The COVID-19 pandemic has sent businesses scrambling to pause plans, edit emails, and cancel campaigns. And while everybody seems to know what not to publish these days, many marketers are asking: what should we put out into a world in the throes of a crisis?
It's a conundrum facing countless creators across the globe.
They're wondering how to be empathetic without being disingenuous. How to offer value without seeming opportunistic. And how to be there for their audience without adding to the noise.
These are important questions to ask at a time like this. Essential, in fact. But underpinning all of them is a much simpler question that gets to the very heart of what content marketing has always been about. A question that every creator staring at a blank canvas right now should be asking: how can we help?
Because now, more than ever before, audiences are seeking help.
Increasing Engagement Rates
Entire industries have been forced into hibernation in recent weeks, but this does not mean audiences' appetites for helpful content has gone away. On the contrary. Consumers are increasing searches for valuable information and engaging with businesses at record rates.
According to an analysis of anonymized data from HubSpot's global customer base, engagement with marketing emails, website traffic, and live chat sessions have all been on the rise, with email open rates an eye-catching 25% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The pandemic has triggered a striking surge in the very thing that many marketers care about most: audience attention. And such a high level of interest in the content companies are sharing, coming at such a sensitive time, places a huge responsibility on marketers to deliver materials that are not only relevant to the current moment, but genuinely impactful, too.
Those that fall short run the risk of doing damage to their reputation — according to Edelman, "71 percent of consumers agree that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever."
But those that succeed will leave a lasting impression on their audience — according to Gartner, brands that meet consumer's needs at this time can "re-establish trust through customer-centric actions."
So, it is not only engagement rates that are high during this crisis. The stakes are high, too. And a situation this unique requires a unique strategy to match.
When a Crisis Descends, Pause Before Planning
When times of crisis strike, the first thing marketers should think about is what not to do. Planned projects, campaigns, and announcements should be reviewed and postponed if possible. For those assets that are released as planned, it's likely they'll need a new tone that's appropriate for the new environment.
Marketers should examine every article, email, ad, and social media post scheduled to be published to ensure that the tone of each asset is empathetic and respectful.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it's because, in many cases, it is. No one team can manage a company-wide content audit alone.
Communications teams have expertise in developing messaging, social media teams have deep connections to their online community, email marketing teams have a strong understanding of brand tone, and customer-facing teams, including sales to service, have their fingers on the pulse of how customers are feeling — all of these teams should be consulted on content strategy during a crisis to ensure that a consistent and helpful approach is adopted across every touchpoint with the public.
At HubSpot, before we began creating new content for the new environment, we significantly reduced the frequency of our social media posting, dialed back the promotion of a major product launch (CMS Hub), and created a centralized set of guidelines on how we as a company should be communicating during this crisis.
Making such sweeping adjustments on short notice isn't simple, but for us, two things helped make it easier.
First, we have an established decision-making process for crisis communications that minimizes confusion in the moment.
Second, by centralizing all of our customer interactions in a shared CRM, we're able to see what communications customers are getting and roll out adjustments quickly to marketing, sales, and service.
Creating New Content in Times of Crisis
When it comes to creating new content during a crisis, marketers' sole focus should be on delivering work that is genuinely helpful to their audience, without being opportunistic or adding more noise to a topic that has already been widely covered by others.
According to research conducted by Edelman, 85% of people expect companies to use their power to educate their audiences during the COVID-19 crisis. For some companies, that could mean writing in-depth articles that offer expert advice on relevant topics or aggregating publicly available information to make it more accessible for readers.
Intuit, for example, did this well when they teamed up with GoFundMe to create a Small Business Relief Initiative and when they built an interactive tool to help small businesses learn if they are eligible for government-provided financial relief.
We saw similarly helpful content from Care.com, whose team leveraged their deep knowledge of caregiving best practices to share expert advice on the precautions for families and caregivers facing the global health crisis.
These powerful examples directly address the situation at hand. But for other companies, providing helpful content could mean offering an alternative to the cacophony of crisis-centric content flooding feeds all day, every day.
For example, NPR has unsurprisingly witnessed a spike in listenership to its news shows as people seek up-to-date, reliable information as the pandemic evolves. But it has also seen a 120% increase in weekly visits to its Tiny Desk Concerts — an entertainment series — indicating that audiences are not only interested in information directly about the crisis, but are also desiring content that provides an escape from it.
This should make content marketers feel encouraged.
It suggests that help can take many forms in the midst of a crisis and that there are multiple ways creators can add value to the lives of their audiences at this time.
