In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about marketing during the COVID-19 crisis.

Due to the current coronavirus crisis, a lot of companies are sending out a bunch of emails to their customers, updating them about how they are handling the situation amongst other things. However, while it may be necessary to do so for some companies, it may not be the case for yours, and if so sending an email out might not be the best thing to do right now. 

In this week’s episode, Steli and Hiten talk about how some brands are reacting to the situations, how some brands are using the opportunity to send emails to their customers, what type of marketing is working at the moment and much more. 

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic.

00:15 Why this topic was chosen.

00:59 How some brands are reacting to the situations.

02:12 How some brands are using the opportunity to send emails to their customers.

03:16 Brands that should be contacting their customers.

04:20 How FYI is handling the situation.

05:57 What to say to customers during this period.

07:09 Why you have to think about the audience.

07:52 What kinds of messages companies are sending.

09:26 What type of marketing is working at the moment. 

3 Key Points:

  • There are a lot of brands that are using this opportunity to send emails to their customers.
  • None of the essential companies that I’m a customer of have sent an email.
  • Part of it is reminding people that you exist.


Steli Efti: Hey everybody, this is Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah. And today on The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about marketing during a crisis. Actually, marketing during a pandemic, as everyone’s working from home while everyone’s checking information about the pandemic all day long.


Steli Efti: All right, well-


Hiten Shah: This is… Go ahead, go ahead.


Steli Efti: No, go ahead. Go ahead.


Hiten Shah: I mean, seriously, I was just going to say that it seems like there are a lot of brands out there that are taking this, and I want to hear your reaction, taking this opportunity as a reason to send email to their customers. Are you noticing that?


Steli Efti: Oh, no. No, just about 20 to 30 emails every day. Who was it? I saw a bunch of people funny tweeting about this like, “Thank god, every company I’ve ever given my email is telling me how they’re managing the COVID-19 situation.” Yeah, there’s a lot of emails about COVID-19 from brands. And the funny thing is, I would say that almost all of them, with a few exceptions, are from companies I don’t even know. Or I’m not even like, “Am I a customer of this? Why use this? Why am I getting an email from this particular brand?” It’s not very relevant. It’s not, I don’t know, if AWS sends me an email, or [inaudible 00:01:40], or some software product I use every day, Zoom, is sending emails. Zoom hasn’t sent an email and if they sent an email-


Hiten Shah: They have not sent a single email. That’s right. Let’s think about that for a second.


Steli Efti: But if they sent an email, it’d be like, “At least I’m curious to know because I really fucking need this service right now.” But it’s none of these essential infrastructure type software products and services I’m a customer of that have sent me an email, none of them. It’s all this other bullshit that I don’t even know why they have my email that’s sending emails about COVID.


Hiten Shah: That’s right.


