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Why the coronavirus pandemic will make you a better marketer

Photo illustration of COVID-19 impact on marketing

In times of crisis, we yearn for silver linings. It’s only human to search for meaning, comfort, and levity amid the fear, anger, and grief that accompanies the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19.

You’ve heard it before: We have never seen anything like this. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods all over the world. It has made us rethink our priorities, not just in our personal lives, but also in our businesses.

Most days it’s impossible to find the brain space to consider the opportunities an unprecedented event affords. Our minds are occupied by thoughts of staying alive, staying healthy, staying afloat, staying sane. But opportunities — those silver linings — do exist.

One such opportunity is how we approach marketing. We’re all asking the same questions: Should we stop what we’re doing? Should we stay the course? Can we even afford this? Do people want to hear from us? Are we doing this right?

Let’s tackle that last one.

“Right” is subjective, of course, but there are some universal truths that applied long before coronavirus became part of our vernacular and will persist long after we declare victory over the invisible enemy. By building our marketing strategies around these principles — empathy, flexibility, and social responsibility — we can survive the new normal and thrive in the next normal (because there’s no going “back to normal”).

Start with empathy

We all like to think we do this anyway, but sometimes we let our own agenda — making sales goals, for example — overshadow the needs of our customers. It’s entirely possible they cannot afford to buy from us right now. How can we maintain the relationship so when they’re ready, they will spend with us again?

With empathy.

It’s not a stretch to figure out what they’re going through, because we’re in this thing, too. We’re helping our kids with schoolwork while working from home. Cooking more. Worrying about aging loved ones. Fighting with our partners about who’s hogging the Wi-Fi. Connecting with friends via virtual happy hours. Making masks out of T-shirts. Reading the news obsessively. Figuring out how to help our neighbors. Scaling back on nonessentials. Watching videos of cats leaping over walls of toilet paper rolls. Wondering why our dogs are acting so weird.

Their needs are our needs. So how can we better serve our customers — and, by extension, ourselves? You could release a recipe so people can experience your brand at home, as DoubleTree did with its famous chocolate chip cookies. You could offer your services online, not unlike Planet Fitness’ “work-ins” on Facebook Live. Maybe it’s not a cat-jumping-over-toilet-paper video, but you could provide some much-needed reprieve, as we helped Martin County, Florida, do with some family-friendly coloring pages depicting scenes from the area and “moments of escape” social videos.

Even if what we can offer doesn’t drive revenue, it’s worth doing. And worth doing well.

So pay attention. Ask questions. Listen intently. Put customers first, always. If we do that, they will be loyal.

Remain flexible

Uncertainty is the only certainty in a pandemic. No one knows when it will end or how much it will cost us. But rather than trying to know the unknowable, we can lean into it. Do the best we can given what information we have. And be prepared to change course in an instant.

Chicago’s Alinea, one of the top restaurants in the world, went from theatrical multicourse fine dining to comfort-food takeout. EO, purveyors of essential oils and beauty products, halted production on most offerings to focus exclusively on hand sanitizer and soap. Tex-Mex restaurant chain Abuelo’s had just begun a paid search and search engine optimization (SEO) program focused on increasing in-store dining at its many locations. When coronavirus shut down dining rooms, we helped them shift messaging to promote takeout and delivery instead, resulting in a 70% increase in pay-per-click (PPC) conversion rates and a 71% year-over-year increase in online orders from SEO.

Flexibility enables us to reset expectations, reimagine possibilities, and redefine what success looks like.

Give to those who need it

Some companies have made it their business to give back. Patagonia. TOMS. Warby Parker. Wells Fargo. Johnson & Johnson. Studies show that consumers are more likely to buy from brands that are environmentally conscious and community minded. But social responsibility comes in many forms, and businesses of any size can do their part.

Fashion designers big and small are making personal protective equipment (PPE) and donating it to frontline health care workers. Celebrity chefs and local restaurants are feeding those suddenly out of work or otherwise in need. National and local brands are partnering with nonprofits such as Feeding America and Team Rubicon to provide relief. Clubs Help Foundation — for which we donated our time to build the website — encourages golf clubs and members to “adopt” a local hospital, providing critical items and services during the pandemic.

If we’re in a position to do so — whether with our time, resources, or money — we should think outside of ourselves and find ways to impact our communities. Because our customers will ask us, what did you do to help during the COVID-19 pandemic? And we’d better have an answer for them. Perhaps more important, if social responsibility wasn’t previously part of our business plans, it should be from now on.

In the face of this pandemic, marketing is just one worry. Our most pressing matters may be preserving jobs and keeping the lights on. But we should allow ourselves a moment to think about how a crisis can reshape how we connect with our customers today and every day. Because when this is over, we’ll all be stronger for it.

Image credit: Chris Miller

Jennifer Chininis
Jennifer Chininis
Jennifer Chininis is the vice president of inbound marketing at Belo + Company. She’s spent her career connecting audiences through content, both as an editor and a marketer. She lives to eat, travel, and teach the world about the superiority of the serial comma.