The world has turned upside down. (As a Broadway fan, I have the Hamilton version of that line running through my head on repeat these days.) Small businesses all over the nation find themselves in a rapidly changing climate and making decisions based on state requirements needed to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Small businesses in the time of COVID-19 are faced with brutal choices and will need to employ creative solutions as the pandemic changes the landscape of our lives.
If you have a service that meets the needs of your community during the pandemic, getting information out to potential customers is a necessity. People right now want to help small businesses thrive, and they are looking for ways to spend their money conscientiously. What are some ways to navigate the balance of marketing a product during difficult times?
Before we look at marketing, it’s important to look at your business: Right now, more than ever, it’s crucial to understand what is an essential business and what is not. I just watched in real-time the complete viral annihilation of an owner’s decision to keep her consignment mall open because she deemed her store and all the vendors paying rent in her store (and all their employees) as “essential business.” (She, herself, was self-isolating in a different state. And three hours after her initial post, she changed her mind.) People are dying — if anyone susses out that you are here for profit/being greedy/to exploit a tragedy — I guarantee the karma (Facebook’s comment section) is swift.
Merchant Maverick’s COVID-19 hub has many resources to weather the storm, but if in doubt — sit it out.
And if your business has a role here as we move forward, then keep on reading, and we’ll explore the best practices together.
The Best Marketing Channels For Small Businesses
Parts of the nation are on full shelter-in-place orders, and others may soon follow. That means that millions of workers and their children are home, in their family rooms, most definitely on their computers or phones, with near-constant access to the internet. We are lucky to live in a digital world that can adapt to the needs of consumers during this pandemic — and the digital world is where you are going to access your potential customers.
Building a newsletter is an essential part of doing business. Why? Because when you have access to someone’s email, you have direct access to that person. They may not open your newsletter, but when they check their email, they will see your name and your subject hook: It’s the best resource you have. Building a newsletter should be seen as an essential part of doing business.
(How can you tell a writer has been a little too self-isolated? I just deleted an attempt to write this section to the tune of Over the Rainbow. I wish I were kidding.) Social media is where you will find your people. Maybe you already have a thriving community on your social media, or perhaps you are building one. Either way, it’s important to think of ways to use various platforms: Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat…maybe in that order, depending on your marketing audience.
Direct communication is the best! If you have access to phone numbers, maybe send a quick text update. A skincare business in Portland I have been to once texted to let me know its physical store was closed but is still selling products and gift certificates online. If you have a website, consider blogging about your own experiences. Now is the time, more than ever, to tell your narrative and build a community around your business’s story. Who are you, and how is this pandemic affecting you and yours?
The Ground Rules For Online Marketing
The entire world is really hoping that we can all flatten the curve of this virus and return to normalcy. However, until then, every person and every business needs to make socially responsible choices. That means your business needs to comply with social distancing and follow your governor’s mandates. As with any marketing campaign, be sincere and run your words by many different sets of eyes to ensure your tone is professional and sensitive to the mood of the nation.
If you are asking people to opt-in to your newsletter for freebies/deals, make sure you follow local privacy laws. Also, a good tip is to require only two fields (say: name and email) — any more will cause hesitation, and you might lose the lead.
Build An Email List
One small business owner mentioned that he sent out a newsletter, not to pitch anything, but simply to ask his subscribers how they were doing: How are you? Are you okay? Do you need anything? Small businesses are the bedrock of the community, so first, reach out to your community and see how people are feeling. With self-isolation in full swing across the nation, many people need your words of comfort and offers of help.
You can also use this time to build your list by offering discounts or freebies to people who sign up for your newsletter. (For a gym or yoga studio: If they sign up for your newsletter, maybe they can receive free daily quarantine exercises?)
Create A Social Media Following
There are opportunities to pay for ad campaigns within social media platforms, but it’s important to use your platforms to communicate with your customers and community directly in addition to running ads. People want to help small businesses in their community, but they need to know who is open and how social distancing needs are being met. Use your social media channels to inform and engage.
Keep Your Customers Updated On Changes
I have a local store I love, and I went to all of its social media pages for a COVID-19 update and didn’t find anything. Tell your story and make it easy for people to support you and to know how — put that information far and wide.
If you can still provide curbside or delivery during the pandemic, your business has pivoted and adapted with the changes, or if you are changing your hours or working with a reduced staff, let people know. Use all necessary means to communicate with your customers and encourage people in your community to share your message far and wide.
