Lessons in digital content from Covid-19

Lessons in digital content from Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic is set to leave many lessons covering every aspect of professional and personal life. This is particularly true of digital content marketing, where we have already discovered a lot. Some lessons confirm what we already knew, others reveal surprising insights.

During the first days of the virus and before lockdowns came into force, the most prevalent branded content came by way of what I call ‘the three-step coronavirus campaign’.

1. Restricted services message

Fearing a shut-down of business services, brands started dispatching emails outlining their emergency plans in terms of staffing and availability. This information piece followed the standard content layout approach that I have long taught for CIM on the Digital Copywriting for Emails & Website Content training course:

Subject box - suggestive enough to spike curiosity.

Introduction - summarising benefits of features.

Body - with specific useful details, including bullet points.                                  

Close – with a Call To Action (helplines and so on).

The email detailed changes in policies, services, restrictions, precautions, re-directions to apps, details of store closures and other pertinent information. Here, at least, brands could rely on the content formats that have served them well for years in addressing the need to set customer expectations that would match the new normal.  

2. Your brand friend

Here branded emails said: ’Thanks for being there in the past. Right now, take care of yourself. Tomorrow, we will remain your trusted friend.’ These are designed to keep the relationship between brand and customer intact during the age of physical distancing.

Reassuring ‘feel-good’ emails are notoriously difficult to get right. Too much ‘feel-good’ and they feel like an old Christmas message from the Osmond brothers. Too little and they risk feeling insincere. The pillars of a good reassurance email are usefulness and authenticity; what can we do for you now and why we are the most trusted ones to do it.

3. Hey, you!

This cold emailing was e-blasted to just about anyone on a list. The message was: ‘You bought something or other from us at some point or other, so why not buy something or other again?’ (A barefaced sales message that is a step too far). Here is where the crisis necessitates its first significant divergence from traditional content techniques; a naked sales pitch, without any insight on the recipient’s current situation, is an ineffective, and potentially, destructive tactic during these times. Brand content must focus on the now but has to be prepared for being there once we return to some sense of normality. The ‘Hey, you’ email has never been less welcome.

Lack of trust

Overcrowding and lack of trust remain the biggest issues in the digital content space and, in unprecedented times, bad content can become viral. Since the outbreak took hold, there have been countless memes varying in hilarity from mildly funny to ‘I must share this with as many people as I know on WhatsApp – immediately!’ Many of these have been at the expense of big businesses.

Elsewhere, social media half-truths have exploded. Those eruptions have left pits of doubt right across the brand content landscape. Smoothing over them calls for more than covering up. New bridges of constructive trust need to be built through content that is both cohesive and timely.

Right now, content plans have shifted from quantity to quality. The natural inclination of customers viewing digital content as being less trustworthy than print means that brands must pour more effort into producing salient information. But how do you do that?

Stepping out of the game

As lockdown continues, many people have become increasingly intolerant of facile content. Virulent spreading of tittle-tattle led many to distrust brands that exploited events like social distancing and lockdowns seemingly just to sell things to people stuck at home bored and aggravated.

Initially, when it came to media buying, words like ‘virus’ were on an existing blacklist of terms that advertisers preferred online adverts would not be associated with. However, changes were soon made as terms like ‘Covid-19’ monopolised search engines and brands began to realise that to advertise in the digital space meant addressing the problems head on. Some of those digital content rules had already changed.

Content producers quickly learned that the best digital content was:

  • Authentic
  • Useful
  • Empathetic
  • Brave

This didn’t subvert the usual rules of digital content but added extra layers. Content will always need to be authentic and useful, but bravery and empathy were now much higher on the agenda as people sought articles that addressed their own thought and feelings.

A lift for content channels

The lockdown gave many channels a boost – not just in terms of audience, but also actual topics to cover. Podcasts started finding new areas for discussion, from dealing with mental health issues to childcare and home-schooling – vital areas in terms of corporate social responsibility and brands.

I launched two podcasts, one dealing with business during and post Covid-19 (Candid Covid Business) the other dealing with mental health issues during and post Covid-19 (Together in Isolation).

For businesses looking to enter the podcast format, the successful ones are:

  • Succinct
  • Clear
  • Immersive
  • Interesting

Businesses have to be able to provide those four things in order to successfully enter the territory, but that was never more true than during Covid-19.

Content featured case studies and interviews with clients and business partners having issues that people could identify with. With so much content, including Zoom-casts, being made available digitally, producers had to be especially vigilant not to re-hash tired well-trodden content that would have been seen and heard countless times before.

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything (Dwight Eisenhower)

Looking at the news cycle and even governmental advice shows the need to pivot content to adapt to changing circumstances. Throughout all content channels, clarity became more crucial than ever. As secluded individuals increasingly turned away from the barrage of ‘bad-news’ content, so attitudes towards content too changed, first to desensitisation and, in some cases, to defiance. 

This is reflected too in governmental advice, as health warning messages became more heavy-handed, culminating in one that simply read: ‘If you go out you can spread it. People will die.’

This slight U-turn in content messaging is not uncommon in any strategy, though typically in communication campaigns, plans for content are made in advance. However, the most astute marketers realise that on-going planning (in other words – being flexible enough to adapt existing strategies with new tactics) often frees brands to be more responsive to change – rather than having to doggedly stick to one plan alone – irrespective of moving circumstances. Digital content, rapidly produced and seemingly more open to change that the print equivalent, has to be flexible in this time of crisis.

That comes with a content-health warning: misconceived brand content could, if left unchecked, encourage people to detach themselves even further from brands who either are over-egging virtual signalling messages or appear more concerned with commercial interests than those of their audiences. Digital content must be open to flexibility.

As we embark on a slight shift in policy from ‘Stay at home’ to ‘Stay alert’, brands have to be weary of how they shift too. Ultimately, what brands do now in terms of content will have far-reaching consequences in terms of what customers, employees and business partners remember once the crisis is over. 

Jonathan Gabay is currently running training courses on Digital Copywriting for Social and Content and Email and Website Content. Virtual delivery of these courses is now available.

Jonathan Gabay Course Director CIM
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