Sunday, March 22, 2020

COVID-19 and the Rise Of Intermediate-Term Business and Marketing Planning in 2020

Photo by John Gibbons on Unsplash
Phrases like "medium-term" and "intermediate-term" have been lost from our business lexicon, it seems. According to Google Trends, searches for these keyphrases have declined 50% or more in the past 15 years. But 2020 is going to be the year intermediate-term planning becomes necessary. Now is an excellent time to consider what that may mean for preparing and managing your business for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back when I went to school, we spoke of timeframes such as ten years for long-term planning and five years for intermediate-term, but with the pace of change in recent decades, ten years feels a bit like planning for the next century. Who can anticipate that far ahead in a world where a new technology or competitor can swiftly arise and destabilize a marketplace? With our planning horizons collapsed, it can feel as if much of our business and marketing planning has been reduced to just two horizons: What we need to get done now (short-term) and what we must do to prepare for where we hope to be in three to five years (long-term). There's little room for the intermediate-term in a business environment that changes fast and demands agility.

COVID-19 Here and Now

But, if we thought the pace of change was hectic in recent years, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing business to react at a breakneck speed. It may seem hard to believe, but the first US case of unknown origin stemming from "community spread" was announced less than a month ago (on February 26). As I type this, it's been just 11 days since the NBA suspended its season. The US passed 5,000 cases less than a week ago, and by the time you read this, the tally of known COVID-19 cases in the US will likely be more than 30,000.

At unprecedented speed, many brands have been quick to react with care and empathy. Banks have raced to suspend late penalties and early-withdrawal fees, many brands are offering assistance to customers, and some employers have made commitments to workers adversely impacted by furloughs and reduced hours. These immediate and short-term reactions have been admiral and have helped to minimize the blow to many anxious people.

Build COVID-19 Scenarios for Business and Marketing

But what's next? It is no exaggeration to say that no one can say. There is simply too much that is unknown (including the actual number of infections and how well the COVID-19 mitigation efforts are working in different locations). To show just how little we really know, a survey of infectious disease researchers conducted March 16 and 17 found the consensus forecast of expected cases in the US for March 29 was roughly 19,000; in fact, the US exceeded that number just days after the survey was conducted. (Of course, in a rapidly growing pandemic, reporting is quite variable; as I type this the CDC website, last updated Friday, currently shows 15,219 confirmed cases in the US, while the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard shows 27,004 and Worldometer is reporting 29, 214.)

If the most knowledgeable infectious experts can't predict the future with accuracy, neither can you. This is why the best minds in public health, epidemiology, and disease modelers are considering a range of possible scenarios. You must, too.

To learn what Gartner is recommending to clients about scenario planning and why a three-horizon plan with short-, intermediate-, and long-term perspectives is important for your business and marketing plan, please continue reading my post on Gartner blogs. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Beware of Virtue Signaling or Outright Greed in Brand Communications About COVID-19

Like everyone else, marketing and communication professionals have had a challenging few weeks. As the pandemic expands, marketers and customer experience professionals have done their best to keep up with and bridge swiftly shifting consumer and brand needs.

We rapidly transitioned from a period when brands debated if they should communicate about COVID-19 to now, with brands tripping over each other to broadcast their coronavirus email messages to customers. If your inbox is like mine, you received almost no brand emails about the virus before a week ago. But in the past week, the volume has exploded. Brands seemed to go from COVID-19 denial to COVID-19 FOMO in a matter of days.
The global pandemic may or may not be a business opportunity for your company, but trying to make it a marketing opportunity for your brand is risky.
On Friday, I received more than two dozen brand emails about COVID-19. The problem is that few of these messages took a customer-centric approach; instead, the race to email consumers reflects a growing sense of brand virtue signaling or outright desperation for business. Consider what customers need and want to hear from your organization to best help your brand while dodging potential risks.

Avoid Virtue Signaling

Virtue signaling is when your brand conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values. Today, it is not enough to tell consumers you are aware of and reacting to the pandemic — everyone is. We also don't need to know that your brand is keeping your employees safe — we hope that's business as usual. Finally, no one needs to hear how your brand is striving to continue its operations uninterrupted — it would be real news worth sharing if you weren't! If that is all your brand has to report to customers, then you do not need a special COVID-19-themed brand communication at this time.

For example, my mortgage company, with whom I have a completely digital relationship, felt it needed to email me "An important message" simply to say, "The health and safety of our customers and team members is — as always — the most important thing to us." How does this company, which merely processes my auto-payments once a month, have any impact on my physical health? And why would it be necessary for any organization to state it cares about the health of its team members? Put that on the list of the many things I assume is true of every brand and thus need not be said, such as that it follows laws and that its CEO puts pants on one leg at a time.

