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How (not?) to market yourself during a global pandemic

Privy's Dave Gerhardt says "it's OK to sell stuff," but "you have to be aware of your surroundings."

Dave Gerhardt, chief marketing officer at Privy

Dave Gerhardt, chief marketing officer at Privy, says it's time for companies to be authentic and honest.

Photo: Courtesy of Dave Gerhardt

If you've opened your inbox this week, you've surely seen how not to market a tech product or service during a global pandemic, from companies contorting themselves to find a link to the crisis to firms boosting their brand awareness via specious coronavirus updates.

Bad marketing is never good, but when people are stressed to the limit, subject lines like "Working from Home? Don't let the Corona Virus Infect your Productivity," or "You're working from home: It's finally the RIGHT TIME to try micro-dosing cannabis for stress mgmt and productivity on the job" grate even more than they otherwise might.

So, is it a good idea or not to send marketing emails during all of this? And if so, how do you do it without hurting your brand?

We asked Dave Gerhardt, chief marketing officer for Privy, which helps ecommerce businesses sell more on Shopify. Here's what he had to say, edited and condensed for space and clarity.

So, should you be sending marketing emails during this time if you're a tech company, and how do you decide whether that's a good idea?

It's a tough question to answer. I think it depends on what the purpose of your email is. A lot of emails I'm seeing are like, "Here's what we're doing with the COVID-19 situation," which I think is fine. Because, let's say it's an essential product you need to run your business — let's say Slack, or some email tool you're using. It's OK for those companies to reach out because I think, as a customer, you're wondering, everything is so crazy right now and up in the air, is my service going to be disrupted?

But, what I think ended up happening is, a couple people saw companies do that, and then it becomes this trickle-down effect where some CMO or marketing person, or somebody not in marketing, says, "Hey, should we be sending this email?" And then it becomes this fear of, like, "Oh my God, if I don't send it, is it the wrong thing to do? OK, it's safer to send it, so we should just send it, it's pretty generic anyway …"

I would be reaching out to people right now. The difference is, I would actually put my face on camera or say something more authentic. For example, somebody on my team got a great email from Levi's, and they said, "Hey, here's an update on our situation." And they said, "not that this is the time to be thinking about buying a hundred-dollar pair of jeans." I think an email like that is great.

Are there any others besides Levi's, anybody in the tech world, who you've seen do this really well?

Honestly, I've ignored all the emails. My assumption is that they're all the same, because the subject line on all of them is, like, "COVID-19 Update," or "Here's what we're doing." My advice as a marketer would be, have your CEO actually write a quick message or make a quick video, and make it real, and make it authentic. People are less likely to be frustrated or annoyed at that email.

So, speaking of frustrated and upset, you said earlier that people are saying, "Everybody's doing it, maybe I should do it, too," but what is the downside of doing it … not well?

It depends on what "not well" means. Actually there's not a ton of downside if you do it not well if you just take the standard email that everyone's sending. No one's going to hate your brand for that. I think that where you start to worry about upsetting people and pissing people off is when people are unfairly using the COVID-19 hook as a reason to reach out to try to sell you something. When it's not related at all. If you're doing something like essential supplies, or, I don't know if you saw what Zoom did, but they announced that they're making their product free for schools. Great, you can send that.

It's OK to keep marketing. It's OK to try to sell stuff. That's actually important, right? If everybody everywhere stops buying things and selling things then the economy is going to do even worse. However, just like any good marketing, you have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to acknowledge the times and what's going on. I think empathy is the most important thing right now.

One of the emails I saw said, "With the world in hysteria over the rapidly spreading coronavirus, parents should be taking this as an opportunity to teach a financial lesson to their kids."

Yeah. OK. I'm home with, we have two kids. We have a 2½-year-old and a 9-month-old, and this is just, all hands on deck. That's not the right opportunity to do that, right? (Laughs.) Now, if you had online videos for kids, and you decided you were going to make them free or run a discount right now, I think that works totally fine.

So, if you have something that can help me, in a way that's easy to do, that's a pretty good pitch, as opposed to, "We're going to try to convince you that you need something complicated and that costs a ton of money right now."

One hundred percent. Here's what it has to be: The offer, or the thing that you're going to promote, has to be so good that it's obvious, and even makes you uncomfortable as the CEO or marketing person. Ten percent off for the next three months is not going to cut it. Everyone knows that that's just marketing. The offer has to be 50% off, 75% off, free. It has to be where you're actually going to lose something on the front end as a business.

