Unprecedented. Unusual. Uncertain.
These are all words marketers have used when communicating with clients to describe the times we are living in during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While I’d argue that stressful, traumatic, and downright frightening are more fitting words to describe what many people are actually feeling during this time – one thing is clear:
And if you are lucky enough to work for a business that still has team members and budget to focus on marketing, then you may be feeling lost or torn right now when it comes to how to speak to your leads and customers.
While there are no perfect solutions for pandemic marketing, it’s safe to say that marketing messages need to be mindful, responsible, and smart – now more than ever. My goal is to provide you with a guide to effective and empathetic marketing during the pandemic and beyond, enabling you to develop a digital marketing strategy that benefits both your audience and your business.
So, let’s jump right in…
How COVID-19 Affects Your Marketing Strategy
The tactics that worked for you last year or even in Q1 of 2020, just aren’t cutting it anymore in a world where people are stressed, uncertain, and reluctant to invest in the things they were once excited about.
At the same time, your business probably doesn’t have the same marketing budget or resources that it did three months ago, making it even more difficult to stick to the time-tested digital marketing strategies that you’ve always relied on to bring in new prospects and convert leads.
The key to business success during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond is being able to adapt your business continuity plan to account for our new reality. The same is true for your online marketing strategy.
You will need to adapt your digital marketing strategy and tactics to account for the changes and difficulties both your company and your customers are facing during this crisis.
Changes to Your Audience
Just as your business isn’t the same business it was in January, your customers and prospects aren’t the same people they were in January. If you want to continue to connect and engage with your target audience, you need to respect these changes and find ways to meet your prospects where they are.
WriterAccess CEO, Byron White touched on this in our recent webinar, “Recession Marketing Roadmap: The New GPS to Thrive”:
As your audience’s values and pain points change, you will need to adapt your value proposition and messaging to address the new needs and challenges of your audience.
Not sure how your customers are changing? Ask them. Work with your customer success team to find out what new challenges and pain points your audience is facing during the pandemic. Getting to know what your “new” customers look like will help you understand how to use digital marketing power to reach and help more people.
Shifting Marketing Priorities
As your audience changes, so do your digital marketing priorities. Marketing during the pandemic (and beyond) requires businesses to shift their marketing mindset from “sell, sell, sell” to “connect, engage, solve problems.”
Your marketing success during the Coronavirus crisis and the resulting aftermath will truly depend on your ability to adapt your strategies and messaging to meet what your audience needs at the moment. During times of self-isolation, social distancing, and uncertainty, consumers are desperate for connection, assistance, and reassurance. This is something you can provide in your marketing messages and the way that your team interacts and engages with your audience.
Re-evaluating Marketing Channels
In addition to shifting your marketing focus, you may find that now is the time to re-evaluate which channels your brand is using to reach and engage your audiences. If networking, conferences, one-on-one meetings, and other in-person events played a pivotal role in lead generation and customer acquisition pre-Coronavirus, then you’ll need to consider how you can utilize other channels to make up for these lost opportunities.
Similarly, if paid advertisement was a large part of your strategy before the pandemic, you may need to rethink how you can still increase reach with a limited budget. Aside from optimizing ad spend, many small businesses may also start to shift away from costly channels and instead focus on utilizing more affordable digital marketing channels like email marketing and social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.
Even as shelter-in-place orders start to lift for people across the United States, things will not immediately go back to business as usual. There’s no telling how long the economy will suffer, so there is no deadline for the end of our pandemic marketing strategy. There’s no better time than now to adopt an omnichannel approach to digital marketing, focusing on channels that give you the most bang for your buck.
How to Adjust Your Marketing Efforts During a Pandemic (And Resulting Recession)
The pandemic has changed a lot about the way businesses operate. Whether you’ve had to reimagine your supply chain, adopt business strategies you thought were obsolete, or just change the way your team works, your business has probably already transformed in ways you would not have thought possible just a few months ago.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of digital marketing to help you effectively and affordably reach your target customers wherever they may be. As we continue to step forward into the unknown, it’s important that businesses continue to plan and adjust their digital marketing efforts for our current reality.
Pause and Re-Evaluate Current Campaigns
The first thing any business should do when adjusting their digital marketing strategy for the pandemic is pause all campaigns that were developed pre-Coronavirus. Allowing your campaigns to run unchecked during this time could have disastrous consequences for your brand if the content could be seen as inappropriate or uncaring during a pandemic.
