flashing siren for email crisis

Crisis Management: In Case of Emergency, Send Email

In business, a crisis can come in many different shapes and sizes. From the everyday bumps in the road to the more catastrophic conditions that many organizations are currently experiencing in the ongoing pandemic. How we manage crises often determines the long-term success of our organizations.

While every situation is different, there is one solution that is consistently called on in an attempt to put things right — email marketing.

We’ve already written extensively on this blog about how brands have turned to email marketing during the Covid-19 pandemic and shared examples of how businesses used email to navigate the new normal. Thankfully, not all crises come in the shape of once in a 100-years pandemic, but that doesn't mean that they cannot significantly disrupt your business.

In the 25-years+ I’ve worked in the digital arena, I’ve faced numerous crises. Experience tells me that the worst thing you can do in a moment of crisis is ignore it. However, the greatest risk comes from not being able to identify a crisis in the first place.

You don’t want to be that marketer who missed an opportunity because they didn’t see the potential threat from what you initially perceived to be a tiny problem. Conversely, you don’t want to be that marketer who throws everything at a problem and ignores the day-to-day marketing activities that keep your organization on track.

What does a crisis look like?

Big red emergency button with question mark.
Illustration by Bogdan Magenta from Ouch!

Let’s imagine some scenarios in which the email team could be called upon to help manage a crisis.

1. Disruptive Competition

We all live in a disruptive age.No business can afford to ignore a disruptive competitor picking off its clients. It’s essential for any business to monitor what their competition is doing closely and, when necessary, disrupt their disruptive strategies with a well-defined counter-attack. Today’s disruptive business models have a habit of appearing out of nowhere and scaling at incredible speed. So be prepared to move quickly, and don’t let complacency become the foundation of your next crisis.

2. Cash Flow

Cash flow can be a significant problem for many businesses, especially when they are experiencing rapid growth. In such cases, marketers may be called on to create opportunities that generate quick sources of revenue. Like many things in business, it’s all about creating balance. You cannot focus all of your efforts on quick wins if your long-term strategy is put at risk.

For example, a luxury goods retailer might not wish to be seen to be offering frequent sales promotions. These cut-price offers may potentially impact its customers' perception of the value of its products in the long term, meaning they may never pay full price again.  

3. Service Interruptions

There’s nothing more frustrating for a client than not being able to access a service they have paid for. When a service suddenly becomes unavailable due to a technical problem or perhaps a more sinister denial of service attack, three things happen. First and foremost, customers flock to social media and start asking questions posting negative comments. Secondly, they flood your customer service team with support requests that simply cannot be resolved.

Finally, they start looking at your competition as a more reliable solution. The lack of communication around a service interruption can be incredibly damaging to a brand's reputation. The sooner you own the conversation, the better. You might be surprised to learn when you are honest about your situation; your clients might actually start rooting for you.

4. Product Recalls

Product recalls suck. They are incredibly expensive for your business and a major inconvenience for your client, who'll not only have to return products by will also require swift reimbursement or exchange. Nobody should find out about a product recall via the media, particularly if your product presents a risk to your customer.

Again, it’s all about controlling the narrative and gently quelling any negative sentiment before it becomes a reputational risk. While nobody will thank you for an email highlighting a product recall, they will appreciate the fact you’ve made it as easy as possible to comply.

5. Store Closures/Product Sunsetting

While it might be in the best interests of your organization to close a specific store or branch or sunset a particular product or service, your clients might not always see it as such a positive move.

Sudden closures can make customers panic, and when customers panic, they start looking for alternative solutions. Whenever possible, it's best to prepare your customers for any changes they might face in how they access your services in the future. It’s about helping your customer move forward with you and not abandoning them in the wilderness.  

Email will probably be your first port of call when managing any of the above situations. But is email marketing always the right platform for managing a crisis, or could the best strategy actually be to send less email?

Firefighting with email marketing

illustration of a firefighter with a hose pointed at a flame.
Illustration by Olha Khomich from Ouch!

Email marketing is considered the perfect reactive “firefighting” tool for many businesses when they find themselves in crisis. Everything that makes email marketing so good at the best of times also comes in handy at the very worst of times.

Like a fire truck racing to an emergency, email marketing campaigns can be created and launched quickly, enabling marketers to react to problems in real-time and not wait for the crisis to deepen. The low-cost nature of the channel also means that email marketing shouldn't add too much to any financial burden your organization is experiencing.

However, when a marketing organization is called on to fight fires with email, there is a genuine risk that someone gets their fingers burnt.

The firefighting analogy works really well for reactive email marketing campaigns. When firefighters tackle ablaze, they focus all their efforts on quelling the flames. The problem of water damage is left for someone else. It's precisely the same with email marketing in a crisis. Unfortunately, too many marketers focus on the immediate crisis and, as a result, may indiscriminately extinguish opportunities across other areas of the business.

So how can email marketers avoid causing additional problems during an organizational crisis? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Don’t panic, but be prepared

It doesn’t need to be this way. While it would be impossible to prepare your organization for every business crisis, a little preparation goes a long way.

Preparation in email marketing crisis management looks a lot like email marketing best practice. It’s essentially about having the most accurate email data, the best technology, and the most competent team in place to handle any emergency and send the right message to the right person at the right time.

A firefighting team drills for every eventuality in the hope they will never have to face it but knowing they will be ready if and when it does happen. While this approach might not always be possible in a busy email marketing team, you should consider every minor crisis you face as a training opportunity and strive to learn from the experience.

