The Inbox Doesn’t Know the World Is Falling Apart

Marketing is hard enough without the uncertainty of macro disruptions. But lately, the threat of a macro disruption seems to lurk behind every corner. Natural disasters, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war, a tweeter-in-chief who can send the stock market in one direction and the media echo chamber in another with 140 characters or less.

Marketing is hard enough without the uncertainty of macro disruptions. But lately, the threat of a macro disruption seems to lurk behind every corner. Natural disasters, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war, a tweeter-in-chief who can send the stock market in one direction and the media echo chamber in another with 140 characters or less. Each day, we wake up, check the internet, and wonder what new tidal wave of chaos will wash over us. But for retailers, what we really want to know is how to prepare for a holiday season where chaos threatens commerce?

The good news is that people are more resilient to macro events than we think. You may have heard that gun sales, for example, went up after the 2008 election. That’s true, gun sales really did surge after Obama won the presidency, but a deeper dive into the data reveals that guns and ammunition sales always go up after Democrats win national elections, just as alcohol sales spike whenever Republicans win. In other words, no matter how dire an election looks to one side or the other, we tend to revert to predictable shopping patterns in the immediate aftermath of even the most contentious elections. Retailers can leverage that resiliency by turning to their most resilient channel — email. Not only does email have unparalleled economies of scale, it offers retailers value beyond mere promotion, particularly if they’ve built messaging portfolios that are flexible enough to adapt to changing macro conditions.

Consider a 2012 JetBlue campaign that promised to send more than 1,000 customers to the international destination of their choice, if their candidate lost the election. Obviously, JetBlue found a clever, bipartisan way to tap into a common sentiment — if the other candidate wins, I’m leaving this country! But the real genius of the campaign is the flexibility; it would’ve worked regardless of the outcome. Even in a Bush vs. Gore scenario, JetBlue could have spent the ensuing 37 days of legal wrangling emailing participants cheeky messages about their uncertain travel plans. So how might retailers use JetBlue as a template for making sure that their holiday plans are resistant to macro disruptions?

Start by making a list of the disruptions. Don’t leave anything off because you think it’s unlikely; in fact, if you can think it up, assume it can happen. Then work up responses to add to your messaging portfolio. For U.S. retailers, Mexico is a gold mine. However, given the public cracks in America’s relationship with its neighbor, a retail messaging portfolio is incomplete without something to say in response to a possible change in cross-border commerce. Likewise, every retailer knows that the fight over an online sales tax has been reopened. Retailers have machine learning tools that can generate new offers under a new tax regime, but that’s all the more reason retailers need to be prepared to deploy messaging on the fly should such a scenario present itself. Along the same lines, retailers must also prepare for an even bigger shift if net neutrality goes away. One possible scenario is that retailers might want to drive consumers to visit the store again because the physical experience will look a lot better compared to a potentially slower, less efficient and costlier online shopping experience.

Recently, some brands demonstrated their communication resilience. Ahead of Hurricane Irma, Verizon and AT&T notified customers that they would add more data to existing plans or simply not charge for text or data overuse for the next week. Airbnb tackled an even greater challenge by reaching out to hosts who might be willing to donate housing to evacuees, and then connecting those strangers in the chaos of a hurricane. Like everyone else, AT&T, Verizon and Airbnb certainly were planning something else the week that Hurricane Irma struck, but they were nevertheless prepared to meet the chaos of a macro disruption because they had built resilience into their communications portfolios.

There’s an old bit of wisdom about resilience that says, “humans make plans and God laughs.” The lesson isn’t to forsake planning, but rather to be humble enough to stay flexible so that you can change your plans as the facts on the ground change. This is good life advice, but it’s also good advice for retailers, especially as we approach the holiday season. Something big may very well disrupt your plans, but if you’ve built resilience into your email messaging portfolio, you’ll be ready to respond no matter what.