What To Email During Hard Times

This post first appeared on Email Institute. I'm writing this post from Epsilon's Colorado office, which is located not far from the massive flooding that occurred a few weeks ago. I live in Boulder, less than a quarter mile from some of the hardest hit areas. While we're finally starting to get past being waterlogged, but I'm nowhere near getting past the backlog of emails in my inbox.

As the rain just kept coming, my focus became checking in on friends and wet-vacuuming water off our deck so it would stop flowing into our living room. For the next few weeks my early mornings which are typically spent filtering through email were instead spent helping around town where I could.

When I finally took some time to dig through my Gmail "Promotions" tab, I came across a subject line that struck me. It was sent on September 12th at 3:01pm MST, which was right in the middle of the heaviest downpour. It read "Thinking of you…"

I use ellipses there because that's all I saw before opening it. I'll mention the rest of the subject line in a minute. Once I opened the email I was greeted by this message:

Don't Do This.

The full subject line read "Thinking of you - a Rainy Day Discount."

WOW.

I opened this email above all others in my inbox because I thought I might find a brilliant example of real-time marketing - of a brand using their data well - to send a kind word to Colorado customers they thought might be in trouble. I expected to write a post applauding the effort and calling attention to the quality example. Instead, I found myself pretty upset. The "Rainy Day" was in fact a natural disaster and that was already known by the time the email was sent.

Googling "tragedy/disaster response marketing" yielded me dozens of other examples of brand #fails due to insensitive or poorly timed social media posts, emails or other efforts. I also came across lively debate over what exactly brands should do in times like this, and started to wonder if we as marketers had no heart. Were the "good" examples just newsjacking or something like that?

Then I found this email in my inbox:

Do This.

This one garnered the reaction from me I expected the first one to. This email displays understanding, sensitivity and actually offers something useful. Waved fees and guidance through a shaky time helps, $5 does not. As I dug deeper in my own inbox and sought examples from friends, family and coworkers I refreshingly came across more examples of the latter email than the former. Many brands and organizations sent emails acknowledging their customers were humans affected by a disaster, and used this time to offer support.

In answering what marketers "should do" during times of tragedy or a disaster - this. Do this.

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as "the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large."

Sometimes "value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large" is not a discount code or free shipping. Sometimes it's simply understanding. Sometimes it's simply letting those people know that the companies Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming and emailing them are also populated by human beings that can care about more than their own bottom line.

For examples of emails sent during times like this, check out the "Tragedy Response Emails" gallery set up on the Email Institute Pinterest page.