Social advertising in the time of COVID-19: Twitter urges restraint

Twitter has become a public space where brands can react to events in real-time, but the social platform is urging restraint and common sense as fears about the spread of COVID-19 continue to grow.

In a blog post entitled “Brand communications in time of crisis,” Twitter Next’s global head Alex Josephson and director Eimear Lambe stressed that the rise of COVID-19 should not be regarded as a “marketing opportunity” for brands, stressing that their actions on the platform require “thoughtful navigation.”

A quick glance at the Twitter pages of major Canadian brands suggests it’s still business as usual, although brands directly impacted by the spread of the coronavirus, such as airlines, have adopted a straightforward approach to conveying vital customer information.

Andrea MacDonald, head of tech and telco at Twitter Canada, says it is advising partners to be “thoughtful and informed” about the evolving situation. “The best Twitter content always lives in the moment, but this is clearly an unprecedented environment for all brands and all people everywhere,” she says.

“That lens really needs to be applied before any content even reaches the consideration stage for Canadian brands and the agencies working with those brands,” she adds. “In no way can this be seen as a marketing opportunity, but rather an opportunity to share content, conversation and access that has some tangible value for Canadians.”

Twitter said it is now seeing a COVID-19 related Tweet every 45 milliseconds, and #coronavirus is already the second most used hashtag of the year. However, the platform also noted that COVID-19 related tweets comprise just 1% of the total tweets sent on the platform.

“In other words, people on Twitter are switching between updates on COVID-19, while following elections, news, sports, TV and entertainment and everyday LOLs,” wrote Josephson and Lambe (before major sports leagues around the world started shutting down). “So long as you are thoughtful with copy and tone, you can contribute, and remember it’s better to stay in your lane and be true to your brand than to associate with the virus.”

However, Twitter and other social media have also been platforms where misinformation has spread easily and efficiently to the masses. The head of the World Health Organization has referred to the spread of false information about coronavirus as an “infodemic,” although it is also working with the major platforms to reduce misinformation.

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Twitter has put a prompt in place that directs people searching for coronavirus content to appropriate local bodies such as the Public Health Agency of Canada. This prompt is appearing in 64 countries and 20 languages, and Twitter is also pushing the most important content to the top of its search results.

The Twitter executives said that it’s important for social media managers to know their brand and the role it plays in consumers’ lives, and determine ways it can be useful during the crisis. “This is not about looking at what others are doing and copying,” they said.

The executives also urged brands to consider their tone of voice. “Right now might not be the best time to be snarky or sarcastic, while empathy, understanding and even certain types of humour may go a long way.”

The post singled out matter-of-fact tweets by companies like Slack on working remotely, and informational tweets by airlines such as JetBlue that relay information to passengers about changing or cancelling flights.

Canadian airlines Air Canada and WestJet have also tweeted out similar information.

People want credible and useful information during times of crises, said Josephson and Lambe, and Twitter can be a useful tool for disseminating vital information. Retail and e-commerce brands, for example, can keep the public informed about stock levels to help mitigate panic buying of items like water and hand sanitizer.

But Twitter says that levity can also help lighten the mood. They also noted that the situation is extremely fluid, meaning a message that might have felt appropriate one day might not the next. “And note, sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all,” they said.

Chris Powell