SMS Marketing During COVID-19: Data and Observations from 700+ Brands
April 16, 2020
Reading Time: 9 minutes
We’re living in trepidatious times. The rules of engagement between customers and brands are being redefined by the global coronavirus pandemic, and many marketers are searching for guidance about what to do next.
The truth is, we don’t really know.
Long before settling down to brainstorm this piece, the Postscript team made a clear distinction about the type of content we wanted to create in response to COVID-19.
After all, there are a lot of things we could comment on:
- We’ve been a fully-remote team since our launch, plus
- Our product inherently provides distant communications between brands and customers.
But we’re not sure if the echo chamber of “remote work tips” and “how to establish work/life balance” and “how to communicate with your team during a crisis” articles actually help. Plus, there are already too many of them.
Our most prominent company value is “customers first” — and this is something our small team truly lives and breathes.
Rather than make predictions or assumptions about what may happen in the coming months, instead we doubled-down on providing real-time help to those displaced by the crisis. In our #DTC4Hire job board, visitors can find over 600 job listings and 50+ available candidates for ecommerce employment.
And next, we wanted to do a look-back on how brands were actually using SMS while faced with issues brought about by coronavirus.
One thing is certain — brands saw it as a way to connect with and deepen relationships with customers: reassuring them, providing resources, and gently reminding them of what they have to offer.
We took a step back and analyzed the messages sent by brands using Postscript.
- How did the messaging change?
- Did brands send fewer or more messages?
- What emojis and phrases did they use?
- How did customers respond?
Plus, we’ve included bonus real-time examples of brands who are acing the customer communication strategy.
Let’s dive in.
Changes in language: emojis, key phrases, and more
There was a strong upward trend in COVID-related words and phrases for campaign messages sent to subscribers on Postscript since the first week of March.
1. 😷 was the top trending emoji in messages.
Other trending emojis?
- ‘🤗’, and
2. COVID-related words and phrases fell into four categories: general support, virus-related advice, virus-related products and industry, and virus-related promotions.
Below is a list of the overall top trending words and phrases (up to 2 words in length) in campaign messages that were sent from early March- early April, as compared to early Feb- early March.
For a word to fall in this list, it must have appeared in campaign messages that were sent from at least 3 distinct stores.
Notice that there are a few other holidays and events mixed in, like Friday the 13th, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter.
‘quarantine’, ‘stay_safe’, ‘together’, ‘therapy’, ‘social_distancing’, ‘stay_healthy’, ‘from_home’, ‘during_these_times’, ‘important’, ‘stay_home’, ‘comfy’, ‘small_business’, ‘hand_sanitizer’, ‘book’, ‘happy_st’, ‘were_offered’, ‘brighten_day’, ‘joke’, ‘announce’, ‘sanitizer’, ‘friday_13th’, ‘from_comfort’, ‘case’, ‘club’, ‘safety’, ‘circle’, ‘practice’, ‘future’, ‘cdc’, ‘feel_like’, ‘payment’, ‘immune_system’, ‘stick’, ‘schedule’, ‘friends_family’, ‘egg’, ‘protection’, ‘staying_safe’, ‘chill’, ‘pray’, ‘subscribe_save’, ‘tough’, ‘happiness’, ‘soothe’
If we further expand the list of trending words and phrases, we discover several different categories.
Uplifting words, words of wisdom:
stay_safe , safe , stay_healthy , during_time , important , during_these , stay_home , small_business , safety , staying_safe , pray , times_like , ensure , forward , continue , pass , continued_support , moment , gratitude , peace , support_during , still_open , crisis , staying_healthy , business , take_care , deliver , provide , team , wanted_let , support , would , say_thank , local , smile
Health practices and advice:
Quarantine , together , social_distancing , comfy , shake , brighten_day , case , practice , theres_no , cdc , feel_like , stick , chill , tough , working_from , summer , inside , stay , staying_home , school , face_mask , joy , anyone_else , current , no_joke , machine , mama , hope_youre , clean , essential , decide , eat , cozy , brand , may , build , fam
Health-related products and industry:
hand_sanitizer , book , reserve , sanitizer , club , future , immune_system , egg , protection , soothe , work , handbag , donate , reason , normal , soap , cleaning , covid , recipe , nourish , worker , yard , shelf , learn , staple , speak , strength , effort , waits_over , every_single , hemp , pet , serve , america , pound , anxiety , daily , routine , virus , certify , focus
therapy , some_retail , happy_st , we’re_offering , joke , circle , payment , subscribe_save, happy_international , favorite_piece , stayhome , code_stayhome , curbside_pickup , immunity_boosting , interest , buck , luck_irish , are_offering , meal , afterpay , shipping , later , pack , freeship , green
Changes in strategy: fewer links, more “checking in”
Since March 8th, nearly a quarter (~23%) of campaigns sent on Postscript were related to COVID-19. This includes check-ins with subscribers, COVID-related information about the store’s operations and fulfillment, and sales of products and promotions related to the virus and shelter-in-place orders.
1. The amount of COVID-related messages grew over time and peaked at the end of March.
Between March 8th and March 15th, 8% of messages were COVID-related.
Between March 15th and March 22nd, it was 22%.
Between March 22nd and March 29th, it was 26%.
The remaining two weeks saw 22% and 23%.
2. 4% of campaigns pledge to donate proceeds to a COVID-related charity.
