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April 28, 2020   |   5 min read

Copywriting in the Pandemic Age

Ryan James   |   Creative & UX Copywriter

Copywriting In the Pandemic Age

COVID-19 has changed everything about our daily lives. From working in isolation to relying on third-party delivery services for essentials, staying safe in these uncertain times means staying consistent. The same logic applies to your brand messaging. Before the virus had widespread impact, you likely had new assets and campaigns scheduled for launch. If not, then ideas were at least there.

But now even the largest brands have pivoted their strategy and creative to match the empathetic, positive spirit necessary to persevere. Work that still has wings must be run through a filter to ensure it adds more good to the conversation than ill will. People across the globe are communicating with each other more and ramping up the hours spent in digital land—streaming, absorbing, connecting. What are you going to say as a copywriter? How are you going to say it? Here are some things to keep in mind.

Contribute to Goodwill, Not Saturation

There’s a time and a place for opportunism. This isn’t it. Some writers will think well our brand still needs to make money!  You’re not wrong, but head down this path of capitalizing off fear or hardship and you’re sure to lose in the long run. What people want right now from their favorite brands is a tangible tether to humanity. A certain sensitivity in messaging is called for. At the bottom of the totem pole is lifeless (nay, soul-crushing) content like this:

Take 15% off all lounge wear because you’re not going anywhere fast.

This fictionalized clothing company I just created gets so much wrong in one sentence. For starters, there’s an overt lack of sensitivity. If you think you’re veering toward being too pun-driven or sarcastic, then you probably are. Worse is the one-dimensional sales logic. Even if your product is one people need or want more of right now, there’s a way to talk about it that won’t come across as exploitive. We’re all in this together but messaging like this makes consumers feel like you’re towering over them, impervious to misfortune. 

Our next example is from a group I call the Avoiders. They fall at the other end of the spectrum, trading shamelessness for absence. Think about how you feel when you see content like this come up on a day dominated by alarming news headlines:

Sign up for our email list to learn about our great new offers!

Great new offers? Learning about the brand’s COVID-19 efforts, how they’re helping employees, and what augmented services are available would be better. Messaging like this feels too business-as-usual… nothing to see here… move on along. Remember that idea of the human tether? If the first example snipped it, then this one refused to even tie it. You should never make consumers think you don’t care or wonder what your response is. They’ll remember it once the dust clears.

The most effective messaging will be a balancing act that incorporates selflessness, understanding, and a shared sense of purpose. It might be along these lines:

For every loungewear set sold, we’re donating a portion of the proceeds to a regional manufacturer creating personal protect equipment (PPE) to frontline workers.

While there’s still an incentive to buy, the sentiment at the center is one of warmth and mutual compassion—for consumers, for businesses, for healthcare workers. This wheel of support is the human spirit that we so desperately need right now.

Be Prepared for Audience Retaliation 

Even if you do everything right and by the book, it still won’t be enough. In one way or another, every brand is going to experience a backlash from consumers over an issue related to COVID-19. You have to embrace this reality, because foregoing a messaging plan because you think you’re invincible is the worst plan of all. At some point, it may come down to your actions—your words—that restore your brand’s reputation. Take a moment to consider objections like these:

  • Why did you let go of some employees with no financial lifeline?
  • Are you going to offer contact-free delivery like other brands are?
  • Do you have a protocol since now an employee has tested positive?
  • I keep seeing your ads pop up when I’m shopping online for essentials.
  • The last email you sent was offensive to those struggling with this virus.
  • And so on…

Criticism you may field can range from mild curiosity to outright accusatory. The one thing it all has in common is it can be damaging to your brand. You should have a messaging plan in place that acknowledges, assures, and stabilizes concern. Transparency is important, as is writing in a tone that feels human and relatable instead of canned (like it came from a lawyer and was posted as-is). 

Whether it’s COVID-19 community management on social, regular updates on your homepage, or a pandemic-related email drip, you should be thinking about your answers to these questions as both a professional and a human. Let your audience know they’re important to you—that you’re in this together. Don’t overpromise. Don’t make up solutions you don’t have. Just be authentic and more cautious than ever about the brand image your message is projecting.

Prioritize Getting All the Details Right

Beyond the nuanced messaging we’ve talked about and the “magic touch” that copywriters have in conveying ideas, there’s an equally important hurdle: accuracy of information that shows consumers you’re up-to-date and worthy of trust. This comes about in a few different ways.

The first—and most obvious—is fact-checking any messaging you’re releasing related to safety, government mandates, health expertise, etc. Know that COVID-19 is written in all caps. Read up on the latest guidelines from the CDC. Understand laws in place, like the CARES Act, that are there to help support employees. It may seem like a task that doesn’t need mentioned, but brands big and small are being called out for info that’s inconsistent or just not true. 

Many of these current guidelines in place, like staying at home, will affect messaging from a logistical point of view. Calls-to-action are a great example. Directives like come in for a consultation likely don’t hold true for the time being, and will only confuse consumers while burdening your support lines. Likewise, what does an action like see a specialist mean now? Clarify that appointments going forward will be done through video. Never assume your audience is making the same assumptions.

To deliver the best customer experience, you should start by spelling out your current state of business in consistent messaging:

  • What your company-wide response to COVID-19 is.
  • How certain services, like delivery, have been impacted.
  • Special ways consumers can help show their support.

NO consumer should have to go digging for this information or be left wondering without an answer. In addition to assets already recommended here, you could get started by creating a COVID-19 FAQ page on your website and updating your hero space with new copy and links to relevant information.

We’re On Your Side Too 

Every brand needs to have a messaging plan in place for the pandemic, especially given there’s no timetable for how long this “new normal” may last. Contact us for help with strategic planning, creative execution, and more. We’ve already been assisting clients new and old with their next steps in such unchartered territory. 

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