March 14, 2020

I was all set to write a blog post this week about my trip to Italy and how I was thrilled with the marketing community there—they were attentive, smart and ready to implement.

But that will be for another day.

There is an elephant in the room (or as I like to say, a “moose on the table”).

I made up the term “moose on the table”…or got it from someone…after creating an image in my mind of a dead, decaying moose right in the middle of a meeting roomtable…and everyone is talking around the carcass with no one acknowledging it’s even there.

We will not do that here. The elephant/moose is the only thing worth talking about today.

And in the words of Marty Edelston, “The only things worth talking about are the things you can’t (or won’t) talk about.”

Italy, while being a new hotbed for marketing (in my eyes), is also ground zero in Europe for COVID-19 or the Coronovirus.

Therefore, Italy is doing a lot less “business” right now (understatement) so any marketing information I gave them only three weeks ago will have to wait for implementation.

While I got out of there in the nick of time (and I self-quarantined for two weeks when I returned home despite showing no signs of the virus), my heart aches for my new Italian friends. I think about them every day. And I hope that their present experience is not our future experience.

So what about the U.S.?

I had my live Titans Xcelerator call this past week (I guess it’s a good time for a “social distanced mastermind!”) and I fielded questions about “marketing and the Coronavirus.”

That topic might seem to be a little tone deaf to what is happening around the world.

However, since most of us are still trying to keep our businesses afloat during these turbulent times, it is still relevant.

Please don’t take my capitalist leanings as anything but pure…I am very concerned about the health and welfare of Americans…and everyone around the world. And of course my family and friends.

But while we know it’s not “business as usual” it’s also not “we need to shut down our businesses” either.

I received an email from someone yesterday who asked me about an online launch they were planning in a few days and wondered if they should postpone it.

This is by no means a definitive answer—there are lots of angles—but I gave him mine:

It’s true that folks are “staying home” during this period so there could be an opportunity for you with all the extra “screen sucking” going on…but be careful.

The worst thing you can do is to make believe there’s nothing happening in the world—you should assume everyone knows something about the virus—and you need to call it out.

Also, don’t use the fact that they are self-quarantined as a reason to buy your product…embrace your product as something that could be useful, practical (or whatever benefit it provides)…with heart and empathy (which you should do all the time anyway).

If you can relate it to being helpful with the Coronavirus (e.g. “it’s a perfect time to study/learn/read while you might be isolated”), you can do that, but not as your lead and do it with care (again)… and not with an “exploitative” tone.

Another thing you could do however: Using the fact that you won’t do live events or any kind of marketing that puts your online or offline family at risk could be up front in your messaging…and that using email, for example, is the kind of communication that fits within the protocol laid out by the powers that be.

And under no circumstances, if you are in a health niche for example (e.g. supplements), should you even hint at what you are selling being a relief, cure or anything regarding the Coronavirus. Yes, it’s too soon.

Read this if you don’t want to hear it from me…which I received from my lawyer. On this point you need to be VERY careful.

Regarding whether to launch or not:

If you don’t have affiliates lined up, or even if you do (and you will just take a hit on their “availability” in the future) you may want to test a small segment of your market (with the above empathetic messaging warnings), and even use your “best names,” to test how your product does in this unstable market.

Regardless, you are titrating (i.e. testing the minimum amount to get a statistically significant result), not rolling out.

Also—if you have an affluent audience: Don’t underestimate the Wall Street rollercoaster caused by the virus–assume that the financial hit to many is a second distraction which could affect your results.

Bottom line: This is not an event that came out of the blue and you now know some additional information about COVID-19 that you need to take into account.

If you want more angles on this, read the section in my book, Overdeliver, pages 179-186 (“Control the Distractions You Can Control with Your Control”) which will give you some real life examples to help you through this turbulent time.

And good luck!

I also suggested to various online and offline family members to consider some kind of charitable donation (in money or products/services) to help with the battle against the Coronavirus.

