Brands are playing it safe with their messaging, but there are still opportunities to serve and engage audiences.
Creating brand content during a global pandemic is not on anyone’s résumé list of experiences. Brands now have to rethink their customers’ priorities to determine what’s worth communicating, while balancing marketing goals with customer empathy.
This conundrum has businesses playing themselves, generating nearly identical messaging across site banners and emails. The content din makes it more difficult for audiences to discern one brand from the next.
Despite these new challenges, there is guidance for brands that seek to continue serving and engaging their customers. On Live with Search Engine Land Friday, Meghan Keaney Anderson, CMO of HubSpot, Amanda Milligan, marketing director at Fractl and Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Marketing, shared some of the lessons they’ve learned while working with clients and marketing their own agencies on what brands should be communicating at this point, how to convey the right tone, identify content marketing opportunities and finding the right ways to measure success.
How should brands be communicating at this point?
“There are two ways that I would think about this: One is, ‘how do you communicate in direct response to the crisis?’” said Anderson, whose organization initially halted all social promotions and new product launches until it could assess the tone of its messaging.
“The second piece of this is, after the [initial outbreak] of the crisis, there is a new world that you are marketing and selling in, and so how do you reflect those times?” she said, pointing out new brand opportunities, like providing educational content, as people shift their focus to longer-term goals.
“Don’t say anything if we’re not going to be providing some kind of value,” Milligan advised, adding, “there’s a lot of sentiment going around and people are getting kind of skeptical or cynical about brands just saying things that sound nice, but they’re not actually doing anything.” Brands that are able to assist their target audiences, or simply continue serving customers the way they were pre-pandemic, will continue to build trust and an audience, Milligan said.
“Generally, the trend has been to be supportive and empathetic to the customer: to really dig into, ‘How does this current environment change life for our customer and where can we be of assistance?’” Lee said, pointing out that content marketing initiatives don’t necessarily have to be framed by the product solutions that a business offers.
“SAP just did SAP for Kids,” Lee used as an example, “it was a ‘bring your kids to virtual work day’ with celebrities and artists and influencers; it was a really great way for people to turn this live YouTube video on and have their kids sitting there next to them at home and actually take a yoga class or learn how to draw something or make a song,” he said.
How do you balance optimism and sensitivity in your messaging?
“You have to acknowledge that something’s going on, you don’t want to be oblivious . . . Because then, if somebody’s listening to that and they’ve had a very different experience, they’re not going to trust you anymore,” said Milligan, explaining that, while it is not necessary to dwell on the negatives, businesses must recognize that industries and customers will not return to the same status quo after the pandemic.
“The best way to judge whether something is going to land right is to talk to people within your own company and talk with your customers,” Anderson suggested, noting that both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 are likely to have affected a member of your own organization or one of their family members, and that taking their experiences into account can help you find the right tone.
“The other thing is, you’re going to make a mistake in this — we’re all going to make a mistake in this,” Anderson added, “And I think part of having that humanity is if you do say something that is accidentally out of tone or gets a bad reaction, to just listen and own that, apologize for it, move forward and not let it keep you out of the arena.” The unprecedented challenge that the world is facing may make for slightly more forgiving circumstances, but this is also a time when inappropriate messaging could strike a fatal blow to some businesses, making it even more important to, as Anderson recommended, discuss your strategy with the client and members of your own organization.
How do you identify content marketing opportunities during COVID?
“The opportunity identified is using search data to understand that there is an increased demand for certain types of products and solutions,” said Lee, emphasizing a back-to-basics SEO approach that he says companies should be employing year-round.
“A lot of people are looking to fill in the time that they’re not spending commuting,” he pointed out, “There might be ‘infotaining’ content that your brand could put out — it’s still contextually relevant to your business, but at the same time, it’s entertaining in some way.” Although some of these initiatives may not directly feed into the ROI outcomes that organizations are used to pursuing, audiences will remember the positive experiences that brands provide for them during this time, Lee said.
For businesses whose services or products do not explicitly lend themselves to the crisis, opportunities can still be found by exploring the thoughts, emotions, and challenges that their audiences may be facing right now.
“Different software that is about efficiency, or like ‘do-it-yourself’ has gotten much trendier now — probably, the sad reality is that people are downsizing and they have to try to make it work,” said Milligan. “So, what I’m encouraging people to do is to take that time to assess: What are the emotions being associated with here and the smaller struggles happening? Any kind of pain point you can alleviate, at this point, is much appreciated, and that could be a design tool that’s free and you can give to your whole team right now,” she said.
Can we rely on the same KPIs as before?
“We’re putting more emphasis on qualitative data than quantitative right now … we’re more okay than we typically are with trying to understand anecdotal evidence and gut reactions because these numbers are different than we’ve seen before,” said Anderson, adding that such qualitative data, once viewed as more of a supplement to cold hard metrics, has taken on more importance for her organization.
Switching to more qualitative measures of engagement has enabled HubSpot’s social media teams to monitor whether their messaging is being received positively or negatively, which helps the company adapt on the fly and informs its subsequent social media posts, Anderson said.
“It’s important to remember that even if you recognize that [KPIs have shifted], you have to set that expectation internally or with your clients,” Milligan said, adding, “It’s you determining, ‘Okay, what is now the purpose of this and what are the KPIs I’m going to assign to it?’ then telling that story internally or to your clients so that everybody’s on the same page.” Setting and communicating the appropriate KPIs helps your team and client understand what they’re trying to achieve, which will increase the odds of success.