Prior to COVID-19 upending life as we know it, each of us was getting an incredible stream of seemingly endless emails, notifications, pushed content, and banner ads that are at the very least confusing in its volume, and at worst annoying and distracting. In contemporary buzz speak, we were unable to separate the signal from the noise because we were overwhelmed by the volume.
But then the coronavirus came along, and the context changed. As more and more information flowed at global, national, and local levels, the reliability of that information and the value of reliable or useful information became a lot more important. It’s what I call an “escalated scenario.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise. An escalated scenario like the global pandemic brings out two very human reactions and desires even more vividly than normal. First, the desire for information. Second, the desire to communicate with others for multiple reasons, among them:
Even more information.
The patterns for both interacting and information-gathering are quickly becoming part of the day-to-day way we engage.
My favorite example of this is Zoom. This video conferencing tool is now a proprietary eponym—as in, “let’s Zoom,” regardless of what kind of video conferencing tool is being used. Within the two weeks of when COVID-19 lockdowns began, downloads of the Zoom iPhone app went from a hefty 50,000 a day to 2,000,000. Five million total users pre-crisis has since grown to 300 million.
Further evidence of changes in our communication habits reported by AT&T highlight our desire for real-time communication amid a sense of urgency:
Voice calls: +33 percent
Instant messaging: +63 percent
Text messaging: +41 percent
Emailing: -18 percent
Web browsing: -5 percent
Video: +4 percent (also accounts for over half of all mobility traffic)
There is one other thing that has to be considered when it comes to engagement during a crisis. We process information differently. According to CDC’s Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) report: Psychology of a Crisis (freely available here), during crises we do four things:
We organically simplify the messages we get—That means that we don’t fully hear what is being said, we don’t remember as much as we normally do, and we misinterpret confusing action messages.
We hold onto current beliefs—Especially when we receive conflicting messages from experts that we don’t know or at least don’t trust, we tend to do whatever it is we always do. It was no exaggeration that the COVID-19 crisis was worse for the fact that people continued to ignore the pleas to physically distance themselves.
We tend to reach out to get even more information—More often than not, we are looking for information that can contradict discomforting information. We also seek out consistency in messaging for taking action.
We tend to believe the first message we hear—It’s our way of filling in blanks we have about “the situation” whatever the crisis may be.
Taking everything into account, there is a lot to both process and a lot to address in how you choose to engage and communicate.
In times of global crisis or even localized emergency, the speed of communications matters as much as the reason for the communication itself. The “new abnormal” as analyst Phil Fersht calls it, drives the form of the communication, the desired response time of the interaction, and the amount of knowledge required to keep the person engaged in what you or they initiated.
The change in context requires a change in how you run your business too—both operationally and when it comes to customer engagement.