Around the world, businesses are being forced to adjust how they reach and engage customers, managing a situation that even the most detailed crisis plan likely didn’t cover. As society will be following shelter in place and stay home orders for the foreseeable future, business leaders are finding that their existing marketing strategies and tactics may be inappropriate or no longer relevant.

While marketing practitioners are facing a different business reality, we’re also dealing with a different customer. A March 2020 report from Forrester reveals an unsurprising decline in consumer energy due to COVID-19, as people feel more isolated and disconnected. As businesses review the mix of marketing strategies that were used to reach customers, it’s clear new tactics and approaches are critical not only to maintain business operations, but also to engage and inspire customers during a time of crisis.

The dramatic shift to digital-only marketing may raise new challenges for businesses, but it also presents new opportunities. When moving a business and brand to fully online and navigating a rapidly changing customer reality, the Digital Marketing Institute offers these five tips for prioritizing digital marketing to maintain sales and customer engagement as we navigate the unknown.

Keep investing in search engine optimization (SEO)

Although many marketing budgets are being slashed to address changing buying patterns and sales, people will continue to search online for brands, products and services. From restaurants that will deliver tonight to a medical service that may be needed down the road, people are turning to Google and other search engines to research short- and long-term needs.

Regardless of how a business had to change operations to address the pandemic, it is still critical that the brand remain top of mind — and top of search results. While changes to an existing SEO strategy may not be necessary, maintaining an SEO investment is. If budget reductions are critical, look to pause or reduce paid advertising / pay for click investments while maintaining SEO and inbound marketing.

To ensure that shifting consumer needs aren’t causing a decline in search rankings, continue to audit content and results to see if the keywords are still relevant and popular, and keep track of new emerging search queries related to your business and industry. In addition, explore opportunities to incorporate more long tail keywords, particular for video and other creative tags.

Prepare the business for e-commerce and online sales

Many businesses that maintained in-person operations perhaps didn’t feel they had a need for e-commerce. However, now that customer interaction is fully virtual, businesses are looking for new ways for customers to purchase products and services, gift certificates, subscriptions and anything else that helps to maintain a cash flow.

A first step is to evaluate the existing infrastructure to see what needs to be in place to quickly enable online sales through social media and the business website. If payment processing is new to your website, engage a trusted payment gateway provider such as PayPal, Stripe or Amazon Pay to make sure you are meeting the security and privacy requirements for online payment processing.

Next, evaluate your website and social channels. Do these sites have the right content and capabilities to draw customers in and inspire immediate sales or lead capture? Consider adding more detailed photographs or videos to showcase items for sale or customers using your products and services. Share any user-generated content to highlight happy customers. And don’t forget, purchases can be made directly through Facebook and Instagram, so be sure to enable these sites for sales.

Use social media to humanize your business

In this time of isolation, community is more important than ever. Everyone feels disconnected, and longs to engage with other people and the brands they value. People are spending more time than ever on social media — a recent Facebook blog reports a tremendous increase in the company’s social networking products and services from users around the world.

We are all human, whether we work for a local boutique or an international software provider, and we are all facing new challenges and obstacles together. Brands and businesses of any kind should embrace the human connection across its social media channels, highlighting employees, customers and the community.

From demonstrating  how products and services are used in times of crises, to showing off employee pets and other furry co-workers of the home office, to sharing acts of community service and ways we’re all helping each other, social media provides a personal touch and helps customers get to know the brand — and the brand values — better.

Reevaluate your marketing mix

It’s clear that the marketing activities planned months ago for Q2 and Q3 are likely no longer relevant — or the right approach for customer engagement in a socially distanced environment. Now is the time to review what was planned and to see whether or not it aligns to revised business objectives. Budget should also be reviewed to ensure it is prioritized correctly and focused on what’s going to reach key audiences in their disrupted lives.

Explore moving some marketing efforts to a new or different channel — focusing more on mobile marketing, for example, or determining how to create engagement with customers with whom in-person meetings are no longer occurring. Find both short-term and longer-term opportunities — look for tactics  that can be executed in a few days, such as a virtual meet up or a customer contest, in addition to longer-term campaigns that may require advertising or multiple emails and customer touch points.

Go Live and Connect Your Community

With everyone at home and online, webinars and online events are a great way to connect your community.

First, webinars. Research from BrightTALK shows that more than 90% of B2B professionals identify webinars as their favorite online content format. Businesses that relied heavily on  in-person industry events or trade shows to build their brand, audience, and marketplace now need to pivot to hosting webinars instead. To create an effective webinar that will keep people interested in your business, focus on solving a specific problem or overcoming a common challenge, where you and your business can be both a thought leader and an honest broker. Provide slides or some kind of collateral piece after the webinar to reiterate key points and to summarize the lessons you shared. As webinars typically are announced with a bit of lead time (and can be used to capture email addresses of registrants), take the time to create a marketing campaign to promote the webinar and to build the interest of your intended audience.

Next, live online events. People may be physically distanced, but they don’t want to be socially distant, and there has been an explosion of everything from virtual happy hours to live concerts, workouts, or cooking demonstrations. Think of ways to bring your community of customers together for more informal events to maintain a more personal connection that could be lost when we’re working and living in isolation. Host an “ask me anything”-style forum with an owner, leader or executive, give demonstrations or lessons, or even just bring people together for a drink and a laugh via Zoom or another conferencing solution. Even the smallest efforts towards community and togetherness will go a long way.

What is most critical in a time of crisis is the ability to be nimble and able to react quickly. Events may require a reset in strategies daily or weekly, as opposed to monthly or quarterly. The most important goal throughout this pandemic is to try to be well-positioned and prepared for a recovery when the crisis starts to lift.

While we know that at some point the COVID-19 crisis will end, we would be foolish to say that life–and business–will revert to “back to normal”. This pandemic will be defining a new normal for consumers and businesses, one that is required to be online, mobile, nimble, and able to react quickly to change.

Many case studies will surely be written about how brands managed to succeed throughout the crisis, as well as where the missteps were. But at the end of the day, we’re all in survival mode. Luckily, even small (yet smart) enhancements to an organization’s digital marketing priorities have the potential to make a difference in how customers respond, and how they will remember your brand after the worst of the crisis is behind us.

Tadhg O’Connell is Head of Product at the Digital Marketing Institute, leading a team that designs and builds certification programs and learning assets for professionals in digital marketing, social selling, and digital transformation. With more than 20 years of experience designing and developing learning programs, He is passionate about building effective educational products with proven learning principles at their core, enabling professionals to develop durable competencies and skills.

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