What happens to your content marketing program during a crisis?

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt, CEO of Truly, has over 20 years experience in market research and strategy on both client and agency side. She wrote one of the first books on how the social web is changing business, was named one of 2013's Entrepreneurial Women to Watch by Entrepreneur Magazine and one of the Most Influential Women in Technology in Fast Company. She has built an engaged and enthusiastic business audience online of over 345,000 followers, including a significant number of thought leaders. Tara combines a data-centric with a human-centric approach to building an audience, leaning heavily on insights into consumer patterns and behaviors while keeping an eye on online trends and changing expectations.

Share this post:

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email


At Truly, we pride ourselves on our ability to set up rigorous editorial programs for brands so they can get into a rhythm of consistently publishing high-quality content. We’ve done this for non-profit organizations like REALTOR.ca, mid-sized service-based companies in highly regulated industries like PWL Capital, and multi-national B2B corporations like Nokia. The secret sauce to setting up these programs and making them work is in the structures and processes, which I’ve developed, tested, and honed with my team over the past 20 years.

But what happens to these structures and processes when the entire world turns upside down? Well, they just don’t apply. You need to be more flexible and real-time with your publishing efforts.

What I’m talking about, of course, is COVID-19. The pandemic is affecting the entire world, forcing us to rethink everything. There is no playbook for this (unless you’re the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, who actually staged the potential of the outbreak in a terrifyingly realistic scenario). Though there’s been some debate over whether the pandemic can be called a Black Swan event, it’s not a scenario most marketers have ever had to face.

Things are changing day by day,  throwing “normal” behavior into a tailspin. It’s changed what people buy, the way they search, how they consume media, what they see as appropriate, and where their attention is focused. Whether you’re a B2B or B2C company, your customers are affected. As a friend on Twitter posted:

Let’s take stock of why people aren’t paying attention to your product launch or sharing your articles:

  • People are in high anxiety mode, and until we see real progress on slowing the spread of the virus, this will continue. 
  • Many people are working from home for the first time, figuring out how to stay in touch and be productive with newly remote teams. This, too, will persist for an unknown period of time. Navigating this new work environment requires more than just learning how to use Zoom. Many people may find it hard to focus while working from home every day. 
  • People are facing job losses, business downturns, and general income instability (or threat of instability).  Buying or signing up for anything unrelated to calming people’s insecurities will likely seem tone-deaf.

It’s been over two weeks since I published an article advising brands to pull back their content efforts. On that date, I felt the conversation and anxiety around the pandemic had reached a fever pitch. Boy, was I wrong.

As I write this, the incredibly divided senate in the US has done the impossible. They’ve come together to agree on a $2 trillion emergency relief bill, helping the stock market rally while people in multiple states are told to shelter-in-place. This helps alleviate some of the uncertainty, but there is still a long road ahead.

So what does this mean? Should brands just continue to “sit back and listen” until this is over, as stated in my aforementioned article? One of the world’s biggest advertisers, Coca-Cola, has suspended all of its advertising

I don’t believe that all brands need to take a back seat in this moment, but they do need to rethink their approach. Here are some scenarios.

Scenario 1: You’re marketing an “essential service” brand.

I’m not talking about creating a “coronavirus sale” or being myopic enough to believe that your crafts supply store is exactly what everyone needs right now. I’m talking about companies who, by definition of the government, are deemed essential services.

This includes:

  • Supply chains
  • Retail and wholesaling
  • Food services and accommodations
  • Institutional, residential, commercial, and industrial maintenance
  • Telecommunications and IT infrastructure/service providers
  • Transportation
  • Manufacturing and production
  • Agriculture and food production
  • Construction
  • Financial activities
  • Resources 
  • Environmental services
  • Utilities and community services
  • Communications industries (media)
  • Research
  • Health care, seniors care, and social services
  • Rental and leasing services
  • Courier and delivery services
  • Temporary staffing services
  • Veterinarians
  • Child care services
  • Accountants
  • Lawyers
  • Engineers

The list goes on. The people who work in any of the above service industries are “on the front line” of keeping our society running during this time. If you are a marketer at any of the above, you have a reason to communicate. In fact, you may have more of a reason to communicate than ever.

Real-time, open, and accurate content is where you should be focusing your marketing efforts right now. 

Throw out that editorial calendar you created in January (or at least put it on hiatus…though I’m guessing much of it will be irrelevant on the other side of this crisis). Instead, flex your real-time content muscles and get creative.

Tell stories from your front-line workers. Reassure your customers by communicating openly and frequently. Be personal. Share information on how your customers can navigate through everything. Be generous and collaborative. Forget about competition and adopt the “we’re-all-in-this together” mantra. Focus on keeping your people safe. Communicate internally even more than you’re communicating externally.

I’ve been impressed by the consistent communication and updates from the Loblaw Group of companies. They’ve been sending updates on their stores and services nearly every day since the panic set in (and shelves were depleted of toilet paper and canned goods).

Their language is humble and personal, and their honesty is incredibly comforting. While their social media channels are usually quite underutilized, they’ve stepped up to take these communications beyond email:

Where the tone of their previous posts focused on promoting products, they made a quick switch to openly communicating and sharing:

They know it’s not a good time to sell a new frozen treat or mascara line. Their thoughtful and deliberate messaging fosters goodwill, and will likely help them get more traction for their products after all of this is behind us.

