According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) on March 18, 43% of consumers find it reassuring to hear from brands they “know and trust” as COVID-19 pandemic spreads. And 40% want to know how companies are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, compared to just 15% who say they do not want to hear from companies at the current time.

But as the COVID-19 crisis drags on with no end in sight, businesses risk turning customers and stakeholders off if they aren’t careful about their messaging strategies. Indeed, a more recent survey conducted by Digital Commerce 360 found that 43% of consumers believe coronavirus messages from retailers sound too similar and “are losing their impact.”

How can companies ensure their messaging strategies don’t backfire? Here are questions every company should ask before communicating with customers and stakeholders about COVID-19.

Is the message essential or non-essential?

While many companies naturally want to communicate about how they’re responding to COVID-19, some messages are necessary and others are not. For example, companies that are taking action that will impact customers, such as canceling services or making changes to orders to pending orders or reservations, obviously have a need to communicate with customers.

On the other hand, companies that want to speak more generally about how they’re responding to the situation — both the bad news and the good news — should recognize that such messages are not essential. While that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be delivered, it does mean that extra consideration should be given to how, when and through what medium they’re delivered.

What is our relationship with the stakeholder?

Most companies have many different kinds of stakeholders and COVID-19 presents a unique situation in which companies may have a desire or need to communicate with many if not all of them.

Companies risk making a huge mistake, however, if they attempt to communicate with all of their stakeholders with a single message, at the same time and through the same medium. Instead, this is a moment that calls for segmentation — thoughtful, granular segmentation at that.

For instance, it can be very wise to segment customers. Arguably, businesses have more justification for communicating with regular customers, or customers the business has transacted with recently, about COVID-19 than customers that the business hasn’t transacted with recently. Companies should be especially cautious about communicating with inactive customers and customers they have not communicated with recently.

Put simply, if a company hasn’t sent a message to a former customer in over a year, it should consider that sending a non-essential email to that individual at a time when he or she is being bombarded with COVID-19 emails from companies he or she has active relationships with is, at best, more likely to be ignored and, at worst, could be seen as an annoyance.

When and how much do we need to communicate?

Based on necessity and the nature of a stakeholder relationship, companies can more reasonably determine ideal timing for COVID-19 communications, as well as how much information should be communicated.

This is especially true of email. Given the volume of COVID-19 emails currently being sent now, companies should consider that if a message doesn’t need to be delivered now, it might have a better chance of being opened and read at a later time. And while long letters from CEOs might hit all the right notes from a PR perspective, companies should be realistic: most consumers are probably not going to read them completely, if at all, especially if the content is not essential and/or the recipient’s relationship with the business is on the weaker side.

What medium is likely to be most effective, not most convenient?

Most COVID-19 communications are being delivered by email and while it might be the most appropriate in many cases, companies shouldn’t forget about other mediums they can take advantage of.

For essential communications, prominent notices on a company website can be highly effective. For example, retailers can use such notices to inform customers of supply issues, delivery delays, etc. And travel companies can use such notices to inform customers of changes they are making related to the pandemic.

Companies that have used other mediums, such as social media, online video and podcasts, to build strong relationships with the most engaged and invested stakeholders can look at those mediums as potential alternatives to email as they can be used to cut through the clutter and deliver messages to valuable segments.

Remember: it’s not all about the company

The pandemic that’s sweeping the globe is in many ways an unprecedented event that challenges businesses in ways they’ve never been challenged before. While the conventional wisdom is for companies to stay engaged and respond, communication strategy during an event like this should at all levels incorporate a humility borne of the recognition that the company isn’t the center of the universe for the vast majority of its non-employee stakeholders.

In staying humble, companies are far more likely to come up with answers to the above questions that are appropriate and reasonable for these extraordinary times.

COVID-19 Insight for marketers

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