Coronavirus Communication: How Banks Can Take Email to Next Stage

The frenetic early days of the COVID-19 crisis made it necessary to break some financial institution emailing rules to get the word out about how to bank remotely. Now that America is settling into new habits, fresh thinking is surfacing about email and the way to push content to consumers.

For a communications medium that pundits wrote off a decade or so ago, email has proven to be a workhorse for banks and credit unions reaching out to customers during the coronavirus crisis. Email has been the primary means to tell them about branch closings, service alternatives, digital channel access and financial relief efforts.

“Communication is going to be at the central heart of this crisis,” says James Robert Lay, CEO of the Digital Growth Institute, “and a lot of that will be via email.”

The way the industry reached out early on differed from usual financial brand email practices, going somewhat “old school.” But there has been some return to newer ways of using emails and experts interviewed have recommendations for making the best use of this channel going forward.

The Right Tone is Critical

One important factor is tone. Experts agree that brands must avoid any semblance of trying to profit off the crisis and must choose images and headlines for emails carefully.

“Surge,” for example, would be a good word for avoid right now, given its use to describe increasing cases of coronavirus.

In designing emails and websites and posting on social media, institutions have to be extremely careful. “You have to watch what you say and how you say it,” says Lay. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety out there.”

Case in point: Lay says it’s critical that financial marketers remember that they are advocating for a brand and how it can help, not providing news updates. While the various depictions of the COVID-19 virus — those spiky spheres in green or full color —work for news organizations and tweets and posts, they absolutely don’t belong on the coronavirus update page on a banking website nor in an email from a bank or credit union. Yet some institutions have grabbed such gruesome images from stock services and used them prominently in their outreach.

Beyond that, Lay says this is a time to review carefully everything that’s on a website, especially the home page, or in the email queue of the service the institution uses. He points to usages like “making your dreams possible” and says it’s time to pause such messaging. It’s inappropriate for a population potentially in early days of a long siege.

This is a time for a getting a fresh look from someone not in the usual loop before something goes live. McDonalds took some lumps after it began a new social media look that separated the usually overlapping golden arches of its logo. The message was meant to support social distancing, but quickly got tied up in accusations of being opportunistic. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders attacked the company over not paying for sick leave. McDonalds dropped the idea.

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Tips Gathered from Round One

Many of the early emails from financial brands were uncharacteristically heavy on words, according to Eric Fahey, Director, Content & Analytics, at Comperemedia and author of one of the firm’s COVID-19 marketing studies.

Coronavirus email communication Capital One Ikea SECU Barklays

Fahey explains that nowadays financial marketers tend to use images for impact in emails, with a minimum of text. They then use links or action buttons to bring readers to website pages that offer more detail. This is in recognition of the growing use of smartphones to read emails. A long message can run for what seems to be yards on a phone. Even so, that level of detail, all within the body of an email, was seen as necessary in early messaging.

Subject line. Successful subject lines tended to include references to customers.

What the right strategy will be during this unprecedented period will be a moving target. “There will be a lot more adapting to the situation as it progresses,” says Fahey.

Two big-bank emails that Fahey pointed to that had high read rates included Capital One’s “A message to our customers about COVID-19” (43.6% read rate) and Bank of America’s “Important information about the coronavirus” (37.7%) Another that worked especially well, with a 57% read rate, according to Fahey, was Ally’s, with the subject line, “Emergency relief for payments and fee suspensions — an update from your Ally.

Fahey notes in his report that more generic subject lines, though well-intentioned, didn’t pull nearly as well. Two examples are Navy Federal’s “An Update for Our Members: COVID-19” (24.4%) and TD Bank’s “Putting you and your health first” (26.1%).

Coronavirus email communication Bank of Amarica

In some cases subsequent emails featured more graphics and drilled down to specifics on selected services. Bank of America concentrated mostly on mobile banking services in the email at the left, which came out subsequent to the more general “We are prepared and ready to help” message.

