Marketing is a vital but tricky part of many businesses, and successful marketers adjust their tactics, and even sometimes pause them, as circumstances require. We are in the midst of unprecedented circumstances.

Kitchen readers are the recipients of lots of marketing and unsolicited messaging and many also send such messages as well. Earlier this month, Karger CEO Daniel Ebneter published a very helpful set of guidelines advising correspondents about how he responds to unsolicited messages. In the past several weeks, the notoriously infelicitous messaging from “vultures” is attracting infamy across higher education. 

At the same time, Kitchen readers are also doing fantastic work right now to ensure and expand access to the content they publish, as the OSTP recognized last week, and many are working tirelessly with library partners to get the message out successfully and compassionately. 

I had a chance to talk with my fellow Chefs about how they are viewing marketing from their perspective. I’m pleased that Alison, Charlie, Lisa, Rick, and David agreed to share their reflections on how they are thinking about considerations for marketing and marketers right now – both on the sending and receiving ends.

illustration of people receiving virus news on their phones

Alison Mudditt

Focus on messaging.  Take a clear-eyed look at the core elements of your message and offering and consider which are going to be most resonant to your audience in this moment. There may be elements that you need to enhance; elements you need to refine; and elements that you may need to downplay (or jettison!). The perception of your organization will be influenced by the approach and tone you take in communications over the coming months. And small missteps in tone, if uncorrected, can have a cumulative long-term impact on the perception of your organization. Tackle this as a staged effort. There are messaging  adjustments that you need to make now – even those are subtle shifts in emphasis to ensure that you’re speaking as directly as you can to the evolving needs and concerns of your audience. But there’s also a much deeper engagement with messaging ahead. Each of our organizations will be developing strategic responses to what are likely to be long-term and wide-reaching set of global changes in our markets. Plan carefully for how you approach this work and bring your organization’s leadership to the table early to align around the fundamental concepts that will (re)shape how you communicate.  

Listening and learning: We need to be actively listening to and learning from our customers over the coming months. Their needs, their priorities, and their pain points are likely to evolve considerably and we need to bring understanding and empathy to our work to support them. In the nearest term, pay careful attention to feedback from open channels and cultivate new opportunities to forge connections. Make sure that you’re focused on active social listening so you’re hearing real-time feedback. Think about light lift ways to establish 2-way communication through a range of campaigns and channels. Consider how you might create opportunities for more structured kinds of research to help support and deepen your understanding of the changing market and environment we’re all now facing. And, above all, act on what you learn. Now is the time for our marketing to be nimble and responsive to the messages our audiences need and want to hear.

Data, data, more data: Monitoring performance and efficacy of your marketing is always important. It’s even more important now, when informed reactivity is the most responsible approach. Segment your analysis as finely as makes sense for your program to allow you to refine and pivot approach as needed. Be ready to further refine your messaging for particular segments based on performance and feedback from each segment, considering testing messaging and when appropriate, surveying selected segments. Be ready to reprioritize areas of focus based on research and data insights. Prepare to significantly adjust your marketing plans, planning for further ongoing adjustment based on data and insight. Finally, use the data to explain needed pivots to all stakeholders within your organization. 

Charlie Rapple

My “front-of-mind 5”:

