Bored of coronavirus marketing yet? When your inbox is full of Covid-19 announcements, it can feel a bit like GDPR Mark II.

Clearly this entire situation is a lot more serious than a European privacy regulation. As someone who got the last UK flight out of San Diego before Trump’s ban kicked in – and with elderly family members to worry about – I’m hyper aware of the seriousness.

But the severity of the situation hasn’t stopped companies firing off emails with little thought to how the content will be received.

It’s not my style to focus on the negative, so I took a scroll through my inbox and picked out 4 emails that get it right. Let’s start there, and when we’ve absorbed what works, we can move onto what not to do.

Get ultra clear

If you have to change or cancel your events or services, be ultra clear about what you’re doing and what that means for your customers.

An unambiguous email from Run Coed Y Brenin, about the Salomon Trail Marathon Wales, explains that my entry will be deferred to 2021. It covers every possible question a runner might have wanted to ask, including, “Can I have a refund on my race entry instead?”. (Answer: No.)

They emphasise what a small organisation they are and the potential for financial ruin if they hadn’t taken action to cancel now, before incurring further costs. I was left feeling that actually I’d be happy to donate some money to them if they need it. That’s the power of a well-worded email.

Speak from the heart and connect with your audience

If your intentions are good, it makes it easier to connect with your audience, and they’re much more likely to want to work with you. We can all smell an opportunist who’s trying to cash in on a crisis. But when you and your company have the right motivations – and you want to help your clients – that will shine through. And you can still inspire people too.

Ann Handley’s most recent newsletter opens with this:

It’s not terrifying – it’s uplifting. She goes on to talk about her own fears after being at a conference in San Diego last week – hugging and shaking hands in a room full of 4,000 delegates. I was also at a conference in San Diego – though with only around 150 people – but I can vouch for the fact that the fear is real. Did I catch it without knowing? Will I pass it onto my kids? What if, what if, what if?

Ann goes on to talk about slowing down to speed up – and doing the things we don’t normally have time to do. She tells us, “Now is your time to lead. Lead your career. Lead your department. Lead your company.” She’s going for the “inspire people while keeping it real” angle, and it works well for her audience. It’s an angle that might not connect if you’re suddenly trying to work while entertaining young children, but it’s rare that one email can speak to everyone. It’s better to be specific and connect strongly with one group, than be vague and connect with no-one.

Offer reassurance and avoid blame or accusations

Take the email the Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe sent a few days ago. He reassures the reader that, “if everyone shops normally, there will be enough for everyone”. He manages to avoid blaming customers for panic buying, while asking that they be considerate. The email uses the passive voice when talking about the shoppers stripping the stores bare, saying, “There are gaps on shelves because of increased demand”. He doesn’t accuse the reader of anything. But then he gets more direct… “Which brings me onto a request. Please think before you buy and only buy what you and your family need”. The tone of voice is spot on, and it’s signed simply, Mike. As if he’s your friend and not the CEO. It’s clever stuff.

Since then, Mike at Sainsbury’s has sent another email, outlining plans to create a morning for elderly people to shop away from the rest of us (EDIT: sadly this was only an hour and not the stress-free shop that older people wanted) and give priority online shopping slots to the over-70s. He also explains that staff will be limiting what people can buy. This is a company proactively listening to what customers want and need, while putting vulnerable customers first and trying to protect everyone from the people who have been panic buying.

This is the benchmark. If you can be proactive and respond day by day to what your customers need from you, you’re doing a great job.

Put your customers first (but it’s ok to talk about needing your customers’ help)

Gusto is on the right track with their email that thanks “our loyal guests” and explains the social distancing they’ve introduced with 2 metres between each table, plus extra hygiene measures. But they also ask customers for support – in cancelling if they’re not coming, ordering takeout from restaurants or via Deliveroo, and buying gift cards for future visits. This one isn’t a perfect email, but it strikes a good balance between explaining how they’re putting customers first and also asking for help.

In a later email, Gusto announces a 50% discount on takeout for NHS staff. It’s a clever move which comes across as generous and will hopefully induce brand loyalty in the healthcare workers who benefit. But it should also keep Gusto staff busy and keep cash coming in at a time when restaurants need all the help they can get. Fingers crossed this helps them weather the storm.

What NOT to do

I’m deliberately not naming the companies behind any of the frankly terrible emails I’ve received over the last few days. It’s a difficult time, and publicly slating businesses doesn’t do anyone any good.

But I can at least pass on what not to do so you can avoid their mistakes:

1. Don’t write from a place of fear

If you’re more worried about your business failing than the safety of your customers, it will come across loud and clear in your email.

Of course it may be understandable – and I for one don’t want to see anyone’s business go under. But, clothing brand who shall not be named, I’m less concerned that you’re offering free delivery all of a sudden, and more concerned that if an infected member of your staff has coughed on the plastic wrapper my clothes arrive in, the virus could survive for up to 9 days and infect me, and then I could infect someone more vulnerable before I even show symptoms. That’s the kind of thing you need to address.

I’m not expecting guarantees, just details of the specific hygiene practices you’re using. Vague phrases about “the highest safety” aren’t reassuring!

2. Use “you” not “we”

Scan your emails before you put them out into the world. If almost every paragraph starts with “We” or “Our”, rip it up and start again. That email isn’t about your customers – it’s about you. That’s a fail. This advice applies at all times – not just in the middle of a pandemic.

3. Show some leadership

From another clothing brand: “We will be guided by the ongoing official advice and guidelines”. Er, does anyone find that reassuring?

People have way more appreciation for organisations that have the strength to make their own decisions, despite the somewhat delayed official response. Like the Queen, who cancelled her own engagements without waiting for the government to act. Respect.

I could talk about this topic all day – but I’ll wrap it up here. The thing is, although it’s an unprecedented situation for most of us, email best practices still apply. In fact, they’re more important than ever.

People don’t know who to trust. If you step up, show some leadership, and really live by your brand values, you can inspire even more loyalty in your audience. Some pivoting may be needed – let’s not pretend that restaurants and pubs can carry on as they are. But it’s the brands with the right messaging that will have a much greater chance of surviving, and even thriving.

Whatever you do, don’t use “finding the right message” as an excuse to delay getting in touch with your customers while you figure out what to say. Sure, think your approach through – but over hours not weeks. It’s not possible for every business to survive this, but the ones that do will be the ones that think carefully and then take action. Fast.

If you need help to get the messaging right in your emails, get in touch at liz@commacomma.co.uk and let’s arrange to talk.