Maybe just a way to get masks, equipment etc. to health professionals in your area?

This particular situation doesn’t seem to need money yet (but money put somewhere should mean something)…and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to help.

If anyone knows of any particular causes that are relevant (and legit), email me and I will share them next week.

There are no perfect answers and every situation is different.

This one could be an opportunity or a bummer…but I imagine it is somewhere in-between.

You need to budget for it as well…and the more that you can take the temperature of your audience under the guidelines I mentioned, and others you come up with yourself,  the better you can adjust your budget.

Regardless, if your promotion or launch is not in the marketplace yet, you can prepare in some way…and that doesn’t mean abort everything until it blows over nor does it mean to move ahead blindly.

And if you were out in the marketplace before the Coronavirus hit and you did well, don’t take those results to the bank.

And finally, if you put out a promotion into the middle of chaos already, while it was expanding, I still think you need to call it out now…plus you have more data for more conservative budgets going forward.

There is a moose on the table…don’t ignore it.



P.S. For my P.S. this week I am copying and pasting pages 179-186 from Overdeliver in case you don’t have the book…or you have it but want to read it here (with additional edits).

Marketing into the unknown is not just “one thing”…there are always environmental factors affecting our marketing promotions…but there are all different kinds of “distractions” and we should be aware of all of them.

With 40 years of marketing into all sorts of crises, I’ve seen and reacted to a lot.

Maybe you can benefit from some of these examples—some had happy endings while others did not.

And regardless, I want to share with you my overall philosophy and thinking on this subject. I hope you find it useful.

Note that I saved these examples for Chapter 8 of Overdeliver which is, “Customer Service and Fulfillment.”

That should give you a clue as to how I have dealt, and will continue to deal, with these issues.

Control the DISTRACTIONS YOU Can Control (with Your Control)

There’s another important area of customer service that has less to do with solving problems, fielding complaints, or satisfying customers.

It’s about being present with your audience—being conscious of what your prospects and customers might be going through in other aspects of their lives.

Unfortunately, many game-changing entrepreneurs and inventors have their best stuff ignored because of world events and things beyond their control that decrease interest in their offer. Major distractions in the marketplace can negatively affect the results you see for the products and services you are promoting.

Some are predictable and can be avoided. Some are less predictable, but even in those cases, there may be ways to make lemonade from lemons.

And some are just plain bummers all the way around, things that are unpredictable and unavoidable, leading to terrible results beyond your control.

Let’s explore all three in the context of customer service.

Predictable & Avoidable Market Distractions

I heard from many people in late 2016 that their marketing results (i.e., response, revenue, and profit) just before and after that year’s U.S. presidential election were lower than expected. While people were probably paying far more attention to this election than most, the point is that we need to recognize anything we know is coming down the pike that can be distracting to our potential audience.

These marketers should have known better—every presidential election is worth avoiding as a launch date, mail date, or promotion period. And I’m sure there are parallel events in countries outside the U.S. that could lead to distraction in the marketplace and diminished results.

During my days doing large direct mail programs, we always avoided the time immediately before and after the vote, and this is a good practice no matter which channels you use.

In direct mail, it was a lot harder to predict when the mail would land (which we called the in-home date). You couldn’t always rely on the mailman to deliver at the same pace. Today, although it’s even easier to predict in-home dates with most forms of online media, we never mailed or advertised near any major event due to what we called the distraction factor.

We always wanted to reduce risk whenever we could.

A presidential election is one distraction you can work around (assuming you are not using the election to sell your product but it’s even risky then too) . . . unlike war, horrific world events, weather disasters, or just unexpected news.

I recommend that you make planning for predictable and avoidable events part of your standard operating procedure. The example of the 2016 election is an obvious case, but there are many others (and this is not just an American phenomenon).

In my years of planning promotions in various media—direct mail, print, inserts, TV, radio, e-mail—we mapped out our mailing and promotion schedule at the beginning of each year and took as many planned major world events into account as we could, such as the Olympics, The World Cup,  elections, and so on.

