Coronavirus Has Opened the Corporate Email Floodgates

Maybe it was that one store where you shopped while on vacation a few years ago, or perhaps that online service that you used just last week, but it’s all the same message: Businesses have flooded everyone on their email lists with coronavirus updates, tips on staying healthy and words of encouragement — much to people’s dismay.

“Thanks to the Insta ad that lured me into buying a pair of everyday/gym-to-office/rugged/softest/all-weather/spill-proof/hidden pocket pants for sending me 6 emails to let me know how their company is dealing with #coronavirus,” one user said on Twitter.

“Is anyone else now only realizing how many company email subscriptions they’re part of? Thanks, company I booked a gig ticket through five years ago, I’m glad you’re also disinfecting your offices #coronavirus,” said another.

The email deluge, which quickly became a running joke online, raises questions about marketing practices as nonessential businesses closed shops and storefronts amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“The basic element of crisis communication is that you should say something,” said Hilary Fussell Sisco, an associate professor and chair of strategic communication at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

The emails can be an effective strategy, she said, but it depends on the person receiving them — someone who last ate at a restaurant in 2007 might dismiss its message, but a person who orders delivery twice a week will be looking for that information.

There’s also a reputational side to it, Dr. Fussell Sisco said.

“It’s not just that I don’t want to order anything from you right now, or you’re going to be closed,” she said, adding, “Are you somebody that I want to buy from again, once all this is over, because of what your practices were?”

Some messages have included details from companies on how they’re weathering the pandemic and whether they will continue paying or providing benefits for their workers — business decisions that some consumers value more than a good sale.

“Unless your company is emailing me to tell me how you’re paying your employees and contractors during this time,” one user wrote on Twitter, “I do not care for your coronavirus marketing email one bit.”

Michael Wentz, the director of digital marketing at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., said companies that were sending out emails with facts about the pandemic, as well as their responses to it, were demonstrating great social responsibility.

That, he said, gives consumers “a better understanding or appreciation for that company because they felt the need, even though they’re not obligated to and it’s not in their purview to be giving me that information.”

But the message can be easily muddied, so businesses need to make sure their emails are cohesive and stick to one message, Mr. Wentz said. In other words, avoid dropping updates about your staff in the same email in which you send out a coupon code.

David Hagenbuch, a professor of marketing at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., said companies needed to do some soul-searching before hitting the send button.

If a restaurant, for example, has “very important health and safety reasons for sending the email then those motives are pretty legitimate,” he said, warning that customers know when a company sends an email just for the sake of sending one.

“Consumers are increasingly savvy,” Professor Hagenbuch said. “As we read these emails, we can tell pretty quickly if one is being sent with the former types of reasons in mind, our health and safety, versus ones that just come across as kind of disingenuous. They’re just trying to roll with the tide.”

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