While there’s no definitive timeline for when this global pandemic will all be over, the US is taking steps toward re-opening the country in three phases.

Non-essential businesses are now allowed to open, with certain provisions in place.

However, widespread uncertainty, misinformation, and worry about the human cost of reopening the economy present big challenges for brands in all sectors.

How do we move forward from a digital marketing perspective? How do we adapt complex, multichannel strategies to meet changing customer needs?

In this past, I’ll share some ways to adapt your digital strategy as we move into these next few stages of crisis response.

Make sure your business information is up-to-date

Before you start planning your next series of email drips or reaching back out to your influencer partners, it’s important to nail a few key basics.

  • Update your business hours and any changes in products, services, or shipping timelines.
  • Make sure your website, social platforms, and for local businesses, your Google My Business profile, include a COVID-19 statement. While it may seem like you’re telling people something they already know, releasing updates shows customers you’re still around. Without this, they may just assume that you’ve abandoned your post and move on to another brand that provides a clear picture of their offerings and availability.
  • Check that you’ve made it clear to customers how they can get in touch. Phone, chat, email, and social media profiles should all be visible in multiple places.

Stay informed

Once you’ve audited and updated your basic business information, you’ll need to assess the current situation.

This process involves three key components:

  1. Staying informed about the latest COVID-19 guidance and its impact on your business and industry.
  2. Gaining an understanding of what’s changed for your customers.
  3. Identifying new trends, topics, and keywords that align with where your customers are right now.

What’s currently happening in your industry and state

Before you start looking at keyword data and audience trends, you’ll want to get a clear picture (as much as this is possible) of the current coronavirus guidelines and any restrictions or requirements that apply to your business.

Additionally, it’s important to get a pulse on how reopening is being perceived by the public, presented in the media, and how brands are responding to evolving guidelines.

These factors will play a critical role in how you position your messaging–and they’ll ensure that you don’t violate any rules you might have otherwise overlooked.

Here are a few key things you should be paying attention to:

Government regulations

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the White House-CDC guidelines for re-opening–particularly those outlining what employers and individuals should be doing to stay safe.

For example, as we move into phase two, businesses will be allowed to reopen but may need to make changes to their environment to enforce moderate social distancing practices and are encouraged to offer protections for vulnerable groups.

If you have a physical location–or run a business where employees work in the same office, you need to be aware of what’s required before opening your doors.

It’s also super important that you consider your marketing strategy at the state level, as requirements vary from state-to-state.

What issues are emerging in the news cycle?

Make sure you’re keeping a pulse on what’s happening at the local, state, and national levels.

As you develop your campaigns, you’ll want to make sure you have a sense of how things like job loss, inequality, and widespread uncertainty are playing out in the real world.

It’s good to be informed anyway, but it’s especially critical now, as current events will shape your messaging and potentially expose a need for something you can offer.

How are brands responding as regulations shift?

Finally, you’ll want to also look at how brands are responding to shifting regulations. What are they getting right and where are they coming up short?

A few things to watch for:

  • What language are brands using to discuss next steps?
  • How are they communicating those changes?
  • What are companies doing to give back to the community?
  • What are others in your industry doing (or not doing) to protect their workers and communities?
  • How are they handling supply chain shortages? Or risks to those working in supplier warehouses?

Audience research

After taking stock of the situation, you’ll then want to move into audience research to see what’s changed for each of your audience segments.

What to look for:

  • Changing financial circumstances such as job losses, pay cuts, furloughs, or uncertainty about future employment.
  • Adjusting to lifestyle changes like working from home, online socializing, managing kids’ online learning activities.
  • New browsing, buying, & search habits.
  • Changing expectations for brands.

Social listening tools like BuzzSumo, Mention, or Socialbakers can help you gauge what types of content resonate with your audience now, and keep track of changes in sentiment.

Additionally, compare new findings with pre-pandemic audience insights, as it may help you respond to future expectations.

According to a study from BCG, customers’ personal experiences color their view of the current situation, which may cause a change in mindset.

Some customers might emerge from the crisis for a greater appreciation for simple pleasures like keeping in touch with friends or embracing a new hobby. Others might come out of this with a higher standard for cleanliness or a fear of gathering in crowds.

Source

Identifying new queries & keywords

Start your keyword research by looking for trending topics that relate to your brand.

Google Trends’ Coronavirus Search Trends is a good place to get a baseline understanding of what search terms are currently trending (If you’re not well-versed in using Google Trends, Google offers a COVID-specific walk-through here).

