Segmentation & Targeting During a Crisis


Segmentation & Targeting During a Crisis

Erin Blake

By now, you’ve likely got a handle on crisis communication content and tone. You know to be empathetic and to avoid even a suspicion of opportunistic behavior. You’ve communicated what you are doing to keep your customers and employees safe, and made sure customers are aware of any changes to regular operating procedures. Maybe you’ve even made donations to a local charity or partnered to provide assistance to those on the frontlines. You’ve created new content to help people beat the boredom that set in less than a week into social distancing. You’re checking all the boxes…but have you thought about your segmentation strategy?

But First: A PSA on Full List Communications

After airlines and hotels began sending COVID-19 specific communications in mid-March, the floodgates were opened, leading to a deluge of “Your health and safety is our top priority” emails in the inboxes of consumers across the globe from seemingly every brand they had ever given their email address to (and quite a few that they didn’t even know had their addresses). Not only was this an annoyance to customers, it could have seriously impacted brands’ deliverability scores as they were sent to a wider audience, likely decreasing engagement rates and potentially dinging them with bounce backs or delivery to spam traps. 

As a general best practice, you should avoid a full-list blast under almost all circumstances. Instead, take care to only target your active customers. What that means will depend on your buying cycle and list hygiene practices, but a general rule of thumb would be to suppress customers who haven’t purchased from you in 6-12 months or who haven’t engaged with your emails in 18 months.

Given all of this, it may be tempting to avoid emailing customers at all, especially if your business is closed for the foreseeable future and there’s no online component. Don’t give in to that temptation! For one, you want to keep your IPs warm for deliverability purposes as discussed here. For another, one of the biggest learnings from the Great Recession is that brands who continued to market through the recession bounced back much more quickly than brands who paused their marketing efforts1, 2. Instead of going silent, consider using dynamic content or send separate emails to those audiences, rather than a mass email saying what you’ll do for multiple groups of people. After the flood of generic messages they received in March, customers will appreciate something that is actually relevant to their situation.

Why Your Segmentation & Targeting Might Need a Refresh:

1. Customer Behavior Has Shifted

Social distancing/self-isolation has been an ENORMOUS lifestyle change and brands need to ask themselves if their old segments are still relevant. Previously differentiating activities, behaviors or attributes may have merged across segments now, or tensions and differences inherent across segments may not be applicable or relevant in the current environment, necessitating a change to the current segmentation strategy. 

Further complicating your targeting strategy is the fact that channel usage has shifted. With many people stuck at home and stores across the country shut down temporarily, people are shopping online more frequently. Streaming usage is through the roof, and people are even watching more linear TV3. 

With people online at all times of the day/night right now, it could very well throw any time of day or day of week insights that drove your pre-pandemic usage insights out the window. All of this to say, the BAU strategies driving where you typically target your segments may no longer be accurate.

Beyond changing consumer behavior, we have also seen brands scaling back spend, particularly in paid media4. Brands who still have budget to play with would be wise to look at this and ask, are channels that were previously too expensive to play in suddenly viable?

2. Consumers Have a Whole New Set of Needs 

In addition to completely upending how consumers are navigating day-to-day life in general, the coronavirus pandemic and corresponding economic uncertainty has forced everyone to reassess their needs and priorities for the near-future. They are postponing large purchases and instead focusing on the essentials for survival and sanity (and, yes, all the toilet paper they can get their hands on)3,5. 

Beyond that, social distancing and the great remote work and school experiment has opened up a whole new set of customer needs that need to be fulfilled, not least of which is a need for distraction. Most importantly, people are overwhelmed right now, and the last thing your brand wants to do is add to or exacerbate that. How you are saying something is important, but so is who you are saying it to, especially now. Some people may not want to hear from you at all right now. Consider giving them the option to pause communications for 30 or 60 days as a way to give them space now without forcing them to unsubscribe completely. 

And for those that do want to hear from you, take extra care to be relevant during this time. Before hitting send on that email, brands should ask themselves the following questions, and remove any customers for whom the answer would be “no”:

  • How has your customers’ emotional state and associated needs shifted, and are you in a position to meet some of those needs?
  • Do your customers need information -- and are you in a position of  authority to provide it in this circumstance?
  • Can you help provide a distraction from the boredom and anxiety self-quarantining has caused?
  • Can you help your customers maintain some semblance of normalcy in the day-to-day lives of their families?

