In the midst of a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, everything has a caveat that everything could change. How do you communicate and engage with your customers in an environment like this? Moreover, how do you do that responsibly and effectively?
First, you go online: As shelter-in-place orders exploded throughout March, total internet hits surged between 50% and 70%, according to preliminary statistics reported by Forbes, underscoring the imperative that, now more than ever, your website must offer relevant and easily navigable content, including information about the crisis and what you’re doing in the face of it.
And then, you lead with love: Regardless of where you’ve started with these efforts, the best way to now approach your response in this radically shifting environment is to keep your audience’s biggest concerns top of mind (and, as you’ll soon read, top of page).
Genuine empathy for your customers and colleagues should lead your content creation and presentation. If their concerns are unclear, ask them, talk to them and, most importantly, listen to them. Even though many of us are working from home, this is the time to tear down any proverbial walls and address your audiences with the caring tone and direct knowledge-sharing befitting a situation of this magnitude—one that proves we’re all in this together.
Following, we’ve broken down and developed best practices and considerations for the most urgent issues you’ll have when creating a UX that is appropriate and delivering content that is powerful but succinct. Included in these response tips are examples of several brands that are nailing it despite a volatile COVID-19 reality that caught everyone off guard.
The bottom line in moments like this is that letting compassion lead your choices will help keep your company—and all the people who count on it—grounded while the storm rages on.
Create a UX that empowers customers who are feeling powerless
Essential information on how your business or organization has been impacted by the coronavirus should be treated as a site alert. You probably already have one of these, right? Here are some suggestions for making it work harder for you and those you serve.
How prominent should an alert be on our website?
We’ve seen some homepage alerts that don’t look like alerts at all, while others are overwhelmingly brash. You want something in between. The alert should be in the top one-third of your homepage at a minimum, and, if your business is closed, consider a full-homepage takeover. Be sure to check the alert’s mobile positioning and confirm that it doesn’t interfere with mobile navigation.
Should customers be able to interact with the alert?
Your alert content should be brief—with specifics your visitors need right away, like closures or modified hours—and link to another page for more detailed information. If you include the alert on every page of your site, enable the alert to be collapsed or hidden on pages beyond the homepage.
How should we organize the information on our details page?
The top section of your detail page should reiterate the key information from your alert, as well as any additional immediate facts you need to communicate. (We’ve got some considerations for these in the content section below.) Next, provide updates. If you have a single page of content, timestamp each update so it’s clear to users what announcement was made when. With a rapidly evolving situation, this piece is critical. If you have a lot of information to communicate, consider building a hub or subsite with content-specific navigation.
A two-thumbs-up UX example
(Since we can’t give high fives)
Target’s corporate homepage immediately and directly references the coronavirus pandemic. It prominently features links to its hub of updates. Related stories take up the entire top portion of the page. The consumer site also features a prominent, timestamped link to help customers navigate to the resource hub.
Target’s COVID-19 response hub is located on the site’s Brand Purpose & History section, making the content feel more substantial than if it were presented as a news “story” or leveraged in an article of disparate resources. Target also makes the hub easy to find, linking to it from the homepage and inserting it in the nav sidebar. The hub’s layout implements a user-friendly content and visual hierarchy.
Bonus points: The branding efforts on the hub page don’t feel contrived (no one wants to be marketed to in these spaces). The Target Bullseye logo shows up in places it would be expected, like the photo of an empty store interior and the greyed-out store locator tool; in the other place it appears on this page, the logo is paired with a heart to visually demonstrate good intent, evoking a feeling of camaraderie instead of ad fatigue.
Provide content that’s easy to understand even though the situation isn’t
Let’s dig into what you can say on your website’s detail page or subsite to offer clarity and confidence during a time that’s inherently confusing.
What should we communicate to our audiences as the situation unfolds?
Though your content will vary depending on your organization and industry, an effective details page will address the following topics.
- Status: Are you open? What products, goods or services are available or not available?
- Impact: How has your organization been affected by the pandemic? Have there been any surprising effects that you should share with customers (e.g., slower streaming speeds, longer wait times or delays in supplier shipments)?
- Critical disclosures: Is there any data you can and should provide? Is there any direct impact that you need to report, such as employees who have been affected?
- Mitigation: If customers will be interacting with your physical space or members of your team, what steps are you taking to keep everyone safe? If you have limited products, goods or services, what adjustments or changes have you put in place?
- Progress: Are you working on anything that will change what you have in place right now? When do you expect to have these changes in place? What next steps are you prepared to take if necessary?
- Rationale: Why have you taken these steps? Why are you asking customers to use one resource over another?
- Monitoring: Who are you in contact with regarding future changes to the above? What organizations, government agencies, declarations or policies will determine future changes to the above?
- Support: How are you supporting team members who are high risk? What are you doing for team members if you’ve been forced to close? What are you doing for your local community to help? How does your empathy extend to others beyond your company?
Do you have suggestions on how to best message these topics or examples of how others are doing it?
We have both! Here are key writing tips for each topic, followed by a few examples from major brands.
- Status: Be specific and concise.
- Patagonia: “To do our part to protect our community, we have temporarily shut down all our operations in North America, including orders on our website.”
- UPS: “Within the U.S., UPS is designated among the government’s critical infrastructure and, therefore, continues to operate. The Novel Coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented complexities, which have required us to constantly reassess our operations. Our highest priority is to help ensure the health and safety of our employees, customers, and suppliers.”
- Impact: Describe how you’ve been affected in relatable, human terms.
- Netflix: “The COVID-19 crisis has meant that thousands of our customer support agents are unable to work or are now having to work from home. So our wait times are higher than normal. We’re working hard to provide the best support we can under the circumstances, and apologize for the delays you are experiencing.”
- Zappos: “Like so many of you, our Zappos Family is made up of working parents, community members, and people just trying to navigate a new normal. Here’s what we’re doing to reduce the coronavirus spread, while working hard to continue to WOW our customers, vendors, and employees. … In full transparency, and likely similar to your city, our schools have closed. That means if you call our newly working-from-home customer loyalty team, you may hear our children in the background. Possibly our pets too. Please be patient with us as we adapt to this new normal.”
- Critical disclosures: Be as transparent as possible with any data or reports, even if the information could be upsetting. (Remember: Put humanity first, brand later.)
- Giant Eagle: “Like other essential businesses, Giant Eagle has received confirmation of positive COVID-19 tests among some of our Team Members, and it is likely that in the coming weeks we’ll learn of additional confirmed cases related to Team Members and guests. … Below, you will find a list of recent confirmed instances Giant Eagle has been made aware of regarding a person testing positive for COVID-19 being in one of our stores.”
- Mitigation: Provide real examples of safety or support measures and level-set expectations.
- Walmart: “We found a new solution to help associates clean carts quicker and more thoroughly, making them ready when customers need them. Stores will soon start using the Hart brand two gallon sprayer kits we currently sell in stores to sanitize the whole cart. For stores that don’t have this sprayer, we plan to start shipping them out this week.”
- Netflix: “We’re now offering live chat and online Help Center support only globally. Shifting to chat instead of phone support allows our agents to help more people while working from home. We know this is less convenient for some members, but we will be able to help more people more quickly this way. Given the shortage of agents, we’re also having to reduce our support hours. This will vary depending on the country you’re in and as we experiment with what works best given the current crisis. Your support is very important to Netflix. So we’re sorry for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience while we work through these issues.”
- Zappos: “With the spread of COVID-19, online shopping continues to rise dramatically. As a result, our shipping promises will show longer than you normally expect. As of now, we consider our fulfillment teams to be business critical, and they continue to work 24/7 to make sure your order arrives as quickly as possible. For our employees’ safety and yours, we’re taking extra precautions with additional cleaning and sanitation in our fulfillment centers. We will continue to try hard to ‘Deliver WOW Through Service’ (Zappos Core Value #1), even in the toughest times.”
- Progress: Give details about what you’re working on now and include a prospective timeline.
- Taco Bell: “At this time, Taco Bell restaurants are also evaluating business hours and operations based on many different factors. For instance, some Taco Bell restaurants will stop serving breakfast beginning Wednesday, March 18, for the time being and open at 10 a.m. to serve the balance of [our] day menu.”
- Walmart: “Walmart has started installing plexiglass barriers (sneeze guards) at our pharmacy lanes (both Walmart and Sam’s Club) and will install these guards at the regular Walmart registers over the next two to three weeks.”
- Rationale: Explain why you’ve made certain decisions and what will guide your decision-making in the future.
- Delta: “…In order to assist those with urgent requests, please contact us only if you’re traveling in the next 72 hours.”
- FedEx: “The impact of COVID-19 is causing local, state, and national governments around the world to issue work and travel restrictions on a daily basis, which are impacting our ability to meet our high standards of service. As a result, we have made the decision to suspend our money-back guarantee for all FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Freight and FedEx Office services effective immediately until further notice. Because FedEx is an essential transportation service provider, we will continue operating as government restrictions and regulations allow.”
- Monitoring: Address who you are turning to for further support and why.