  1. Communications: pause all your pre-scheduled campaigns to check that the content is still appropriate or relevant. Don’t forget to do this across all your channels – for example, social media and ads, as well as email. Don’t embarrass your brand by continuing to promote your presence at an event that’s been canceled, and don’t antagonize your community by clogging up their feeds with irrelevant messages at this most intensely disrupted time.
  2. Events: think creatively about how you can work with events partners to still connect with delegates of events that have been canceled, perhaps through services an event’s organizers could offer that would enable you to maintain your financial support of the event but still see some ROI. Can they help you promote a web-based version of your planned workshop? Can they offer a delegate mailing (in due course) to share sponsors’ offers? (By the by, my favorite “silver lining” from a recent event cancellation was UKSG sending all its conference-branded paper cups to a hospital that had put out a plea for disposable cups, and instructing its conference caterers to distribute the pre-paid packed lunches via local homeless charities.)  
  3. Priorities: your carefully planned budget for the year may now be cut, along with other costs, to help offset projected revenue losses. Don’t just carry on regardless, or cut everything by an equal percentage; re-evaluate what kinds of marketing work best for a self-isolated audience, and indeed which audiences you may want to “mothball” until this is over. Some organizations and individuals have transferred smoothly to remote working and are enthusiastically carrying on with “business as almost-usual”. Others are in complete disarray and unable to make decisions for the foreseeable future. Do think about whether your plan for the year needs to be adjusted to reflect this.
  4. Opportunities: the flip side of all of this is that there may be unexpected new opportunities. After the first few weeks of firefighting, are your target customers going to have more time to explore your products and services? Can your organization actually help tackle the virus in a way that might mean you actually become more well-known as a result of this? Is there an information need that you can help to fill, maybe with some educational materials that people are now going to have more time to read / watch? Again, do re-evaluate what you are offering to whom, and don’t stress yourself out to trying to deliver on a plan and targets that were put together in wholly different circumstances.
  5. Insights: the marketing department is the customer’s representative inside an organization. And the nature of the customers you are representing has just evolved substantially. As well as reflecting this in your own re-worked plans, don’t forget to pass on your insights to other colleagues. Once the initial drama has receded and your community is settling into its new normal, try to scale up the amount of time you devote to talking to customers, exploring their evolving needs and expectations, and feeding this back to people across your organization whose strategies and decisions are shaped by market research, personas and use cases. Given that the day-to-day needs of your customers, and the ways they interact with products and services, may never return to the old status quo, the marketer’s role as the customer representative has never been more important.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

As an academic librarian and faculty member, I typically receive about 250-300 emails each day. I have very established routines and strategies for handling this volume. I’m not one to complain about email. Others have commented on how some marketing messages are coming off as tone-deaf in light of the current pandemic circumstances, which is something I have also observed. My frustration, however, has been related to relevance even more than tone. It seems that many companies are not substituting messages related to COVID for their usual marketing emails but rather doubling the amount of communications they are sending out. This is having the effect of swamping my inbox and creating the situation in which I am not reading either the emails that are very timely nor the typical ones as I do my best to triage the now 400-500 messages that I am receiving each day. 

To state it bluntly, I’d advise throttling down all communications that are not related to providing support for the pandemic situation. (Of course those that are operational should continue, e.g., changes to URLs that need to be registered in order for off-campus access to continue, notices of the availability of COUNTER reports). While I am sure it is great that XYZ Platform now has ABC Feature, this is not information that I have the luxury of caring about right now. Tell me in a couple of months after the crisis mode passes and I have time to think about how it enhances the user experience.

If I might add a bit of advice as well for cases where the message being sent is about enhanced access to content, new content additions, dropping simultaneous user restrictions, etc. in light of the pandemic circumstances. First, make it as short and to-the-point as possible. I know why you are taking this action; I don’t need a paragraph explaining what is happening in higher education and how off-campus access is critical. Trust me — I know! If you feel you need to add something about how you want to support your customers in this challenging time, put it at the end of the message and not the beginning.  

Second, I find that most librarians are primarily interested in things that are made available without charge. (If there is something a library wants to license in order to support a class or the like, the library knows how to get in touch with their sales reps.) Make the message as short as possible. I also recommend using as descriptive a subject line as possible. Do not write something like “Good News! Content Available!” Indeed, that will probably get caught by the campus email spam filter. Here’s an approach: 

Re: <Name of Resource> from <Company> is <Fully Open/Free to Read/Available if Your Library Activates/Available If Your Users Register>

Message: <How few words can you use to tell me this and what I need to know? What specifically do I need to do? Tell me specifically what action to take. Now edit the text so you only use half that many words.>

Third, if you are sending a reminder about features or open content that are already in place and have been for some time, be very explicit that this is the case. Messages that make it seem like there is a new feature that must be activated means wasted time by library staff who take steps to set something up only to discover it is already in place. 

Finally, and I wish I did not need to add this, but based on experience it seems it is necessary, please do not communicate to faculty or students that something will be made available through their library. For any number of reasons, a library may decline to activate something, including that they do not have staff resources sufficient to enable it, add it to the authentication system, etc. or that it does not meet required standards for accessibility, privacy, or data security. 

The demands on the time and attention of academic librarians are intense as we navigate this crisis period, particularly with the massive pivot to online course delivery. Marketing strategies that recognize and adjust to this reality will benefit librarians and vendors alike. 

