21st Jul, 2020

3 Ways to Engage Retail Customers through Language in the Next Phase of COVID-19

During this time of uncertainty, there’s no room for error in messaging. Brands must be on-target and tone-aware to win back customers and retain the new ones who have migrated online. This article outlines three ways retailers can leverage language to engage customers as markets begin to open.

While sales spiked a surprising 18% in May, sales figures are still down year-over-year, and full recovery feels a long way off. Retailers must confront many challenges, including:

  • Navigating the protocols to reopen across multiple geographies
  • Different state-by-state social distancing rules
  • Inconsistent state reopening guidelines

Engage customers where they are in their journeys and meet their needs because customers now buy in different ways. New customers who have been forced online by COVID-19 may be different than the ones who traditionally engaged and shopped online. After acquiring these new customers, onboarding them to the brand is key to keeping them engaged in a meaningful way after the crisis is over. 

1. Use the right tone

How retailers show up to a customer matters. Given the current climate, both the coronavirus pandemic and movement against systemic racism, retailers’ marketing communications must hit the right tone. Balance sensitivity and empathy with performance of communication. During COVID-19, the emotions that engage consumers changed from Attention and Urgency to Trust-based emotions. For retailers, the three most engaging emotions during COVID-19, in order of performance, are Gratitude, Safety, and Intimacy. During this time of disruption and uncertainty, appeal to customers’ feelings of comfort and safety.

2. Personalize effectively and respond strategically

Rethinking communication and personalization strategies is key, as customers’ recoveries are, and will continue to be, uneven and disproportionate. Not everyone will recover financially at the same pace. The ability to adjust your communications to your audience in a way that reflects where your audience is in the recovery is crucial. Be mindful of messaging when some of the audience remains unemployed, while others may be engaging in retail therapy.

Despite the recent uptick in sales data, retailers now operate in a period of constrained communications marked by increased stress on both spending and household budgets, culminating in reduced financial resilience.

  • Use words to thoughtfully and strategically respond across customer need states, channels, brands, and media.
  • Align to what your customers seek: utility, comfort, retail therapy, gifting, etc.
  • Anchor communications around reducing churn, continue to optimize conversions, continue to deliver value across the customer experience, and stimulate loyalty.

3. Experiment, analyze, optimize

The new focus on ecommerce means the ways retailers communicate with customers that shop in-store only versus online-only must change. Physical retail may never return to what it was.

Consider a clothing retailer with a massive inventory challenge. Its dressy and business clothing are no longer in demand, as many people now work from home and avoid large social gatherings. The retailer still needs to move its inventory, but it must reposition its product to match a new need state using the right messaging.

By testing a range of messages across an audience, the retailer can understand what will move the needle within different segments. It might find Intimacy drives its former in-store customers to engage with content online, while Gratitude works best for its traditional online segment. Slight adjustments to language makes messaging resonate better with different segments.

Whether your business has been hit hard or has begun to step on the gas, your messaging is critical, and you must consider it thoughtfully as the retail world enters a new reality.


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