As you re-evaluate the content and messaging of your campaigns, look at your images and language through a new lens – that of someone who is living in a world that is filled with uncertainty, economic challenges, and stress. Consider whether your campaign messaging would be well-received from someone who may be in a sensitive emotional state or a difficult economic situation.
Once you’ve combed through your campaigns and their content, only restart the campaigns that make sense in this new cultural environment. Be sure to tweak your brand messaging and images to account for the current climate. Avoid any language or imagery that may seem insensitive to those who are struggling.
As time goes on, the general mood will most likely shift, allowing you to communicate in a way that may not be overly sensitive. However, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of your customer base to determine when and if your language can start to shift back to pre-COVID messaging.
Focus on What’s Important
When adjusting your campaigns and brand messaging for a COVID-19 audience, it’s important to remind both yourself and your audience of what really matters to your company and your customers. Think about your mission and how it plays out in your company’s day-to-day operations. Now more than ever, it’s important to demonstrate to customers how you live your brand’s mission.
REI is a great example of a brand that incorporates its mission and vision into the company’s operational practices. As a company that sells outdoor apparel, sporting goods, and other gear, REI is committed to getting people (both customers and employees) outside and enjoying the activities they love most.
This ad, which ran during Black Friday a few years ago, shows exactly how REI lives its mission by giving employees the opportunity to get outside on one of the biggest shopping days of the year:
While you don’t have to take out an ad to tell the world how you are living your mission every day, it does help to provide some visibility into how your company is responding to the COVID-19 crisis and its challenges for both your employees and customers. What steps have you taken during the pandemic to support your brand’s mission? Make this clear to your customers and prospects.
Find New Ways to Provide Value
Right now is a great time to focus on developing and deepening your long-term relationships with customers and leads. The best way to foster a strong relationship with members of your audience is by showing them that you understand what they’re going through and providing them with as much value as possible.
Many businesses are providing value through free products or discounts to their customer base. While some B2B businesses are putting together funds or other resources to help freelancers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic. These actions help businesses demonstrate their mission while giving back to their customer base.
Here’s a great example from Reebok. In its #ReebokLove campaign, the company gives back to the community by bringing quality footwear to essential workers for free.
But if you’re like many of the businesses out there struggling to stay afloat during the Coronavirus crisis, then you may not have the additional funds or bandwidth to provide free or discounted products and services. The good news is that there are still ways you can provide value for your customers and leads without giving them free stuff. (Though it’s certainly a nice perk when you can!)
Think about free resources you can create to help customers overcome challenges they’re facing during the pandemic. Start a newsletter that offers valuable insight and tips your customers and leads can start using immediately. You should also consider additional ways that you can add value for existing customers. Offer them your time and expertise as a way to add value without breaking the bank.
Engaging with customers on social media channels is also a great way to build and foster long-term relationships while providing additional value. Before COVID-19, many brands were focusing on evolving media trends when it came to social engagement. However, now is the time to get back to the basics of having a conversation with your customers on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram. They want to hear from you, so reach out.
Now – more than ever – empathy-based marketing and messaging is helping brands build stronger connections with their customers while engaging more prospects. Practicing empathetic marketing requires you to put yourself in the place of the customer and see things through their eyes.
What are they feeling and experiencing? What new challenges are they facing? What is motivating them to buy? And what are their objections?
Rather than trying to find ways to be clever or funny, focus on expressing empathy for what your customers and prospects are going through. Your brand can express this empathy through both words and actions.
As mentioned before, many brands are finding ways to give back to their communities and customers through free or discounted products and services. This is just one way that you can show you are empathetic to your customers’ position. Another way to show empathy is through the stories and messages you put out during the pandemic and its aftermath.
In her keynote at Content Marketing Conference 2020, Ann Handley discussed the importance of storytelling in a COVID-19 world, discussing how brands need to adjust how they tell their story to express more empathy for the challenges that customers and leads are facing every day. This allows brands to build trust in a way that they may not have been able to before.
“I think the opportunity that we have in marketing more broadly is not to worry about attention, but to think about how we can earn trust,” Handley says. “This is true always in marketing, but the focus on trust is especially important now. It’s vital now in this COVID age… So look at everything you do as a brand, as a company, as an individual, through the lens of trust times affinity.”
