by Tiffany Markman (@tiffanymarkman) Here’s how to ensure that your organisation’s corona-era emails aren’t tonally insensitive, bandwagonny and opportunistic, incomprehensible, or just plain random.

I don’t know about you but, even with things starting to settle down, I’m receiving unbelievable volumes of messaging right now. Newsletters, press releases, webinar invites, vouchers, special offers, and plain ol’ emails — between brands racing to assure me that they’re still up and running, and businesses informing me of their stringent sanitisation regimes, I can’t even. My not-inconsiderable standard deletion levels are running sky-high. So, if you’re communicating with your audiences at the moment (and you should be), here are some tips on how to stand out from the noise.

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#1. Be sensitive to tone

South Africans love a meme. Be warned, though: Irreverent jokes and edgy humour have their place but not in every piece of content.

“Read the room, so to speak.” —Rebecca Sentance, econsultancy (2020)

It’s also a good idea to review any upcoming campaigns or automated email flows in light of the pandemic: Are they still appropriate? Do their tone, imagery or themes have any unfortunate implications? Are there jokes that might fall flat? Can you better tailor the copy?

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re offering a discount right now, or free shipping after the latest liquor ban ends. Making the discount code “COVID19” or “coronavirus” is… yuck. Do better.

Here’s another: I received a mailer from a US-based copywriter I admired, with the subject line, “Use this or you’ll die.” She went on to shoehorn that subject line into her messaging like this, “Not to use fear tactics on you, but If you’re not using this practice, you will die. I’m so kidding! But not really. If you don’t use it, you’ll die on the page. Or your words will. They’ll be dead to us. In fact, we won’t even notice them. So yeah.” I’ve unsubscribed from her list. I have a pretty dark sense of humour, but this subject line is too cheap a shot — even for me.

  • Hot tip: Get as many people as you can, from all levels of your organisation (not just your team), to ‘sanity-check’ every piece of key content for tone, before you send it out.

#2. Simplify. Then simplify again

Keep it simple. Then make it even simpler. Use clear, precise language and easy-to-scan formatting such as bullet points and bolded heads and sub-heads. Use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs — especially at the points of greatest complexity.

“Think of the period as a stop sign. The more stop signs, the slower the pace, which is good if you are trying to make something clear.”—Roy Peter Clark, Poynter (2020)

As a rule, the more technical the issue is, the simpler the writing should be. The less time you want your reader to spend reading, the more time you must spend writing, too.

Here’s an example: We tend to feel very smart when we use phrases like “self-isolate”, “flatten the curve”, “aerosol transmission”, “PPE”, “immunocompromised” and “intubation”. But most readers are overwhelmed and would prefer a concise message in plain English.

  • Hot tip: There is one thing that has become absolutely clear in covering the pandemic: You cannot overuse the question-and-answer format. FAQs for the win, people.

#3. Make it matter

People have email fatigue.

Ensure that any info you’re sharing is actually useful by revealing how the reader can use it. Perhaps there are tweaks you can make to your copy to make it more practical? Maybe you need to rethink your email strategy? Whatever you do, don’t create more waffle.

Here’s an example: Unpack the specific measures you’re taking to keep your consumers safe and explain how these are helping the situation. Inform them of how service is being impacted, and what that means for them. Is there a helpline they can call? Is there a website or webpage with more info? Don’t expect them to make logical leaps themselves.

  • Hot tip: Ask your community for input. To get a better sense of what their customers actually wanted to hear, sustainable clothing company Reformation sent this email to subscribers with a note asking what it should be talking and posting about (McPeak in Klaviyo, 2020):

Reformation mailer to client base during covid-19

#4. Avoid the temptation to ‘weigh in’

Brand opportunism and jumping on the bandwagon are always dodgy but this is one time they’re going to be viewed particularly poorly — especially with all of the social media warriors and mob justice police at home and online. Watch out, companies! You could be cancelled.

If you’re making contact with your customers, say something they’re not hearing from anyone else, or say it differently to the way everyone else is saying it. Otherwise, sit down.

Here’s Campaign Monitor’s five reasons why you might need to send corona-mail (2020):

  1. You have useful, meaningful, accurate information to share
  2. You have customers that may be more sensitive to the crisis (let’s say you’re in healthcare, mental health, or essential services)
  3. You have physical locations
  4. Your services have been impacted or altered in some way
  5. You’re doing something specific to help your customers during this time.

Here’s an example: Resist the urge to use the pandemic to re-engage a tired mailing list or lure old customers back to your brand. That’s gross. At best, customers will feel unsettled — where the hell did you come from? — and, at worst, they’ll be turned off completely.

  • Hot tip: When you’ve said your piece, just stop and let people get on with their lives…

See also


Tiffany MarkmanTiffany Markman contributes the regular column, “#WritersBlock”, to In it, you’ll find writing-and communication-related raves, rants and the occasional reality check. Tiffany’s a corporate copywriter, writing trainer and keynote speaker who’s worked with over 400 top brands in the last 15 years but she’s most proud of knowing the true meaning of the verb “revert”. She loves art and black coffee. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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