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What does it mean to provide helpful marketing in the age of COVID-19?

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There's one thing most marketers seem to agree on right now: the increased need to provide helpful marketing. But what does that mean? And how can it benefit organisations? We speak to marketers and business leaders to find out...
helpful marketing people

“We’re here for you…”

“Here when you need us most…”

“Now more than ever you need to buy our product…”

We’ve all heard these empty expressions of empathy churned out on a minute-by-minute basis during the pandemic. Or at least it feels like that. It’s as if marketing departments have been reminded of the importance of understanding customer needs. And so they say with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer:

“We understand…”

In fact, what really matters is action, not sentiment.

In recent correspondence with marketers and business leaders the issue of empathy and ‘usefulness’ came to the fore time and again. Many marketing departments have taken their foot off the sales drive and instead are working out how to help their current – and potential – customers.

Here we explore what companies are doing right now to produce helpful marketing in the age of COVID-19.

Why helpful marketing has come to the fore

no money helpful marketingConsumers either have less money to spend, or are pulling tighter on the purse strings due to the economic uncertainty. They have become more focused on needs rather than wants. One US study by 1010Data, showed that consumer spending had dropped 30% year-on-year.

With such a downturn on spending, marketers have been quick to understand that now is not the time for the hard sell. Rocks don’t give blood.

Rebecca Bezzina, SVP Managing Director at R/GA London believes this will be no ordinary recession:

“A lot of brands across multiple sectors no longer have a product to advertise, and cannot meet the ‘classic’ recessionary advice to keep spending. So you need to be much more considered and empathetic when it comes to how you drive your own marketing and advise clients on theirs.”

Dominic Walters, VP of Marketing Communications and Strategy of Inmarsat Aviation, concurs and reckons it’s time for genuinely helpful marketing:

“Now is not a time to sell; marketing needs to be useful more than it needs to be commercial right now… Setting commercial agendas aside and creating something with the sole aim of supporting others facing a difficult time – that’s an approach that will fuel a genuine sense of purpose and build reputation for your brand, regardless of sector.”

The theme of authenticity is further picked up by Isabella Coombes, Senior PR Executive for Exporta. She warns that a supportive message without substance will likely backfire:

“Consumers and businesses value honesty and integrity in a crisis. The ‘we’re here for you messaging’ from corporations feels a little vacuous if you’re unable to obtain the service you usually would, and payments are expected to continue. Contactability is also vital, once this is broken reputations can suffer.”

The re-emergence of the helpful marketer might not just be for a short-term solution, according to Paige O’Neill, CMO at Sitecore:

“At the end of the day, customers are all human beings; the brands that understand this, and adapt customer communications appropriately, will not just make it through this current crisis with better customer relationships, but will establish lasting and long-term connections with those customers. This needs to continue to be a focus throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

In times of uncertainty people want clarity. In some segments people are demanding information more than ever. For example, industries like healthcare, travel and education are in a particular state of flux. Useful and informative communications are taking precedence in people’s lives.

Perhaps this has always been the case and as an industry it’s alerted us to where we’ve been going wrong. It’s been tempting to create content for the sakes of content and take refuge in vanity metrics instead of addressing actual consumer needs and wants – and where they align with business objectives.

Laura Whitehead, Global Brand & Advocacy Director at iManage talks of creating a partnership between brand and consumer:

“It may sound contrived but genuine marketing is what is needed right now. Our customers, current and prospective, are going through stress and pressure, and what they need from us is valuable, informative, supportive marketing. We have focused on being a ‘partner’ in the true sense of the word, creating and sharing content that can genuinely support their immediate needs. And in doing so, we hope that we have strengthened their trust in us.”

4 ways companies are providing helpful marketing

There are countless ways that marketers can be useful during this crisis. Techniques and tactics will vary depending on the precise nature of the business. But some of the ways that businesses are providing helpful marketing include:

  • Providing genuinely special offers and promos
  • Creating new products or pivoting the business model to where there is demand
  • Switching to platforms which most suit the needs of consumers or clients
  • Offering valuable information and thought leadership

Abi Jacks, VP Marketing, International at Rakuten Advertising believes that discounts and promos are an important tool in the marketer’s armoury:

“Today, consumers are looking for brands to provide value during this uncertain time, whether it’s providing a discount and rewarding loyalty through offers or promotions, or bettering the onsite experience to make the purchase process seamless.”

