There have been many aspects of day-to-day life that have been disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, among them weddings. For happy couples around the world, their long-planned big day has ended up being cancelled or severely curtailed due to pandemic restrictions related to the number of people who can legally attend.
Aside from the personal disappointment involved, this situation has also caused knock-on issues for the entire wedding industry, everyone from dress designers through reception venues to wedding planners themselves. In a sector that's worth $100 billion a year in the US alone, that's some expensive disruption.
One such impacted company is The Knot Worldwide, launched in 1996 as the world’s first digital wedding-planning brand. The firm pitches itself a a trusted advisor to take couples getting married through the whole nuptial lifecycle, from proposal to wedding day and beyond. The Knot reaches its audience via its corporate website as well as a mobile app, The Knot Wedding Planner, with email marketing and communications using Salesforce Marketing Cloud also playing a large role.
When the virus struck and plans had to be changed urgently, The Knot found itself in a unique situation, says Heather Grimstead, Senior Director and Global Email Director for the firm:
We were in the interesting position of having both consumers as well as vendors, such as photographers and venues, as our customers. When COVID hit, first of all we had a huge hustle to try to change our communications to consumers, because the last thing we wanted to do was send a message to a consumer saying, ‘Congratulations on your wedding!’ when they knew they probably couldn't have that event.
And then at the same time, all of our vendors were trying to figure out what should they do with all these contracts they had when all of a sudden couples, legally in a lot of cases, couldn't actually have the wedding. So it's been a really interesting year for us to play that go-between, to try to do the right thing for the consumers as well as vendors and shift communications to be empathetic and speak to the situation at hand.
As the level of COVID-driven disruption to plans became clear, Grimstead’s marketing team had to work in tandem with the firm’s editorial people to adapt new messaging to meet fast-changing circumstances:
For my team in particular, we needed to change over 100 different automations to modify messaging and make sure it was still on point. We did that in the matter of just a few day and we were able to do that because we had done some forethought up front. It's our past selves saying thank you to our future selves for putting in the work. So things like dynamic headers and e-mail templates, for example. When all of a sudden this came to be, we went in and we changed a single place in our email and instantly all of our messages across the board had a link to resources about COVID.
The other thing is not only did we have that initial 'make it happen fast' push, but we had to keep changing it, because, like everybody, when we first made those changes we thought we were making a change that was [only] going to be in place for a few weeks. The other thing we were facing is that it was different not only across all the different [US] states, but different across countries as well. We have brands in 14 other countries besides the US, so we had to just continually make modifications and make sure we're staying on top of what those changes need to be for the time.
The market that The Knot is in is clearly one that can be described as a ‘people business’ and as such it’s critical that the firm has a good grasp of who its customers are and what they want. The CRM ‘Holy Grail’ of a single view of the customer is very much in evidence here, aided, says Grimstead, by a willingness on the part of people engaging with the business to share information, in large part to make their wedding day dreams come true:
They're excited about it and they're interested in sharing. We also collect data about users when they're taking action on the website or in our apps. In most scenarios users are actually logged into their account when they're interacting with our products, so that gives us the opportunity to collect that action data. We use that data in a lot of different ways. We use it to create personalized content within the messaging...and even to trigger the message itself. We are very focused on behavioral triggers and how to follow up when users are taking action or in some cases when users are not taking action. That really allows us to deliver that personalized experience that's taking into consideration their actions across all of our different channels.
There’s a simple principle involved in creating a unified customer experience, she adds:
Get the data right! Spend a lot of time on it upfront. It is not always the prettiest experience to go through and it can be really, really challenging, but you first have to make sure that you're actually collecting data...[and] as well as getting quality data, making sure that data is in a format that is actionable and also making sure that the data is well-structured. Data architecture is sometimes not the fun conversation to have - it doesn't have pretty pictures that go with it - but it's super-important, because if the data isn't structured correctly, then you're not able to key-off and create those personalized experiences based on the data you have.
This requires a strong partnership between the product team and the data team and the marketing team, she advises:
If you want, for example, to key off of search data, the searches that users are doing on your site, maybe searches for different products or content, you first have to have the collection mechanism in place. So your dev team, your product team, have to have started collecting that data and then work with your data engineering team, or whichever team will be responsible for it in your company, and actually get that data from that collection point into all the platforms that are needed to actually trigger the messaging and build dynamic content.
With the arrival of vaccines, there is light at the end of the tunnel and while it will take time for restrictions on gatherings of people to be lifted completely, engaged couples can begin to think again about their ideal wedding and start to make plans to set a date. For her part, Grimstead has some specific goals for 2021:
As a team, we're going to continue to be very focused on behavioral data and what can we say when a user takes an action to help them get to the next action we want them to take. One of the ways that we will do that - and the piece that I get really excited about - is focusing on the in-box experience and interactive e-mail. When we're talking about interactive e-mail, there's lots of conversations in the email community about whether or not it's over-hyped. I think some aspects of it are, for sure. What really excites me is not the flashy things, the animations or the countdowns, because a lot of times those don't actually improve performance. What really gets me excited is how interactivity will allow us to change the experience within the in-box. Email marketers have long been focused on getting a user from the in-box to whatever landing page or app we want them to take action on. I think we've got a real opportunity in the coming years to think about changing that story and really creating the product experience within the in-box, reducing the friction to the action by allowing them to take action directly within the in-box.
To date, The Knot has made some initial forays down this path, but it’s still very early days, admits Grimstead:
When it comes to things like transactions, I think we're pretty far off as an email industry as a whole from getting there. Lots of testing and things need to happen, as well as training consumers. Consumers at this point are not used to true interactive email. Maybe they see a video every once in a while, maybe they see a little animation, but that's that's not what we're talking about. Consumers haven't been trained yet to interact with an email in the way that I hope to see in the future. There's gonna be lots of testing. Anybody [working] in email knows it's a real challenge to get an email to work the same way across all the email clients and there's going to be a particular challenge with interactive email. But I definitely think we will get to a point where we're allowing users to make transactions directly in the in-box.
And there's unfinished business to pick up from 2020, she concludes:
One of kind of disappointment for me is we had all these plans for the year, things that we were really excited about doing [and] we had to put a lot of them aside to focus on addressing the current time. So I'm hoping this year we will be able to get to some of those things and make those happen.