Two-way communication with consumers during a crisis

Blythe McLean | April 14, 2020

Being able to connect, communicate, and listen to your customers during the next crisis isn’t just a blessing — it’s a strategic imperative.

During a time of crisis — pandemic or otherwise — responsible companies have public relations teams that leap into action to implement a prepared crisis communication plan. Many of us have received these messages. We may have sent some out ourselves. I know I have, on both counts. 

Unfortunately, most of the crisis emails that hit my inbox end up in my deleted folder without ever having been read. I dumped some because I simply didn’t recognize them... a small store on Amazon, for example, where I purchased some curio items. Others I deleted because they suggested an intimacy or familiarity that just wasn’t natural. These were stores I haven’t shopped in years and websites I haven’t connected with in months, like the bounce place where I held my son’s birthday party — three years ago.

What's communication without listening?

Don’t get me wrong, in uncertain times like these, it’s important that brands reach out. As a professional, as an avid consumer, and as a parent, I really appreciate and applaud that. However, without an ongoing relationship, is this really communication? Is it truly relationship-building, or is it just one-way messaging — a “broadcast” approach that’s more focused on checking in, checking off talking points, or merely checking the “reassurance” box?  

What these brands don’t realize is that outbound messaging is only half of the equation. Listening is the other half — especially as brands, agencies, and other organizations desperately wonder each day:

  • What are people thinking?
  • How are they reacting?
  • How are their lives, shopping behaviors, relationships, financial priorities, and expectations changing?
  • How are they evolving?
  • How do they perceive us?
  • Where do they think they’ll be when this is all over?

In our world, we manage proprietary online panels and communities for about thirty brands, and these brands are getting answers to those crucial questions right now. In fact, each day, thousands of consumers are allowing us into their homes. They share what they are buying and how their financial investment strategies are changing. They provide insights into what they are binge watching (or binge eating). They tell us how their utility consumption is changing. They explain to us how they are coping with working from home or how being newly unemployed affects them. They disclose both the frustrations and exhilaration of learning to home school their kids. Even more deeply, they are also sharing their fears, their struggles, and their anxieties — even their depression. These candid conversations provide us with more than just a true lens into consumers’ mindsets. They are beginning to reveal a roadmap that will take us through this crisis and beyond.

So, why is it that these panel and community members have been willing to share so much with us — especially during a time when consumerism, marketing, and shopping have taken a back seat to mere survival?

It’s simple really…something you might call the three C’s, and they are baked into every panel and community we manage.

1. Curation

As I mentioned before, so many crisis emails end up in our deleted folder because the companies that send them simply haven’t bothered to create a stronger connection with us during non-crisis times. We all know successful relationships need to be curated. I’m not talking about the occasional email or survey. I’m talking about real communication, giving panel members frequent and meaningful opportunities to express themselves, to ask questions, and even to interact with each other. We operate as an extension of our clients’ brand teams, and we have consistently fostered that closeness. So, as the COVID-19 virus first hit the radar and began to grow, reaching out to community members seemed not only necessary; it seemed natural — for us and for them.

2. Conversation

Thanks to that closeness, these brands have given their consumers a voice through panel participation. And those engagements have easily transitioned into two-way, iterative conversations. Notice I didn’t say surveys or forum discussions. Those may be the tools we often use to launch these conversations, but we consider them conversations, nonetheless. Moreover, we understand that conversations are diverse and divergent. Urban versus rural. Older versus younger. Men versus women. Like any good conversation, as the situation across the country unfolds, we proactively adapt our tone and the types of questions we’re asking in order to mirror those nuances and changes. That’s just one of the reasons that we’ve seen panel activity (and even panel membership) increase since the pandemic hit. People not only have questions, but they also want to be heard — especially during a time when their social outlets and interactions have been severely limited. 

3. Closeness

Finally, far from an impersonal and irrelevant “broadcast” approach, many of our panel participants know us by our first names (a best practice) and feel comfortable reaching out to us if they need anything or have any questions. We, ourselves, actually crave those interactions beyond “I forgot my password” and “Where is my incentive?” In fact, of the thousands of consumers we have engaged, we have received one — only ONE — that expressed concern that we were being insensitive during the pandemic. Guess what? Even dialogue with that consumer revealed some vital answers, observations, and insights for us, for our clients, and also for that panel member.

In the end, we have done far more than simply manage a panel or issue some surveys. Serving as both middle-man and brand ambassador, we have developed a viable and responsible, high-impact community, along with sturdy, productive, and rewarding relationships between brands and their constituents. 

Honestly, we are grateful that we can provide these connections to help brands stay in touch in this ever-changing time.

So, how can we help you?

Are you seeking answers to those crucial questions above? Are you uncertain how to engage your consumers right now…or even if you should? Reach out to us.

Thanks to our proprietary SmartLAB Panel and our sponsored brand communities, we have uncovered a wide variety of insights about the effects of COVID-19 across multiple categories and we’d like to share them with you. We can also help you quickly launch temporary panels or communities. In fact, if you feel that we can assist you with a quick poll, short survey, or discussion, we would like to offer you one complimentary use.

We’re here to help. Please reach out to me and we’ll get started!