The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left millions unemployed, as businesses in nearly every industry have been forced to close up shop – and many won’t be reopening.
Despite the economic damage this crisis has caused, it has also created opportunities, especially for marketers. Agile marketing teams have moved quickly to engage the public with empathetic messages on behalf of consumer-facing brands, and though they received some criticism for sounding repetitive, their efforts have made an unprecedented positive impact on audiences: Ace Metrix found that three-quarters of coronavirus-era ads in April were empowering for viewers, compared with only 12.5% of purpose-driven advertising over time.
Of course, brand messaging isn’t the only change that has come as a result of the pandemic. Significant shifts in the way customers research buying opportunities, engage with brands, and make purchases are all well underway, and these changes will have lasting implications for marketers as we move toward the “next normal.”
Doubling Down on Digital
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the modern work environment faster and more dramatically than perhaps any other event in modern history. Remote work had been an increasingly popular corporate trend. Now, it’s a corporate norm. Companies that suddenly find themselves relying on completely remote teams have been forced to adapt their digital infrastructures to facilitate that shift.
Mandatory digitization to accommodate new internal processes and workflows has allowed businesses to adapt to a selling environment that is also increasingly digital. Today, nearly 90% of B2B sales activities are conducted remotely via phone, videoconferencing, or the web, and customer preference for tech-enabled sales interactions has spiked dramatically in recent months, as have preferences for self-service options.
Most B2B companies have reduced marketing budgets in the wake of the pandemic, even as the need for impactful customer engagement has increased. Perhaps unsurprisingly, marketing teams that had already adopted COVID marketing trends are generally seeing more success as they now attempt to do more with less.
For example, as fears of a toilet paper shortage led to a scramble to stock up in the early days of the pandemic, Cottonelle issued a direct response to consumers to help ease concerns about toilet paper supply and discourage panic-buying. That response was accompanied by the launch of its #ShareASquare campaign and a pledge to donate $1 to the United Way each time customers used the hashtag. Similarly, Ford, which has navigated a number of international and domestic crises in its 117 years, ran ads that simultaneously reassured buyers undergoing financial hardship and highlighted its efforts to manufacture medical equipment in response to the pandemic. Hundreds of other brands have implemented similar strategies that aimed to address customers — and assuage their heightened concerns — head-on.
To ensure that your crisis communications are both timely and impactful, keep these three considerations in mind:
1. Agility depends on trust.
Agile methodology has somewhat become a corporate cliché in recent years, but companies that have truly embraced agility are now being rewarded. What many companies struggle with when attempting to incorporate agile principles is trust.
In order to be nimble, marketers must react to news and events in real time. Leaders must trust their marketing teams — and each individual team member within them — to make decisions that will lead to impactful customer engagement. They must also empower those team members to immediately act on those decisions. In today’s digital world, news travels fast and trends don’t last long. Capitalizing on relevant topics by jumping into the conversation can help marketers build brand equity or pivot to avoid negative exposure. It’s not possible unless marketers have the resources and authority to move quickly.
2. Context matters, but content is king.
Investing in digital communications channels is important, but that alone won’t translate to marketing success. The messaging you put out in videos, blog posts, email newsletters, social media posts, podcasts, and elsewhere must always take into account your unique audience. Consider conducting marketing research surveys immediately once a crisis strikes to ensure you fully understand your audience’s needs during times of uncertainty.
When COVID-19 became a pandemic and state governments began closing down businesses and implementing mandatory quarantine regulations, not every company was ready to respond, and many decided not to. Sometimes, no response is the right response. If you’re not sure how your audience will perceive a certain event or react to messaging, it can pay to wait and see. Your customers aren’t robots, and their perceptions and values may change over time. Strive to understand customer perspectives as they evolve and seek to adapt the content of your communications to match that understanding.
3. Align words and actions with expectations.
Perception creates expectations, both internally and externally. If you’re viewed as a market leader, your audience will expect your communications to reflect that. If you choose not to communicate when a major relevant event occurs, public perceptions will inevitably shift. Similarly, if you’re unable to quickly respond to negative press, your status as a market leader can just as quickly evaporate.
From an internal standpoint, it’s critical that expectations are aligned in order to keep brand messaging consistent. A big part of achieving that alignment is ensuring that teams constantly communicate and that each business unit fully understands their responsibilities. If your marketing team creates content that doesn’t match the language your sales team uses when engaging with prospects, you’ll have a hard time building brand equity. Likewise, if your executive team has one understanding of your company’s value proposition and marketing or sales have a different understanding, internal confusion is inevitable, and your communications will reflect that confusion.
While the current crisis has made an unprecedented impact on modern businesses, it has also forced companies to take steps toward better agility and resilience. In the increasingly digital world of commerce, those attributes will separate the leaders from the ones left behind.
Nick Chasinov is the founder and CEO of Teknicks, a research-based internet marketing agency certified by Google in Analytics, Tag Manager, and a Google Premier AdWords partner.