and transparent as possible with your customers. This will help you to continue fostering the relationships you’ve already built—and to nurture the new ones that will grow as a result of how you respond during this time.

Naadam, a cashmere clothing company, took this approach with an email they sent to their customers at the beginning of the pandemic.

nadaam brand email template

Smart business owners are constantly adjusting and adapting their marketing strategies during a crisis. And if you listen to your customers, they will provide the insights you need to move your business forward during challenging times—and when things eventually get better.

Looking for more tips on being more empathetic in your messaging? See how you can use email templates and automate messages for best results

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