Winter Storm Nemo: Newsjacking & Ad-Hoc Email Templates

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Call it the blizzard of 2013, the first Nor’easter of the season, or winter storm Nemo. Whatever it was hit pretty hard here in Boston. The effects of the storm have included a driving ban, a parking ban, our public transit system being shuttered, power outages, two feet of snow, flooding, and even a couple unfortunate deaths. First and foremost, from all of us at Litmus, we’re sending positive vibes to all those negatively affected by the storm—you are all in our thoughts.

Secondly, being the email marketing geeks that we are, we noticed plenty of storm-related emails over the weekend. Between small businesses communicating that they’re open (or closed) and larger corporations taking advantage of the weather to boost sales, we saw quite a bit of email activity. While some businesses turn to email in an effort to support their communities, you might argue that others are simply newsjacking.

EMAIL: THE PERFECT URGENT COMMUNICATION CHANNEL

As ExactTarget’s Kristina Huffman explains, “email is especially important in times of emergency. It is practical: it’s a robust and mobile-accessible channel, perfect for emergency communications.” In her post, Kristina advocates for the use of ad-hoc email templates for situations where communication is key, but going through the approvals process would derail any chance of deploying a timely message. When a disaster or major event, such a snowstorm, is about to hit, there may not be time to design a new email and get it approved; ad hoc templates eliminate this issue.

Plenty of brands have been the subject of criticism for their email response during natural disasters. According to HubSpot (and David Meerman Scott), newsjacking refers to “the practice of capitalizing on the popularity of a news story to amplify your sales and marketing success.” Big events, like a storm or the Super Bowl, give marketers a unique opportunity to benefit their businesses (and, hopefully, their customers). So, which companies “newsjacked” the recent snow storm? And which ones did so in a tasteful way? Let’s take a look.

NSTAR & National Grid

NSTAR & National Grid (local utility companies) sent out similar, text-based emails. While NSTAR’s was sent before the storm hit, National Grid’s was sent afterwards.

This NSTAR email is loaded with tips and advice. They draw attention to their contact information by using a bold font and underline in case subscribers experience an outage. In addition, there is a bulleted list with tips on how to properly weather the storm, such as making sure you have an adequate supply of medications and to save the power on your phone.

NSTAR adds a little personal touch in the email, too: “Most, important, please stay safe…please know that NSTAR is ready for the storm and will work around the clock to restore power to your home or business.” This shows that NSTAR really cares about their customers. However, the email ends on a negative, closing with “Please do not respond to this automated e-mail.” While the rest of the email is so caring and helpful, by ending the email like this, I definitely question the authenticity of the message.

Similarly to NSTAR, National Grid’s email is text-based, caring and helpful. This email was sent after the storm; it offers tips on how to avoid a gas leak and carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as steps to take if you do suspect one of those instances has occurred.

While I’m sure National Grid is covering themselves by offering these tips, it’s still a very helpful and informative email. In addition, they end on a high note, “Here with you. Here for you.” It makes subscribers feel as if the company they are working with actually cares for them and helps create a relationship between brand and consumer.

OkCupid

While this email ties the storm into its design, I believe that it was just a simple image swap on a pre-designed template.

The timing and strategic use of customer data for this email is fabulous. It was sent at the peak of the storm while it was still snowing, with a preheader that mentions the subscriber’s location: “It’s snowing tonight in Brookline!”. OkCupid states that their stats show that more people sign into the site when there is bad weather (hello, a huge storm is happening as you’re reading this!) and encourages them to sign into their accounts and start messaging with someone special. They are already at their computer (or on their mobile device) and are likely snowed in, so what else is there to do? While the content of the email is short, it’s really effective in getting users to log in to OkCupid.

LOCAL BUSINESS UPDATES

One of the greatest attributes of email is being able to reach your consumer anywhere they are — whether at their desktop while at work, or on their mobile device while they’re walking or sitting on the couch. You are always in contact with your subscribers! As a result, sending an email is the perfect way to let your customers know about important updates, such as closings, openings, cancellations, and transactional information. We received a few of these emails during the storm.

