Uncut, vulnerable and camaraderie were words that Ann Handley, Wall Street Journal bestselling author and chief content officer of MarketingProfs, linked to successful brand messaging during these times of COVID-19 and sheltering-in-place. Handley’s keynote at this year’s Content Marketing Conference (CMC) reached me in my living room after the Boston-scheduled event was quickly pivoted to an online platform.

While I can’t claim exclusivity — organizer Byron White notes that the virtual conference hit 14,000 people registered by opening day on April 21 with 8,000 who like me tuned into the live-streamed opening day events — this close-up (and suddenly free) opportunity to connect with top marketing gurus had me feeling like I’d won the lottery.

My front-row experience at the virtual conference parallels the peer-to-peer way Handley says brands should be marketing right now.

“It’s just you and me and that’s giving us an opportunity to communicate differently,” she noted close-up on my screen as she initiated her presentation. “I think the very same thing is true with our marketing.”

Now more than ever is time to be building trust and affinity with current customers, she explains. With so much uncertainty and people stretched to their limits, there's a great need for reassurance, compassion and empathy. It’s no time for impersonal “brand to target” marketing.

Similarly, influencer marketing agency MediaKix advises brands to work with micro- and mid-tier influencers who typically have a stronger, more authentic and closer connection with their followers than big-name stars.

“We have an opportunity to tell stories and create marketing that has more depth and has more resonance for the people we care the most about connecting with,” says Handley.

Tips for marketing with depth and resonance

Narrow your scope. Clarify exactly who the people you care most about connecting with are.

Focus on being a resource. Tune into what’s keeping the people you care about up at night and figure out how you can ease their burden right now. Through not only words but actions that demonstrate understanding and camaraderie, brands can deepen their relationship with these people. "It's showing up in very specific and tangible ways to help the people who matter most to you," explains Handley.

Show your face, be real and be vulnerable. Handley notes that she’s seen lots of letters to customers from CEOs but few instances where executives get on camera to speak — uncut — with customers about difficulties their companies or industries are facing.

Spread some joy. “Find little ways to delight your customers if it makes sense for your brand,” says Alex McPeak, a content strategist at Klaviyo. She notes that with so much heavy and dark news and information out there right now, people are welcoming distractions, so an approach that mixes lightheartedness with compassion is worth exploring.

Be a leader. Ask how you and your brand can lift people up during these chaotic times, says Handley. Why? “Because when this is over — and it will be over,” she assures us, “your brand will be cemented in in the minds of your prospects and customers as someone who is there for them long term and really demonstrated long-term leadership not only of their own company, but of an industry.”

Deliver excellent, useful and helpful content. Giving your clients and prospects the hyperspecific information they need most is the perfect way to deepen existing relationships right now, explains Handley. She highly advocates delivering that content via an email newsletter like the one she publishes every other week. “It’s a channel that’s vastly undervalued by so many marketers and the only one where a person, not an algorithm, is in control.”

Bringing it all together to create close-up and personal content

A newsletter from my own inbox demonstrates these points quite well. In the latest issue of ComMusings by Jeff Krasno at Commune, a personal growth community that offers courses in areas like wellness, yoga and spirituality, he writes a 1,000-word plus letter on loss, death and human mortality.

This might not sound like ideal marketing content to most, but Krasno understands Commune readers. His cleverly written and well-researched musings about death and liberty resonate with people actively seeking deeper meaning to their lives.

Krasno shows vulnerability and builds camaraderie when he shares his own deep sadness in permanently closing the doors to his Hollywood yoga/wellness center and relates it to the loss so many others are living today. At the end, after pointing to upcoming courses and limited-time trials, he invites people who’ve lost their jobs to email him for a free meditation course.

With communication that’s different Krasno addresses the deep concerns of his audience and reaches out to those with acute financial need developing loyalty and demonstrating leadership in his community. He exemplifies Handley’s closing words.

“I think that this is an opportunity for us to show up for our communities, not to just sell constantly, but instead to be there for them to act as a resource, to show your empathy, your human side and to be relevant,” she concludes.