Fahey’s research noted that in the latter part of March readership of emails began to fall off, with occasional upticks. Some of the decline may be a matter of volume, as the coronavirus communications were coming at the same time that other financial institution messages were coming through.

“I know my own reaction was, as a consumer, ‘OK, I get it’,” says Michael Bertini, Director, Search Strategy at iQuanti.

Color matters. Beyond the length of messages and subject lines, on websites and emails, Lay says choices of color must be made carefully both in emails and on websites. Pulling up one institution’s website, he notes that the main message on COVID-19 measures is lengthy and appears in white letters on a black background. The combination just looks negative instead of helpful and welcoming, he explains.

Blocks of colors that aren’t jarring can work well, he says, as can working to simplify language and concepts, rather than inundating consumers with detail.

Coronavirus email communication Avidia
Coronavirus email communication Renasant

The Next Stage: Messages that Lighten the Mood

It’s pretty much a given that in the current atmosphere, trying to say something funny in a banking email would be a mistake. But that doesn’t mean that only grim and businesslike is on the menu.

Solarity Credit Union, in Yakima, Wash., started off with the typical detailed email that many institutions were using early on, below right. But more recently Solarity used the email on the left, showing a young mom stuck at home, trying to sip her coffee, while her young daughters use the bed as a trampoline.

Coronavirus email communication Solarity

Both Bertini and Lay thought the “mom and daughters” email was right on — funny is out, but a smile is OK.

“Right now, as a consumer I want you to send me some happiness,” says Bertini. “You need to be a brand that’s uplifting. At some point, you have to turn the message back to being positive again.” Banks and credit unions need to be creating content right now that takes people out of the reality of being stuck at home, he says.

Lay says “we’re all human beings and we’re emotional creatures.” He says an image like the one Solarity chose resonates. Right now, he continues, that image is his wife’s life, as she works to home school the couple’s children. The many other moms at home right now will find the message empathetic.

“People want positive stories and empathy,” says Comperemedia’s Fahey. “But you have to find positive stories that ring true. That’s what’s trending on social media at the moment.”

Personalization and Segmentation Will Improve Relevance

Fahey suggests that as time goes by, financial brands will have to slice and dice their customer bases so the most appropriate COVID-related messages are sent to them. What a brand should be saying to high-balance customers may be very different than the right message for low-balance consumers, he says.

Lay believes that “segmentation trumps frequency” — that is, it is better to get the right message through to a consumer once than to send the same message to everyone multiple times.

One way to segment people beyond the typical demographic and account profile details that Lay suggests is thinking in terms of pain points. Financial institutions offer solutions that solve pain points, so finding out who would benefit can tease out a good sub-audience for targeted emails. One split: salaried workers versus hourly workers.

Lay notes that a many institutions have adopted videos dealing with the coronavirus situation on their websites. This has taken the form of standups by leaders, typically, but for those who don’t think of themselves as communicators, he says a good alternative format is an interviewer/interviewee setup. This can turn something scary into a conversation. Some institution have tried more community oriented videos.

These efforts can be supplemented with very short videos sent inside emails that are recorded for individual clients. A sixty-second message from a business lender to a borrower — basically a personalized video greeting — can add some humanity while many are sequestered.

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A Rare Opportunity Where Content Tops SEO

While search engine optimization is Bertini’s business, he believes financial institutions are now in a very unusual period, where SEO is not as important as content quality and gut-feel relevance. That’s because many more people are at home and are consuming much more web material than they usually have time for.

“If you could put up two new articles a day, this would be the time,” Bertini believes. He says the pause other businesses have put on marketing and other corporate writing has meant that a lot of freelance writers are looking for work, so the labor is available without having to staff up. Right now, he says, consumers want to read more than the news about COVID-19, and posting fresh material now will be an investment.

“Now is the time to build readership,” says Bertini.

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