A 3-Phase Marketing Framework to Stay Afloat in a Crisis
Whether or not the coronavirus pandemic is the first “real” crisis you’ve weathered, you’ve likely encountered situations that demanded a fast and precise response. Applying a multi-step marketing framework to your crisis management plan will keep you on track as you communicate internally and externally.
Unfortunately, human nature doesn’t make that easy. “Fight, flight, or freeze” — you’ve probably heard of the typical reactions to unexpected events. Often when facing sudden, unwelcome challenges, we switch into “busy mode.” In an attempt to respond to the crisis, our brains become overloaded. This is because engaging in and delivering something gives us a sense of accomplishment. Most often, though, those "busy mode" projects tend to be unfocused distractions from the critical to-dos, which in turn may be addressed too late or never.
With that in mind, consider the following three-phase model for how marketing communications should tackle a crisis.
3-Phase Crisis Management Response Model
You’ve probably received sales pitches from companies leveraging the pandemic to sell you their products and services. Many of the pitches lack empathy for the dire situation your business, employees, friends, or the general public may be in — a clear indication that these vendors hold a purely transactional view of the relationship.
The good news is that humans are inherently driven by social interactions. We prefer lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. More than ever in times of crises, it is imperative to show empathy and our human face to our clients, partners, prospects, and the general public.
Nevertheless, a business must focus on its True North. So, how do you ensure your marketing team makes the shift from: “How to respond to COVID-19” to “How to leverage our solution to address the impact of COVID-19”? And how do you focus on your business message while placing your relationships with customers, prospects, and partners at the center of the communication? Break it into three phases.
Phase 1: Reaction
Phase 1 starts almost immediately after the onset of the crisis. While you want to avoid appearing alarmist, ideally you should be part of the early majority in your communication. During this initial phase, your primary audience is customers, partners, prospects, and other immediate stakeholders such as employees and investors.
At this early point, general content about the nature of the crisis, as well as early guidance on it, are most appreciated. Recognize the situation, show empathy and understanding, and provide early, helpful tips. Given the novelty of the situation, nobody expects you to have fully fleshed out solutions. But for sure they expect to hear from you.
During this phase, don’t forget to adjust your marketing activities. Pause your campaigns, adjust your homepage and creative, and make it easy for incoming inquiries to access relevant information and support.
While we have been dealing with COVID-19 in the U.S. for least the past six to eight weeks, you should have handled the majority of this phase already, especially the early communications. You may still be adjusting your marketing as needed, based on your business and your audience. Remember communication internally with your teams is key, as well as how you message your audience.
Phase 2: Lead the Conversation
After the initial phase that follows the external shock, most consumers will have assessed the situation and grasped the new status quo. At the same time, the market will have caught up and there will be information available on the situation, or at least its symptoms and consequences.
Phase 1 response came naturally to most of us. However at this point, high-level articles with general tips will not cut it anymore. Instead, customers, prospects, and partners are looking for deeper insights, specifically information that actually helps them address their most important challenges. They want to lean on you as their experienced subject matter expert. Focus on hidden, surprising facts and recommendations, and show your mastery of the situation. Naturally, the tone of your messages should continue to show empathy, but at the same time those messages must instill confidence and reinforce expertise.
Phase 3: Adjust to the ‘New Normal’
Not surprisingly phase 1 (“Reaction”) and phase 2 (“Lead the Conversation”) tend to be quite taxing to your organization. You have had to abandon your regular marketing plan and prioritize ad hoc activities. And sure enough, your team and both internal and external stakeholders have more than enough additional ideas for further phase 1 and 2 actions.
Now, however, it becomes critical for your organization to make yet another switch. Based on a revised business and marketing plan, you must now segue back to the "True North." You’re still leading with coronavirus-related topics, but they now serve more as a conversation opener for you to explain how your solution addresses the pain and problems your prospects suffer during the crisis. The rationale is pretty simple: You don’t want to be one in a million companies generally talking about the crisis, but instead be the expert in a well-defined subcategory with an equally well-defined audience.
At this stage, your content focuses on engaging your target personas, who — after the initial weeks of hectic emergency response — should now be more receptive.
It’s striking that so many companies seem to struggle with the communication aspect of crisis management. Even now, months into the pandemic, some companies appear reluctant to take these well-justified steps. Some brands are still sending emails promoting products and services with creative dating back to the happy boom times. And even at this point, there are organizations that shy away from canceling or postponing events that are meant to happen in the near future. Why?
With the help of this simple framework, companies can swiftly and successfully adjust their marketing communication to respond to unforeseen crisis situations in a controlled and proactive way.
Norman Rohr is SVP of Marketing & Communications at Uberall, Inc., the platform managing digital experiences for local businesses. Before joining Uberall, Norman was VP of Global Operations & Strategy for video advertising specialist, Pixability, responsible for the company’s entire sales operations and marketing. Prior to that, Rohr headed up small and medium business marketing for Google in Canada, having previously worked for the company in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Toronto and Zurich. He has also held senior positions at Swiss speech technology startup, SVOX, helping to scale the company from 11 to 160 staff.