Businesses operating in different industries have different means of offering help. Leor Franks, CMO at legal services firm Augusta Ventures says the company has realised the opportunity to provide expert guidance during this time:

“Our clients, like everyone else, are seeking certainty amidst the crisis. Where our marketing efforts include insights into how the crisis may impact, and options to manage the results, we have seen strong engagement. Providing expert opinion that is forward-looking is welcomed by the market today more than ever.”

Steve Kemish, Managing Partner at marketing agency, Junction, has also placed greater emphasis on helpful marketing content:

“Organisations… have pivoted into helpful, educational, informative content that’s designed to be practical and supportive in the short term, and to build that relationship so that if we do have some form of bounce back they’re well set, their brand is still memorable and memorable for the right reasons.

“That means we’ve been working a lot on creating guides, top tips documents – very tactical assets that help our clients to support their client. But without missing the opportunity to sell where it’s there, for example, legitimately up-selling to a certain product or service within this portfolio to clients has been a good opportunity for that brand to do well.”

But it’s not all about the message. It’s also about how it’s delivered. Nick Millward, VP Europe at mGage, has witnessed volumes of SMS text messaging by companies increase 33% during the pandemic. The purpose for which they are sending these texts has also changed:

According to global communications firm Edelman, 65% of customers are basing their future purchase decisions on a company’s response to the current situation. With this in mind, a lot of brands have switched from using SMS for marketing purposes and instead are utilising it as a channel to deliver essential updates and important information. For instance, in the UK we have seen the banking sector offering mortgage holidays over text or sending advice for those in financial hardship.”

Gazprom Energy is just one of many companies which has been utilising webinars and online event tech, as Sarah Parry, the company’s UK Marketing Manager, explains:

As a team we already work exceptionally closely with our third party intermediaries and we stepped this up too by providing regular online events, such as our hugely popular webinar focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the energy market, which close to 500 customers and partners registered for. We have also worked with the sales team to host engagement events, such as online quizzes, to keep the conversation going with external stakeholders that we would usually see on a regular basis.

Case study: Inmarsat provides hope in the airline industry

helpful marketing exampleEven businesses in the worst affected industries are finding renewed purpose. Take the example of Inmarsat Aviation, a company which connects airlines with inflight Wi-Fi. Understandably they were finding it tough-going to engage with its beleaguered client base.

Yet they found a way, as Dominic Walters, the company’s VP of Marketing Communications and Strategy explains:

“We asked ourselves: how could we continue to connect the aviation industry in this new environment?

“We knew we could add real value by creating a platform for the industry to connect during the period of uncertainty. In just seven weeks we developed and launched FlightPlan, the aviation’s largest-ever virtual convening.

“The all-day livestream broadcast brought together more than 7 hours of content from 40 industry leaders, with debate and predictions for the industry’s future. Our decision not to give the event a commercial agenda meant that we were able to attract impressive contributors and create something authentic, unbiased, and relevant.

“More than 5,000 viewers from 100 countries worldwide have watched the broadcast and people told us that the initiative offered the industry a much-needed injection of positivity and hope. In keeping with our mission of connecting the world, this initiative allowed us to continue building our brand with customers and stakeholders when many other engagement channels were closed.”

Are you being helpful?

It’s always been the case that good marketing should be useful to its target audience. But today that’s true more than ever. As business growth expert Jay Baer once said: smart marketing is about help, not hype.

Is your marketing helping your target market? If not, now’s the time to start brainstorming ideas. The future of your business may depend on your ability to stay relevant during this extended period of uncertainty.

Have you found ways of helping your customers and clients? Tell us in the comments below.


Main image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Mel Dixon
Author: Mel Dixon
Editor at Global Marketing Alliance

Editor and freelance writer wading his way through the world of data. One step at a time. Interested in data driven marketing insights supported by... data.

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