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Three Marketing Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

by Bill Gassman  |  October 30, 2012  |  2 Comments

In late October, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and impacted millions.  It was not a surprise.  The weather service reported on it for over a week.   Predictions for landfall and impact had high confidence for days and, in hindsight, were very accurate.  Everyone learned about the power of nature, but for digital marketers, there are additional lessons the storm leaves behind about the power of technology.

  1. Change your message and delivery channels to match the context
  2. Use predictive models to give you an alert and time to prepare
  3. Track your campaigns from inception to impact in real-time

The first lesson is to be agile enough to advertise when and where context changes.  This gives you a chance to accelerate the positive and damper the negative.  People in the track of the storm, or engulfed in any episodic event, change their interests, media habits and search engine key words.   This is no time to take a week to plan a new marketing campaign.  Your search engine and social marketing content, along with budget reserves, should be on the shelf and ready to go operational during predictable events.  With a little tweaking for context, you are ready to get your message delivered to an episodic audience.   In this case, storm name, intensity, path and impact were the context variables.  For many, this is obvious.  The advertisements for property insurance got a bit old, but it was interesting to watch how fast the US presidential campaigns shifted to less negative messages.  With a bit of innovation, anyone can ride the wave with a bit of contextual branding or product promotion, and measure the results.

Second, recall the words of George Box, who is quoted as saying “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.   Without models, few would have predicted the storm would make a left hook and hit New Jersey.   After several models converged on the same conclusion, officials and individuals acted with faith in technology, and spent millions of dollars to reduce loss of life and property damage.  Just 14 months earlier, models for Hurricane Irene weren’t so accurate.  People in NYC prepared for a degree of impact never realized but the false alarm turned out to be good rehearsal for the real thing.

Modeling tools for marketers are plentiful, and useful, even if the resultant models are not as complex or as accurate as weather models.  Not every campaign will meet the forecast, but many will.  The skills to build multiple models, know which ones to trust in different situations and act quickly on prescriptive advice gives an organization a competitive edge.    The next time there is a significant weather event, dig deeper into the discussions from the weather service.  Their lingo will teach you how to turn models into forecasts.

Finally, realize the value of real-time information.  There is a resolution gap between what is happening and what happened.  During an event like Sandy, there is a flood of information, such as predicted path, current wind speeds, evacuation notices, traffic jams, water levels and people’s reactions.  Information is on the news, social networks and is the topic of daily conversation.  Oh yeah, you can look out your window too and get to clean up the damage first hand.  There is no better time to get a sense of what is happening than during the event.  If you want to understand the history of Hurricane Sandy, sure, you can find lots of information, but it doesn’t unfold in a way that gives you the same sense that you get while following what is happening.  Living the moment, enhanced by real-time technology, is a new wonder of the modern world.

The lesson for digital marketers is two-fold.  First, build real-time monitoring into your campaigns.  Watch them as they unfold.  Be aware of the publishing schedule, customer reaction and social discussions, along with the weather, news of the day and your colleagues’ reaction.  You will never have a better time to learn the nuances of marketing than while living it live.  The second aspect is to publish in real-time if it is relevant to your audience.  Video may be better than text, so understand the optimal channel and media type mix, and ensure your publishing operations is ready to go.

Category: digital-analytics  digital-marketing  digital-marketing-programs  social-marketing  

Tags: digital-marketing  hurricane  political  predictive-models  real-time  sandy  weather  

Bill Gassman
Research Director
15 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Bill Gassman specializes in helping marketing leaders manage, measure and optimize their Web, mobile, social and search marketing programs. For more than 15 years, he has advised marketing teams on how to use technology ... Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Three Marketing Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

  1. Bill Gassman says:

    This post triggered an internal discussion thread with my colleague and fellow blogger, Allen Weiner. We felt it was worth posting the highlights here as a comment to the blog.

    Allen pointed out an article from The Wall that described Twitter outrage directed towards American Apparel and the Gap, based on advertising in the context of Hurricane Sandy. We found another article from HubSpot, asking the question “Is NewsJacking Hurricane Sandy Right or Wrong”, and pointing out many examples of what the author considered news-jacking. Most of the examples didn’t seem that bad to me, a minor recipient of hurricane damage, but to twist a phrase, personal taste is in the mouth of the beholder.

    We ask ourselves the question, how would you know what is appropriate. There seems to be a fine line between actions that work well and those cause problems. Since the risk of a social faux pas is high, and the rules are vague at best, we suggest that peer review and sign-off be part of the campaign process, from someone with experience and perhaps some social scars.

    There is no stealth way of testing such a real-time concept given the virality of the web. (Is there?) Can you shut down after 20 minutes if your real-time analytics tell you (based on sentiment and response by identified influencers) that you had a bad idea? The barn door closes quickly when you enter the social world.

    We also wonder what the extent of negative sentiment really is, versus the impact of the sale. A few noisy tweeters may not represent true sentiment – although if picked up by a news outlet, the amplification may have lasting effect. If a news-jacking campaign works by raising sales and brand awareness, perhaps the final result is worth the risk, at least to some organizations.

    Taking a step back (which is difficult) from the fact that Hurricane Sandy is a force of destruction, some major events can be positive ones (landing on the moon), some have winners and losers (the presidential election) while others have elements of tragedy. In this case, it was smart for major daily newspapers on the East Coast to suspend their pay walls during the storm to make access to news (when delivering a print paper is out of the question). Given that even those who are not subscribers to the newspaper’s digital service leave a trail that leaves valuable usage data behind, this not only amplifies a newspaper’s local ties but has a business upside.

    What do you think? What do you do to pre-judge the tone of your comments around an event that impacts millions? Is news-jacking ever a valid strategy?

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