Recognize customers’ emotional states to connect
The enormity of the raging COVID-19 virus threat has unleashed fear and paranoia and is changing everything in business. Personally, we clutch onto memories of how it used to be, are fearful everything has changed, and believe nothing will ever be the same.
David Kessler, a grief expert, told Harvard Business Review that we are living through several different griefs during the pandemic as we realize that what we’re experiencing is temporary but also that life has changed forever. The emotional devastation is significant as we are accosted with partisan politics, biased media, conflicting data, and hyped statistics, and we stagger under the realization of just how vulnerable we are as individual people and as a nation.
We also are under attack by foreign powers who want to bring down America and are using social media propaganda in the crisis to create dissension, government mistrust, and make inroads into the minds of Americans. Social media is filled with trolls who will respond to any pro-U.S. comment with vile accusations and name calling as part of intentional strategies to disrupt, divide, and create paranoia of and opposition to traditional U.S. values.
Kessler told Harvard Business Review, “The loss of normalcy; the fear of the economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
This intensity also is causing anticipatory grief, he said. That’s a feeling about what the future might hold. It usually comes up in relation to death and dire medical diagnoses. Kessler says this stirs our primitive minds to wrestle with knowing something bad is happening, but not being able to see it. It takes away any sense of safety, and this kind of grieving is now on both micro (individual) levels and macro (broader social/cultural) levels. It is behind the group anxiety that drives panic and hoarding.
Emotional Marketing Challenges
Marketing is a challenge for business leaders fully engulfed in anticipatory grief as sales plummet, layoffs become eminent, no one is listening to you or your company and couldn’t buy from you if they wanted to. However, this is when content marketing can be especially effective. It provides tools to overcome fears, build trust, and help you continue serving grieving customers through the crisis and after the onslaught subsides.
Your marketing messaging might parallel what Kessler and Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, have identified as steps to help leaders overcome anxiety. As you do that, you can help customers overcome their anxiety, avoid spreading anxiety, and build trust.
Schwartz points out we are dealing with two contagions, the virus and the emotions it generates. Negative emotions are every bit as contagious as the virus, and just as toxic, he says. They result in poor decision making, breakdowns, and burnout. He advises that we become more aware “of our different selves that influence our behavior,” referring to psychological descriptions of self.
Our most defenseless, vulnerable, and childlike part is our “overwhelmed self.” We also have an “adult self” that can soothe and reassure our overwhelmed self. “Unfortunately, when we feel most threatened, it’s our ‘survival self’ that rushes to our defense — reactively, impulsively, haphazardly, and often counter-productively.”
He says we usually instinctively default to confirmation bias — looking for evidence that supports our worst fears and disregarding the rest. However, impulsive and reactive responses to people and situations only make things worse. When we need our best and highest cognitive resources, we’re thrashing about in fear and worst-case scenarios.
The first step to deal with this emotional storm is to become aware of our feelings. We must be able to learn how to observe our emotions rather than being run by them, Schwartz says. Simply naming a feeling helps create distance from the emotion.
The second step is to calm yourself, regardless of what is going on around you. Peter Levine, Ph.D., who works with traumatized people and PTSD sufferers, says taking a deep breath and making an audible sound while exhaling that breath helps disrupt a primary nerve path between your brain and stomach and also helps put you back in control.
Schwartz, a student of Levine, wrote, “By putting our ‘adult self’ back in charge it’s possible to move from an enveloping experience of anxiety and fear, to a calmer place in which we’re able to hold and contain our most vulnerable self, so it no longer feels overwhelmed.”
He said, “It becomes possible to make a distinction between the facts in a given circumstance, and the stories we may be telling ourselves. A fact is something that can be objectively verified. It’s incontrovertible. A story is something that we create to make sense of the facts, but it may not be factual.”
After going through this process, Schwartz suggests asking a simple question, “What else is true here?”
“Rather than catastrophizing about the COVID-19 crisis, you can tap into your adult self, deliberately choosing to focus on what you have the power to influence and letting go of the rest,” he said.
Levine is the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing® and director of The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute. He holds doctorate degrees in medical biophysics and in psychology and during his 35-year study of stress and trauma has contributed to a variety of scientific and popular publications. He has consulted with NASA to prepare astronauts for space flight.
His discoveries have helped treat people who have experienced extreme trauma — trauma that continues to affect them physically, often without their awareness. He has found ways to help patients overcome these physical manifestations of extreme emotional stress. His breathing technique is a first step to establishing control over emotional trauma and hidden traumatic memories.
