How to Market Your Business Through a Crisis

If only there were a simple answer: How should I do business in a once-in-a-century crisis? Another pandemic? Massive segments of the world economy have shut down, partially reopened, or reversed course. Companies are investing in office alterations and comprehensive cleaning regimens while finding that remote work comes with its own discontents, such as delays in project completion and stunted employee training. Some fortunate people are saving more and therefore spending substantial money, while remaining understandably skittish about what lies ahead. Many businesses have depended on lifelines from governments and have operated at losses or have become grateful to break even.

Let's look back at the COVID-19 pandemic of the early 2020s.

Stay home

The current pandemic and its resulting economic downturn have highlighted the many things that are out of our control. However, amidst these challenges, there is a unique opportunity to embrace new digital marketing habits and strategies. With clients and customers having more time to research and investigate their purchases, it is an ideal time to connect with first-time customers and strengthen relationships with existing ones. While this economic downturn may not be a golden age for businesses, it has certainly shifted the way people pay attention and spend their money. As Stanford economist Paul Romer has famously said, "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Welcome your customers with a strong website.

According to a recent study by McKinsey, web traffic in most sectors of the economy has surged by over ten percent during the pandemic, leading to a substantial increase in online purchases. Additionally, Adobe Analytics has reported a staggering year-over-year growth of over 70 percent in online sales during the months of May and June. Therefore, businesses must invest in their websites, enhancing content, functionality, searchability, and design, as this can result in significant returns for their operations.

In times of uncertainty, a reliable and user-friendly website, complemented by informative blog posts and active social media accounts, can greatly enhance your company's credibility. Sara Rushinek, a business technology professor at the University of Miami, highlights the importance of trust and relationships in e-commerce. Customers need to trust that they will receive the products they order, have the option to return them if necessary and rely on reviews to make informed decisions. This trust is crucial for businesses with a digital presence, and it can be achieved through a functional and user-friendly website, engaging blog posts, and active social media engagement.

Speed also matters, enabling your website to run as fast as possible for mobile users. "Whenever possible," Squarespace advises, "keep your pages to at least under 5MB." 

If possible, market to customers' new needs

As the fortunate individuals who can work from home adapt to their new routines, they reevaluate their expenses. Non-essential indulgences like dining out and attending live events have been put on hold, while more extravagant purchases such as travel have been postponed.

These adjustments, coupled with the current low-interest rates, have sparked a surge in purchasing high-value items like cars and homes, increasing lumber prices. Additionally, with people spending more time at home, there has been a noticeable increase in the demand for products like ice cream and cleaning supplies.

The sphere of most individuals' lives has become all the more domestic, and they've become willing to invest in comfort, cleanliness, beauty, and other significant purchases, bolstering what Nielsen has referred to as the "homebody economy."

The homebody economy will endure for some time longer, and it would benefit your business to market within this new paradigm, especially with solid and persuasive nudges from blog posts supplemented with email newsletters and social media activity. Since people are spending more time at home—how can you remind them that your product will serve increasingly domestic life? Can it help them feel safer, cook better, teach their children, entertain themselves, communicate with colleagues or friends, or decorate their homes?

These galvanizing motives over traditional consumer desires, like desires for adventure or status, will animate successful and informed content marketing. In such an environment, prudent content might take the form of vivid blogs inviting the reader to imagine their life assisted by your product or interviews with customers that testify to how what you sell has made a living, working, and raising a family as home just a bit richer and more effortless.

Businesses are adjusting to the homebody economy in different ways. Critically, they are spending significant sums of money maintaining their information technology networks, which had already accelerated. They are also finding their cloud computing bills, which, for some startups, account for the second-largest budget expenditure after payroll, are weighing high on their balance sheets.

Businesses need these networks and data systems to keep productive and connected, but they are also eager for cost savings, especially amid general economic uncertainty. Blog posts are a superb way to make your case that your services can cater to businesses' prevailing needs for security and value.

Unfortunately, it must be said, it may not be possible for your business to market to the burgeoning demand customers and businesses now have for safety, health, and domestic tranquility. Some businesses, especially those in the travel and hospitality sector, and other services, such as dry cleaning, will suffer continued difficulties, no matter how savvy their marketing campaigns or content strategies are. This revenue loss will threaten businesses and make this period very hard on many entrepreneurs and owners. "Who am I if I'm not the owner of David's gym or David's cruise ship line,” reflected journalist David Sax, who has been talking to entrepreneurs amid the pandemic.

