The Words Business and Nonprofit Leaders are Using to Talk About COVID-19

Have you received hundreds of emails about COVID-19 from every company and organization that you’ve ever given your email to? Here’s what they probably said.

Last Thursday I became tired of all of the emails I was receiving from CEOs and organizational leaders about Covid-19. I had not been reading the emails very closely, but as a communications expert, I started to think there was an opportunity. How often do you get a bunch of emails about the same subject from hundreds of leaders? Maybe never.

I started to think this was an interesting moment to learn more about the words and language leaders were choosing to use during a moment of great uncertainty for all of us.

A quick search in my email account revealed that I had received 328 messages with the word “Covid-19,” in about two weeks time. The first came in an email from The Economist on February 18th. I then searched for emails with the word “coronavirus” and found 357 messages with the first coming from The Washington Post on January 26th.

I then naively thought, I can just do a quick, rough analysis with word cloud generators online, and then write a blog post in no point’s time! Well, it’s now six days and many hours later and I’m ready to publish what I found out! There are several findings that are really interesting.

My Methodology to Analyze the Emails

I knew that I would want to see any differences in how nonprofits and businesses were communicating about the pandemic and the coming crisis, so I eventually decided to create three study groups: large businesses, small and local businesses, and nonprofits. I did not have enough diversity in emails from government agencies, so that’s why I excluded them from my analysis.

Next, I selected 12 emails for each of the study groups and tried to select emails that were titled something like “A Message from Our CEO” or had the tone of an email sent from the collective leadership of the business or organization. I tried to select a diversity of business and organization types, not only the ones that had a strong connection to the current crisis.

Here are the businesses and organizations in each group:

Large Businesses: 1. Best Buy 2. Bed, Bath, and Beyond 3. Whole Foods 4. Hair Cuttery 5. Music and Arts 6. My Eye Doctor 7. Turbotax 8. Groupon 9. State Farm 10. Hilton 11. Suntrust 12. Office Depot

Small and Local Businesses: 1. WallyGro 2. Crumbs and Whiskers 3. BalletNova 4. Think Home Food Group 5. Muse Paint Bar 6. Nirvana Reflexology 7. Moosejaw 8. Dogma 9. Silver Diner 10. Undercover Tourist 11. Escape Quest 12. The Howard Theater

Nonprofits: 1. WWF 2. Lucky Dog Animal Rescue 3. Choice’s Women Medical Center 4. National Park Foundation 5. Habitat for Humanity 6. Food and Friends 7. Green City Force 8. Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital 9. Phoenix Bikes 10. D.C. Environmental Film Festival 11. River Otter Ecology Project 12. Arlington Soccer Association

I then copied each email from each group into a Microsoft Word document. Next, I copied the combined words from each group into several free word cloud generator websites. What was interesting is that each word cloud generator excluded several kinds of common words and pronouns from its analysis (words like “the” or “and”). Ultimately, I had to combine the findings of two different word cloud programs, and then search through the word documents to count the frequency certain words were used more precisely.

What I Learned

Words that were used at least 25 times or more in
the combined set of 36 emails.

When I combined all of the emails into a sample of 36, the most common word used by leaders was “you / your / you’re.” Neither of the word cloud generators included these pronouns, so I had to look them up manually in the separated Microsoft Word documents for each group. You might be surprised to learn that there were some substantial differences across the three study groups in how often they employed these words. More on that in a bit.

The second most commonly used word was “all.” Initially I thought this must be messages like “We are all in this together.” But that phrase actually only appeared three times! On two of those occasions the word “all” was not even included (e.g. “We’re in this together.”) It turns out that most these “alls” were used to describe things like “all stores…. employees… locations… events.” So it was employed in much more utilitarian ways, rather than lofty appeals to us as a collective.

The most common concepts shared across all three study groups related to “health” or “safety.” Leaders want you to know that they value their employees’ health and safety and your safety as well. While obvious, when a pandemic has the potential to kill thousands of people without discrimination, this is a clear and important message. The word “will” also appeared frequently across all emails, indicating that the emails were communicating the actions that businesses and nonprofits planned to take.

So when you start to compare the large business, small business, and nonprofit groups here’s where things do get interesting.