Back Bay Yoga Studio

This email from a local Yoga studio informs students on the studio’s schedule after the storm. While many establishments in the city would still be closed (and public transportation running with limited service), Back Bay Yoga Studio would be open — although on a limited schedule. This email is informative while being subtly promotional. By Sunday, many people were stir crazy and looking for any excuse to get out of the house — perhaps a yoga class would be a perfect activity!

Dave’s Fresh Pasta

This email was sent Saturday to inform customers that despite the massive amounts of snow, Dave’s Fresh Pasta shoveled out their store and are open for business. They even include a picture of their shoveled storefront — a nice personal touch.

Crazy Dough’s Pizza

It doesn’t get much simpler than this. Just a quick note from our local pizza chain, Crazy Dough’s to-the-point headline, “Boylston, Harvard & BC are OPEN today!,” clearly states the purpose of this email — they’re open! They also provide a link to order online in order to pick up or receive delivery. Many places weren’t delivering this weekend so this is an added bonus and selling point!

Ticketmaster

This was definitely the most boring email of the bunch, but a necessary one: Justine’s concert has been rescheduled! While this email looks like it was typed up and sent using Outlook, it conveys the purpose of the email in a simple and effective manner.

THE PROMOTIONAL

Express

This email was sent Saturday, February 9th, while the storm was just tailing off, so the snowflakes in the design of the email definitely would have caught the subscriber’s eye. Also, the animated GIF in this email is really catchy — when the subscriber opens the email they see a city with a few snowflakes and then once the animated GIF gets going, the entire city is a whiteout — similar to what happened in Boston!

However, like many retail emails, Express is using any excuse they can get — in this case, a snowstorm — to have a sale. Tasteless? Maybe a little bit.

Comcast Cable (Xfinity)

Another fantastic animated GIF can be seen in this email from Comcast — look at the snowflakes falling in the window! Like Express, this email is definitely promotional, however, Comcast relates it to the event at hand, so it seems a bit less ‘cheap.’

Since many people were snowed in as a result of the storm, movies and TV were probably two of the top activities that people turned to for entertainment (if they didn’t lose power), so Comcast used this knowledge to their advantage. The theme, “Snowed In & Snuggled Up” is cute and the provide a list of movies & TV programs that are available for viewing on XFINITY On Demand. If I had to guess, this email was designed in advance or as soon as meteorologists started predicting a storm. It’s just too well-designed, well-written and otherwise well-thought-out to assume otherwise.

Shaw’s Supermarkets

This email from Shaw’s is definitely one of my favorites from the storm. It was sent on Wednesday night (two days before Nemo hit), which would give shoppers about a day and a half to get their essentials before being snowed in!

Not only was the timing perfect, but the content of the email is great. While the email is obviously promotional, it’s not obnoxious and the content is actually very helpful and practical. Shaw’s provides a shopping list of storm essentials, such as flashlights, batteries & bottled water, as well as the option for subscribers to create their own list. While Shaw’s is, undoubtedly, trying to get shoppers to purchase from their store, they do so in a very subtle way, which makes this email a winner in my book. This is another one that was probably pre-designed and ready to go, just in case.

YOUR DESIGN AND MARKETING TAKEAWAYS

  • Have a handful of pre-approved email templates ready to go for a variety of situations. Flexible, simple templates work well and can be adapted easily.
  • Unless you have practical or helpful information to share, consider staying quiet during crises. Or, consider offering a simple message of support.
  • There are some cases where specific industries and likely (although unplanned) events work well together. The emails from Comcast and Shaw’s are great examples. There’s no reason why these companies wouldn’t anticipate a snowstorm at some point this year, and have a plan in advance of how to handle these unique opportunities.
  • Consider the value to your subscribers of sending a message. If it’s likely to benefit you more than it benefits them, maybe that’s a good sign the message isn’t in good taste or appropriate.

DID YOU SEE ANY STORM-RELATED EMAILS?

We’d love to hear about any storm-related emails you received! What did you think of them? Were they practical and useful, or tasteless and promotional? Let me know in the comments section below.