Marketing Strategies to Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic (and Beyond)
Now that we’ve discussed how you can adapt your marketing efforts to meet the new needs of your audience, let’s talk about specific marketing strategies you can use to reach, engage, and convert leads and customers during the pandemic. In addition to developing short-term strategies for pandemic times, it’s important to start planning strategies ahead of time for post-pandemic marketing as well.
In our recent webinar, Victoria Albert from INFUSEmedia encourages businesses to continue their focus on “human-to-human” campaigns.
“It’s okay to sell, but it’s ever-so-important to put faces behind the brand,” Albert says. “Less marketing campaigns and more real engagements.”
With your head down in the metrics and focused on things like improving search engine optimization, it can be easy to forget that there are real people on the other end of your marketing campaigns. However, it’s vital that you focus on ways to speak to and engage with the real people who make up your audience.
Albert recommends that brands find ways to invoke a sense of purpose and positivity in their messaging. While it can certainly be difficult to remain positive during such a stressful and traumatic cultural moment, there are ways that you can invoke community and solidarity in your marketing campaigns to help show that your brand will still be there for customers and leads when they are ready to buy from your brand – even if that isn’t for awhile.
One way that you can connect human-to-human is by having the actual humans behind your brand connect with customers. Making the C-suite visible by putting your CEO or Head of Operations on video with a message to your clients is just one example of how you can connect human-to-human during the pandemic. You can further encourage human-to-human connection by empowering the rest of your team to record videos, make phone calls, and be vocal participants in online discussions.
Storytelling and Content Marketing
Storytelling has always been a popular marketing strategy for brands. But it may be even more important now when customers are scrambling for answers, help, and guidance during a confusing and difficult time.
For pandemic storytelling tips, I turn again to the content marketing queen, Ann Handley. In her CMC 2020 keynote, she offered a few tips for creating stories that deliver trust and affinity to audiences in the COVID era:
- Provide a sense of community and camaraderie by communicating with your audience in a tangible way and showing them that you understand what they’re going through.
- Focus on deepening existing relationships by providing value in every piece of content you produce.
- Take short-term actions to reflect the new realities we face by finding ways to help your audience with what they are struggling with now as opposed to in the long-term.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative with your approaches to connection and engagement.
- Create content and campaigns that make things meaningful and relevant to your audience.
- Put people (customers, leads, your team, the community) at the core of your marketing stories.
Social Proof and Customer Reviews
Accumulating reviews from your best customers and advocates is a strategy you can use well beyond the pandemic. Ask your best clients to write reviews for your business online on review sites like Yelp and Google Business as well social media channels like Facebook. Gather testimonials from your brand advocates to place on your website as social proof of your products or services.
While testimonials and reviews are worthwhile at any time – pandemic or not – they are especially important during a time when people are reluctant to spend money on things they may not view as a necessity. The social proof on your brand website and on review sites can go a long way in helping convince an interested lead that your brand is worth the investment.
Paid Ads Across Platforms
While your first instinct might be to pull back the budget during times of economic uncertainty, it’s important that you don’t forget about paid ads during this time. Fewer companies are running ads right now, which means that paid ads are really, really cheap.
And while ad conversion rates are dropping in certain industries, they aren’t dropping at the same rate as cost-per-click rates. This means that PPC ads are offering a much higher return on investment (ROI) now for certain businesses than they were before Coronavirus hit the U.S. It’s important to note that paid ads aren’t the answer for all brands right now, but if you happen to be in an industry with steady sales during this time, you may want to take the opportunity to run some paid ads while they are cheap.
While ads are more affordable now than in the past, it’s still important to choose the right platforms and carefully plan your campaigns before pulling the trigger. With a limited budget, you’ll want to make sure that you’re launching ads on the platforms that make the most sense for your business. Invest in the channels where your customers are spending the most time.
Tools for Adapting Your Digital Marketing Strategy During a Pandemic
Given that you may find yourself doubling-down on things like content and engagement during the pandemic, you might need some additional tools and resources to implement some of the strategies above. From tips and tricks to help you with big picture strategy to serious tools that help you get stuff done, the resources below are a good jumping off point for those who are looking for a little help in adapting their digital marketing strategy during the pandemic.
