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B2B marketing: Language and content during massive disruption

headshot of Jeff Spicer

“Messaged well, what we say and how we say it will inspire and connect us to our customers and prospects.”
—Jeff Spicer, Yellowbrick

Yesterday, one of my team members asked that I approve an email announcing the cancelation of a company marketing event due to COVID-19-suppression efforts. A line in the email read that our company would reschedule the event when “things returned to normal.” Another email set for delivery indicated that current events — the global pandemic and economic meltdown — represented a “new normal” and that companies had best “prepare.” In each case, I flagged the copy and made an edit. And in each case, I thought hard about the direction to give my team.

All of us want a speedy return to normalcy — a time before social distancing, forced quarantines, rationing and rapid business closings. But as COVID-19 and the accompanying financial crisis roll around the world, marketers and communicators need to keep teams focused on what matters by helping customers understand our value during a time of great disruption — disruption that has no quick or easy end in sight.

The content and the language we use always matters, but even more so now. How we sound will define us and our brand more than almost any other activity. Messaged well, what we say and how we say it will inspire and connect us to our customers and prospects. It will show them who we are; that we understand the current crises and the way in which our product or service can help them better navigate their new reality. Messaged poorly, we’ll come across as tone-deaf or callous, harming our credibility and driving away customers.

The two most often cited catastrophes in recent U.S. memory — the attacks of 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 — were brutal and sudden blows. Yet those episodes differ from today. In each previous tragedy there existed an easily identifiable villain to demonize. And recovering from each crisis centered on the very act of doing business. Commerce itself was the cure. The language we used in 2001 and 2008 didn’t need to differ from the way we customarily went to market.

This time it’s different. Current calamities will not have a commerce-related cure. We will not shop or borrow our way out of these crises. For our businesses to survive, we must continue to market. But we must go to market in a way that acknowledges the realities our customers are grappling with. This doesn’t mean that our B2B marketing becomes only about crisis. That would be both disingenuous and overwhelming. It means that our marketing communications need to be thoughtful, crisis-aware and balanced. And the language we use to talk about ourselves, our value, and our customers must be true and mindful of new realities.

I created a few simple guidelines for my team to hit the right tone for this moment:

  • Don’t use the words COVID-19, pandemic or recession unless the communication is explicitly about COVID-19 or the economic recession. Our customers know what they’re dealing with. If the marketing/communications material isn’t explicitly about the pandemic or recession, use words like disruption, downturn, challenge and uncertainty.
  • Don’t make light of the pandemic or the recession. Only the most irreverent brands will attempt this and most B2B brands aren’t irreverent.
  • Don’t use phrases that may come across as presumptive. Phrases like “when things return to normal” can cause your audience to question rather than buy in. We can’t predict what normal will be in the future and our audiences know this. Instead, talk professionally about the specific challenges that businesses now face and how our products can help them navigate rough waters.
  • It’s our job to show businesses and organizations how our product or service helps them achieve admirable goals. Position the company as transformational in a way that isn’t gratuitous or self-serving.
  • Strike a balance between acknowledging the situation and focusing on business needs. It’s tone-deaf to ignore the crises and equally off-putting to focus exclusively on them. Somewhere, find balance.

As marketers, we focus so much on outcomes that our tone can become hyped or unspecific. Today, we need to show that we are present and focused on helping customers achieve tremendous things and work through disruption.

Great marketers will rise to this challenge. They’ll create content that provides hope and optimism for their teams and customers using language that’s both authentic and meaningful in a time of chaos. This language will define their brand and, ultimately, what they stand for.

Getting through COVID-19 and the financial crisis will be a long journey. The credible and specific way in which we communicate during this journey will matter — a lot.

Jeff Spicer is chief marketing officer of CMO of Yellowbrick. Among the company’s solutions for the data-driven enterprise is a data warehouse designed for the hybrid cloud.


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