For many of us in the Northeast, Hurricane Sandy was a major disruptor, displacing millions of people from offices, homes, schools and anything resembling their regular routines. At SourceMedia, we continued to publish news online, to respond to customer inquiries, but dozens of meetings were postponed and the majority of our employees were forced to work remotely. E-mail communication was fairly consistent, but more than half of my emails fell under the category of crisis management.

Not surprisingly, I still received a number of marketing offers electronically, and a good percentage of them featured some reference to Hurricane Sandy. I opened a couple of them, just for curiosity's sake, but the tie-ins to the hurricane were weak and at times seemed disrespectful in light of the devastation going on. It didn't take long before any non-news items with the word Sandy were immediately sent to my computer trash bin.

During my prior stint running technology at SourceMedia, I wound up on multiple prospect lists, which is why on average I receive eight to 10 email offers for technology systems every week. Those offers slowed down a bit after the hurricane, but not enough to dissuade one bold sales rep from a technology company in Austin, who was so impatient after I didn't respond to his first email pitch-received on Tues. Oct. 30, the second day of Sandy's destruction-that he sent two follow-up emails that showed how annoyed he was at my lack of response. I'm resisting the urge to call him out in this column.)

Maybe I'm venting a bit, but there's a marketing lesson to be learned here about the importance of context and timing, something that too many marketers fail to recognize even when the forecast is sunny and dry. Here are a couple observations:

*Use current events within your marketing message sparingly--and carefully. It's tempting and perhaps only natural to use something like the Super Bowl, a monster storm or a holiday within your campaigns. When done right, it can be effective, but too many times this approach distracts from the central pitch. And don't assume your Thanksgiving email makes you unique-it's likely that several marketers are doing the same thing.

*Do your homework before sending a message, whether personal or within a mass email. The vendor from Austin mentioned earlier in this column hurt his chances for a referral, simply because he didn't bother to check SourceMedia's zip code (we're in downtown Manhattan, a block from the Hudson River). Then he added insult to injury by sending a follow-up note during the same week, at a time when I was more concerned with getting gas for my generator than I was with considering his software. Pitching someone on Friday afternoon ahead of a holiday weekend may be less offensive but is usually equally ineffective.

*Provide something useful to your audience. This has quickly become a staple of marketing and applies to Sandy as well. After the hurricane made landfall, a handful of retailers sent email messages to announce they were open for business. Most were informational and easy to discount, but a few of them provided valuable tips on dealing with the post-storm, and another offered to charge phones and laptops. That strategy may not be as relevant to financial services, but there are other ways to offer something valuable-by providing content, research and free consultations.

*Show that you care. In spite of the competing concerns I had during the two weeks after the hurricane, I'm fairly certain I opened or responded every email that began with a note that showed the sender's concern. It didn't matter how well I knew the company or person who sent it, seeing something like, "I hope you and your family are okay," instantly increased my willingness to read the message. No matter how sales and marketing strategies evolve, there's no substitute for concern and respect.

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