5 lessons email marketers learned in the pandemic
In the 18 months since we added “COVID-19” and “pandemic” to our marketing lexicon, marketers like me have been thinking about how to revise our email programs, what our customers are experiencing and how much everything could change before we move into our next version of “normal.”
Now we’ve gone through an entire marketing year calendar. Before we start to plan another one, it’s time to look back at what we’ve learned, adjusted and changed — and what we need to retain as we move into the next chapter.
Here are five lessons I’m taking away:
1. More than ever, we must empathise with our customers and see how our marketing can meet their needs.
I’ve always advocated “helpful marketing,” which takes a customer-centric approach to both business and consumer marketing. When you focus your marketing efforts on helping customers achieve their goals, they’ll in turn help you achieve yours.
The great upheavals we all went through as the pandemic progressed around the world showed how important it is to lead with empathy, to think about what our customers are experiencing and to put them first in our marketing.
Customers will respond when we share our humanity and recognise theirs. Envisioning our customers as people first and buyers second can help us make better choices in how we connect with them even as we move into a post-pandemic world.
Does it work? Yes! Marketers, including my Holistic team, are finding success in shifting the messaging from overly promotional emails to include educational content we think would be relevant for people. We’re still selling, but we’re changing our approaches to recognise how, when and what people want to buy.
2. Agility matters
Agile marketing was around long before the pandemic. But the sudden economic and cultural shifts, reversals and shutdowns throughout 2020 forced many marketers to remake everything from their marketing plans for the year to the mechanics of getting emails out the door.
Some products whose sales had previously chugged along reliably but unremarkably suddenly became hot sellers and prime candidates for email campaigns. Other products fell off the charts. How well did your marketing reflect these changing product dynamics?
Marketers who succeed now are best able to change gears quickly, from switching products in and out to pulling one campaign and replacing it with another.
And we aren’t out of the woods yet.
Along with supply-chain worries and suddenly faltering consumer confidence, the pandemic’s new variants threaten public health in many corners of the world. What we’ve learned from agile marketing might help us respond to these changes more adeptly.
My fellow marketing executives are picking up on this, according to a recent Salesforce study, in which 84% of respondents say customer expectations are changing their digital initiatives, and 34% struggle to innovate marketing technology, tactics and strategies.
Finally, the abrupt shift to remote work in 2020 exposed weaknesses in the day-to-day email workflow. Having colleagues working from their dining room tables instead of the office and juggling home life and family issues along with work, played havoc with many email operations.
These trouble spots cover everything from the time it takes to get an email campaign into inboxes to accessing the data we need to plan, build and send campaigns and to create or tune up automations.
Marketers who have to wait days for access to sales or inventory data or for customer lists will fall behind those with processes that prioritise speed and flexibility.
3. Automations are not “set and forget”
They never were — but in 2020-2021, we learned and relearned that lesson constantly.
Truly helpful marketing incorporates all of the technology you can call on to segment, personalize and automate your messaging. One of the best ways you can help your customers is to show them relevant messages that incorporate your customer data.
A standard email message doesn’t convey that level of personal awareness.
Automations in your message content actually help you send more personalized emails, because they use data to choose content that will personalize and enhance your messages or to choose a specific audience for your content. That’s why quick and easy access to data is essential for agile marketing in an environment where conditions change week to week or even day to day.
It allows you to update campaigns on the fly if products or services become unavailable or if you need to pause a campaign in one location or ramp it up in another.
The lesson here is to stay on top of your automations at all times, both the ones your customers see in public and the back-end automations that drive audience and content choices. And it’s not just for pandemic-related issues.
When the world seems to deliver one disruption after another – massive fires, floods or hurricanes, political and social upheaval, economic disruptions – we need to make sure our automations are updated to reflect our new messaging, customer and business needs and goals.
4. Geolocate where you can.
We also learned that we need to match our marketing to individual markets or locations, in as close to real time as possible. That means delivering relevant marketing that resonates, not “one-size-fits-none” messages that can offend customers and damage your brand.
Marketing by zones, or country-by-country, can help you adjust your programs to make the conditions your customers are experiencing.
Consider how the UK and U.S. business experience differed. The UK entered a near-total lockdown. In the U.S., where state governments dictated business and school closures and openings instead of the federal government, the response across the 50 states ranged from near-total lockdowns to few, if any changes.
So, marketing messages that did not account for these regional changes likely failed or even hurt customers’ relationships.
Here’s another example: In the U.S., new variants and surging infections are beginning to affect consumer spending. This happened initially in the travel segment, which was only just beginning to recover from 2020, but now extends to consumers’ willingness to shop in stores or return to malls.
In the U.K., where the delta variant has peaked, consumer confidence has reached pre-pandemic levels, according to a new PwC study.
As with agile marketing, these lessons apply not only to ongoing pandemic conditions but also to any events that affect different populations. But you have to stay on top of the news and keep in touch with industry organizations to understand what’s happening and how to respond.
5. Tune in to what’s happening.
It’s easy to keep our heads down and focus on the tasks in front of us, especially if we have to keep changing and updating our plans and programs to accommodate changing conditions.
But I’m going to quote my fellow MarTech contributor Ryan Phelan here: “Keep your eyes on current events, because we aren’t done yet.”
Block out time daily in your online meeting scheduler and use it to catch up on the news, however painful it might be. Become involved in trade groups whose leadership reflects a diverse or international community. You might be well versed in your own country’s conditions, but if you market internationally or across continents, it’s essential.
Understand what your customers in these diverse regions are experiencing. It’s a hallmark of helpful, customer-centric marketing. This ground-floor knowledge will help keep you attuned to the contexts in which your messages will be sent.
You could also use your ground-floor insights to help guide company planning, to spot unseen opportunities or head off inadvertent missteps.
A final thought
The last 18 months have been a regular laboratory in which we studied continually shifting conditions and experimented to find the best ways to respond. Through it all, though, one lesson came through loud and clear: Putting customers first — keeping their needs and goals top of mind — will help you weather and adapt to the changes we’ve all experienced and keep us better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.