Steli Efti: So I assume your recommendation is not necessarily, first thing you have to do is send an email to everybody in your email list telling them how you feel and what you do about COVID-19.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. There’s an exception and this exception, I’ve seen data on now. But if a company is direct to consumer and they’re an e-commerce brand, and I’ll put the other brand in there, which is a caveat, and it’s relevant to people right now because they ship things that people might want to buy right now, I’ve seen that work really well. The messaging still is important, but I’ve seen that when it relates to this crisis, the pandemic, people working from home, if you have a direct to consumer e-commerce brand and you sell online primarily, it’s likely that you might actually see an uptick in purchases at the moment. That’s an exception I’ve seen. Part of it is even reminding people that you exist. To your point, right, you might’ve signed up for this thing, you never bought anything, you have a coupon, and right now it might be relevant to you. So there is that exception. Outside of that though, the amount of sass tools that I’ve seen emailing Obviously restaurants are just a really weird and wild exception right now because they’re hurting, I don’t want to say more than any other type of business, but very close. Because you go in a restaurant, they don’t really do online. Things like that. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the things that I’m seeing out there when it comes to marketing and, and from a FYI standpoint, we haven’t done anything. I have an email newsletter with my co-founder Marie, called Product Habits. We’ve done some things there, but it’s not marketing for us. It’s just literally like talking about how we feel about this. So we sent out a remote work, a sort of employee assessment and we just literally sent it out and are looking to get as many people to fill it out as possible so we can figure out, is there an assessment of remote work, virus or not, that makes sense, that we can create now that so many people are working from home. How do you actually figure out how people think? So, I think there is this idea of relevant content right now when it comes to marketing, but I’m not seeing people do that. And relevant, meaning helpful. That’s the one word I would use right now. Whether your brand is helpful or not normally, right now if you’re going to do marketing, being helpful, genuinely helpful, is really important. I was talking to a friend because he’s got something pretty good in terms of data that he wants to put out and he’s asking me about the narrative and what exactly you should say. And he proposed something. And I mean, I always tell the truth as far as I see it, right. And so he decided to propose something, and his proposition was, it’s on brand for them to say things the way that he was pointing out to me. But to me, the way he was pointing it out, I’m like, “Hey.” It was like he was calling out other companies for their marketing and then saying that we’re actually going to be helpful to you, but he did it. He was doing it in a way where I was like, “I mean, I know it’s kind of on brand, the way you say it, but it’s not the right way to go.” You don’t need to call anyone out for their marketing and then go do some marketing. Your marketing shouldn’t call… And he wasn’t really trying to call them out, but there’s just a line in there. Lots of people are sending marketing messages right now. We’ve got something and we’ve been really thinking about how to be really helpful to you. He’s like, “Okay, cool, dude.” But you just called everyone out. And he’s like, “No, I didn’t.” And I’m like, “No, you did.” You called everyone out. And the sensitivities around negativity right now are very high. And I think people don’t realize that. This is the bottom line. Just like any other marketing, right now, you have to think about the audience. And you probably have to think about the audience and their state of mind way more than ever before if you’re going to actually bother them. And so that’s what people don’t realize. I’m also seeing a lot of tips about remote work come out. And from someone who’s been preaching this for a little bit, just like you, it’s kind of fascinating how many people are on the train right now. Or how many companies that I know do remote work or just scrambling and producing content. And I’m looking at it like, “You know that this content is short-lived, the way these companies are producing it.” Even the other day, “We’re doing pretty well in Google and a few remote work terms.” We didn’t plan for this. We just wrote those things, and knew what to write about. And Forbes comes out and writes some remote work and best practices. The coronavirus workplace series. And I read it. And no offense to Forbes, I know their game, but it’s just news content. It’s not something where, for that term, that we’re ranking for it. They should be ranking higher than us, objectively speaking. But they did for a while. Not anymore. But they did for a couple of days because all of a sudden remote work is news. Remote work went from being a topic to being news. Google knows it because before, it didn’t say top stories and more news, they didn’t have that box on these terms. Now they have that freaking box on these terms. So that’s, I think, the biggest telltale sign, which is, it’s news. Why is it news? Because everyone’s writing about. That’s when it becomes news. That’s Google’s viewpoint on it. So think about how much content there must be on this topic for Google to call it news all of a sudden. Because remote work wasn’t news. And that’s what’s interesting to me. So believe it or not, the type of marketing that works right now, short term, temporarily, is when you treat it as news. And I’m seeing a lot of companies do that. I’m not going to judge them. They got to do what they got to do. You know the biggest issue? I think it’s, marketing teams don’t know what to do. So the marketing teams are doing whatever they can to capture this because they don’t know what to do. All of a sudden all their events are canceled. They probably don’t even have real budget anymore for the moment. There’s a lot of freezes, right. That’s what happens when nobody knows anything.


Steli Efti: Nobody knows anything. Well, let me share my thoughts. A couple of things. Number one, there are exceptions to everything. I agree with you. I get a lot of COVID-19 emails from brands and companies, where even if I knew the company, I read the information and it’s, “So what?” They’re telling me things about how they’re dealing with the situation in a way that doesn’t serve me and I don’t care. I was not worried about them right now. I wasn’t even thinking about them. So them telling me that, they take this seriously and their company’s stable, is maybe a concern that a lot of people have. And if they get a lot of calls and emails and people are concerned about them, maybe it makes sense to send an email. But in most cases they don’t. I send an email to all of our customers, but the email was not some kind of information about COVID-19 or reassurances that we’re doing well, or whatever the fuck. I know that in the traditional working from home, everybody struggles. But one of the team that struggles to the hardest are salespeople. Salespeople are not necessarily, especially the ones that were used to, working from a sales floor. Now they’re in their living room with their children. This is not a normal setup for them to be making calls, sending emails, and closing deals. This is a very harsh transition.


Hiten Shah: You’re right.


