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Retail messaging during COVID-19: What to embrace right now

My colleague and partner from our Digital CX group, Jill Redo, and I have been scanning the retail communications landscape the last few weeks. Our teams identify new weekly UpTrends, which we’ve been publishing in a newsletter to sales, client partners and account executives for client distribution. Her observations below, along with mine, hit on some of the challenges and opportunities facing retailers today.

No brand can realistically prepare for “customer messaging during a pandemic,” yet here we all are. Brand communications are of the upmost importance right now as retailers search for the best way to engage consumers during this difficult time. It’s no simple task, and people are looking for a variety of things: entertainment, guidance and information. Retail brands can provide additional value through communications everyone prepares for the “next normal,” and consumers will be searching for guidance on how they can readapt.

And the statistics are rolling in to support this. In March, we saw the following across Epsilon PeopleCloud Messaging for our retail clients worldwide:

  • Unique open rates increased throughout March to level out at 11%, as stay-at-home living with more inbox attention time began adjusting to more usual Easter and spring messaging cadence.
  • Despite early numbers of CEO messages with less clickable calls-to-action, unique click-through rates rose significantly with 20% increase by March week 4, indicating interest and desire to engage with brands.

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Retail strategy needs to be updated during this unprecedented time, and because your customers are online now more than ever before, digital messaging is a crucial component of that strategy. But, brands need to be conscious of what, where and how content is distributed and positioned during this unprecedented time.

Here, we outline four messaging strategies (with examples) for retailers to effectively, and consciously, communicate during this COVID-19 retail disruption.


Read more: Celebrating Moms, Dads & Grads during COVID-19: How marketers can use email to connect with customers.


 

Acknowledge the current environment, rather than gloss over or pretend

When it comes to COVID-19 retail messaging, here are some statistics from MediaPost:

  • In March, COVID-themed emails received more opens (28%) compared to business-as-usual emails (25%), indicating that timely and highly relevant messages have stronger appeal.
  • At the same time, delete rates significantly jumped from 7% in March 2019 to 11% March this year, reinforcing the higher immediacy and shorter shelf life for communications in the current environment.

What does this mean? There’s an elephant in the room, and not acknowledging it does more to harm your communication than help. But—and this is a big one—your COVID-19 messaging strategy needs to be appealing for readers.

Talk about the situation—not the problem. Literally including the words “COVID-19” in your subject lines or copy is not strictly necessary, and may detract from the lighthearted tone you’re striving for. While appropriate for CEO messages regarding health and safety efforts, a more subtle approach for helpful tips and home-living category inspiration may resonate.

Instead, nod to the experience. Customers will know what you’re referring to—we’re all experiencing the same situation—and will be thankful you’re actually speaking directly to what they’re feeling. Plus, shoppers are looking for ways to turn this experience into a more positive one, and you can help them out there.

A great example of this in action is an email from Ross-Simmons, which has the subject line “Quality Time with Your Pet? Show Your Love! Save Up to 65%” and the header “Staying In? Us Too.”

In this communication, the situation is acknowledged subtly, all while offering customers a way to make their indoor lives more enjoyable. The emotional connection of bonding with pets honors a moment in time, which lines up with well with precious jewelry as it relates to emotional memory associations.

What to avoid: Don’t stick to overly somber messaging or cause undue stress. The last thing you want to be sending is urgency messaging during this sensitive time.

Consumers are looking for distractions—create content to engage

The COVID-19 retail communications you’re sharing right now should not just be tied to products and sales, but also engagement and relevancy with audience. On a statistical level, Mobile Marketer has seen mobile gaming jump 24% in just two weeks as people are growing more reliant on anything indoors for entertainment.

Shoppers are ready for some levity; we’ve seen an uptick already in more lighthearted, optimistic and entertaining content and communications. Retailers should mix in unique content types, such as infographics, articles, videos, recipes, how-to's and more. Business-as-usual promotional offers that speak to necessary savings are important, but may come across as off-tone during this time.

We’re continuing to see brands switch from a selling model to a content model. Education, inspiration, fun and games are the new promotions, effectively entertaining consumers and nurturing brand loyalty. And your communications should extend across customer preferred channels—email, social, digital media and push notifications—with the right cadence to deliver value while not seeming overwhelming. Some brands are enriching enjoyment and usability of their products by investing in rich content to support the product experience outside the merchandise itself:

  • Walgreens: A recent Walgreens seniors-focused email communicates empathy and concern while leading with a relevant offer (up to 30% off for those 55+), keeping messaging on theme throughout the creative and offering practical ways for to allow seniors to remain safe.
  • Michaels: The crafts retailer has done a two-a-day email marketer that seamlessly balances a re-evaluated tone, driving awareness of enhanced services, and regular seasonal messaging.
  • Nike: With sports canceled and gyms closed, Nike has customers covered. Via a long, extended email (yes, these can work well), the brand alerted shoppers that it has made paid Nike Training Club Premium (a $14.99/mo value) free to all Nike Members until further notice. Even better, Nike reflects this update within SEO and created a hashtag #playinside.

