Marketing pundits do not call for brands to stop marketing in light of the COVID-19 world health pandemic. Then again, if you misrepresent the effectiveness of products against COVID-19, state regulators could order you to stop marketing.

Marketing, for sure, isn’t business as usual. Today’s consumers have a “deep desire for comfort and security” and want to "create a protected, sheltered environment,” according to a Gartner report last month, “Consumer Sentiment About COVID-19: What They Expect of Companies.” Concerned consumers exhibit a burgeoning distrust in spades, according to Gartner researchers. “While marketers work tirelessly to guide prospects through the buyer's journey, creating and curating content mindfully will be essential to a successful content marketing program,” said Randy Frisch, president and CMO at Uberflip. “During this time of uncertainty, content must serve a purpose that adds value to the problems and aims to educate — instead of sell.”

Marketers need an empathetic playbook and shouldn't let tone-deaf marketing content and communications slip out the door, whether it's pre-planned content from weeks ago or fresh content.

Stand Firm, Push Back, Question Authority

Business has slowed across all industries, which means that management is under pressure to deliver on this quarter or this year’s goals, according to Dennis Shiao, marketing consultant. A common thought right now, according to Shiao: “Hey! Our product is perfectly suited to the new world of remote work. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity. What happens next? The content marketing team gets a request from management to spin up a “coronavirus campaign.”

At this point, marketers should take a step back and think about company vision, mission and brand principles, Shiao said. “Think about your own values,” he said. “Do you really want to capitalize on the pandemic? Might business results be achieved more indirectly, such as by giving back to the community? Have an open conversation with management about it. You might get them to reconsider the request.”

Related Article: How CMOs Are Leading Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Closely Review All Standing or Pre-Planned Communications

Kate Muhl, vice president analyst at Gartner for Marketers, said we’re still seeing examples circulating in social media of messaging that was clearly built way before this crisis hit and only now being deployed.

screenshot of a Megabus Facebook advertisement
As recently as March 23, we saw leap year-themed promotions from Megabus on Facebook. Ad copy like “Leap into a year of more travel,” and “Get a head start on spring travel!” may not have been tone-deaf when it was written. But, judging by the number of angry Facebook clicks on this ad, it sure is now, Muhl said. “Don’t let yesterday’s content planning sink today’s imperative to connect respectfully and empathetically with your target consumers,” she said.

Focus on Clarity, Practical Relevance in Messaging

Right now, consumers are, first and foremost, looking to brands to offer clear information relevant to their tactical relationship with those brands. In Gartner’s recent consumer survey, the top-rated brand actions consumers expect during the coronavirus epidemic include sending notifications about potential coronavirus exposures; changes to operations (store hours, etc.) that impact customers; and up-to-date information on shortages, delivery or service delays. “Don’t go silent,” Muhl said, “but consider deprioritizing content about discounts and promotions or stand-alone messages that are more general — less directly connected to your brands, products and services — expressions of support or inspiration.”

Consumers want to see that brands are taking this moment seriously, but they will still need to hear from brands in a voice and with a tone and perspective that’s familiar, Muhl added. “That’s the best way,” she said, “for brands to stay authentic in this crisis.”

Think Carefully About Communication Cadence and Channel

According to Muhl, consumers were feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the amount of content they’re exposed to every day before this crisis hit. “Coronavirus has only amplified those feelings,” she said. “Don’t be part of the noise. Pressure test your content plans. Rely on fewer, higher-impact messages right now. And ask yourself: Is what you’re planning to push out to consumers via email information or messaging that consumers would be just as well-served to find on your website or your social channels?”

Related Article: Marketing in a Time of Crisis

Address the Changing Circumstances

Deane Barker, senior director of content management strategy at Episerver, finds pulling off marketing content and communications in this crisis as a balance. “The key,” he said, “is to specifically address people’s changing circumstances. We’re all working from home more, Internet usage is way up, and we’ve been thrust into a world we’re most humans can’t be in physical contact any longer. How does your product or service help in this brave new world? That’s the key message you should be trying to get across.”

Leading With Empathy Never Fails

Marketers should be particularly careful when actually working in coronavirus directly into their campaigns and content. Messages that tie-in coronavirus can be off-putting to some, especially in the fast-moving news cycle where fears rise sharply. “Simply publishing tomorrow’s post, no matter how ‘innocent’ the topic, may be inappropriate given larger things that happened overnight,” Shiao said.

Learning Opportunities

Tom Kaneshige, chief content officer of the CMO Council, said he found the following marketing communication off-putting: “As we as a society navigate through these trying times battling the COVID-19 outbreak, the staff at [omitted] are taking necessary steps to continue delivering benchmark-setting products and service.”

“The lessons here are: don’t try to sell something, don’t make it about yourself,” Kaneshige said. “You really can’t go wrong if you lead with empathy.”

CMO Council research shows there’s a lack of data insights to help marketers, according to Kaneshige. “This is true for crafting content that isn’t tone deaf,” he said. “Marketers will have to rely on their experience and intuition about customers. They should also share pre-published content internally with the team, which, hopefully, is made up of diverse members. We are in uncharted waters and need many varied perspectives.”

Related Article: Empathy and Communication in the Time of Coronavirus: What Organizations Can Learn

Know Your Audience

Bottom line for marketing today? Just like before coronavirus, it’s about deep connections with your customers.

Stephanie Moritz, chief marketing and communications officer for the American Dental Association, took that tact when thinking about communications for her association. “We really looked into how we could best serve the dental profession,” Moritz said. “What could we do to provide our members the greatest value right now? What is most essential?. We put all other communications on hold so that we could focus and leverage the power of the entire association to provide information, resources and guidance to dentists now, during and after COVID."

Providing members with the most current and accurate information such as clinical guidance, business resources and legislative updates that they can really use during this unprecedented time is mission critical, Moritz added. “We are fortunate to have such strong leadership who is championing all dentists, members, dental teams, staff, and the public during this time,” she said.

Think Long Term (As In 2021)

Shiao said he understands teams must continue working toward their immediate goals. But don’t ignore some long-term visions, either.

It’s challenging to navigate the “short game” right now, so if your business can cope with it, publish less and brainstorm for the next “big thing,” Shiao suggested. “Some otherworldly, outlandish project that might launch in the fourth quarter — or heck, in 2021,” he added.