True Confessions of a Digital Marketer #8: I’ve had it with virus marketing!

As a former CMO, I’ve seen and heard a lot of unique (and some downright crazy) marketing techniques along the way, and “True Confessions” is my way of sharing it with all of you. Like all good legends–marketing or otherwise– there’s always a mix of truth, exaggeration, outright fiction, and just plain wishful thinking. We’ll let you decide which is which below.


I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m over all the COVID marketing tactics out there. While it is extremely serious (and trust me, I live in Massachusetts so no question about it being real) the Coronavirus marketing schtick has to end…and the real-life of marketing in (continued) troubled times has to begin.


It is a very strange time for marketers. We know we have to speak to our customers; we know we need to keep business running; and yet, we also know that people are in a completely different place than we were just over two months ago.


Every day I receive emails from every company I do (or have ever done and even some I never did) business with. Every one of them feels obligated to tell me what they are doing as a result of the current situation. Contactless pickup. Venmo or electronic payments. Videoconferencing. Even super-duper hygienic cleaning ( . . . which kind of begs the question “uh, what they were doing before?” but let’s not go there.  


Some want to tell me more than once: “Hey, we’re going to do the thing.” “Hey, we did the thing.” “Hey, in case you’ve been too busy to check your emails (we understand!), we just wanted to make sure you saw we did the thing.” 


Or there’s the “hey, sorry you haven’t heard from us lately, we’ve been busy and didn’t want you to worry, so now we’ll be sending you three emails a week as proof of life.”


Which is, to a certain extent, fine. Businesses reach out to our clients–not just to let them know they are okay, but to answer the basic questions:  Will business be running as usual? How do I contact you? Are you at full capacity? Changing anything? All legitimate questions to answer. Now as states are slowly lurching toward “reopening” in various definitions, there’s a new wave of messaging, practically minute by minute, reminding us that things are still tentative and doubtful as we adjust to our “new normal,” a phrase I hope never to hear again in 2021. 


Everyone is scared. I get it. We don’t know what’s acceptable right now: either in terms of conduct or communications cadence. 


On the other hand, there are certain companies that are trying to use humanity’s misery to sell more. A friend in PR mentioned one of her clients is making her nauseous with the ways they want to capitalize on the horrible illness and situation to boost their profits. Others I’ve seen (and you probably have too) are totally grasping at straws to connect their business opportunity to COVID. Others are just hammering away with daily emails–these tend to be bigger brands, and in my mailbox, they’re selling work clothes and shoes, and travel for places I don’t know anyone will be going to anytime soon.  


And then again, many of us aren’t saying a damn thing with our messaging. We’re just crossing out the other guy’s name and substituting our own:


Yes, let’s acknowledge that many of us–small businesses, service providers, restaurant owners–  are in the same boat: tiny, undercapitalized, and in uncharted and unfriendly waters. We’re barely hanging on, making tough decisions about people and dollars. 


I also get that we have to try to find a way to keep selling and keep doors open, but let’s do so in ways that aren’t nauseating.  Let’s also realize that this is not a crisis of just a couple of months, but likely will last into 2021 (in some form), and will have a long-reaching impact on how we live. And that, in turn, will impact what and how we market.


The one takeaway that I have is that it is critical to understand where people are, what they are thinking about, and how we can help them and do so in a heartfelt way.  Our marketing needs to reflect the current psyche–as it relates to our products and services and market to them with that knowledge. Not with fake connections to COVID19. Not with promises that ring false. Not promising a brighter future state when we don’t even know what that will look like. Not messaging that feels overinflated but rather with honesty, humility, and recognition that we are ALL in this together.


On second thought, let’s not say we’re all in this together. There’s no way we can all be in this together when certain people have the luxury of staying home and ordering Instacart and GrubHub, and others have to be the people who shop for Instacart and deliver for GrubHub. Let’s say that we’re all doing the best we can under the circumstances. 


But I digress.


If you haven’t already seen it, Bain and Company’s new white paper, Marketing for Somewhat Bad or Really Bad, contains an outstanding roadmap for marketers. Understanding how people are changing and testing new content or ads before releasing them is a key part of their advice. They recommend advice that’s both comforting in its familiarity, and shocking in its simplicity: to keep in touch with customers, prospects, and vendors, and to reach them ‘where they are’ both emotionally and with their businesses, which means getting to KNOW where they are and acting accordingly.


Because, maybe just as much now as ever, it’s never about us. It’s about being thoughtful, and authentic, and relevant….and it’s about how we help them. 


About Janet

Janet was the first CMO of Constant Contact, and part of the team that created much of what is known as inbound marketing today. She has also held leadership marketing roles at what is now 3M MicroTouch and HP. After creating HSG, a product and marketing consulting firm, alongside fellow entrepreneur Nitzan Shaer, they soon realized that market research is long, expensive, non-actionable, and does not work at the pace of digital marketers. As a result, they created WEVO – the first company to optimize website experiences before going live. WEVO uses target audience testing to diagnose web pages without the need for live traffic. With actionable, validated insights, WEVO enables you to pinpoint reasons why customers aren’t converting, empowering marketers with a low-risk way to uncover why people take action.