COVID-19 Marketing Resources
Let’s start with a few free resources that you can use to help your business develop and adapt its digital marketing plan during COVID-19 and beyond:
- The American Marketing Association has put together COVID-19 Response: Support for the Marketing Community, a collection of resources to help marketing professionals better communicate with and market to leads and customers during the pandemic.
- AdAge offers “A Regularly Updated List Tracking Marketers’ Response to Coronavirus,” which details the latest steps that brands are taking to adjust their advertising in the wake of COVID-19 – a great place to find inspiration for effective pandemic marketing.
- In WriterAccess webinar, Recession Marketing Roadmap: The New GPS to Thrive, Victoria Albert of INFUSEmedia discusses what businesses should start doing, keep doing, and stop doing to thrive during the pandemic and the resulting recession.
- Content Marketing Institute put together a comprehensive list of COVID-19 Content Marketing Resources from across the web with a focus on content marketing strategy, virtual events, managing remote teams, updating your skills, and more.
There are many marketing tools that can help you save time and money on marketing tasks while maximizing results. I’ve put together a list of tools that I personally enjoy, which also happen to be providing free or discounted features during the global pandemic:
Affinity offers creative and publishing tools that are similar to Adobe products but a bit more affordable. Our designer at WriterAccess prefers Affinity Designer, Publisher, and Photo to their Adobe counterparts. And as someone who is NOT a designer, I find the product fairly intuitive, although you can tackle some complex projects with it if you know what you’re doing.
To support the creative community during the COVID-19 pandemic, Affinity is offering a 90-day free trial for the Mac and Windows versions of the entire Affinity suite. And if you like the products and would prefer to buy and keep the apps, you can get 50% off.
Loom is a video recording service that you can use to record product videos, educational content, webinars, etc. Many of the Content Marketing Conference 2020 presenters used Loom to record their digital sessions. And I must say, the videos looked awesome. This is a great tool for small businesses that are bringing their events online or those that want to record more educational content in an effort to add more value for their audience.
Through July 1, 2020, Loom has removed the recording limit on their free plan. (It was previously 25 recordings, but it is now unlimited.) They have also cut the price of Loom Pro in half, offering the subscription for just $4/month. All trials of Loom Pro have also been extended from 14- to 30-days. Now is the perfect time to give it a whirl.
Moz offers killer SEO tools that help you drive more traffic and improve your search engine rankings. They also happen to have a pretty cool academy that offers a range of courses on different SEO topics like keyword research, page optimization, backlink basics, SEO reporting, local SEO, and more.
Right now, Moz Academy courses are available for free with the promo code “wegotthis.” If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about SEO to improve your search engine rankings, now is the time.
Ubersuggest is a tool that helps you generate keywords for your content marketing strategy and production. The tool’s features allow you to get insight into the SEO strategies that work for your competitors and the top SEO pages for keywords while offering you keyword suggestions, content ideas, and backlink data.
While Neil Patel has always offered (and continues to plan to offer) a free version of the tool, he has expanded what you get with the free plan in light of the pandemic. The free plan now offers access to historical data as well as more keywords, content ideas, and top pages.
Vidyard is an online video platform for businesses that allows you to quickly and easily record and manage videos online. You can use this tool to record and share personalized videos in your emails, on your website, or anywhere else to offer that human-to-human connection that so many consumers are craving right now.
A limited version of Vidyard for marketing is free forever. But the company is also offering Vidyard for Internal Communications for free until June 30, 2020. In addition to marketing videos, you can send quick and secure messages to your internal team regarding marketing campaigns or other projects.
Start Making Small Changes Today
Adjusting your digital marketing strategy to fit the new normal may seem overwhelming at first, especially if you’ve already planned and created content for campaigns pre-COVID-19. But the work that you put into adjusting your marketing efforts will pay off in the end as you work to build stronger long-term relationships with clients and leads.
I’ll leave you with another quote from content marketing darling, Ann Handley:
And remember, even if your customers and leads may not be in the best place to purchase your products or services now during times of economic uncertainty – they will certainly remember the effort you put into connecting with them and providing value when they are ready to buy again.
Sarah Jane Burt is Sr. Content Strategist at WriterAccess. For the past decade, she’s helped brands big and small, from tech giant IBM to the local plumber, tell their stories and create strategies for customer-driven content. When she’s not working on developing and implementing our content strategy, she’s writing blog posts that help demystify content marketing and strategy for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and enterprise content teams.