Email Marketing In Tragedy: How to Adjust

The summer of 2011 ended on a string of serious notes for those of us in the Eastern United States: an unusual series of natural disasters, followed by the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

For email marketers, this has raised the question, “If you’re sending email into this region, how should you adjust your marketing?”

A real-time marketing email can be a hugely powerful generator of responses and appreciation. But boundaries are essential. We’ve talked about this before in terms of charity and in terms of holiday well wishing. Now, what’s the guideline for sending when disaster occurs?

Exploiting vs. Honoring

Weather disasters, especially, are easy to joke about – weather’s a common topic, ubiquitous enough for endless small talk. But it’s also unpredictable and occasionally results in tragedy. So if you’re tempted to play off the event with humor, be careful.

For example, this email from Crumbs Bake Shop treads a fine line:

Yes, for most people, the hurricane merely meant inconvenience: maybe some basement flooding, maybe temporary relocation. For them, a cupcake survival kit may have hit the right note. But over 40 people did not survive the storm, squelching the humor here.

Of course, this email was sent before the storm, and the outcome was impossible to predict. The lesson? Approach pre-disaster emailing with caution.

And really? A cruise? Coming from a company that sends sales pitches daily (and nearly identical to this one), the memorial theme feels like a thinly veiled excuse for yet another.

Thankfully and appropriately, overall sending of marketing emails went down that weekend in respect.

It all comes down to whether the email you’d send would truly serve and honor those affected, or whether it’s a trumped-up, thinly veiled excuse to troll for sales. Note that this may mean changes to your regularly scheduled sending.

Taking Stock of Your Planned Broadcasts

What broadcasts were you already planning to put together? Do you have any already queued up to go out?

Straight sales to an area in a state of mourning or emergency could be perceived as insensitive. For example, on 9/11, CVS stuck with their usual discount-based newsletter with no mention of the occasion. Whether or not recipients felt it was out of line, the timing was probably not ideal for an effective reception.

If you do decide to proceed as planned, check your copy – especially if you tend to incorporate humor. Something previously innocent or even funny may now be inappropriate enough to warrant backlash.

For example, by very unfortunate coincidence, Backcountry had planned an email with the headline, “Mother Nature hates you. Deal with it” (meant to sell rainwear) to go out on April 28, 2011 – smack in the middle of a major string of tornadoes in the Southeast.

Thankfully, they followed up with a tasteful apology email.

NOTE: If you generally email worldwide, you may want to geo-segment to make sure your messages are going (or not going, as the case may be) to the affected areas.

Do You Need To Honor the Occasion With an Email?

It doesn’t make much sense to email a simple acknowledgement, much in the same way empty “Merry Christmas” emails aren’t necessarily a good idea.

But there are a few reasons that an email would be appropriate:

1. If your business is acknowledging the event with a memorial occasion, like the Brooklyn Public Library:

2. If you’re changing the way you normally operate due to current circumstances, like Chase, you’ll need to let your customers know.

3. If there’s a resource you can offer that will truly help and is not out of line to suggest. And, in the interest of being truly helpful, can you make it free? Can you donate the proceeds? If you can’t afford to, if it’s really appropriate and really helpful, it may still be okay. But be careful.

What It Comes Down To

If you really can’t tell whether or not to send a particular email, ask yourself:

Did people die in this event (or are they still in danger of dying)? If they did (or are), and their mothers got this email, would they be offended?

What do you think of that as a rule of thumb?


  1. Ted Jee

    10/19/2011 10:52 am

    I feel that it all boils down to genuinely caring for the other party. If we truly care for them, it will show in our messages and they can feel it, and there need not be a guideline per se to hold us within boundaries.

  2. Joy

    10/20/2011 9:32 am

    There has been a growing trend for internet marketers to use the death of Steve Jobs as a marketing opportunity. I found this really distasteful. I posted lots of videos and comments on my Facebook page out of love and respect, but I had a barrage of emails featuring Steve Jobs videos and underneath a ‘buy now button’. Come on guys show some respect, I thought this trend was thoroughly disrespectful and I’m sure lots of other people did too.

  3. CJ

    10/20/2011 9:36 am

    My website promotes meridian energy therapies (similar in a way to the healing meditation message above).

    One of my advertisers wanted to update his workshop listing with a reference to 9/11, but I felt very uncomfortable about exploiting a tragedy in this way to boost workshop numbers (or not – I had a feeling it wouldn’t go down well with my subscriber base). So I explained to him that it wasn’t appropriate.

  4. stevenr hull

    10/20/2011 10:23 pm

    I thank all of you here for reminding us all of compassion for fellow human beings. YES there have been numerous tragidies over the years some more recent than others and sadly there will be more. We need to be aware of the happenings around the world so we can respond in anyway that may assist those in need. If this means pulling back to avoid adding to pain then so be it.
    If you want to help and dont know how, this is the place to come to get some advice on the matter. Ill shut up now with one last thing. The people in these desasters are someones family. Treat them as you would want your love ones treated. BE HUMAIN!!! (pardon my spelling)