Most businesses, like most people, have important things they’ve put off doing. With the crush of customers coming through the door, they just haven’t had time to do things like build up their social media presence or add more interactivity to their website.
But as the COVID-19 crisis brings in-person commerce to a halt, with no end in sight, that time has come.
“Now is the time, when you’re stuck at home, to catch up wisely,” said Madelynne Jones, a senior content strategist for Kansas City-based Novella Brandhouse.
COVID-19 and the accompanying orders for people to practice social distancing have the potential to permanently alter not only what businesses look like right now but also what they will look like in the future. Alex Greenwood, a public relations professional with AGPR in Kansas City, said it’s probably best for businesses to assume this is the new normal.
“As much as it stinks to hear that, assume it’s indefinite for the sake of your brand, to keep yourself employed, to keep your business going,” he said. He acknowledged how difficult that uncertainty can be.
“I think the worst part for any business — I suspect the worst part for any human right now — is we just don’t know how or when it will end,” he said.
Get your messaging right
So what is a business to do? Elizabeth McFadden, Novella Brandhouse’s CEO and director of brand strategy, pointed out that pre-coronavirus plans need to be reassessed immediately. Email blasts and social media campaigns that sounded great in January and February might fall utterly flat in the current environment.
“Unfortunately, there were a lot of brands out there that did not do that during that first week we were all in quarantine,” McFadden said. “We were all getting these kinds of off-message and irrelevant types of emails or social posts.”
McFadden said it is important to let customers know how your business is maintaining operations and how you are adjusting to the new reality.
“Look at what you’re offering or what you’re selling or what you’re promoting. Is it what people need right now? Probably what you were selling or marketing three to four weeks ago isn’t what people are buying or needing now,” she said.
Greenwood agreed that the wrong message can appear tone-deaf.
“It just looks like you’re not paying attention,” he said. “To a degree that’s forgivable, because people are freaked out and businesses are scrambling. But that’s one area where it really could get out of hand for you.
Protect your brand
Greenwood quotes Warren Buffet: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” That’s true even in a pandemic, he said.
“It sounds goofy to a certain degree, but I advise that [businesses] stay human,” he said. “Don’t be a faceless, cold corporation, no matter what your size. Be a compassionate human being.”
Those efforts to protect your brand can range from taking good care of your workforce to offering to help in the community. He pointed to the number of small liquor distilleries that have switched some of their production to hand sanitizers.
“That’s a good example of aligning your product or service to suit the tone of the crisis and to provide help,” he said. “People will remember that when this is all over.”
Of course, for many businesses their in-person interactions are their brand.
“When you take away the social aspect of a small business, which is so much about that neighborly connection you have with the store owner, it really handicaps them,” Jones said.
In this environment, the trick is to translate those unique attributes into a compelling online presence.
“If your brand is on point, if your brand is strong, then it can really carry you through a lot of different things,” she said.
During the crisis, Novella Brandhouse has published a series of toolkits at reduced prices that businesses can use to help them boost their online game. Just as the stay-at-home orders have given people a need and an excuse to clean out their kitchen cabinets, the pandemic is prodding businesses to make changes that probably were needed anyway.
“Everything is moving online, and that is disrupting everybody. That was happening before the COVID-19 disruption,” McFadden said.
For instance, McFadden said now is a good time to upgrade your website. Many businesses have “brochure-style” sites that largely exist to point customers toward the store. These days, you need a site that is the store.
“For some clients it was a harder solution to come up with that made sense, so you push those things off because it wasn’t an immediate need,” McFadden said. “This has forced those clients as companies to really think about, ‘What is our online offering and how do we go about that?’”
Businesses might also find that a consistent presence on social media can bring in customers. Jones noted the success that clothing boutiques have had in gaining clients through Instagram.
“There are other social platforms for other industries that could help you drive people that are checking you out to your door — or as we’re finding, the complete opposite: Now you’re driving to their door,” she said.
It’s also an opportunity to clarify the business’ true target audience.
“I can’t tell you how many people come in and say, ‘Our target audience is everybody,’” Jones said. “Ideally yes — if you had a monopoly on the situation and people could only buy from you, then yes, your audience is everybody. But you don’t.”
What comes after
While entrepreneurs can be forgiven for focusing on the current crisis, it’s also time to think about what happens when, eventually, life returns to some semblance of normalcy.
“It’s better to get a jump on that now and be planning for that so that you’re not, on June 1, still scrambling on how you’re meeting this pent-up demand,” McFadden said.
And while life seems to have come to a standstill, it’s important to remember that it will be December before you know it.
“The world is still going to be going,” Jones said. “You still need to schedule out your media . . . definitely for quarter three and maybe for some industries even into quarter four.”
“I do not think that this virus is going to eradicate social interaction once it ends,” she added. “If anything, I hope that we come out of this as a society that really values interacting with people much more than we did before.”
Of all the disasters a business might have planned for, a global pandemic probably wasn’t at the top of the list. But Greenwood, who got his start in crisis communication during the Oklahoma City bombing, said it’s a good idea to think through the effects of extremely rare catastrophes.
“I’ve worked natural disaster responses, multimillion-dollar lawsuits, intense media scrutiny of a client’s business practices, personal reputation issues online, you name it. It’s all been dwarfed by this pandemic, because we’re looking at something where every single channel of vulnerability is under attack,” he said.
Maybe the best response is to use today’s crisis to prepare for those of tomorrow.
“You have the opportunity to make the darker days ahead better by planning for the next phases of how it may affect your business,” Greenwood said.