Content marketing in times of disruption

The coronavirus pandemic and response to racial injustices have greatly impacted what audiences are prioritizing and how they view brands. While these, and other future disruptions, are capable of driving a wedge between businesses and their customers, they also provide brands with opportunities to distinguish themselves through empathetic content marketing that supports both audiences and business goals.

At SMX Next, I addressed ways that brands can seize these opportunities and avoid some of the potentially tragic pitfalls of marketing during such turbulent times. I’ve outlined some of the major takeaways below, but you can watch the full keynote and access all the other sessions for free by registering for SMX Next.

Create a rapid response workflow to navigate marketing disruptions

Over the course of 2020, we’ve seen customers engage with brands that have empathetically and creatively responded to what their audiences are experiencing, while organizations that hesitate or make missteps have been met with criticism. Creating a rapid response team or workflow is one way to set your brand up for success when current events take an unpredictable turn.

Marketers need to audit their existing processes to clearly define what each member of their team is responsible for, what it would take to halt automated messaging, how to get a hold of stakeholders and which channels will be used to deliver those responses.

In addition, each team member should be familiar with your organization’s stance on current events and the issues affecting its customers. Having these conversations ahead of time can expedite the response process, instead of slowing it down with internal debates.

Getting all the members of your organization on the same page about polarizing issues ahead of time can facilitate faster responses and avoid potential missteps.

CrossFit faced this issue in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, ultimately leading to its CEO making comments that he would eventually resign over, and resulting in over 1000 gyms distancing themselves from the brand, taking their affiliate fees with them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ben & Jerry’s tweeted its initial response less than two days after the incident, pointing followers to its blog post Why Black lives matter, published in 2016. In the four weeks following, it published over half a dozen more posts regarding racism. Instead of fracturing its reputation and community, CrossFit might have been able to unite its audience if it had prepared by discussing these issues in advance and delivering its stance in a more timely manner.

Convey empathy in your tone and messaging

In addition to advancing your business priorities, your brand must also strive to achieve the appropriate tone, given your audience and the circumstances we’re marketing in. Some might see this as a compromise, but tone is an important component of messaging, which brings brands closer to their goals — these objectives are one and the same. The difference nowadays is that audiences are likely to be more sensitive to tone given the global pandemic, its economic fallout and movements for racial equality.

Make it a two-way conversation. Directly engaging with customers allows them to tell your organization what their concerns and priorities are, enabling you to better support them. Businesses can use their social channels, SMS, live website chat or other methods to get in touch with their audiences and find out how they’re affected by COVID-19 or other disruptions to their daily lives. In addition to assisting your customers this way, you can also use this opportunity to source more content marketing ideas as well.

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Online musical instrument retailer Sweetwater sends individual emails to their customers to ask if there are ways it can assist them.

Scale back your assumptions. A more subtle way to adjust your tone and messaging is to evaluate your creative to identify where assumptions are being made. Many marketing efforts use personas based on data and assumptions as a foundation, but it’s not always advantageous for those assumptions to come across in your messaging. Conveying an incorrect assumption about your audience is more likely to set your brand back during times when people are highly sensitive to current events.

- suitsupply3 800x459 1 - Content marketing in times of disruption

After protests broke out following George Floyd’s death, Suitsupply presumably thought its audience would be receptive to models dressed in suits and superimposed on backgrounds with protestors. The caption also failed to convey what the brand itself would be doing, if anything, to further the Black Lives Matter movement. The images above were removed from Suitsupply’s Instagram within hours after they were posted and the brand issued an apology the following day.

But, don’t resort to generic messaging. Resorting to safer, generic messaging may help you sidestep sensitive subjects, but it also means your messaging is unlikely to resonate with anyone in particular. In addition, audiences are becoming increasingly skeptical as corporations put out nebulous responses to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Brands can be more memorable and strike the right notes with their audience by demonstrating how they’re taking action to help their customers or society at large. Ford, for example, did this by working with 3M and the United Auto Workers Union to produce respirators.

Related: Empathetic content marketing falls flat without authenticity [Video]

Combine search data and creativity to inform your content strategy

COVID-19 has dramatically affected search behavior and, consequently, search results have also shifted to accommodate what users are now looking for. As parts of the country begin to reopen, and as people navigate other seismic issues, search behavior patterns may dramatically deviate from years prior. That does not mean that search data is no longer useful — it just means that more creativity and research are required before making content strategy decisions.

Right after stuff hits the fan. In the short-term after major news breaks, audiences are likely prioritizing their own livelihood and that of their family or community. This is also the period in which search behaviors are shifting as people look for resources and solutions to how current events are affecting them personally, which introduces more variables into the mix and makes search behavior potentially more difficult to interpret.

During this sensitive time, anything brands can do to address their audiences’ urgent questions or concerns will have a higher chance of being well received and any messaging that strays from that purpose will probably be considered noise.

Carefully scrutinize whether your messaging helps your audience, or society at large, with what they’re currently navigating. If you’re unable to serve them at this time, then it may be best to avoid distracting them and instead publish your organization’s response on its website where people can access it when they’re ready. One of the worst, avoidable things a brand can do is alienate customers by taking this opportunity to center itself.

After the initial shock. As audiences adapt to the new status quo, search behaviors will also settle into more predictable patterns (at least until the status quo changes again). At this point, customers may be looking to return to some of their previous habits or take up new interests to help them get through this period, creating opportunities to combine some creative marketing with trends and search data. Here’s an example of these factors coming together:

- g trends dog adoption 1 800x473 1 - Content marketing in times of disruption
Interest in the search term “dog adoption” between January, 2004 and June, 2020.

During the six-week-period after the coronavirus pandemic was declared a national emergency, searches for “dog adoption” hit an all-time high. Life Kit, NPR’s podcast about health, money, and other life skills, released an episode providing considerations for prospective dog owners and repurposed that information for an accompanying blog post and YouTube video.

In addition to trends and search data, marketers should be listening to what their audience is feeling, either through direct communication, surveys or monitoring social media. The emotions members of your audience express and the conversations they’re having with one another may help you discover pain points that your content can address.

DoubleTree by Hilton showed that it was in tune with its customers, who were canceling reservations due to COVID-19, by sharing its official chocolate chip cookie recipe. “We hope families enjoy the fun of baking together during their time at home, and we look forward to welcoming all our guests with a warm DoubleTree cookie when travel resumes,” said Shawn McAteer, the hotel chain’s senior vice president and global head. This campaign empathetically supported disappointed travelers by providing them with a safe activity that promotes DoubleTree’s brand while helping it to maintain some relevance at a time when people are traveling less than ever.

Different audiences are affected by marketing disruptions in a myriad of ways, so the right mixture of creativity and data will vary from sector to sector. So long as your content is on-brand, strikes the right tone, attempts to support your customers and is appropriate for the times, it is probably something your audience will appreciate.

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