This highlights the importance of documenting everything you do. When faced with a crisis, you'll undoubtedly try several different strategies to get you out of the hole. Some will have worked, and others will have failed. You'll almost certainly lessen the impact of any future crisis if you only focus on the strategies that were ultimately successful.  

Understand the risks

In a perfect world, email marketing campaigns should be tailored to the individual subscriber's needs. These needs will be based on any number of specifics, including product/service interest, buying habits, customer status, etc. Therefore, when you send an email to a specific subscriber, you should be doing it with complete confidence that you are sending the right message to the right person at the right time.

However, in times of crisis, it’s all too easy to plug the email marketing equivalent of a firehose in and get everyone wet. This approach is a big mistake and may ultimately make your crisis even worse. There’s really no point in sending a product recall notice to someone who has never purchased the product in question. The fact is, when you are managing a situation with email marketing, not everyone needs to know.

In the event of a crisis, it’s important not to throw long-term objectives out of the window in exchange for quick wins. Quick wins are always a bit of a gamble, and as with any throw of the dice, results can go both ways. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.

The questions you need to ask yourself in times of crisis revolve around whether you are willing to bet your future success on a few quick wins now. Would it be better to take a hit now and carefully optimize your ongoing strategy, or is the crisis so deep that you've really got to throw everything at it and worry about the future later?

Who doesn’t need to know?

illustration of a first responder chasing email crisis messages
Illustration by Irina Molchanova from Ouch!

Let's imagine the following scenario. Your sales teams' numbers are down. They need a few quick wins to make the quarter and keep everyone happy. So the marketing team is asked to step up and create a quick promotional email offer. 

In a situation like this, the first question I would ask is, who doesn't need to know about this?

I would be very wary of sending a promotional email that doesn't fit into your carefully planned marketing strategy to several different groups of subscribers. These subscribers include:

1. Existing customers and clients

There is nothing worse than receiving a promotional offer for a product or service you are already paying full price for. It’s a terrible way to start a relationship and can severely damage your reputation. So unless you offer your existing clients an added value product or service to their existing deal, you should probably leave them off the list.

2. At-risk customers and clients

As a subset of your existing clients, clients marked as at risk in your CRM system should never receive a promotional email until a dedicated account manager has reviewed their status. This is a job that needs to be done on a call or even in person. If a client is already harboring negative feelings about your organization, a promotional email might just be enough of a reason to remind them that it’s time to split.

3. Nurtured Leads

These are prospects that are already in your organization's sales pipeline and maybe just moments away from becoming a full-paying client. A sound lead scoring system should help you identify these incredibly valuable leads. Outside of any pre-determined nurture campaigns, these leads belong to the sales department, and marketing should stay well clear. The moment you drop your price with a promotional offer is the moment they suddenly start re-evaluating the entire value of your product. One thing is for sure; they'll never consider paying full price again when presented with a discounted offer.

4. Bad Debts

Ironically, these are the people to who it is often easiest to sell. However, a client that doesn't pay their invoices isn't worth marketing to. Even if they do react positively to your campaign, they will most likely add to your burden by continuing to be a drain on your resources.

5. Tire Kickers

These are the people on your list that are highly unlikely ever to become clients. They are the Gmail and .edu accounts that subscribe to a list for research purposes or have randomly entered a competition and have not engaged with a campaign since. While they might have some long-term value (because you never know where people might end up), they don't need to know about your end-of-month sales crisis right now because they are not in a position to do anything about it. There’s also the very real risk these tire kickers will also waste your sales team's time as they franticly search for hot leads in a vat of lukewarm and downright cold deadbeats. 

Email risk management: small targeted sends

All of a sudden, your lists might be looking rather small. This isn’t a problem because when you are tackling a crisis, it’s much better to focus on a small number of subscribers who can help you in your times of need and not let the whole world know you’re are struggling.

Whenever possible, crisis averting emails should be dripped out, allowing your organization to better manage the situation without flooding your subscribers' email inboxes. The alternative will see everyone in your business running around with metaphorical mops and buckets, clearing up the mess you’ve made for months to come.

How email can really help in a crisis

Instead of getting the firehose out, the email marketing team can help your sales organization in times of crisis by creating content for highly-targeted individual email sends that bring new clients over the threshold without risking future engagement or revenue. These emails would be highly personalized and most likely be sent directly by the salesperson and not via your email marketing platform.

One tried and tested approach could be inviting groups of targeted prospects to an online event designed to answer their specific questions about a product or a service. This one-to-many approach helps because not all prospects are forthcoming about the specific problems they hope your product or service will solve. If they identify with someone else in the meeting who asks a question pertinent to both businesses, this creates an opportunity to bring both parties over the line at the same time.

A more long-term solution is to carefully analyze why the crisis happened in the first place and, wherever possible, optimize your campaign strategy to ensure it doesn't happen again. For example, was there evidence that lead flow could have been improved earlier in the process? Are the sales and marketing teams perfectly aligned to ensure they are working towards the same objectives? Does everyone have access to all the data they need to get their job done?

Make every email count

The best way to manage a crisis is not to let it happen in the first place. While this isn't always possible, there are steps marketers can take to alleviate the risk of crisis happening on their watch.

One approach is to ensure every email your organization sends counts. This means careful adherence to all those email best practices we never tire of telling you about, like list hygiene. One thing you definitely do not want is for email to become the cause of a crisis. A pre-send testing platform such as Email on Acid helps prevent problems. It allows teams to double-check everything from accidental profanities and deliverability to code problems and accessibility.

If you think of every single email that doesn’t arrive as intended as a mini-crisis, Email on Acid’s pre-deployment technology is the perfect crisis management tool.  

How do you use email marketing in times of crisis? Share your comments below.

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