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Business Interruption

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Tone-Deaf Marketing During a Crisis

Over the last few months, businesses have had to rethink many of their strategies, including marketing. Read tips from JAMS Chief Marketing Officer Mark Smalls on how to avoid the pitfalls of tone-deaf marketing during a crisis. He offers his perspectives on what marketers can do to stand out from the crowd and how to reach the right targets.

When a phenomenon disrupts the business world the way the COVID-19 pandemic has, some companies attempt to pitch solutions in hopes of hitting the right target at the right time. However, without understanding the mindset of the consumers you are trying to reach, those efforts can do more harm than good.

The Problem

Since early March, I have received more unsolicited emails and calls than ever before. Initially, the majority of this outreach pertained to products and services that would allow my team or company to work remotely more efficiently. The specific offerings ranged from consulting services to software to webinars. The one thing they had in common was that they were untargeted and did not take into consideration my organization’s specific needs. Additionally, most reflected a lack of understanding of my particular role.

This increase in solicitations has resulted in a corresponding increase in my hitting the “block sender” button. Consequently, not only were these vendors unable to move me along the sales funnel, but they have lost the ability to reach me in the future. This is the ultimate blow to a marketer, especially one that relies primarily on electronic outreach. Perhaps some companies frame their marketing efforts in terms of volume, so they view “unsubscribes” as part of the process. If that model works for your business, great. But it can be a dangerous strategy. I think of unsubscribes as a slow leak. You may not feel the boat sinking, but eventually you, or someone you work for, will notice the boat taking on water.

During times like these, the decision makers within organizations that vendors and agencies are hoping to reach are busier than ever. We are hyper-focused on surviving, if not emerging stronger on the other side. Any email that appears to be extraneous is deleted because most of our inboxes are filled to the brim with messages of competing importance. That is not to say we aren’t open to innovative solutions, but they need to be targeted to our particular need or challenge.

The Solution

What should marketers consider given that business development efforts must continue?


I was recently part of a discussion about marketing a service to schools and school systems. While the service had value in normal times, we quickly realized that the focus of our target was on providing remote learning, ensuring the well-being of students and figuring out when schools might reopen. Realizing that our message didn’t pass the relevancy test, we decided to hold off.


Assuming your subject line is targeted and relevant, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that you understand that the recipient’s business model has been altered, the supply chain is potentially disrupted and that their staff is over-taxed. Rather than use the “should we schedule a meeting” approach, it might be appropriate to go with the softer sell of “we’re here to help when you’re ready.” However you choose to display empathy, it is important to consider the next point.

"Assuming your subject line is targeted and relevant, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that you understand that the recipient’s business model has been altered."


An email I recently received opened with the following: “First and foremost, hope you and your family are safe. I know that my senior business development director has been in touch with you over the course of the last several weeks and months. He asked me to reach out to you as you develop your new normal.”

So they gave empathy a shot with that first sentence, followed immediately with an abrupt pivot to sales mode. Yes, that email got deleted.

Contrast that with this email: “Hi Mark, I hope and pray that you and your family are doing well. I wanted to reach out to you, not to pester you about discussing about our services, but to just check in and see how the current state of affairs is affecting your business. Are you still able to operate? Are you facing any challenges servicing your clients or having resource issues? We might be able to help you. Here's to hoping that all of us can work through this disruption as quickly as possible and stay safe in the process.”

Even though I was pretty sure it was a boilerplate email, I appreciated the tone of it. Rather than delete this email or mark it as spam, I parked it in my agency folder, where I can find it when I have a need.


There is a major law firm that has been sending me emails about webinars and other information that is actually relevant to some of the issues and opportunities we are discussing at my organization. However, due to the volume of emails I receive (several per week), I will probably unsubscribe.

I believe that the multiple-communication-channel, multiple-message strategy rarely works. When I see or hear the words “I’ve tried multiple times to reach you,” there is an excellent chance that that person never will.

Finding a Strategy for Success

The good news is that challenging times like these do indeed represent opportunities for savvy marketers. Companies and managers certainly have needs; in fact, their needs are particularly well defined. However, racing to be the first to reach their inbox is not a strategy for success. Instead, smart marketers will do the research and then select the appropriate channel, timing and tone to stand out from the opportunistic crowd.

Mark Smalls oversees marketing and communications strategy for JAMS globally and provides leadership to the managers tasked with business development responsibilities. His extensive marketing background includes advertising, branding, market research, public relations, website development and online marketing. Smalls currently chairs the JAMS Diversity Committee and serves on the JAMS Foundation board.

This article originally appeared on Strategies+ (, the official blog of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA). View the article and more here.  

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