Use Hashtags & Branding
A hashtag is a way to group your message in with broader messages to attract new followers. As you can imagine, right now, pandemic hashtags are trending along with #stayhome, #stayhomesavelives, and #socialdistancing. Creative hashtags such as #savesmallbusinesses can gain momentum across platforms and will help categorize your information. You can create a hashtag specifically for your business to boost name recognition and your business’s story. Our local used bookstore (and Portland icon), Powell’s, had to shut its doors and lay off the majority of its staff, prompting a #savepowells hashtag to surge and ignite a successful online buying campaign to help keep it afloat.
If you are using your social media consistently to communicate, think about your company’s branding — can someone look at a post and identify your company? What is the overall tone of your company’s message? Keep your social media messages consistent and on-brand. Branding also means you understand your audience and their needs: If you are in a community that is struggling and feeling scared right now, you might want to avoid a tone that feels trite or dismissive of the current news.
5 Marketing Tactics You Can Use To Keep In Touch, Inspire, Motivate & Otherwise Encourage Customers
We are not living in the same world that we were a few months ago. Consumers and attitudes have shifted, thriving businesses have shuttered for the time being, and people have major anxieties. They are scared about the virus, worried about the health of loved ones, scared about their jobs, scared about the overall health of our economy, maybe food insecure or feeling alone, and/or possibly balancing remote work/home school for the first time. Right. So when consumers are dealing with a national emergency, priorities shift. Consider that as you move forward with a marketing campaign.
Marketing is two-fold. Yes, you want to sell the product/service you can offer, but you also want to market your story/your company’s ethos. Here are some marketing tactics that might work well as you look forward.
Promote A Good Cause
Larger corporations have made donations of coffee and sandwiches to health workers, and many smaller businesses are reaching out with offers to donate a percentage of proceeds to nonprofits helping assist communities most impacted by COVID-19. Can you provide free food for kids or the elderly? People want to spend money and know it’s helping small businesses and the people impacted by this emergency: What does your community need, and how can you help?
Run A Contest Or Challenge
Can you drum up some business by offering a contest or challenge to your customers? A game store in Kansas is offering up a $50 gift card to the store to anyone who shows their “19 painted miniatures in 19 days challenge.” A bakery in a suburb of Portland is offering “frost your own cookie kits,” selling them curbside and then highlighting the beautiful cookie art with a hashtag; daily winners via votes get a gift certificate to the store. Take an opportunity to engage your community with an activity or challenge (Bake with Me challenge or Tap with Me challenge; a toy shop near us that sells Legos is running a 30-Day Build-It challenge). All of these things build brand awareness and provide your potential customers with something to engage with.
Use Promo Codes For Online Orders
Are you moving your business online? Or have you already been equipped for online ordering but need to get the word out? Provide a financial incentive to order from you! I ordered some books from a bookstore owner directly over the phone, and she shipped the books free (and they arrived the next day!), and online delivery services are running promotions for free delivery. Entice new customers with a first-time buyer code or offer deep discounts for large orders.
Sponsor A Giveaway
At this point, I’m sure you’ve seen it, too: the toilet paper giveaways. Order a pizza? Get some TP. Drive-thru to our coffee shop? TP while it lasts! If you don’t have 2020’s luxury item on hand to pass out with your product, that’s okay; there are many other things besides toilet paper you can give. This might be an opportunity to team up with a collaborator (another small business in your community) and give away gift certificates to a different business in the neighborhood. If you are a clothing boutique, can you have some fun with quarantine-outfits and sponsor a giveaway of clothes that are perfect to wear at home? This is about what you can offer and how you can help while building your brand and responding to the virus ethically.
Feature Your Customer/Community Stories
This is what speaks straight to my heart: stories. We are all a giant community of humans, and it is local families and local businesses that keep things afloat. Tell your own story but also reach out and see if you can feature other stories, too. Build a community from this isolation, and encourage people to reach out and connect with you and others. Also, feature people who may be asked to work as essential employees — put a name and story to the faces of the people in your business: Let the community know who they are supporting. They are not supporting a business; they are supporting the people behind the business.
The Bottom Line For Online Marketing During A Pandemic
How you face this pandemic can say a lot about your business and your brand. Don’t take the messages you send lightly, and run them through a filter of sensitivity and practicality. But if you have a service you can offer safely to others, yes, communicate that in any way you can to get the word out about how you can help people in your community. Email your list, send a newsletterÂ or a text; be sure to communicate honestly and often, and let people know how they can help you. Have you seen any brilliant or cringe-worthy marketing campaigns related to the pandemic? Share with us in the comments! And stay safe out there.
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