Although COVID-19 may appear to have put a firm halt to much of the world’s businesses, marketing certainly hasn’t slowed down one bit. Email marketing, in particular, is a critical channel when communicating with customers in these times, regardless of whether a business is considered essential or not.

To be sure, there’ve been plenty of email marketing missteps when it comes to COVID related content. And while our inboxes fill with assurances from companies that they’re taking the pandemic seriously, not all of it is welcome. Considering my experience in email marketing, and my work in an industry deeply impacted by the restrictions, I thought it was time to lay down some firm guidelines on how to discuss the coronavirus with your customers.

Rule 1: Relevance

“These are very new and unsettling times for everyone. Please be assured that our customers, our team, and everyone we work with are of utmost importance to us.”

That was a line from an email in my inbox titled COVID-19 Announcement. Not unreasonable. The only problem was that it was about the 50th such email I’d received that week. And it was from a company that makes earplugs.

The email itself was generally inoffensive, and perhaps even somewhat charming. The mistake here was not in sending the email. It was the failure to consider relevance. I don’t need COVID-19 special announcements from earplug manufacturers. I’d be more than happy to receive communication from them about peaceful sleeping, new sales, and their typical email marketing content.

But by framing their communication in terms of how their earplugs would get us through this crisis together, well, that’s just plain silly.

I interviewed several of my customers and discussed with them how they wanted companies to communicate with them. Should marketers, I asked, even talk about the coronavirus?

The answer was yes. And I agree, but context matters, they explained. Consumers are interested in practicalities, not pandering. So when emailing your customers, acknowledge the shared impact of the pandemic, but stay somewhat relevant to your product and how it may impact your services specifically. I’d have been far more interested to know if they were still delivering, or if there were discounted rates than in knowing that they were “here for me.”

Rule 2: Recency

I’m going to stay with the earplug company for this second rule. I’d purchased earplugs from them around four or five years before the pandemic struck. Why on earth would they imagine I’d want to share my feelings with them in a Facebook group? I wasn’t an engaged customer.

So when sending out emails, be self-aware. Save the schmalz for your most recent, or most engaged customers. For all the customer relationships that have gone cold, it’s best to keep things restrained.

Estranged customers are sitting around waiting to learn about your company’s feelings on isolation (unless your business focuses on mental health). Instead, past customers are likely more interested in technical and service updates to your offerings.

Potential customers have time to explore new ideas, services, or products right now. And yes, they’re open to rebuilding relationships with businesses. Make the case why they should be taking a second look at you.

Rule 3: Empathy

“Though it was certainly not intended, we understand that our last email may have come across as somewhat insensitive, and we’re really sorry about that.”

That was the opening line in an email from a company that offers royalty-free music for content creators. It arrived in my inbox about an hour after their previous email, which made cute quips about the spread of the coronavirus. They tried to be funny, but they failed to read the room.

Their first email broke rule 1. If there’s one thing I don’t care about, it’s the opinion of stock music purveyors when it comes to coping with a horrifying disease. But the second rule they broke was that of empathy.

Customers may love your brand, but there are a time and a place for letting your company’s “voice” shine. So, re-read your email marketing content from the perspective of a customer who is worried, or who may have a sick relative, or even be ill themselves.

No, it doesn’t mean you need to take a funereal tone. But it does suggest that if you do ignore rule 1, you can not overlook rule 3. Be sensitive that you’re uplifting rather than making light of the crisis.

Talk To Your Customers

Customers who are open to your email marketing messaging are quite happy to hear from you, even during a crisis. Don’t be afraid to move ahead with your marketing activities. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is talk to some customers, one on one, and ask them for their thoughts. They might surprise you.

Interested in how the coronavirus impacts the event industry? You can download the COVID-19 Event Professionals Report: How COVID-19 Impacts the Lives of Event Professionals.