For marketing teams that don't have the necessary resources to create new content given the trying economic environment, there are still creative ways to adapt to audiences' needs. Gathering together old content that's relevant to the current situation, updating it as needed, and presenting it as an easily digestible ebook or content series can be efficient ways of overcoming resource shortages.
At HubSpot, we did just this when we published a new landing page featuring all of our articles about remote work to offer some timely support to companies and employees adjusting to the new normal of working from home.
During times of crisis, there are a number of ways for marketers to approach new content creation — some that directly address the unique environment at hand, others that look to complement the new patterns of behavior that are emerging — but the one thing that should be consistent is an honest effort to help.
Choose Channels Carefully, Distribute Delicately
Marketers have an abundance of options for how they distribute their work, but just because we can publish content on multiple channels doesn't always mean that we should.
Our research tells us that marketing email send volumes have increased significantly in recent weeks, meaning that subscribers' email inboxes are even busier than usual. As well-intentioned as a new article or video might be, if it isn't distributed delicately and at a considerate cadence, it could end up doing more harm than good in a company's efforts to help audience members.
Marketers should reserve their most intimate communications channels, like email and push notifications, for key content updates during a crisis and adopt more subtle distribution approaches for their more niche materials.
For example, an SEO-optimized article that's easily discoverable through search may be a more appropriate way to share certain new content offerings than a direct email or paid social media post, both of which could come across as excessively promotional or tone-deaf.
At HubSpot, when the pandemic was declared, we cut our social media posting by approximately 50% in the first week and reduced the number of ads we were sending to avoid overloading our audience with information at a time when there's already a lot to process.
And when we developed a new educational content series, Adapt 2020, we made clear to potential subscribers what type of content to expect, as well as where and when it would be distributed.
The Adapt series became the cornerstone of our content strategy during the current crisis and provided a powerful proof point of the value of the diverse app ecosystem that's deeply integrated with HubSpot's suite of tools.
With Looker we've been able to share regular updates on shifting trends in sales and marketing, with Canva we've been able to quickly design on-brand assets to promote upcoming webinars, and with Slack we've been able to collaborate with confidence on all of the elements that make up the weekly content series.
With distribution channels and cadence established with our subscribers, we have been able to turn our attention towards monitoring how the crisis and the needs of our audience are evolving from week to week.
Adapt Early, Adapt Often
Crises are unpredictable by nature. And what was deeply valuable to audiences last week, may be irrelevant by the next. To provide helpful content for the duration of a crisis, marketers should prepare to continually evolve their strategy in line with their audiences' shifting needs.
Choosing the right metrics to monitor is key to not falling behind the pace of change. Creators should closely monitor metrics that indicate engagement — such as 'average time spent on page' for articles and show-up rates for webinars — to gain an insight into whether or not their new content is resonating with audiences. And from there, they can use those learnings to look for ways to improve the relevance and helpfulness of their next offering.
At HubSpot, we initially focused on delivering content aimed at helping businesses to set up virtual events and adapt to the new normal of remote work.
We then quickly shifted focus to creating content to help businesses take advantage of new relief measures available by publishing the pricing and packaging changes we've made along with an overview of the U.S. Stimulus Package.
Following that, we shifted focus to creating content to help businesses adjust their medium- and longer-term strategies and prepare for the post-pandemic economy.
We have never witnessed such sudden and dramatic shifts in what audiences need, and the marketers that are nimble enough to adapt their strategy quickly are the ones most likely to provide meaningful help for the duration of the crisis at hand.
And by doing so, they stand to establish long-lasting levels of loyalty with their audience.
What Content Marketing Has Always Been About
It's no secret that consumers' trust in companies has been dwindling in recent years. According to HubSpot Research, 55% of people no longer trust the companies they buy from as much as they used to, and 71% do not trust sponsored ads on social networks.
However, times of crisis create unique environments and unexpected outcomes, one of which can be the recovery of some of that lost trust, and the deepening of long-term relationships between consumers and companies.
Audiences are turning in record numbers to businesses for resources, information, and support. Customers are taking to social media to rally support for their favorite businesses. And content marketers are returning to first principles and re-establishing helpfulness at the heart of their strategies.
There are many challenges facing businesses at this time — content strategy is just one of them — but I am hopeful that marketers adopting the advice outlined here will see their efforts rewarded in the form of closer relationships with the audiences, and the fulfillment of knowing they've provided help when it's been needed the most.
After all, that's what content marketing has always been about.