The COVID-19 crisis offers important opportunities to connect with customers, clients and prospects — but any business communication with even a remote whiff of opportunism will be rightly perceived as ham-handed, and could leave lasting negative impressions. What’s a marketer to do during this extremely challenging time?

Doing what’s right is the right course of action. This is a time for empathy, not selling. A time to support people – not a time to attempt to convince them to buy. But what does that mean in terms of customer or consumer communication?

Well, this is also a time to double down on empathy and sensitivity to the needs of internal and external audiences, and frame your communications based on what’s important to them… from their perspective. While you neither can nor should take your eye off of your business, the marketing question evolves on a daily basis during this crisis. You’ll need to define marketing relevance against the backdrop of a new set of customer expectations — and outright needs. That’s an enormous topic for another post. Or maybe another marketing textbook. In the meantime, you can and should lead your communications from a place of empathy and understanding, borne out of listening for the right clues.

In this post, we leaven our thinking on communicating with customers during a crisis with a few observations from our friends at Gartner.

Customers still need products and services; marketing communications is still very much part of the mix. But the ways in which people need products and services (and their needs regarding communication) have been completely upended. You can quickly re-tool your approach to stakeholder / customer / employee communication by realizing that, like never before, listening is leading. Also like never before, listening to the right things in the right way will quickly take a lot of worry out of communications planning and implementation. What are your customers really concerned about? What is the tone of their discussion? How can you take a “core sample” of what’s truly on their minds with regard to your product or service, as we all navigate what by all accounts is the leading edge of a tsunami of COVID-19-inflicted upheaval?

As a careful, high-performing and diligent marketer, you probably have formal, ongoing research underway; you may also have social listening — as well as monitoring and moderation — well in hand. However, now is the time to adjust what you’re listening for, as well as the tools you’re using to gain critical real-time insights.

A March 24 Gartner post provided a recap of a March 20 “Marketing in Uncertainty” webinar they offered. A key topic during the webinar was a discussion of where marketers are turning for instant information about consumer needs, preferences and concerns as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds.

Data showing consumers' changing preferences, habits, and expectations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Marketing and brand communications decisions during this time should be guided by fairly simple tenets of empathy and clarity around “WIIFM” (“What’s In It For Me?”) from the customer or consumer’s point of view.

In our work, MKR acts as an advocate for our clients’ audiences. That means we take an active role in ensuring that audiences (who are made up of individual human beings, with hearts, minds and BS detectors built right in) aren’t subject to annoying or irrelevant messages. We apply a level of discernment and make sure there’s something of value to the audience baked in. Often we get the inspiration and information necessary to advocate for our clients’ audiences from listening to the human beings who make up those audiences.

As Gartner’s Augie Ray puts it so well:

“Social media is a real-time firehose of customer sentiment, but be careful to consider how much the audiences on Twitter, Facebook, or TikTok match your customer’s demographics and psychographics. And while many of your employees have their finger on the pulse of customers, anything they share can be influenced by their own needs, stresses, and perspective. Use these terrific sources with an awareness of their strengths and limitations.”

With this good advice in mind, here are some general topics to listen for, and suggestions as to where you can get real-time information:

Data about general topics to listen for during a crisis.

We want to show up as helpful during this incredibly trying time. We’re fully staffed, supporting our amazing (and also incredibly busy) clients, and we have capacity. This really isn’t meant to be opportunistic – but MKR is very, very good at implementing crisis listening and communications planning to respond to real-time situations. Clients ranging from regional health networks to major big-box retailers rely on our ability to listen for the right clues from customers, and then provide quick-turn, always-on production, monitoring and moderation. So that the right messages land with the right humans, in the right way, and at the right time.

We would be glad to have a conversation and share guidance about how to structure a quick-turn listening project, whether or not you want or need to engage an agency. There’s no obligation, and no salesman will call.

Please contact us here for a quick response from a helpful person. We promise to listen.