War and Piece (E-mail Piece, That Is)

I remember sitting in my office at the advertising agency where I worked when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, an event followed by the Persian Gulf War in 1991. For almost two weeks, as people tuned to their TV sets for minute-by-minute coverage of the war, our direct marketing business all but came to a screeching halt — consumers obviously weren’t going to buy new cosmetics or plan a vacation with the uncertainty of war looming.

Flash-forward to the present. According to a well-respected think tank, war with Iraq in the near future is pretty much a certainty. I personally think, based on events in the UN, war could come as early as the beginning of March. It may even have started by the time you read this column!

But this discussion isn’t about whether you’re in favor of war. It’s about the reality that no matter what your stance, you’ll have to make some decisions about your email business if war breaks out.

How do you make that decision? To start, think back to what you did after September 11. Did you change your emailing practices? Did you somehow incorporate a reference to September 11 in your emails? Did you stop emailing altogether?

What did you do, and what effect did it have on your email response rates?

Of course, a full-scale war with Iraq isn’t the same as the attacks on that fateful day. But depending on what happens and how it plays out, it could have a major impact on the direct response business, including email. People might not react in the same way they did when World Trade Center was hit. A war thousands of miles away is a lot different from giant buildings falling in one of America’s most populous cities and the loss of thousands of lives.

Quite possibly, the closest analogy would be the Gulf War, as I mentioned above. This took place thousands of miles from the U.S., and, although there are differences, the two may be analogous enough to draw parallels. Except for one thing: There wasn’t an email business back then. And it was a conventional war, with guns and tanks. Weapons of mass destruction were not a looming threat, at least not at the level of today.

With the exception of the families and friends of those on the frontlines (and my prayers go out in advance to each and every one of them), most Americans will follow the war via TV and other media, but their lives probably (hopefully) won’t be affected greatly. Assuming the war stays in Iraq and nothing happens on U.S. soil, we can expect, after a brief pause, people will continue to work, pay bills, and enjoy life as much as possible.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, advertising and email were affected for a couple of weeks as the nation was mesmerized by the tragedy and ensuing rescue and recovery attempts. Commercials were pulled, postal mail campaigns were put on hold, and many email marketers took a pause. Of course, some companies profited by selling patriotic products and services.

But when the focus shifted to the war in Afghanistan — far removed from our homeland — things began to return to normal. In terms of general advertising, direct marketing, and Internet marketing, things have rebounded even as action in Afghanistan continues.

You see, even in times of war, people have needs and wants. They need to eat, though they may not dine out as often. They want to be entertained (maybe even more), play sports, watch games, and shop. So with the exception of a relatively small percentage of the population whose loved ones are at risk, most of us hope for the best but continue with our lives. That’s what President Bush wants us to do — maintain our daily routines and not let terrorism and fear paralyze us.

What’s likely to happen is marketers will continue to send emails, and they can expect pockets of declining response rates. There was a major downtick in response after the Gulf War, although no one can predict if that will happen again. In my opinion, it depends on whether it’s a protracted action and whether there are U.S. casualties abroad or at home. There are simply too many other variables now, such as a soft economy and terrorist threats.

Our plans are to continue with our email activities, perhaps making adjustments on a daily basis. Clearly, we’ll shy away from marketing travel offers, at least initially. But I can’t see us, or anyone else for that matter, making wholesale changes.

Fortunately, since email campaigns are so easy to start and stop, we can monitor the pulse of the people and make decisions based on that. I recommend we all do that.

Let’s all hope and pray war doesn’t happen; but in the event that it does, we need to be sensitive without overreacting.

Keep reading.

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