In a podcast aimed at other therapists, Levine discussed how simple things, like listening to uplifting music, body movement (such as dancing with your partner), cooking together, or other activities that involve body movement can help disrupt stress patterns, shift gears, and concentrate on the positive.
He read the poem, Lockdown, by a priest-friar of the Irish branch of the Capuchin Franciscan Order, Richard Hendrick. The poem contrasts what is happening in the pandemic with the positive things that can be done as we take responsibility for our actions during traumatic stress.
For marketers, that means storytelling that reinforces aspects of personal control, builds trust because of your response and strategies, and engages people in active solutions that establish a sense of personal control.
Pandemic Marketing Response
McKinsey & Company believes the U.S. will have the worst economic period in 100 years because of lockdowns and consumer spending concerns. McKinsey analysts see some consumer segments hit with 50 to 70 percent spending declines, such as automobile sales, airline flights, and services. Restaurants could decline in pandemic-affected areas by 50 to 90 percent. Discretionary spending could be halved, and second- and third-order spending effects also will suffer as local governments continue to shut down businesses as preventative measures.
Assemble an action team
Your first step is to form a small team to identify your company’s specific challenges and then brainstorm strategies to address them. Smaller companies will have a different team makeup, and larger companies might have a network of teams. The goal is to have multiple voices and expertise to pinpoint what is happening with sales, supply chain, financial capability, and other critical operational areas.
The team monitors and responds to trending issues and events to focus on what is happening in real time and what to do about it.
Access what’s needed to resolve risk areas
The critical challenge is to save lives and livelihoods, McKinsey states. Where will you be hit hardest and how? What do lock-downs mean for you? How do you protect employees? What’s in stock now and what on-hand must be protected? What are your cash needs to respond to challenges? What do you need to do differently to protect customers and still attract, engage, and delight them?
Decide how to mitigate risks
Will you need more leads? Have to close more sales? Get more or different product? Complete services in new ways?
Will you need new products that complement your product selection and meet specific pandemic needs, or new support products such as cleaners, new protections for employees and customers, new work processes?
Action is important now as doing nothing will allow fear’s inertia to dominate. Act and test, access and evaluate quickly and frequently to see how your marketing and sales are working and how the specific measures you take are holding up.
Ensure your marketing and sales activities are coordinated so both know what is going on, why, and what the responsibilities are for each. (See Five Reasons Content Marketing Fails.)
Marketing as antidote
Marketing must align with specific business strategies you’ve generated, such as pricing or deferred billing, promotional packages, or other action.
Review your buyer personas and buyer journey to better understand what your customer is going through during the pandemic. If you don’t have personas for your customers, think through them now, even at a summary level. It’s a great process to better understand your customers.
The persona should help you understand whether your customers are in obsessive fear, pending rebellion, on the brink of despair, full-on depression, or looking for humorous distraction. Is their “survival self” or “overwhelmed self” in control? Should you reinforce their “adult self” to bring them back to reality? Or engage them in therapeutic activities based on what you sell and your company’s purpose?
Design content and marketing around your response strategies. Give helpful information or present products in new ways that relate to the current crisis and can help your customers.
A bookstore owner in Florida, for example, uses Facebook Live to tell the story of how he had to close his store, but offers curbside pickup and online and phone orders. He talks of how he cleans products before giving them to customers and does special sales presentations on why to wear a t-shirt with a message, or synopses of favorite books to fill quarantine time. His lighthearted manner, discussion of his store’s purpose, and helpful insights into products and services are very comforting.
How do you alleviate customer fear? Discussing how counselors should think about online therapy with clients, Levine says leaders and individuals should be aware of their own fears and first connect with how they feel before connecting with clients. That way, you can be present with yourself and then present with clients.
Don’t “catastrophize,” he says, but communicate your resilience and self-control to help people settle in themselves. Humans are programmed to pick up voice rhythms and facial expressions to understand communication beyond words, so express yourself with confidence and courage. That’s an antidote to fear and anxiety contagion, and especially important for video presentations and communications.
Levine says it’s vitally important for our health and well-being to connect with our “core selves” and do things that are nourishing for ourselves. Your marketing might promote that with online group body movement and activities done virtually with others, live classes, and customer interaction can be very therapeutic and anxiety-reducing.
Your content marketing should reflect that to appeal to your customers’ inner sense of well being even during uncertainty and tragedy.
Connecting with people during stressful times builds bonds that survive the trauma. Your marketing can be a light of hope with solid information, empathy, and proper perspective that builds engagement, trust, and relationship.
As Father Hemlin says in his poem: Listen beyond the factory noises of your panic, Open the windows of your soul.