In the 1980s and 1990s, we had mailings going out every week. We never had fewer than 40 mailings a year, all of which were over a million pieces—sometimes over five million pieces. There was even one year when we had over 52 mailings and had to double up a couple of weeks (while not mailing the same names more than once on the same mail date).

Note: In the world of direct mail, you rented names for a one-time mailing but if names appeared on more than one list, you were allowed to  mail duplicates on a future date using the same offer.  And there were some weeks we simply avoided in every calendar year, since we kept accurate records on periods when responsiveness was very low for certain kinds of offers. Simply put, so many mailings with not enough mail dates.

No matter how often you send out promotions, online or offline, I recommend that you map out your promotion schedule at the beginning of the year and work around any events that are predictable distractions and also dates when your potential audience will be uninterested in hearing from you, such as a tax newsletter arriving in late April, right after the filing deadline.

Predictable distractions and potential irrelevance are both marketing issues and customer service issues.

It’s marketing since you don’t want your campaigns to bomb because of events and circumstances that are in your power to plan around.

There is also an important yet overlooked aspect of customer service at work here: if your offer is ignored because you didn’t plan for potential distractions or seasonal relevance, you could lose a customer forever, or never get one in the first place, simply because they felt disrespected or annoyed.

Less Predictable, but Still Avoidable

Do you remember Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and 1991?

In August of 1990, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait took everyone by surprise. If you look back at that very tense period, America had troops in Saudi Arabia, literally waiting for their marching orders, while everyone at home in the U.S. was anxiously watching the news, waiting to see how the situation would unfold.

Not that anyone cared (nor should they have), but during the troop buildup, we had a huge quantity  of direct mail ready to go out. They were in mail bags, sitting at a “lettershop” (a warehouse where the mailing was being staged), and I remember meeting with my staff and with key consultants every day regarding what to do.

We wanted to time the mailing as best we could without diminishing the responsiveness and recency of the lists we had rented—that is, we tried to find the sweet spot of making the mailing successful while avoiding having the promotion hit mailboxes just as our troops invaded Kuwait (a big distraction).

We had recency issues, since the names were getting older by the day (remember the R from RFM?), and that was colliding with a severe distraction factor. We wanted to be sensitive to what our potential customers were going through at the time. We waited a while during the troop buildup in Saudi Arabia and eventually timed the mailing when the distraction slowed down, early in 1991. We traded off some responsiveness (because the names aged a bit) to avoid mailing into total distraction.

We generated less revenue on that promotion than we had planned, but the waiting period also gave us time to revise our budgets, since we figured we would probably not do as well once we held the mail for so many weeks.

But the mailing was far from a disaster, and thankfully the United States avoided a war at that time as well.

While everyone likes to make as much money as possible, giving up a little bit of profit by giving up a little recency and not marketing into a period where your audience is distracted (assuming you can wait a little while until the distraction is diminished) is a trade-off that is worth it.

You won’t completely write off the promotion—and you won’t compromise the goodwill of your audience either.

A quick side note on how situations like this became an advertising opportunity for some: I heard from industry sources during Desert Shield that CNN was able to increase their advertising rates significantly, because the number of eyeballs looking at the TV matters, and at times like these, that number goes up. One medium’s distraction is another medium’s attraction.

There are always ways to try to use a distraction to your advantage, of course. This was something we experienced firsthand once we got into TV advertising, although this one is hard to recommend broadly.

In different periods of the mid-2000s, I believe we were spending as much as any marketer advertising with infomercials at that time.  At times we experimented with timing some ad buys week to week, trying to calculate when we could get the most eyeballs on a particular promotion based on the news cycle. It was kind of like day trading, which gave me a lot of anxiety, and like I said, I don’t recommend it. Not only did the risk outweigh the reward, it also felt a bit exploitative.