The problem with marketing messages that merely signal your brand's virtue without doing anything further is that they waste customers' time and do little to impact your relationship. In fact, messages like that do more to hurt brands because of what's missing — anything meaningful for customers. What one might expect of "an important message" from a mortgage processor during this global health crisis is information about what will happen if customers are unable to pay their mortgage. This email didn't address this topic, and the glaring omission of content to help or comfort customers only makes the brand-centric virtue-signaling that much more evident and damaging.

Don't Signal Your Brands Desperation

These are tough times for businesses large and small, and they are going to get tougher in the coming weeks and months. Companies can be excused for wanting to keep customers buying. But they cannot be forgiven for making their self-interest and desperation evident in marketing communications.

About a quarter of the COVID-19 messages I received Friday came from businesses with physical locations that wanted me to know they are regularly cleaning, urging employees who are sick to say home, and are still open for business. Those sorts of notices, absent any offer or helpful content, do nothing to differentiate the brand from every other brand that is saying the same thing.

Furthermore, if your company is considering a message to drive physical traffic to real-world locations this coming week, hit the pause button long enough to consider if that train has already left the station. Here in the US, the CDC is recommending social distancing of six feet, the media is full of guidance that urges people to stay home, and the social pressure to take action that saves lives is growing — this morning on Twitter, "#StayTheFHome" is trending. Unless your business is essential (to others, not just to you), then it may be time to shift strategies away from driving physical visits.

For example, a Sonoma winery sent me a message intended to seem comforting but instead sounded tone-deaf: "Our doors will remain open, the live music will carry on, and our staff would love to say hello and treat you to a cup of coffee." Nothing conveys how much your brand cares for customers like telling them to violate CDC instructions that save lives amid a global pandemic.

The other three-quarters of COVID-19 messages in my inbox are from digital brands with little to tell me other than "we still want your business." A clothing brand I love disappointed me by sending a seven-paragraph, 382-word missive that said, well, absolutely nothing. This brand thanked me, told me communication is key in times like this, expressed its commitment to my health and safety, disclosed it set up a COVID-19 task force, suggested I monitor the CDC site, and reminded me it has a website. At first glance, that may seem harmless enough, but what part of the message says anything that isn't painfully self-apparent? It was a three-minute read to convey nothing unexpected or meaningful to the customer during troubling times.

That sort of message may have seemed helpful and differentiated last week before customer inboxes were flooded with soundalike brand emails. But, broadcasting such a message now will only make your real intent clear — not "We care deeply for our customers," but "We're still here, need your business, and hope you'll spend money with us." This isn't to say your brand doesn't have something important and valuable to say during this crisis, but the onus is on you to make sure your message is essential and useful to your customers and not just to your brand. Don't forget the WIIFM.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Examples of Proactive COVID-19 Communications That Enhance Customer Experience

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of proactive customer communications during the unsettling period of rapid change caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19 disease. Brands are already acting to intercept potential brand problems and offer support to uncertain and concerned customers.

This health event will continue to evolve for months to come, creating unprecedented disruptions to business operations and significantly altering the needs, wants, and expectations of customers. Being proactive now is an opportunity to create a win-win, allowing your brand to simultaneously solve brand and customer problems.

Among the difficulties your organization may face are a host of customer concerns that can deter them from conducting business with your company, such as:
  • Customer anxiety about visiting your location or purchasing your product. Is your product safe? What steps are you taking to ensure customer health in your physical site?
  • Customer worries about your ability to deliver on promises: If I purchase from you versus a competitor, can you deliver on time? Will your inventory or logistics issues cause delays or frustrations?
  • Customer hesitancy about making commitments: If I purchase advance travel, can I cancel if my situation changes or I am prevented from going? If I buy a ticket to your event, what happens if I'm unable to attend or the event is canceled? What are your timeframes or conditions for refunds?
If customers wonder about these questions, then they are becoming obstacles to your business maintaining its revenue in a difficult period. Furthermore, questions like these can raise your call volume, increase expenses, and further strain your staff as people seek answers.

Proactive action and communications during this epidemic can do more than minimize customer objections. They also represent a chance for your brand to demonstrate its customer centricity, earn trust, and build relationships. Brands that act quickly can differentiate themselves with decisions and information that decrease customer anxiety and solve customer problems before they develop.

If you are not yet communicating to customers on issues around the COVID-19 outbreak, you're already behind organizations that have taken the lead to bring clarity and comfort in a time of growing fear and worry. I will share some examples, but if you have any worthy instances of brand communications you have seen (or launched), please share them in the comments or on Twitter.