Steli Efti: And also, sales managers that were used to be rallying the troops in person, now having to do that remotely. This is very tough. And we had paid attention to kind of what our customers and prospects were telling our sales team, support team, and success team what they were struggling with most. And all of them were like, “Everybody’s working from home now. We’re trying to figure this out, and can you help us with that and this?” So I sent an email and I told people, our customers, if you’re transitioning to work from home and you need help on how to set up your salespeople for success, how to deal with this, let me know. We will help you. We’ll give you information. We’ll set you up, we’ll support you in that transition. Now, a shit ton of our customers fill out a survey and give us some information. What their struggles are, what their worries are, what their specific situation is, and what they need help with, and we organize that. And for some of our largest customers, we do one-on-one calls and helping them. With some of our smaller customers, I’m doing webinars now, just trying to support them with their very specific questions. We’ve got a very good response from that and a good, also, temperature measurement for us on how worried our customer base is and what their worries are. How we can serve them during this time with those worries because we think we can. This is also a thing. If we’ve never taught anybody anything about sales or remote work, this would not be the week to start teaching people, if we don’t have specific knowledge and can take people and offer useful and practical advice. The other thing I’ll say is there’s a lot of tone deafness out there. There’s so many marketing campaigns or ads that I see that it’s being promoted that I’m like, “Are you guys living on Mars? Who set this up five months ago and who’s not checking on these campaigns?” Because they’re publishing information that’s just not going to capture anybody’s imagination right now, or is not relevant for the worries and the world we live in right now, right. And we had to even adjust. We were supposed to bring out a kind of a big resource and launched that. That was a different sales presentation deck templates. This is not the fucking week to launch a library of sales presentation decks, some generic one, even if it’s a good one. It’s just not the worry and the problem and challenges that’s on people’s minds, so don’t do generic marketing. And maybe stop some of your ads that are just tone deaf, where it’s not just that they’re not effective because I’m not interested in this, it makes a negative brand impression. Because I’m like, “This fucking company is out of touch with reality. What the fuck is this, right? How does this make sense for you, to spend money on advertising this particular type of ad in this tone today? This makes no sense.” So I would definitely advise people to check on their marketing campaigns and just ask themselves real quickly, “Do all these things still make sense? Are they useful? Are they helpful? Is the tone the right one?” As you said, negativity. Maybe people are overly sensitive to that right now. If you are using humor in a cute way in a way that’s distracting, people might really appreciate that. But if you use humor in some kind of a cynical way around maybe something that a couple of weeks ago, like the flu might’ve been an acceptable thing to make fun of for whatever, your antivirus software, but today it’s not. Today, it’s not a good idea. If you have a flu joking ad and then your security software is going to kill the virus, that’s not funny or cute at all right now. So just making sure you’re not tone deaf with the stuff that you’re doing. And to me, tone deafness is also all the remote stuff that’s out there that, to me, is completely delusional. I see so many remote tips that are completely devoid of the reality that the people that are working from home with their children, at the table, throwing food at them. They don’t need this generic vanilla advice that you probably wrote two years ago about the four lessons you learned doing remote work, which are lessons that are irrelevant for people right now, right. “Make sure you get out of the house every day.” I’ve even seen a remote blog post that when I clicked on it on the screen, one of the items was to make sure that you leave your house and there’s coffee shops you could go to. I’m like, “You guys are shitting me. Nobody read the post before you published it or re-published it right now?” So making sure that if you teach people something about remote, it should consider the reality we’re in right now. That this is during a pandemic, and maybe say something useful or valuable. And if you can’t, just shut the fuck up and say something else, do something else. But it is interesting. I do feel like there’s a lot of marketing teams right now that are just like, “What the fuck do we do right now? How do we deal with this? Events are canceled, sponsorships are canceled, everything we had scheduled to be published over the next few months doesn’t make sense right now. The hell do we do.” So hopefully some of the criticism that we shared or some of our ways of approaching it is hopefully helpful to you. More useful, more helpful marketing, and therefore long-term productive.


Hiten Shah: I do like what you folks did and you really focused on figuring out what is the challenge that your customers have right now and how can you help them with it. You folks have been doing content for a while though and that’s probably what makes what you’re doing differentiated and possible. And then you rejiggered your schedule so that you’re actually shipping things that matter to your customers right now. And that’s, in a way, like very much treating this like news and saying, “Hey, look, this is an event. It’s something that’s going on.” And I don’t mean an offline event, but this is the thing. This is news. And we’re going to figure out what we can do in order to help people during this time, and I think that’s really important. And the part that I think is most important is the fact that you actually went and figured out what they needed, which is not what I’m seeing most people do. They’re not going and figuring out what people need. They’re just literally scrambling, and writing marketing, and doing campaigns. But they’re not actually thinking about, or even doing research to find out what people actually need. So the biggest tip I would give people about marketing is go find out what people need, and see if you can help.


Steli Efti: Amen. This is it for us for this episode. Stay safe and we’ll hear you very soon.


Hiten Shah: See you.