Viral Marketing

Viral Marketing

There’s nothing wrong with marketing your way through a crisis—or pandemic—but the tone of messages has got to be right. By Richard Howes

The Coronavirus pandemic can tell you a lot about businesses and the individuals that make them tick. I want to focus on marketing (what else?!) and how I’ve seen it done well and badly during this testing period.

The companies that are marketing themselves astutely are those avoiding two extremes:

1. Ignore your problems; spend money with us.

2. With respect, we’re removing ourselves from your line of sight.

Let’s explore both further.

The companies that fall into the first category were the ones on the phone, in your inbox, and all over your social media feed when business for most of us was essentially shut down a few weeks ago. “Don’t worry,” they said, “Now is the time to keep pushing forward and investing. Think how strong you’ll be when we come out the other side (wink, wink).” Typically, very little thought has gone into this strategy beyond the misconception that they can convince people to carry on as normal to protect their own revenue streams. In other words, you still need that matching luggage set, even though you’re not allowed to travel. What about colour-coordinated tags and passport holders?

Those in the second category have done the opposite, with equally disastrous consequences; they’ve removed themselves from the marketplace through fear that putting themselves in front of customers will somehow lack taste. These businesses have decided that they will be perceived as being insensitive if they push their brand or services on customers who are dealing with furloughing staff, lost revenue, and shrinking customer bases. They’ve become fearful that their reputations will be damaged by looking to prosper amid such uncertainty—or certain doom.

Advertising in printed journals remains a great way to reach target audiences in many sectors.

Balancing act

Interestingly, the companies that are marketing themselves well right now are those that are taking a principle from both camps: it’s absolutely okay to be communicating with customers, but it’s got to be done with respect for what prospective and existing clients are going through. Really, the pandemic is reinforcing the rules of engagement that have always been there, in that getting in someone’s face and barking a pitch is unlikely to lead to a sale, while not making an approach at all will be just as futile.

There are different schools of thought about whether the current climate lends itself more to inbound (blogs) or outbound (print ads) marketing. I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day who felt that now was the time to stick to more traditional, aggressive methods of engaging an audience, while someone on another video conference call presented an equally compelling case for taking advantage of the extra time people have on their hands by giving them more thought leadership-style articles.

Both are great marketers by the way and agreed on one thing: now is the time to be marketing, the circumstances only dictate how.

Don’t make your sales pitch too shouty in a time of crisis.

Don’t be blasé

I spend a lot of time talking to trade media representatives (editors, salespeople and publishers alike). It’s a sector that serves as a good case study because magazines, journals, and websites themselves are looking to maintain advertising revenue, while their advertisers are weighing up the extent to which they communicate with their audiences and are considering the subject of their messages when they do.

Magazines should still be presenting their content as a vehicle for advertisers and those vendors must still be taking advantage, but it’s not time to be blasé. On both sides of the fence, only by acknowledging unprecedented circumstances can they get the best results.

For trade media salespeople, now isn’t the time to copy and paste the go-to crisis text that implores with customers to market their way through a downturn to come out the other side stronger than those who don’t. Equally, advertisers would be remiss to expect readerships and audiences to react the same way during a lockdown as they would at the height of an industry curve.

Reality is, salespeople will always present a case for you to spend money, whether they’re selling advertising space, a product, service, or something different. The best ones, however, know that the long game pays better than going for the quick buck.

Salespeople would be foolish to go after a quick buck during a pandemic.

Lowering the tone

So, if magazines (indeed, any marketer) shouldn’t be sending blanket pitches to live and prospective advertisers; and advertisers (indeed, any vendor) mustn’t promote their wares without acknowledging changed circumstances, how can businesses market themselves astutely and effectively? The answer is: adopt the right tone.

Be present and supportive.

Speak to customers about their circumstances.

Ask them what mitigations they have had to implement and how it changes their approach to engagement.

Be respectful: it’s not a mistake for someone to put a campaign or purchase on hold just because it doesn’t line your pockets.

As one of my contacts put it recently, it’s about keeping the pipeline full. Now is the time to get a reputation for being supportive and cooperative. Be part of the solution that helps a client survive the biggest shock to business we’ve endured in living memory. 

Phone your customers, but don’t over-sell; place your ads, but maybe adapt the content so the brand is the focal point versus a particular, priced product; write your blogs, but don’t focus on subjects better suited to a more economically stable climate; tweet away, but don’t be demanding of followers; follow up with all the persistence of yesteryear, but consider what someone else might be dealing with.

Spending time with our families and with greater perspective on life generally, the COVID-19 pandemic is making people more aware of the values that might have taken a back seat in the fast-paced world that became normality. In turn, it has made the way we communicate, particularly in marketing messages, more important than ever before.

Be present, authentically.

Richard Howes is a director at Bridger Howes Limited