Rick Anderson

Many publishers are offering free access to content during the COVID-19 crisis – in some cases, free access to everything they publish, and in other cases, free access to a curated subset specifically tailored for relevance to the crisis. These offerings are welcome, of course, and they reflect positively on the civic-mindedness of the publishers who make their content available in this way. They also create work and complication for libraries and their patrons. This is not a bad thing — such work is what librarians are here to do — but it can be made easier or harder to deal with based on choices publishers make.

Lisa has already shared some very valuable advice on communication from a librarian’s perspective, and I endorse all of it. I’d like to add a couple of additional points:

First, publishers should remember that it takes very little time for temporary access to begin feeling like an entitlement. If you open up access to a very expensive and high-demand medical journal for a three-month period during a health crisis, doctors and researchers on a medical campus will be grateful and relieved for the first few days, and will then quickly get used to having that access. When the access goes away, it will likely be a jolting experience for them. To be clear: this is not a reason not to open up access during a crisis; however, it is a reason to think carefully about your communication with both libraries and end-users before, during, and after the crisis period. On the library side, we are doing everything we can both to communicate effectively the fact that new and important content is becoming available, and the fact that this access will be temporary. For example, my library has created a dedicated guide to such resources, indicating as clearly as possible the scope of inclusion and the currently expected terminal date of access. Other libraries are creating similar pages. Despite these precautions, however, we in libraries fully expect to hear from upset faculty after the crisis period, demanding to know why we “canceled” Medical Journal X.

This brings me to the second point, which is actually a subset of the first: the specific issue of communication after the crisis. Right now we’re all focusing, as we should, on issues that are much more urgent and critical than product marketing and corporate reputation management. But eventually we will find ourselves on the other side of the COVID-19 disaster, and as is the case in the wake of any such event, there will be many kinds of clean-up to do. Libraries will need messaging help from publishers when it comes time to shut down temporary access. And when I say “messaging help,” what I really mean is that we will need publishers to act as our firewalls when patrons become upset about the loss of access. Consider providing brief but clear statements that we can quote directly or forward entirely to those who are wondering why they can no longer access your content. Make sure your reps are accessible to us when our patrons have questions or concerns. 

They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and while I think that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that no deed has only intended consequences. If libraries and publishers work together to try to anticipate and prepare for the unintended consequences of the undeniably good deed of temporarily opening up access to critical content, we’ll ease the transition back to normalcy considerably.

David Crotty

One small, but I think important suggestion: the day after tomorrow, Wednesday, is April 1st. While I personally loathe how the annual April Fool’s Day nonsense makes the internet largely useless for 24 hours to indulge the whims of companies that are nowhere near as clever or funny as they think they are, I’m hoping this year will be different, and that companies will be smart enough to have canceled their joke campaigns given the circumstances. There’s enough confusion and misinformation out there. Maybe save your jokes for 2021.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is director of Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums for Ithaka S+R. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Alison Mudditt

Alison Mudditt

Alison Mudditt joined PLOS as CEO in 2017, having previously served as Director of the University of California Press and Executive Vice President at SAGE Publications. Her 30 years in publishing also include leadership positions at Blackwell and Taylor & Francis. Alison also serves on the Board of Directors of SSP and the Center for Open Science.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. lisahinchliffe.com

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple is co-founder of Kudos, which helps researchers, publishers and institutions to maximize the reach and impact of their research. She is also Treasurer of UKSG and serves on the Editorial Boards of Learned Publishing and UKSG Insights.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

Discussion

7 Thoughts on "Marketing Amidst a Pandemic"

What a timely article! Each suggestion is a great lesson, not only amidst a pandemic but in general. When I started reading, I made a note to name a few of the most remarkable suggestions, but I soon realized that all suggestions were remarkable. I appreciate each contributor’s advice. Even though we are quite sensitive to the pandemic communication and service, I still will advise our global teams to study this article well. I thought Lisa was very generous to show the messaging examples as detailed as she did. I was very surprised to read the suggestion about April Fool’s Day. Maybe a bit naive, but I wasn’t aware that companies had joke campaigns around this date. Strange thought. Thank you for sharing insights from different experts in different chairs/positions. Invaluable lessons!

Useful article and thanks for the link to the Daniel Ebneter post where I have commented “I like this logical and clear approach. I suspect it is at odds with 95% of sales/business development strategies. I’d be interested to hear of the strategies of the other 5%.”

I agree with Pinar that these suggestions, especially about customer-centricity and the marketing department being the customer’s representative inside an organization (thanks Charlie) should be for all time. I’d love to see a post about which organisations can set that example.

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