"That loss can trigger a deep spiral." If possible, get creative and resourceful. If there's government aid that will help your business and your employees, apply for it. If you can divert your production capacities, as some distilleries have done by producing hand sanitizer, do that. If you can generate revenue today through services rendered tomorrow, as airlines selling seats a year out, have, then do so. This new, cautious, information-hungry period will be a boon to some firms, but others will struggle through no true fault of their own, and it is important to acknowledge the limitations of instruction in this grave, unusual moment.

Be transparent with your customers.

Long, physically distanced lines stretch outside of grocery stores and big-box retailers. Haircuts and shopping visits are being done only by appointment. Projects, once organized over in-office collaborations and meetings, are now completed over rounds of emails, phone calls, and teleconferences. Logistics networks are stretched to capacity as businesses fret over warehouse space.

Everything happens a bit slower now, which is especially true of the sales cycles of e-commerce businesses. Decades of online retailing have made people accustomed to increasing convenience, with innovations like free two-day shipping making it harder for some customers to adjust to the slower pace of everything—from restocking to fulfillment to delivery. With a compassionate, transparent content campaign, you can explain to customers how your business is addressing and adapting to these changes.

If you haven't already, keeping your blog readers, social media followers, and email list informed about your production challenges and the business and safety solutions you've implemented is probably best. We're all very curious about how people persevere during a once-in-a-century crisis, and your customers will be interested in how you're handling it. Indeed, you'd have to tell your customers if you've temporarily shut down operations, and you would want to notify them when things are up and running again. But at this time, you'd also benefit from keeping them informed of more granular news.

My dentist, for instance, sent an email boasting of a purchase of a new, state-of-the-art HEPA filter. This information certainly made me feel safer as a patient, and while it comforted me, it also suggested that my dentist is a decent employer who takes the health of his staff seriously.

Surveys have shown I'm not alone— McKinsey has found consumers all over the world, in the face of this crisis, have begun to "look for retailers with visible safety measures such as enhanced cleaning and physical barriers" and "buy more from companies and brands that have healthy and hygienic packaging and demonstrate care and concern for employees."

Stay at a distance

In customer-centric Marketing, there will be changes to tell your customers about. Are you offering outdoor seating to customers? Are you offering curbside pickup? Have you set up Plexiglass guards at workstations or provided workers ample space and protective gear? Are you facing a material shortage or delivery delays? Let your customers know, perhaps with photos, so they can know (1) that you're open for business and (2) that if they are at first confused about delays or inconveniences, you are committed to the safety and security of your employees, while much else remains beyond your control.

Keeping your customers updated on your changing practices makes sense in the long run, too. As each corner of the globe experiments with reopenings, and as others struggle with surges of cases, businesses need to be nimble, and your customers will be grateful to know how you've had to adapt to meet their needs and keep your business running. Remember, everyone loves a story, and a story happens when a protagonist (you and your employees) encounters and overcomes obstacles. However brief they may feel, this crisis behooves you to tell your story to customers from many angles.

Being transparent is critical, even when you don't necessarily have good news. East Fork Pottery, a great manufacturer with a savvy internet presence, has been transparent with customers who want to buy pottery, now made to order in their North Carolina facility: “We've set an internal deadline to get all pots out the door within eight weeks," they now tell buyers. "Some will come sooner, but some will press against that deadline."

This can seem like a grave inconvenience for some impatient shoppers used to free two-day shipping. But it's better that your customers know upfront about your changed production and turnaround capacities, and hopefully, they will be gracious enough to appreciate that you are keeping your employees safe and doing the best you can with limitations on labor hours, supplies, and logistics networks that are far beyond your firm's control.

While longer wait times don't seem like a blessing, smaller businesses have benefitted from the slower pace of fulfillment and shipping since it has leveled their playing field. Giants like Amazon, who have long tolerated cutting into their margins to offer fast and cheap shipping options, have since made the speedy delivery of items like books less of a concern. This has provided a boon, for example, to independent booksellers, who can now provide the same shipping convenience as the massive retailer. "I think Amazon did us a big favor taking books off their priority delivery," bookstore owner Danielle Mullen recently explained. "Then people went, Why bother? We booksellers went; we've been saying this! I am grateful to good old Jeff [Bezos] for that."

Further data supports Mullen's observation that as supply and logistics chains are interrupted, brand loyalty has weakened, providing a new customer base to many businesses. Therefore, while slower fulfillments and deliveries are a downside, remind your customers that by being patient, they are enabling the safety of workers and providing a critical lifeline to the small and medium-sized businesses our society needs.

To get on the other side of this crisis, we will need robust health care, hygienic practices, and many of the virtues that served us well before the pandemic—like patience, communication, grit, curiosity, and empathy.

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Matt is a writer, researcher, and excavator of generally good and useful things. He lives in New York City.

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