3. A Brand New Target Customer Emerges 

An unfortunate reality of this crisis is that some of your current targets may not be viable at all, necessitating brands to get a bit creative with their products AND targeting to get them through this crisis. Locally, we have seen restaurant distributors in Atlanta pivoting to sell directly to consumers as restaurants either close or cut orders drastically. To that same end, some restaurants like Panera are now operating as pop-up grocery stores, helping to fill the void left by a shortage of delivery spots from Amazon and Instacart.

These new targets and strategies may be temporary in nature, and as lockdowns are lifted brands will pivot back to their core customers. But perhaps a silver lining of this entire calamity is that a new audience could potentially become a viable long-term priority for your company and continue to drive revenue in a post-pandemic world.

4. Location Targeting: Now Very Important 

Each town/city/state/country is currently operating at different levels of containment measures, and your company needs to adjust accordingly in order to provide contextually-relevant information to each customer. As we move into early recovery stages, social distancing guidelines, travel bans, etc. are not going to be lifted all at once worldwide, and it will be important to keep customers informed of changes to your business in their area. Utilizing dynamic content based on customer location will be crucial to make sure you are communicating the right information in the right tone to your customers.

5. Targeting Impacted Customers During and Beyond Coronavirus

Much has been written about the collapse of the travel industry in the wake of the pandemic. As concerns and travel bans spread, thousands of travelers were in the headache-inducing situation of having to cancel multiple flights, hotels, and car reservations. Call centers were flooded, and with wait times climbing into the tens of hours, brands like Delta proactively reached out to customers with information on how to cancel online and asked them to refrain from calling unless their flight was within 48 hours so as to help the customer service team help those individuals in a time crunch. These companies did a commendable job given the circumstances. 

Now that things have calmed down (relatively speaking), brands in a similar situation can plan for the next crisis by creating a new journey or automated series that can be activated to reduce anxiety around the cancellation process. By reaching out proactively, you can encourage the customer behavior you’d like to see, disseminating information about how to cancel online and thus helping the phone reservation volume, or suggesting a timeframe for how far out to cancel, if there’s an ideal time frame for your business. 

Taking that a step further, the customers who were forced to cancel plans can be targeted once we enter the recovery phase, with communications encouraging them to rebook when they are ready. Coupled with location-based targeting for both departure and destination , brands can determine the ideal time to reach out to each customer with cautiously optimistic messaging.  

While this is most applicable to travel brands, this same logic can be applied to anything from big-ticket purchases that were put on hold to loyal customers who suddenly cancelled an auto-ship order or really any customer whose engagement with your brand fell off around the time this crisis hit.

6. Empathetic Targeting Around the Holidays

Given COVID-19’s high mortality rate among older adults, marketers might want to reconsider their approach for potentially sensitive holiday communications this year, particularly Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Depending on the average age of their customer base, brands should consider either proactively reaching out before the holiday to give customers the ability to opt-out from holiday-specific communications or holding off on those campaigns altogether. Because this is such a highly emotional time for so many people, it is preferable to err on the side of caution and lead with empathy rather than being perceived as insensitive to the heightened sense of loss that may come with these holidays this year.

A Final Note: How Long Is This Going To Last?

Another month? Three months? The rest of the year? No one knows exactly, and most days the situation changes by the hour. That’s why it’s imperative to remain flexible and to continually re-assess customer communications. Another thing we don’t know? What the lasting impact is going to be on consumer behavior. Will some of the new behaviors learned during this time stick? Absolutely, but probably not for everyone. Will the coronavirus accelerate the adoptions of behaviors already on the rise, like grocery delivery? Again, almost positively, but they’re not going to make previous behaviors such as going to the grocery store obsolete. 

All of this to say, any segmentation and targeting changes you make today may be something that you carry over into your post-virus marketing strategy. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, you’ll likely need to refresh your targeting again post-virus, and it will probably need to be a mix of your previous segmentation, your virus segmentation, and some new segmentation that reflects a world in recovery. The world is upside down until it isn’t, and the best we can hope for is to do our best to be nimble and pivot accordingly.







Erin Blake

Erin Blake

Associate Director, Connections Strategy

Erin is an Associate Director in Connections Strategy at Digitas Atlanta. 


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