How to Connect During Crisis: Email Marketing and COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything about everything - even marketing.

Emails in COVID-19 Era
Many businesses are using email as a nimble, personal tool to reach out to, reassure, and remind audiences they are here for them.
Krsto Jevtic on Unsplash

By Parker Stoner, senior VP director of database marketing, Swanson Russell

Like businesses everywhere, equipment rental dealers are experiencing the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Contractors and others in the construction industry still need reliable equipment to get jobs done right and stay on schedule. However, rental dealers have had to reevaluate the various ways they interact with customers – before, during, and after the sale – to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Showrooms are closed or only offer limited access to equipment on display. Because of the need for social distancing, it has become challenging for salespeople to conduct equipment demos or even simply have in-person conversations with their customers about new or existing projects. Parts counters now offer contact-free pick-up, further limiting the important face-to face interaction that’s helped dealers build and nurture customer relationships over the years.

Certainly, the COVID-19 crisis has changed everything about everything – including marketing. Many businesses are using email as a nimble, personal tool to reach out to, reassure, and remind audiences they are here for them. But while some audiences have more time to open and read emails, they also have different needs.

Here’s how email marketing looks – and what’s working – in a new era.

Why People are Opening Emails More – But Clicking Less

Website Pull Quote 1200x540Swanson RussellResults data from various email service providers – as well as recent results from our own clients – show open rates are up. More people are at home and online – plus, budget cuts for many marketers mean less crowded inboxes and less clutter. But click-to-open rates are down, as “buy now” messages get ignored by nervous consumers and boilerplate emails from brands about the situation don’t give audiences much reason to click.

All that to say: You don’t have to send a COVID-19 email just because seemingly everyone else is. Spam complaints are high for these emails, and negative reactions may lead to unsubscribes. If you feel you must send a COVID-19-focused email, be careful what terms you use in the subject line. According to Jay Schwedelson of Worldata, terms like “COVID-19,” “Coronavirus,” or “pandemic” are increasingly being blocked by spam filters, as are terms like:

  • Urgent
  • Hurry
  • Critical
  • Serious
  • Alert
  • Rush

Additionally, people have crisis fatigue and are in a different buying mentality. So, make sure you have something relevant, unique, and helpful to say. This is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy, build relationships with audiences, increase preference, and strengthen brand positions for the long-term even though there may not be short-term sales results. In other words, it’s an excellent time to strengthen connections with your customers.

Three Ways to Connect During Crisis

Positive Subject Line Terms that Increase OpensSwanson RussellThe situation is very fluid, so the guidance will likely evolve over the coming weeks. But, so far, here’s where we’re seeing success:

  1. Acknowledge the situation and offer practical help or stress reduction. In particular, consumers want critical updates from companies such as when (and if) they are closing and how to remain in contact. A recent study showed a 41% increase in open rates in B2B and 34% in B2C for emails like this – especially with the right subject lines. Another study reported email is a preferred channel by 67% of consumers for receiving these kinds of communications, compared to 45% for social media.   
  2. “Free” is bigger than ever. When used in subject lines, it is producing open rate increases of 39% in B2C and 31% in B2B. If you’ve recently been laid off, are concerned about being laid off, or are under orders at your business to reduce expenses, an offer of something free can be very appealing.
  3. This is a great time for a sweepstakes or prize giveaway. Recipients who have more time on their hands right now are more likely to be interested in the chance to win something of value and more willing to take the time to complete the entry requirements. If equipment sales or rentals are down, a few product giveaways or discounts can get your company’s message out and capture a list of interested prospects, who can be marketed to whenever their financial situation improves.

While the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the equipment rental industry remain to be seen, it’s clear that we’re all trying to live and do business in a world that’s very different than it was just a few short months ago. This new reality means there are new rules to follow when connecting with your customers. And that’s especially true in a medium like email. Focus on the benefits your customers will experience if they choose to work with you. Think about what difficulties they’re experiencing right now and let them know how you can help. In other words, if you’re going to drop into someone’s inbox, make sure you have something of value to say. 

Parker Stoner is senior vice president/director of database marketing at Swanson Russell, a marketing communications agency in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, specializing in the construction, agriculture outdoor recreation, and professional green industries. He is the author of the book, Put Your Mouth Where the Money Is, a guide to refocusing your marketing communications for the greatest impact on sales.