It can't be borderline. Now is not the time to be doing 5%, 10%, 20% or "free for this month." It's got to be genuine, and it's got to be long term. And you have to do it with the right intentions. Because, everyone's B.S. meter is so high anyway, and it's especially high right now. So you have to be sensitive to that as a brand.

People's B.S. meter, as you say, is very high. And so — here's another one we got, the subject line was, "Coronavirus Remote Work Nightmare" …

Oy.

… "Oy" is right. So, talk to me a little bit about the right tone to strike at a time like this.

Well, that one is "no" for me, because that's exploiting fear. That's using fear as a hook, and you just have to know better, that that's not the right time to do that.

The best marketing lesson is that you have to address any objections up front, and that's true for any time. It's like, when you go to a restaurant and you ask the waiter, "Hey, what's good here?" and they're like "Everything" and you're like, no. That's not true. I like when the waiter's like, "Forget this one, and the fish isn't that good, but you've got to try this pasta, it's amazing." We like when people are genuine and authentic, and we also like when people address the elephant in the room.

I would even say, "Hey, look — we debated even sending you this email in the first place because we didn't want it to look like we were trying to take advantage of coronavirus, however, we know that it's really tough for a lot of people who are adjusting to remote work right now for the first time, so we created this guide with a few simple tips from our team, that can help you figure out remote work." Do you see how different that one feels? It's like the same ask, but nobody's going to be pissed off by that email. They might not read it, but it's not going to rub anybody the wrong way because you've addressed the thing up front.

That framing, again, is very much service-oriented. It's about what we can do for you in these times.

And the funny thing is, that's actually how marketing should always be done. But most marketers can't actually do that. They don't have the ability to actually be empathetic and get inside somebody's head. They just think about, "I gotta promote this thing, I gotta hit my number." So I think that's more important than ever today. But I think the reason you're seeing it turn out the way it has because that's clearly a gap that most marketers have, is that they can't actually do that.

So this is exposing a problem that exists all the time but doesn't make people quite as angry when they're not in quarantine?

Yeah. I think the brands that are great at marketing, and that comes across in their tone — Slack is good at this, MailChimp is good at this, Stripe is good at this, Zoom is good at this, companies like that — I think they're going to be fine at communicating during these times, because they have a clear tone and brand voice. I think it's the companies who don't who are now going to panic and send out some stuff that's probably not going to make them look great, or be really of true service to their customers.

So that's content and that's tone — can we quickly talk about timing?

Sure.

Because some of the other emails were for services or other things that seemed like they might be useful at some point, but probably not top of mind right now? There was one like, "Can we set a time to talk about coronavirus, force majeure and the supply chain?"

Oy. Let's say that's a company that actually could sell you something right now. There's definitely huge needs for products right now. The way that I would send that email would be: "Hey, just checking in. We've actually been working with a lot of customers helping them think about blank and blank. I'm here if you need anything." You're asking the same thing, but you're not doing it in a way that feels salesey or super corporate. It feels genuine. I'm reaching out to check on you if you need anything.


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It is a hard problem though, right? It's easy to try to stomp on the marketers right now. But they're also people who are at their jobs, probably worried about their jobs as well, so I think a lot of it comes down to alignment with the executive team. Do you have an executive team that is still putting the pressure on, despite the times, to hit this month's number or next month's number? Because I can tell you that a lot of the CEOs that I know that I've talked to are like, now is not the time to push on sales and marketing. We need to scale back, we need to let this thing sort itself out and know that our revenue is going to be dramatically affected this year, and we're going to have to reforecast. And I think that's where — when you have leaders who are saying things like that, that's what gives marketers permission to use their real tone of voice.

I think at a time like this, the best thing you can do is, honestly, pull out your phone, or call up a friend, and pretend like you're trying to say the thing to them that you want to email to your customers. And if that sounds ridiculous to you when you play it back to yourself, or if you call up somebody and they're like, "What?" Then it's not going to pass the sniff test, right? So if I called you up or if I pulled out my phone and was like "Hello, I'm reaching out because due to the circumstances in the market and the supply chain and the force majeure." Like, what?

My wife and I, this is all we're talking about. I'm calling my mom, I'm calling my friends — this is what we're talking about. Use that same tone of voice that people are using in their real lives. Now, the challenge is, this is not how most brands actually talk at all, and it's going to be even harder to do it in times when things are really stressful and the pressure's really high.

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