04th May, 2020

Language That’s Working Now: How COVID-19 Changed the Way We Communicate

When it comes to customer-centric messaging in the age of COVID-19, the name of the game is balancing empathy and performance.

No brand wants to come off as opportunistic and tone-deaf when customers are struggling. Yet businesses depend on sales and cash flow to function and pay their employees. 

What’s impactful now is less attention-grabbing language and more care-focused language.

But which words strike that balance? Which phrases convey trust and safety while still engaging consumers? To answer these questions and understand how the response to language has changed since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Persado Content Intelligence team examined the messages our clients sent between March 15 and April 15, 2020 and identified the most and least successful approaches and emotions. We compared that dataset to December 2019 to see what changed.

The content that works now is quantifiably different from the status quo for brand communications. Examples like “A new age of self care,” and “We will take care of you, so you don’t need to do anything,” capture that friendly and appreciative tone of voice that defines intimacy and gratitude – two of the highest performing emotions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today’s high performing messages invoke strong Trust-based emotions

Former high-performing sentiments of Attention and Urgency from December 2019 are now among the least effective for generating a customer response. Also out are techniques like all-caps, exclamation points and superlative language. What’s impactful now is less attention-grabbing language and more care-focused language.

Now is the time to show customers how you are here for them, versus just saying “we’re here for you.”

A note about Safety language

Safety is the go-to emotion for most brands, because it’s the most straightforward and easy-to-digest way for brands to convey Trust. (You don’t think of Gratitude and Intimacy as Trust-builders right away, but as you can tell from the data, these emotions are at the very top — e.g. “Hi, checking in on you” (Intimacy) and “Thanks for your patience while our stores are closed” (Gratitude) are more expressive ways of building a relationship.) And on top of that, due to Safety’s popularity — every single brand has some form of messaging that says “we’re here for you” — the impact of vaguer Safety concepts has fatigued from overuse.

With any emotion, if you don’t use it in the right way, then it doesn’t perform well, even if it’s a high performer.

What brands should do now

1. Acknowledge the present

Self-aware messages are rising in popularity, as brands look for ways to express gratification or intimacy in ways that respectfully acknowledge the present. Examples include “Zoom-Worthy Tops” and “Soft, comforting fabrics.”

2. Offer an escape

Brands are leaning into the current digital reality by presenting online shopping as a special moment of self-care that melds respectful, intimate humor with honesty. Examples include “Welcome to shopping, couch edition” and “From our laptop to yours.”

3. Stay positive

People want to be reassured that things will go back to normal, so consider language that offers comfort and even permission to step away and decompress. Examples include “A bit of good news” and “Permission to disconnect.”

4. Be transparent

As the crisis progresses, brands now should shift to the specifics of how they are supporting customers and protecting employees. One insurance company delivered automatic 15% policy discounts to all renewals as a way of showing how they support customers. An example is “We will take care of you.”

About the analysis:

Persado analyzed 408 campaigns across 247 language explorations encompassing 32,753 message permutations comparing December 2019 and March 15 – April 15 2020.


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