I decided it would be interesting to check how many words were used in each of the study groups:

Nonprofits: 4,811 words
Large Businesses: 4,461 words
Small Businesses: 3,000 words

Small businesses were far more concise in writing their messages and appeals than large businesses and nonprofits. My speculation here is that they had fewer staff and / or time to spend writing emails, and therefore got across their key messages as quickly as possible.

The Top 15 Words Used By Large and Small Businesses and Nonprofits Writing about COVID-19

Large Businesses

  1. You / Your / You’re
  2. Will
  3. All
  4. Employees
  5. Time
  6. Safe / Safety
  7. Health / Healthy
  8. Stores
  9. Customers
  10. Continue
  11. Business
  12. COVID
  13. Can
  14. Team
  15. Travel

Small Businesses

  1. You / Your / You’re
  2. Will
  3. All
  4. Health / Healthy
  5. COVID
  6. Safe / Safety
  7. Help
  8. Employees
  9. Know
  10. Take
  11. Please
  12. Time
  13. Home
  14. Stay
  15. Cats


Nonprofits

  1. You / Your / You’re
  2. All
  3. Will
  4. Health / Healthy
  5. Continue
  6. Safe / Safety
  7. Please
  8. Now
  9. Time
  10. Community
  11. More
  12. Can
  13. Work
  14. Home
  15. COVID

Now that you’ve seen the most frequently used words for each group, here’s an interesting look at how some of the notable words and concepts compare in the frequency at which leaders used them in each group.

A Comparison of the Number of Times Large Business, Small Business, and Nonprofit Leaders Used Certain Words

While this little experiment I conducted in no way is a truly randomized or representative sample, it is astounding how much less nonprofit leaders employed the word “you” or some form of it. Here’s the same data plotted on a chart:

In my opinion (and I think many communications researchers), this is a huge mistake on the part of nonprofit leaders. From what I recall, research often shows that using the word “you” personalizes the subject matter in a way that indicates to a reader why content is relevant to her or him. I did a quick search, and here’s one example of a recent study with this finding: “Second Person Pronouns Enhance Consumer Involvement and Brand Attitude.” So here’s a situation where the large businesses seem to know something about what works in marketing emails more than small businesses and nonprofits do. We need to change that!

One notable difference that I see on the positive side for nonprofit leaders is that they used the word “community” twice as often as business leaders writing emails. It might be an indication that as the leaders of mission-driven organizations they are more concerned about building community around their causes than businesses are interested in this goal, that admittedly goes beyond financial profits. Along those lines, it was interesting that nonprofit leaders used the word “staff” quite a bit less often than the business leaders mentioned their “employees.” I’m not sure what this means. I would speculate that it seems that sadly nonprofit staff are just as likely to lose their jobs and / or be impacted by the Covid-19 virus as business workers. Maybe the immediacy of that potential outcome is less pressing though, and that’s why in this early phase nonprofit leaders are not choosing to communicate as much about the potential impacts on their staff members.

A final difference that stood out to me was how small business leaders more frequently referred to “help” or “helping.” My initial guess was that the threat to their survival is much more urgent than it is for large businesses and nonprofits. A closer look at their emails does indicate some messages saying that “we need your help”, but the phrase “help you” also appears quite a bit. Additionally, the amount that small businesses used the word “continue” was significantly lower than big businesses and nonprofits. When you combine these factors, perhaps these business owners fear that they will not necessarily be able to continue their operations in the future.

It occurs to me that many leaders who wrote these emails might have simply felt compelled that they needed to say something. In other words, even though the volume of emails about Covid-19 might be high, they might also not be the most sincere or thoughtful emails. That being said, this challenge is unprecedented and I don’t claim to believe that any leader would have any easy time finding the “right” tone and messages for this kind of situation on short notice and with the high degree of uncertainty we are all facing. Generosity and humility aside, it seems like there are lessons here for each type of sector leader.

Nonprofits leaders should focus on writing emails that consider how to better show the relevance of their messages’ content to their readers through use of the word “you.” Large business leaders should consider if there is space to communicate beyond the bottom line and talk about the roles that they are playing in a broader context of a community-oriented paradigm. Small businesses seem to have a far greater advantage that they can use if appropriate to firmly show the various ways that they can help support their customers, while also being community-builders, and requesting that customers help them back in return. In other words, they seem to have the ability to legitimately communicate a variety of emotional and intellectual appeals and messages that could influence the action of people on their email lists.

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