If only there were a simple answer to the question: How should I do business in a once-in-a-century crisis? Massive segments of the world economy have shut down, or 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 of what lies ahead. Many businesses have depended on lifelines from governments, and have operated at losses, or have become grateful to break even.
There are many things out of one’s control, as this pandemic and its attendant recession have made clear. Yet this time also provides the opportunity—especially as clients and customers gain more time to research and investigate their purchases—to unfurl new digital marketing habits and strategies. This is an opportune moment to introduce yourself to first-time customers, and to forge stronger bonds with existing ones. This economic downturn, by its very nature, is not likely to prove a golden age for many businesses. But it has changed the way much of the world pays attention and spends it money, bringing to mind the Stanford economist Paul Romer’s frequently invoked observation, that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Welcome your customers with a strong website
The consulting firm McKinsey has found that most sectors of the economy have seen more than ten percent growth in web traffic during the pandemic, with significant increases in online purchases to boot. Adobe Analytics has discovered year-over-year increases in online sales beyond 70 percent in the months of May and June. Investment in your website—its content, its functions, its searchability, its design—can yield significant returns.
A functional, user-friendly website, coupled with informative blog posts and social media accounts, add credibility to your company, too, which is especially valuable in a time of widespread uncertainty. “When you think about e-commerce, you wonder: Where is that trust? Where is that relationship?” Sara Rushinek, a business technology professor at the University of Miami, reminds businesses with a digital presence. “I need to be able to trust Amazon, trust that they send me what I’m asking them to, that I can return it if I need to, that the product has been reviewed in some ways, that I’m not going to just give my money and get nothing.”
Speed also matters, and that means 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
People fortunate enough to work from home have had to reorganize their budgets, suspending optional expenditures, like dining and live entertainment, in addition to more luxurious ones, like travel. These new savings, combined with low interest rates, have so far spurred robust purchases of big-ticket items like cars and homes, with the latter helping raise lumber prices. And, as people spend more time at home, goods such as ice cream and cleaning supplies have seen increased demand. 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 major purchases, bolstering what some have referred to as the “homebody economy.”
The homebody economy will endure for some time longer, and it it would benefit your business to market within this new paradigm, especially with strong, persuasive nudges from blog posts, supplemented with email newsletters and social media activity as well. 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, or cook better, or teach their children, or entertain themselves, or communicate with colleagues or friends, or decorate their homes? These galvanizing motives, over traditional consumer desires like desires for adventure or status, are going to animate successful and informed content marketing right now. In such an environment, prudent content might take the form of vivid blogs that invite the reader to imagine their life assisted by your product, or interviews with customers that testify to how what you sell has made living and working and raising a family as home just a bit richer and easier.
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, accounts 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 for you to make your case that your services can cater to businesses’ prevailing need for both 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. The loss of this revenue will threaten businesses, and will 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 business fret over warehouse space. Everything happens a bit slower now, and that is especially true of the sales cycles of ecommerce 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, it’s probably best to keep your blog readers, social media followers, and your email list informed about the production challenges you face, as well as the business and safety solutions you’ve implemented. We’re all very curious about how people are persevering during a once-in-a-century crisis, and your customers will be interested in how you’re handling it. Certainly, you’d have to tell your customers if you’ve temporarily shut down operations, and you would want to notify them, too, when things are up and running again. But in this time, you’d also benefit to keep them informed of more granular news as well. 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.”
There are manifold possible adaptations you’ve made (and will make) in the past several months that you can 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 with 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, that you are committed the safety and security of your employees, while much else remains beyond your control. Keeping your customers up to date on your changing practices makes a whole of 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) encounter and overcome obstacles. However brief they may feel, this crisis behooves you to tell your story 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 clear 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 8 weeks,” they now tell buyers. “Some will come sooner, but some will press right up against that deadline.” For some impatient shoppers used to free two-day shipping, this can seem like a grave inconvenience. 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 much of a blessing, smaller businesses have actually benefitted from the slower pace of fulfillment and shipping, since it has leveled the playing field for them. 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 actually 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 kind of downside, remind your customers that in being patient, they are enabling the safety of workers, as well as providing a critical lifeline to the small and medium-size businesses our society needs.
To get on the other side of this crisis, we will not only need robust health care and hygienic practices, but many of the virtues that served us well before the pandemic—like patience, communication, grit, curiosity, and empathy.