At 2:50 p.m. on Monday, April 15, the first bomb exploded at the Boston Marathon, just two short blocks from my Boylston Street office.
Our city was instantly plunged into a situation filled with tragedy, anger, confusion and sadness, and we became the latest destination to be jolted by the misguided acts of others.
As everyone’s attention shifted to the horror that was unfolding, it was startling to experience how marketers continued to sell to me, despite the crisis that engulfed me and my city.
Mixed in with the immediate avalanche of emails I got from family, friends and colleagues wanting to insure that my staff and I were safe and unharmed were numerous marketing messages that couldn’t have shown less concern.
Just two hours after the explosion, Delta decided it was a good time to send an email alerting me that I could add 40,000 bonus miles if I signed up for their Gold SkyMiles Credit Card.
Less than three hours after the bombing, a resort in Colorado, where I had once stayed, decided it was the ideal opportunity to email and ask that I stuff the ballot box by voting for them in the Condé Nast Reader’s Choice Awards. A request that even in the best of times feels a bit like cheating.
That same night, just eight hours into the tragedy, Fairmont Hotels wanted me to know that “The Early Bird Catches the Worm.” Its email featured the smiling, happy face of a young child (in stark contrast to the devastating news that one of the bombs’ early victims was an 8-year old) and invited me to enjoy up to 25% off or a free night if I took advantage of their special summer offerings.
Of course, this complete lack of awareness wasn’t reserved for just travel advertisers. Five hours after the bombing, Amazon thought I might like to shift my attention from that day’s horror and rate my experience buying some items that now seemed even more trivial and meaningless in the wake of what we were experiencing.
All of us in Boston were reeling from what had transpired, yet many marketers appeared oblivious -- a pattern that didn’t improve as the ensuing days turned into more tragedy, culminating with a complete lockdown of the city as authorities pursued and captured the suspects.
Throughout this ordeal, the emails came. One after another. All ignoring the extraordinary crisis and marketing to me as if it was just another ordinary day.
It was disappointing to see how incredibly impersonal and unsophisticated marketing remains, despite the abundance of technology and the hordes of data that should make personalization and relevance the norm. All of these brands had my home address in downtown Boston or my office address on Boylston Street, but it mattered little.
Although I am a repeat customer of all these brands, the truth is that I’m just another record in their massive database. And not a well-managed database, at that.
In the midst of the crisis, the only brand that I regularly do business with that seemed to grasp the enormity and importance of what was transpiring was JetBlue. In a simply worded email, sent Monday night less than six hours after the bombing, JetBlue wanted me to know, “Our thoughts and hearts are with all of our customers and crew members in the Boston area, especially those who have family or friends affected by today’s events. Our No. 1 concern is your safety, and we are waiving any change fees for travel. If you are planning to travel please check jetblue.com for the latest information.”
With one simple gesture, JetBlue signaled that they know me. It had some empathy and concern for what all of us in Boston were going through. Just as important, it was prepared to stand by us and immediately assist in a way that was important as we all struggled to get our lives and city back to “normal.”
Nothing can ever fully prepare you for this kind of tragedy—but you must have some kind of crisis communications plan in place to deal with the impact it has, not only on your business, but on the lives of your customers. Here are some initial things to consider—and I encourage others to post their experience and advice as well:
Boston Strong has become a rallying cry for our city, and we’re proud of the incredible way everyone here has pulled together.
Unfortunately, there will be other tragedies that we’ll all need to deal with—both natural and man-made—and the need will always be there for our country, our cities and our citizens to be fully prepared to prevent and deal with the inevitable crisis.
So, too, must your marketing.