I personally hope that Loblaws takes what they learn from communications in these trying times and continues to apply it to their regular publishing. 

Scenario 2: You’re not an essential service, but you are still in service

Some of what I advise above is still applicable to these brands. This is not the time for promotion, launches, or leveraging the crisis for your benefit. Doing so is a losing strategy, and will likely end in breaking trust. You can refer to my previous post for the advice here.

But you don’t have to sit on your hands and wait. There are options that will help you move forward with your content and communication.

Option 1: Become essential

You have a few options here, but the best way forward is to put sales on the back burner and pivot towards generosity. Brands that give generously right now will be remembered and will have their generosity returned in spades once the dust settles. 

In other words, if you aren’t deemed an essential service, become essential.

Dyson is well known for their high-quality vacuums and air dryers. They are just one of the companies who stepped forward to apply their expertise to designing and manufacturing much-needed ventilators. They went from a luxury, nice-to-have brand to one that became an essential service. Though my husband and I are already fans of Dyson (and own a few products), this type of action is sure to tip us towards finally buying that cordless V11 we’ve been eying.

It’s important to note that Dyson isn’t flaunting their altruism. In fact, their social channels have pretty much carried on business as usual. Even their most content-rich channel, The James Dyson Foundation, doesn’t have a peep about their generous act. It’s as if they gave nobly and quietly in order to carry on. 

Option 2: Be utterly human

When we’re not in the midst of an enormous crisis, marketing consultants advise brands to “be social” and “be authentic” all the time. Unfortunately, this advice goes mostly unheeded and too many brands end up creating super-polished, kind-of-uptight, watered-down content that is ignored, at best.

But the beauty of a Black Swan event is that, well, everything exists in the upside-down.

A beautiful example of how this works is the charming and adorable National Cowboy Museum social accounts. When Seth Spillman, the museum’s chief marketing officer, knew they were going to have to shut down to comply with social distancing, he floated the idea of a social media “takeover” to Cowboy Tim, the museum’s security guard who would remain on duty during the closure. Though Tim has some coaching from Seth, he’s obviously encouraged to be himself, which has resulted in a whole lot of love for the museum.

Whether this is a ploy or not doesn’t matter. It’s the kind-hearted, sweet humor that many people needed in this stressful time.  

Option 3: Be Generally Generous

You need to be careful with this one. Even giving stuff away for free, or heavily discounted, may come across as self-promotional and opportunistic. If you aren’t giving from a place of selfless generosity (and if you clearly want something in return), don’t do it. It will backfire on you.

A company that has done this well is podcasting platform Zencastr. Before it was cool to give stuff away, they lifted the limits on free accounts. People in isolation who had considered podcasting (but didn’t have the time prior to *ahem* “stuff” hitting the fan), could now give it a try without spending any money.

Other companies, like TikTok, are just giving money to help:

No matter how nervous you are about your business, you should remember that we are in this together. There isn’t a single business unaffected by this crisis. Sure, there are businesses benefiting from the pandemic (such as fitness equipment retailers, paper product manufacturers, and Amazon), but for every business that’s booming, there are thousands shuttering or scaling back. The impact is enormous as seen this week in the US as 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits, setting an all-time record.

What if none of the above applies to your business?

If you don’t fit any of these scenarios and you’re just trying to survive, we get it. 

Building a business is like raising a child. You put years —along with your blood, sweat, and tears — into getting where you’re at, and this seemingly random event has come along and upended everything. Talking about this and how you feel — what it means for you, your family, your employees, and everyone that feels decimated by this — is an option, too. There are so many people in the same boat; reaching out can mean finding connections to help you through this.

Right now, we’re working with our clients day-by-day, listening and adjusting in real-time. We’ve put our regularly scheduled content plans on hold (or scaled back in some cases) and shifted gears to be ready in a moment’s notice. On Futurithmic, the Nokia publication we manage, we’re shifting the editorial focus to topics like how 5G can improve telemedicine, how we can prepare for working remotely into the future, and even how gaming alleviates the anxiety of isolation. We’re working with other teams in the organization to help them communicate information for their service provider customers so the networks stay strong while media consumption increases in record numbers.

Because we’re constantly listening and feeling the pulse of the audience, we can help our clients understand when it’s time to start moving the conversation back to the original game plan (or help them rethink it in a new normal).

And if you want to join an interesting conversation from a group of founders who are constantly struggling with this question and doing a great job of participating in the conversation successfully, check out this fantastic roundup from Indie Hackers.

No matter what happens, there is a silver lining. We see this event as a way to step back and understand the deepest message of this entire crisis: we’re all in this together

No, you can’t just operate business-as-usual any longer. But this doesn’t mean you should sit it out entirely.

A recent guest on our podcast eloquently explained how to make a positive change in the world: “Pick up a shovel and start digging.” This IS about you and me and everyone else. We are all in this together.

Join the Phlywheel community!

Phlywheel is a DIY marketing platform built for agile marketing teams. Through our core pillars of community, content, and coaching, we simplify the digital marketing landscape for entrepreneurs and makers, providing the skills and tools needed to execute successful marketing strategies.

Sign up to the free trial today!

More to explore:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *