What marketers can learn from media coverage of COVID-19

The following is a guest post from Ben Lack, founder and CEO at agency​ Interrupt Media. Opinions are the author’s own.

The news media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot to teach marketers about how to turn prospective customers into paying ones.

While many of us in marketing struggle to convince prospects to do what we want — buy our products or services —the media has skillfully led its consumers through the coronavirus “customer journey” with impressive results.

In just a few weeks, Americans went from knowing nothing about COVID-19 to taking actions, some requiring personal sacrifice, to slow the spread of the virus. Media reporting was a key factor, influencing and shaping this journey using the very techniques that many marketers struggle to master.

In doing so, the news media demonstrated an uncanny ability to put itself into its customers’ shoes — essential for leading a journey of any kind. Then, news reports shifted in tone and focus as needed to evoke the responses the media wanted, following the very template marketers should know by heart.

These techniques work. Using them, the U.S. media caused responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to change over a short time. Its coverage of the crisis, which convinced an entire nation to take desired actions, provides a roadmap for marketers, as well, showing how we can lead prospects to the purchase of our products and services.

Step one: education (top of funnel)

Simply creating awareness of COVID-19 was the media’s first focus in its coverage of what would become a global pandemic. Most people had never even heard of the virus, so educating them was key. Early news reports addressed basic questions including, “What is coronavirus?,” “How does COVID-19 differ from the seasonal flu?” and “How can I avoid getting infected?”

Likewise, when marketers push out a message to position our clients or ourselves as thought leaders, we must first know precisely what we want to say: what we want to teach our target audience. Our content may be largely educational in this early phase, intended to create awareness of the problems our products and services can help our target audience solve.

Retrieved from Vox on May 29, 2020

Gaining trust via early adopters

Many in the U.S. felt skeptical, at first, about COVID-19’s potential to do them harm. As a result, few took precautions against it in the early weeks after it landed on our shores.

To counter this skepticism, the media issued warnings, reporting on the virus’s devastation in Italy and other countries, and hammering home the message that the U.S., too, could experience widespread suffering and death. And yet many remained unfazed, perhaps because Americans’ trust in the news media is very low.

So news outlets strived to build trust by turning to a segment of whom we in marketing are well aware: early adopters. People who had already taken the actions the media was encouraging — frequent hand-washing, self-isolation — began appearing in news reports. Journalists described how these early adopters’ actions were helping to slow the novel coronavirus’ spread.

The media knew, as marketers do, that those who take heed of early messaging and become converts can be powerful allies in the ongoing campaign to attract others to a cause or brand.

Retrieved from CNN on May 29, 2020

Step two: using numbers and experts (mid-funnel)

Awareness of COVID-19 wasn’t enough to convince everyone to practice social distancing to avoid the virus. So the media turned to more persuasive fear-based messaging, including stories about the virus’s effects on individuals and groups.

Once the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, the media stepped up its efforts even more aggressively. Coronavirus-related content now focused on virus-related facts, figures and opinions from subject-matter experts (doctors, professors, specialists, thought leaders) and authority figures (mayors, governors, government health officials). To bolster these opinions, news outlets offered statistics on the virus’ spread and effects, including the rising death toll. Their aim: to convince their audiences to take the recommended actions to stem the COVID-19 tide.

Looking at headlines from those middle weeks, we can see that once the media used numbers and experts to convince audiences to take preventative actions, they started doing so. Governments began ordering more COVID-19 tests. States declared emergencies and lockdowns of businesses and their populations. Companies began sending workers home to do their jobs.

Similarly, once marketers have helped our target audiences to understand why they need our clients’ products or services, our next step should be to use thought leadership from experts and influencers to show why taking action is the right thing to do.

Marketing’s goal is always to inspire action. If awareness and education don’t do the trick, it’s tome to follow up with proof statistics and expert testimony in support of your brand.

Of course, you must enact this strategy with delicacy. Hit too hard, and your audience may tune your message out or turn away altogether. Speak too softly, and you risk failing to convey the urgency that incites action.

Step three: proof and case studies (bottom of funnel)

To reinforce a point, nothing works better than a true-life tale. Reporters often back up statistics with anecdotes depicting real people’s experiences. They know that the brain is wired for story. The caveat is this: We relate best to stories about people like us.

Early reports on the pandemic described it as dangerous, but indicated that senior citizens faced the highest risk of death, by far. Therefore, spring break 2020 saw young people crowding Florida’s beaches as usual, seemingly oblivious to the likelihood of catching COVID-19. Soon afterward, however, many of these young people fell ill.

Retrieved from CBS News on May 29, 2020

Within weeks, Florida and other states that had thought themselves far removed from the pandemic’s reach saw surges in their infection rates. The U.S. became the country with the highest number of cases worldwide. As the media reported these statistics, many states that had delayed mandating prevention measures began doing so.

Behavioral science explains why anecdotes help to convince people to do certain things: we possess an innate “herd” mentality. We can best persuade others to take action by showing them that their peers are doing so. For instance, a story about someone in our town or neighborhood staying at home to avoid spreading COVID-19 will make us more likely to do the same.

Anecdotes, use cases and case studies reinforce our marketing messages, as well. These stories act as a coup de grâce, driving home the point to the target customer that they need us now. This is where the customer journey ends: with our brand, our product, our service and our customers knowing that they’re on the right path — with us guiding them every step of the way.

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