COVID-19, the desire to minimize the spread of the virus that causes it, and the mounting fear associated with the idea of a pandemic have already caused extensive behavior changes across the U.S.: travel restrictions, canceled meetings, increases in online shopping, restrictions on group meetings, school closures, and more. History has shown us that when crises occur, both markets and regulators react. Following 9/11, for example, there were expansions in employee assistance programs with associated costs, and security concerns moved to the forefront for many companies, not just airlines.
All of these shifts in policy and behavior changed the landscape for businesses. The coronavirus is already changing the market dramatically. That said, what’s important is how marketers react to the situation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To provide guidance to our clients in this unprecedented time, IWCO Direct’s marketing strategy team, consisting of Alan Sherman, Jamie Veltri, and me, have gathered the following considerations for moving forward. It’s important to remember that in any crisis environment, there are some basic good practices we believe marketers should follow.
1. Automated Activities May Need to be Reviewed or Adjusted
In a crisis or perceived crisis situation, the timing and content of your messages to your market are more important than ever. You do not want to appear to be either insensitive or alarmist. Automated emails, tweets, blogs, and social posts may need to be adjusted for timing and message. You want to avoid appearing flippant in a time where media posts are serious and consumers are focused on more important things. Avoid any activity that could paint your brand in a negative light. How you communicate in a crisis shows your customers and prospective customers who you are as a company. It may make sense to stop some activities and increase others. That said, we don’t suggest you stop marketing, rather you have firm control of what you are putting out and when you are putting it out. Aggressively evaluate the message you are sending to your target audiences to ensure it is supportive, appropriate, and well timed.
2. Push Off Testing or Manage Test Expectations
Because the market place is not functioning the same way it normally would, you can expect media, online, and mail testing may produce results that are not likely to be predictive of future results when the crisis is over. It may be better to push testing efforts out to a time when the market is more stable. Instead, increase efforts toward proven techniques or specific communications opportunities directly related to the state of the market.
3. Consider the Media Channel
In-home advertising such as television, digital, and direct mail will be key—considering people will be spending a lot of time in their homes. Out-of-home advertising such as event advertising, outdoor, and face-to-face/door-to-door channels will not be as effective. If you can adjust your ad spend to move your marketing out of those channels and into in-home media channels, you should.
4. The Key Word is Flexibility—Not Retraction
It may be prudent to retract some of your scheduled marketing activities; in other cases, it may make sense to rework them to make them more relevant or to show how your business is supporting your customers and the community in challenging times. In addition, extensive retraction in marketing efforts can create opportunities for competitors who are more nimble to adjust messages and media strategies and take market share from you. The key is to be smart about mix and message; adjusting efforts as needed, while maintaining adequate levels of marketing to support your business objectives. A hyper-reactionary pull-back in marketing during a pandemic can not only create an opportunity for your competitors, it can send the wrong message to your customers. Being perceived as stable, conscientious, and available is key when clients or consumers may feel broader national circumstances are unstable.
5. Rework Your Content and Message if it’s Appropriate
If scheduled social media posts or communications are affected by virus concerns, content should be appropriately re-worked. However, social marketing activities (and really most marketing activities) should continue.
6. Be Adaptable and Responsive to Your Market
Know that your target market is adjusting to a new set of circumstances. Your marketing mix and message may need to adjust accordingly (sometimes very quickly). Obvious examples of adjustment exist for businesses directly impacted by COVID-19, such as travel companies. If your business is likely to be directly affected by COVID-19, make sure you have appropriately staffed phones and that your social media support staff is able to monitor and react to posts and communicate effectively with your market. Do what you can to keep your service levels high and your customers happy even in troubling time. Be cautious that you don’t appear to be callous or ignorant of customer difficulties caused by the crisis they are in. Remember, how you react to a crisis can impact how your brand is seen well into the future.
Consider how the situation affects your customers. People are stocking up on supplies because they believe they could be potentially quarantined in their home for extensive periods of time. What are the media implications of this behavior for your brand? Will they need your service more or less? Will they be more likely to consume a different media mix? It’s intuitive to think retail shopping will be impacted while online buying will increase. There are many companies who are pushing employees to work from home. Know the impact to your business and supply chain and adjust accordingly.
7. Avoid Capitalizing on News Headlines to Promote Your Products and Services
Don’t be the company that jumps on every headline to make a sale or stir up hype for your own benefit. That lack of authenticity and the long-term impact of acting opportunistically will be far more negative to your brand than simply acting with integrity and respect in the near term.
8. Remember Your Business Has a Voice—All Your Communications Carry That Voice to the Market
Your voice should be supportive and empathetic, making people feel better.
In short: Stay the course. Be real to your customers and prospects. Care and show them you care—your business will likely survive the crisis and may even come out better off in the long term if you handle the crisis like a pro.
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