Lessons for communicating with customers

Communicating with customers in the time of COVID-19: Real-time lessons from consumers

  • molly friederich
    Molly Friederich
  • Apr 02, 2020

Efficient, welcome, and valuable customer engagement matters in every situation, but none more so than a global pandemic with customers prioritizing every moment of their time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked a sample of U.S. consumers about their experiences and their communications preferences.

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Just as consumers are adjusting to sheltering in place, working from home, managing homeschooling, and navigating previously benign tasks like buying groceries, companies also face a myriad of unknowns. It’s not business as usual, but one thing is certain: customer engagement is just as important today as it was before COVID-19 began its spread.

The question is how to engage. To learn more, Twilio asked a sample of US consumers what their experience has been, and their preferences. We heard from 244 Americans distributed across age groups, gender, and regions to help inform thoughtful, consumer-first engagement.

Consumers value critical updates, but also expect leadership from companies

We asked respondents to tell us what they want to hear from the companies they value. The most compelling option, rated as “high” interest by 53 percent of respondents, was critical updates about material changes to availability of their products and services.

  • “My rec center and library told me they were closing, which was helpful. The library also detailed their policies on checked out items, late fees, item holds and other things, exactly what I needed to know.” - 30-44 year old male
  • “Capital One has been very reassuring. That they would find a way to work with anybody that needs help that made me very comfortable and I appreciated it” - 45-60 year old female

However, as the frequency of these critical updates slows, consumers still have a strong desire for engagement. Messages with inspiration and strategies to stay safe were ranked of high interest by 37 percent of consumers, particularly when those recommendations are grounded in the company’s particular area of expertise.

These messages show consumers that the company is attuned to their experiences and focused on relevant advice and even offers.

  • “[I valued] memos from Ahead Inc. [a health, educational, and agricultural non-profit] about coronavirus and how to prevent and/or deal with it.” - 60+ year old male “[I appreciate] messages relating how they are keeping me and their employees safe” - 60+ year old male

Another valued message type, ranked of high interest by 32 percent of consumers, is information about companies’ charitable activities related to coronavirus, or avenues for consumers themselves to take action. This shows that in times of need, companies are going out of their way to be a part of the solution. When consumers may feel lost as to how to help, actionable tips are appreciated.

  • “[I appreciated communication from ] Harbor freight about how they are donating their stock to medical professionals.” - 45-60 year old male
  • “I’ve seen Facebook posts of companies putting their normal production on hold to make things necessary for medical emergencies. This will change things. Be part of the change.” - 30-44 year old female

Of course, it’s important that any messages you’re sending around COVID-19 are targeted and purposeful. If you have any doubt about whether you’re adding value to the lives of your recipients, rethink what you’re sending so you don’t strike an inauthentic chord.

  • “Updating status during the outbreak seems like a publicity stunt” - 18-29 year old male “[I’ve been put off by] Unhelpful or minor promotions that are not helpful during this time. - 18-29 year old female

Perhaps most risky is conveying information that consumers will perceive as mishandling the crisis or sharing inaccurate information.

  • “Quit trying to get people to go out and shop. I’ve seen companies offering bonuses for buying a lot of products. Stay home! This should be what they are telling people ‘stay home’. I know people need things right now, so these companies need to distribute the goods door to door and get a tax write off later or institute a ‘pay what you can’ model for certain goods. We’re all in this together.” - 30-44 year old female
  • “[Company name omitted] company president doesn’t care about workers, only his bottom line. Never will shop there again” - 45-60 year old male

Communication type and percentage of respondents that rank each as "high"

  • Critical updates about what I can expect from an individual company—I want to know if they’re closing or offering alternative ways to continue to engage—53%.

  • Inspiration and strategies to stay safe and healthy based on a company’s area of expertise—I’ll take any and all ideas to ease the stress I’m feeling—37%.

  • Information about charitable actions companies are taking (or opportunities they’re providing me) to support others during this time—I appreciate companies that are community-minded—32%.

  • General messages acknowledging COVID-19 and offering well-wishes or support—it’s nice to know companies I care about also care about me—27%.

  • Normal promotions and communications that I’d expect prior to COVID-19—small moments of normalcy are comforting right now—26%.

Consumers don’t want companies to go radio-silent

The data shows consumers expect to hear from you at this time. Less than 8 percent of respondents said they “don’t want to hear from companies at all right now.”

At this stage, 45 percent of consumers prefer to hear from companies sparingly when there are critical updates. Somewhat surprisingly, 47 percent of consumers say they want to hear from companies either with the same frequency as before COVID-19 or more frequently given how rapidly things are shifting.

There is also variance in what frequency of communications different age cohorts prefer. For example, 18-29 year olds were 40 percent more likely than all other ages to say they want a normal cadence of communication from companies. 30-44 year olds went a step further and were 27 percent more likely to want an increased frequency of communication. On the flip side, 11 percent of 45-60 year olds said they prefer not to hear from companies at all, making them 37 percent more likely than other groups to bristle at communications. These insights are a helpful starting point to audience segmentation.

There are clear preferences for where consumers want to be reached

Companies have more digital channels for communication at their disposal than ever before. Knowing the channels your consumers prefer can matter as much as the content itself when it comes to achieving engagement.

Overall, consumers prefer email by a wide margin. Sixty-seven percent chose email when asked how they’d like to hear from companies, which was 22 percent higher than the next most commonly selected option, social media updates (45 percent).

As a channel, email lends itself well to empathetic and clear communication. It’s also easily archived for future reference, something that’s reassuring in times of change. Social media allows consumers to be in charge of the companies they are pulling information from. This autonomy is particularly valuable when so much feels out of our control.

This reinforces findings from Twilio’s recent Global Consumer Engagement study that 83 percent of consumers prefer companies to communicate with them via email. However, in that same study, consumers were 2.5x as likely to prefer text messaging over email when communications are urgent.

A great example of one such use case is a doctor’s office alerting patients that they’re cancelling appointments. Sending this information directly to a consumer’s phone, where it will see a 98 percent open rate, is in the best interest of your contacts.

Rest assured, your consumers want to stay engaged and informed

While it’s imperative companies revise their communication strategies at this time, it’s equally important to make sure you’re staying connected. Despite being in the thick of the flood of COVID-19 messaging, when asked how often they’ve felt annoyed by communications they’ve received, 73 percent of consumers said never, rarely, or occasionally.

The key is to bring thoughtful intention to every message you send, and to monitor engagement across opens, clicks, and replies to know what’s working—and to create segments of your audiences to reflect their unique communication preferences.

Discover the tried-and-true best practices for engaging your customers, now and into the future, with the free on-demand webinar.

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molly friederich

Molly Friederich

As a Sr. Product Marketing Manager at Twilio, Molly explores what problems customers are working to solve. She uses her customer research to guide positioning and go-to-market strategy for solutions that serve marketers and the developers they partner with to engage their own customers.

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Molly Friederich