Hurricane Hugo

When something unpredictable happens, you have to take care of yourself and your business,and at the same time, you can look for ways to help others too.

This hit home for me in September of 1989 when the devastation of Hurricane Hugo led to the deaths of at least 60 people. Hugo was a category-five storm and was responsible for an estimated $10 billion in damage, mostly in the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean. It was one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States at the time.

It seemed meaningless to send the millions of pieces of mail we had ready to go out that week as we watched homes in South Carolina swept away and lives destroyed. I remember watching a news report where there was a mailbox floating down a street and feeling so impacted by it . . . it emphasized to me that despite being my livelihood, direct mail was pretty insignificant at that moment.

But I had a business to run and my team’s livelihoods to protect as well. So after a restless night, I called the mailing facility where we had that huge campaign ready to go out and had them resort the mail. We had time before it went out, so I asked them to remove all the mailing pieces set to go out within a 100 mile radius around Hugo’s path as it came up the southeastern coast of the U.S. (since it was easy to omit by zip codes).

 My logic was that if someone’s mailbox was floating down the street, the odds that they would want to buy a copy of The Book of Inside Information were pretty low. To my mind, it was wasteful and disrespectful to the folks who were suffering to try to send them mail, and it seemed ridiculous that the postal workers in the affected region would also have to handle and store all that extra mail.

Selling a book was not a high priority for me in light of the awful situation, and buying it was not relevant to them—staying safe and working out how to rebuild their lives was going to be the only focus for those people.

After the decision not to mail them, I decided it wasn’t enough, and that we could do more.

We reached out to every charitable fundraiser who had used our lists over the years. The subscriber and buyer lists we owned were some of the most responsive names for fundraisers, and I told every one of them (including the American Red Cross, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, and others) that they could have as many of our “best names” as they wanted—for free—for any fundraising effort related to Hurricane Hugo.

At the time, our lists sold for over $100 per thousand names, so this was a big donation—and we made an additional monetary donation to each of those charities who took free names from us (as long as our money would be targeted to Hugo) to help with their mailing costs.

We ended up shipping hundreds of thousands of names to a variety of fundraisers and donated a significant amount of cash too. Those mailing efforts raised much needed funds for people who needed it most; later we made this standard procedure for any disaster where direct mail (and our responsive lists ) could be used to help.

All this is to say that even when things go wrong—and you have some warning—you can protect yourself more than you think, while making a difference and turning a disaster into a positive experience for both your company and your customers.

Bummers You Just Can’t Predict

On Labor Day weekend in the United States, response rates for many kinds of space advertising are traditionally very high, and in 1997, we had scheduled a large newspaper advertising campaign in anticipation.

There was no way we could have predicted that Princess Diana would die tragically, in highly publicized circumstances, just days before. People were devastated by the news and glued to their TV sets.

Everyone’s Labor Day campaigns tanked that year. There was no time to pull the advertising like we did with the natural and (manmade) disasters where we had some warning, which meant that our newspaper campaign received less than 50 percent of the responses expected on a million-dollar media buy.

Sometimes you just have to be prepared to take a hit when everything is out of your control.

This is another reason to have your media buys diversified and to never be reliant on just one medium for the lion’s share of your revenue and profit.  Multichannel marketing is not just a neat sounding term, it should be your mantra.

But I believe situations like this made us even more sensitive to what we could control and what we couldn’t. We were already pretty good at planning for distractions where we had some control, as indicated by our actions around Desert Shield and Hurricane Hugo.

And we were always on our guard and encouraged others to do the same, and also to be extremely proactive in how we all approach our customers in volatile times. It’s much better to be paranoid and proactively try to control as much you can with your campaigns than to leave things to chance and let the chips fall where they may—especially in situations where people are just not as interested in what you have to offer as you are.

Marty, my partner on all these adventures in marketing, once had T-shirts made up quoting the venture capitalist Frederick Adler:

 “Paranoia is not a psychosis . . . it’s survival.”

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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