- Delta: “Delta has launched a cross-divisional COVID-19 command center with key leaders and subject matter experts so we can nimbly respond and communicate with employees about evolving CDC and WHO guidance. General updates and role-specific guidance are being provided to employees regularly.”
- UPS: “Effective March 26, 2020, and until further notice, we have suspended the UPS Service Guarantee for all shipments from any origin to any destination. As the effects of the coronavirus impact our infrastructure, we will continue to seek guidance from local, state, and national government entities to ensure that we fully align with their regulations. We are committed to continue operating globally except where constrained by government restrictions.”
- Support: Tell the story of how this crisis has inspired you to support your teams, local communities or world.
- Starbucks: “Starbucks announced it will offer free coffee to front line responders through May 3.”
- Target: “In order to serve the countless families shopping at Target each and every day, our team needs to be able to care for themselves and their families. On top of the $300 million+ team investment and paid leave we’ve already committed to, we’re also setting aside dedicated time for our store and distribution center team members to shop for essentials, such as food, baby products and medicine.”
- Zappos: “Every employee from marketing to our customer loyalty team (call center) is able to access the programs they need to do their work seamlessly, including video conferencing, phone systems, email, chat, and 24/7 I.T. support. We’re also giving employees internet and cellphone stipends, as well as any desks or monitors needed to do their job.”
A two-thumbs-up content example
(Since we still can’t give high fives)
Delta’s homepage immediately acknowledges what many users are visiting their site for: to make a flight change or cancellation. The red alert button gives this content the visual weight it deserves, while remaining within brand color boundaries. The left-side alert content is uniquely informative, outlining who should call them and when, and it provides an alternative method for less urgent questions. This alert content also states that there will be no flight cancellation or changes fees for travel through a certain date, instantly alleviating tension or anger that customers are likely to bring to the site experience.
The airline’s coronavirus travel updates page keeps the vaugeties to a minimum and leverages the subheadings to connect, inform and support. The accordion dropdowns are helpful for presenting a lot of information without overwhelming an already overwhelmed customer; accordions are a strategic option for companies that have a wide range of audiences coming to their site with many different kinds of questions, versus a company that only needs to answer a few. Finally, the scannable, bite-sized chunks of content help the user help themselves (which in turn helps Delta’s busy teams).
How can we communicate to our internal audiences that “we don’t know” and “anything could happen” without setting off alarm bells?
At Modern Tribe, we’re very lucky to benefit from our remote work structure, but a situation of this scale and global impact is going to affect everyone. We’re no different. It’s important to us that our colleagues are all aware of what’s going on (we really value transparency here), so our leadership created a model of three different horizons to try to make sense of this new reality:
- First horizon: Totally nuts. This is today and the immediate two- to three-week period. Describe how the immediate chaos has impacted your company-wide workflow and define what questions remain.
- Second horizon: The fallout. This period is potentially Q2 (April–June). Describe how you intend to weather the storm based on the information you have now, as well as the questions you will ask once everything settles.
- Third horizon: The recovery. This timeline could be Q3 on. Describe what it could take to return to some form of normal.
We then communicated these horizons and their implications to our team via an intranet blog post and recorded video message of one of our partners talking through this information, a personal touch that was important for us to demonstrate that we’re showing up for our teams and we’re “physically” here for them if they have questions.
Support your audiences beyond the basics
We’ve used household-name corporate brands as examples in our answers above, but these principles are relevant to everyone and every website. At Modern Tribe, we’ve taken these COVID-19 corporate response tips to heart and applied them to digital experiences that complement and extend the necessary, straightforward crisis response.
For example, our Products team over at The Events Calendar created a robust hub of resources for event managers—their core customer base and a group of people affected deeply by the current onslaught of cancellations and universal wariness to make concrete plans.
This resource hub bridges the immense gap the coronavirus has placed between event planners and their customers. It highlights helpful extensions for their calendar plugins, corralls useful blog posts into one easily accessible spot and alerts visitors to an informative webinar with insights on how to optimize their work for virtual events.
Through this resource hub, The Events Calendar is taking empathy for their audience to the next level, helping them brace for the future by serving up answers they do have now. When tomorrow’s details are murky, empathetically approaching what’s needed and what’s known today can light your way.
Today’s major challenge could be tomorrow’s big win.
Even though everyone is hustling to keep up with the latest changes, it’s encouraging to know that we’re all in this together. We have an opportunity to use our roles in the digital space to support our communities in new and more impactful ways. You’ve probably already had to move mountains to get critical updates live on your site, and now might be a good time to step back and refine.
We’d love to help you brainstorm new plans to pivot your strategy and get new tools in place for your people quickly. Feel free to reach out to our leadership team at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll set up some time to chat.