As well, Joann Fabrics created a template for making masks at home and promoted it via email. Crate & Barrel got creative with a five-step guide for better happy hours at home, offering something of value to shoppers to pair with the brand’s 20% off “Wine and Dine” deal, all within the same email.

 

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DSW put together a bingo board catered to quarantine life, in line with Instagram’s consumer posting increase in quarantine and college bingo boards. This is a great example of a brand considering audience media context and preferences.

 

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Avoid: Staying the line with only product- or savings-based messaging. Consumers are looking for content that is helpful, entertaining or relevant for their current experience. They are giving brands permission to color outside the lines as we navigate new territory together.

Create communications that add to the conversation

It may be tempting to showcase all the amazing things your brand is doing to drum up enthusiasm, but caution is advised. It’s not the time to share platitudes about the situation or repeat what should be a given; consumers are looking for a balance of guidance, distraction and compassion. John Oliver’s recent rant against Amazon calling their employees “heroes” is one lens through which messaging can inadvertently be viewed as self-serving; actionable information that provides value to the reader is paramount.

Use communications to add something positive to the conversation, and offer customers something of unique value during this situation. Brands are getting creative with how they’re adapting to support the current crisis and be of genuine help to people during this time.

Williams Sonoma, for instance, teamed up with the non-for-profit No Hungry Kid to ensure kids out of school get the meals they need during this difficult time. Williams Sonoma highlighted this partnership in a recent email and offered readers not only the opportunity to donate, but also a few short infographics about how many kids are in need of food and how many meals are estimated to be missed. 

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This communication offers people a chance to feel helpful and informed about an aspect of the situation they may otherwise have been in the dark about.

BP did something similar with an email from the BPme Rewards team. After acknowledging the situation, BP offered first responders, doctors, nurses and hospital works a one-time 50-cent-off per gallon discount to use on their next fill-up at BP or Amoco. To draw attention to the offer, the email encouraged readers to send a personal “thank-you” by sharing a post on social media and using the hashtag #BPLocalHeroes.

A different example is Restoration Hardware, which shared an email communication with the subject line “Turn Your Shelter Into a Sanctuary. Our Designers are Here to Help.” In this email, we can clearly see that Restoration Hardware is speaking to something they know—design—and steering clear of speaking to anything outside their expertise. They offer shoppers design advice via virtual consultations with RH Interior Designers, a savvy offering to market during this time.

Avoid: Talking out of your depth or putting the focus on yourself. It’s not about making a big announcement about what you’re doing, it’s about how you’re being genuinely helpful for others right now.

As well, make sure that if you’re creating COVID-19 content, it’s well thought through. We studied one email from a brand with an enticing COVID-themed “work from home” email subject line, but the email content wasn’t adapted: the four-piece woman’s power suit featured feelings of elegance and polish in the office (with product and place being far from timely). Make sure to think through all aspects of your communications to fit the current situation or run the risk of alienating customers. This includes shutting off any automated triggers, such as your 45-day at risk win-back, that may not meet the new tone of today’s #stayhome life.

Make your message count

Be clear about the purpose of your message as a marketer. There will be a “next normal” just around the corner when customers are permitted to step out of their indoor lifestyle and re-enter stores. Preparing consumers for a “March goods sale in May,” or setting expectations for the weeks needed to fully restock ahead of the next season, are critical. Even the effort to widen aisles for improved social distancing overall will take time.

Now is also a crucial time to build brand affinity and loyalty. This applies to both your longstanding customers, as well as any new customers purchasing from you for the first time. We’re seeing this heavily in ecommerce right now, where people are trying new retailers because their typical go-to brand was sold out of their favorite product, or they are trying a new retailer because of proximity to home vs. regular shopping habit. This creates retention challenges but also acquisition opportunities at the same time.

And, if you’re really looking to plan for the future, don’t segment or target based on last year’s numbers. Rather, focus on the past 60 to 90 days of engagement across channels and purchase behavior. Customers’ buying behaviors are changing, and that may be for a short period of time or for good. In either case, understanding new buying behaviors and leveraging those insights to speak to them is key. Show first-time buyers what you’re able to offer in the long term, and you’ll be in a better position for the future.

Avoid: Don’t just live in the now without a solid plan to match potential out of season inventory or delayed seasonal restock with shopper expectations. Plan for a broad array of customer and store experiences, and let customers know you’ll doing your best to ramp back up for them quickly, with safety still top of mind.

Taking queues from industry peers is a helpful way to refine your own COVID-19 strategy. Move forward with these recommendations, and you’ll set yourself up for success as we move into the next normal.

 Tailor your COVID-themed communications to the time of year. Check out: Celebrating Moms, Dads & Grads during COVID-19: How marketers can use email to connect with customers.