Retailers: Are Your COVID-19-Related Communications Effective? Here’s How to Tell
Along with everyone else, retailers are having a rough time with the COVID-19 outbreak. SparkPost, the world's largest email deliverability engine, looked at its data and pulled some trends related to how companies are communicating; what consumers care to see; and how this crisis is driving transparent, ongoing communication. One thing is certain, during these difficult times, organizations are leaning on digital channels very heavily, with email continuing to be the most versatile, quickly deployable, lowest cost channel for most.
While those in the food and drug categories don't lack store traffic, they’re facing abrupt challenges, including managing adjusted hours and product shortages. Other retailers with only brick-and-mortar operations are closing stores and watching their revenue fall off a cliff. Those with e-commerce infrastructure are in somewhat better shape, subject to their own category shortages. The experience runs the gamut for retailers, but what is consistent across the board is that nearly every retailer is tackling new ways to engage with customers to share important information. It can be from the most critical of messages (e.g., “Your prescription is ready for you, but please note new pharmacy pick-up rules”) to purely informational (e.g., “Hand sanitizer is back-in-stock.”). As the world adjusts to the new normal, retailers in particular are in a unique position to re-create their message and communication strategy, developing a plan that allows them to balance normal promotional messaging with more critical messages.
From a high level, SparkPost communication data is highlighting the early steps brands are taking, and it’s clear that clear, timely, accurate information and reassurance are resonating with consumers. Consider that consumers are opening more than 30 percent of emails they receive of this nature compared to the roughly 15 percent open rate for most standard retail promotional email.
Effective email communication requires information that addresses the basics:
- Are you still open for business? When?
- How are you keeping your workers and customers safe? How — and with what service enhancements or adjustments — are you dealing with customer-facing impacts?
- How are you meeting special customer product and service needs caused by the crisis?
- How can customers contact you with questions or problems?
What We Found
Filtering for related messaging with subject line keywords, we looked at how retailers in 19 categories are emailing specifically about the coronavirus. (Note: These developments are advancing so rapidly that we can provide only snapshot views, which will certainly have changed by the time you read this piece.) Here’s what we’re seeing that works:
- Almost without exception, message themes are similar across retail sectors — e.g., president/CEO messages; store hours/closures; general updates; event cancellations/postponements; refund policies; staying healthy/safe (some are unique to a sector; e.g., “How to keep coronavirus off your smartphone”); merchandise/food delivery safety/options (“COVID-19 teaching resources,” “Crafting and coronavirus”).
- For the most part, messages with subject lines specifically keyed to the illness itself are not also actively promoting the retailer’s products. Their intent is to inform and reassure. Other messaging tends not to explicitly reference the illness, but often touches content around the disease’s impacts and implications. For example, “Let’s get through this together,” sent by Dollar Shave Club.
Retailers Creating Opportunity
Despite how serious this situation is, it has created legitimate product and service needs to which retailers must respond. For example, for online orders, Target has a clever store pickup feature, driven by its app. Email messages promote this process and real-time email messages accompany every step. The customer tells Target when they are on the way for pickup. The app can track the customer’s location, and know when they’ve arrived at the store. Using a dedicated parking area, packages are brought directly to the car without further prompting. This process works because many customer-touch channels are aligned, allowing customer engagement data to freely flow from one platform to the next in order to deliver the service being promoted in the email. The experience is seamless, convenient, and designed to thrive regardless of the threat of a pandemic.
Beyond merchandise and food delivery, we’re seeing other examples of opportunities arising due to the sudden necessity for many to work and school from home. These changing needs are generating communication focused on related brand offerings and remain anchored in the principles of consumer convenience, safety and speed. Below are two noteworthy examples:
- From: L.L.Bean, March 19
- Subject Line: The Outdoors Are Open
- Projected Audience: 2.3 million (96 percent of the company's projected overall email audience footprint)
- Read Rate: 21 percent
- From: Wayfair, March 20
- Subject Line: No home office? No problem.
- Projected Audience: 18.6 million (48 percent of the company's projected overall email audience footprint)
- Read Rate: 17 percent
While brands must balance promotion and COVID-19-sensitive communications, understanding how customer needs have changed creates new opportunities to provide value. As you evaluate your brand’s communications approach, consider these tips:
- Talk to your customers about what they need to know and/or what they may need to do.
- Email engagement is most strongly driven through smart targeting and informative subject lines that reflect relevant content.
- To the extent possible, tailor messaging to customers most likely to respond, based on their status, location, behavior or preference.
- Craft subject lines to efficiently alert recipients to what’s in your message.
- Be mindful of tone and the email’s overall message, asking yourself, “Is this necessary?”; “How are we helping the customer?”; and “What are we asking from them at this time?”
John Landsman is the manager of research analytics at SparkPost, the world's largest email deliverability engine.
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John Landsman is the Manager of Research Analytics at SparkPost,the world's largest email deliverability engine.
He oversees competitive analysis and reporting for clients. With 30+ years of experience in all aspects of CRM development, deployment and application, John merged his technical and data know-how with his intimate knowledge of retail marketing, having served Macy's corporate for 12 years. He comes to SparkPost through the acquisition of eDataSource in October 2019, where he was director of strategy and analysis for five years. His earlier years in CRM and email marketing were spent at corporations including eBay Enterprise Marketing Solutions, Analytics Group and Harte-Hanks CRM Analytics. Between 2005-2014, John was on the Marketing Faculty of Bentley University (Waltham, MA). He holds a B.A. from Miami University (Ohio) and an M.B.A. from The Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College.