This compares to less than 1% of non-COVID-related promotions that involve charities.
3. Promotions went down, and “check-ins” went up.
The amount of promotional messages (i.e. strictly communicating a promotion, offer, or incentive) has gone down, with an increase in purely “check-in” messages sent with no shopping link.
4% of campaign messages sent in March contained no shopping link. Instead, they simply relayed information, sent advice, jokes, or other words of wisdom. Out of these no-link messages, 25% were COVID-related.
This is parallel with an industry-wide shift: ecommerce brands everywhere are taking an opportunity to distance themselves from promotions and discounting, instead taking this time to reconnect with customers and offer reassurances.
Here are some examples of messages sent from brands to subscribers about COVID-19 without links.
4. There was still a fair mix between COVID and non-COVID messages.
We took a look at businesses who have used Postscript since before February 2020 to get some historical data about the content of their campaigns.
For those who continued sending messages in March, about half sent ONLY non-COVID-related campaigns, 40% sent both types, and 10% sent only COVID-related campaigns.
In practice, this looks like a brand simply substituting some of their existing promotional messages with COVID-related news and announcements.
Changes in customer responses and sentiment
Bottom line: COVID-related campaigns received better subscriber responses — especially when the campaigns were just checking in or providing information without a shopping link.
The intent behind COVID-related SMS messages isn’t revenue or leads.
Instead, brands want to build relationships and communicate good faith to their customers. These messages aren’t necessarily promoting sales or incentives, so metrics like click-through rate aren’t as important.
Instead, the measure of success should be positive sentiment. Did users respond? And if they did, was it positively?
Based off of the types of responses, we were able to create a proprietary “sentiment score”, which analyzes the wording of responses to understand whether or not they are positive. Here’s what we found out.
1. With regards to customer sentiment, COVID-related campaigns performed better than non-COVID-related campaigns.
There’s a lot to drill down here.
Customers liked hearing reassuring messages and words of encouragement more than the normal hum-drum of promotions.
COVID-related campaigns had a 70% increase in average positive incoming message score compared to non-COVID campaigns.
Here are some of the COVID campaigns with the highest overall positive sentiment of incoming replies. We’ve removed specific identifying links, product brand names and shop names.
Even better than words of wisdom? Pairing up with a noble cause. For stores that sent donation-related COVID campaigns and non-donation-related COVID campaigns in February through the present, their donation campaigns received incoming responses with a 15% increase in average positive sentiment score compared to non-donations.
Here are the donation-related COVID campaigns with the highest overall positive sentiment of incoming replies. Notice how they’re both about selling face masks — which are an in-demand product.
We’ve removed specific identifying links, product brand names and shop names.
Examples of creative SMS during the COVID-19 pandemic
While it remains relatively simple to send a simple check-in message to your customers, some brands went above and beyond to remain on-brand while also helping customers during this troubling time.
Here are some ways we saw brands use SMS as a thoughtful communication channel during the month of March.
1. Oars and Alps pivots to hand sanitizer sales while helping medical workers.
Oars and Alps SMS subscribers can now purchase hand sanitizer from the brand, and proceeds from the sale goes towards assisting hospital workers in Chicago and New York.
2. Summersalt opens up a hotline.
With their new “Joycast” service, anyone can text in to Summersalt to get connected with a customer service rep who will “share some sunshine” — whether that’s a cute YouTube video, self-care idea, or something else.
If the team gets a text or an email from someone that suggests a more serious mental health emergency, a team member will flag it and direct that person to an organization that can provide the help they need, such as the National Institutes of Mental Health.
This new line is run by 17 customer experience employees who worked remotely before the pandemic, and the team plans to keep the line open indefinitely.
3. JUDY gives emergency-preparedness tips.
No links, just advice: the JUDY team remains on-brand while communicating helpful preparedness ideas.
This is directly in line with JUDY’s core mission, says Nik Sharma, CEO of Sharma Brands. “In addition to materials that come with your JUDY, we utilize SMS marketing to deliver tips and local alerts to customers ranging from notifying users when to change their smoke alarm battery to ensuring JUDY customers have an out-of-state emergency contact for when the phone lines go down.”
As a response to COVID-19, the brand has opened up JUDY 24/7 to anyone — not just purchasers. “To respond to COVID-19, JUDY has opened up its SMS alerts, ‘JUDY 24/7’, to anyone. We have increased the frequency of our SMS tips to help families readjust to current situations while making sure they stay as safe and healthy as possible,” says Nik.
Conclusion: What Marketers Should Do Next
Just like the news surrounding COVID-19 is constantly shifting and changing, so are the so-called “best practices” that are being created and followed by ecommerce brands.
A pandemic of this proportion has never happened before — at least since ecommerce came into light — so it’s safe to say that many people are figuring it out as they go.
But the general rules of customer engagement still apply here. The brands that will see success in this time will have gone about their marketing channel strategy in a very intentional way: with clear, empathetic messaging that connects with customers first and sells products second (if at all).
The data leaves little to be interpreted. During these times, it makes sense that clear and friendly messaging trumps promotional material.
About the Author: Corinne Watson
Corinne Watson is a researcher and writer at Postscript. Prior to Postscript, she was on the team at fin-tech startup Skills Fund, then led partner content marketing at BigCommerce. When she’s not content-ing, she is cooking, gardening, or diving into a new book. Keep up with her on Twitter.