With coronavirus trends, avoid “newsjacking,” and use this data to gain an understanding of what questions people are asking about the virus, the reopening process, financial support options, etc.

Additionally, you’ll want to look for non-COVID search trends emerging due to changing circumstances–think specific products, recipe trends, work/productivity solutions, etc.

For example, Microsoft search data found that hobby-related queries are on the rise, along with those related to pet adoption and ideas for celebrating special events online.

Source

Make a note of anything relevant to your brand voice or how you run your business and from there, use a keyword tool (Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush, etc.) to identify the best opportunities.

The growth opportunities of relationship-building

While it’s hard to find the “upside” in a situation such as this one, there are some emerging opportunities for brands to set themselves up for long-term growth. It should go without saying, but brands need to remain compassionate and be careful about the message they’re putting out there.

At a base level, you’ll need to provide clear information about how your business is addressing government regulations. Beyond that, what you say, or don’t matters more than you think.

According to research published by MIT, there’s a real opportunity for brands to tap into new customer mindsets now, as existing habits have been disrupted.

The article describes humans as “cognitive misers,” which means, we have a tendency to rely on shortcuts to help guide the decision-making process.

In “normal times,” this tendency makes it hard for brands to capture audience attention after they’ve established a preference for another brand.

Because the crisis has upended lives on a global scale, smaller brands have a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) opportunity to compete for market share with larger competitors.

Those that get it right stand to build lasting connections with new customers, thereby setting the stage for lasting success.

According to McKinsey, there are four actions that can help brands achieve short and long-term goals, as shown in the graphic below.

Source

Here’s more about how to approach each of these actions:

Care & concern

  • Approach all messaging with empathy, though make sure it’s genuine.
  • Be transparent about how you’re addressing the current situation,
  • Look toward social listening tools to gauge customer sentiment.
  • Consider how you can be helpful. What can you do to support your community, address consumer needs, or alleviate concerns. Whatever it is, be realistic about what you can offer.

Meet customers on their terms

  • Consider adding new digital products/services that customers can use from home.
  • What can you offer to support your customers as they adjust to lifestyle changes?
  • Can you run digital workshops or online classes that fulfill a need–think skills that help people find work online or new networking opportunities.
  • For brick-and-mortars, consider what services you can make “touch-free.” Think shopping with curbside pick-up, contactless delivery, etc.

Prepare for the new normal–post-COVID

  • Understand that things probably won’t be the same after the pandemic ends, so you’ll want to start looking at how you can adapt to potential outcomes.
  • Can you offer lower-cost solutions to customers hit hard by the economic fallout?
  • Consider new online revenue streams or how you might digitize physical services.
  • If you primarily operate out of a physical storefront, what changes might you make to the brick-and-mortar experience?

Develop a more “agile” approach

  • Look toward social platforms, reviews, and market trends to inform your direction. Surveys and traditional testing takes too much time.
  • Check trending topics and search queries daily and incorporate them into your ads, socials, and content.
  • Create templates ahead of time that allow you to make changes quickly as needed.

Every business needs a multi-channel digital marketing sprint at each phase

As you re-open, you’ll want to make sure to match the common language associated with each phase (i.e. at stage one it was: “stay-at-home orders,” “shelter-in-place,” “social distancing.”).

That doesn’t mean you need to lean into using “the new normal” or the work-from-home acronym, “WFH,” if that’s not how your brand “talks.”

Be aware of which official terms or common language best reflects the current situation and conduct an audit at each stage to make sure you’re providing the latest, most relevant information across all channels.

Here are a few channel-specific considerations you’ll want to include in your strategy:

Email marketing

According to Oracle research, the coronavirus outbreak has changed email behavior. More people are engaging with promotional emails (likely out of boredom), though brands have reported that revenue is down.

That said, email is currently one of the best ways to communicate with customers, ensuring that even if they can’t buy right now, your brand will remain top of mind.

Avoid getting too promotional for now. You can still promote products, but focus more on communicating updates, or providing relevant information.

Additionally, keep an eye on which times of day get the most engagement and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Content strategy

Your content strategy should focus on how you can best meet your audience’s needs at this time.

As regulations are lifted, we’re starting to see big spikes in traffic for each state around products and services.You might find that audiences are gravitating toward different topics now that their situation has changed.

Marketers need to capitalize on these spikes in traffic and start running campaigns before the regulations go into effect and then when they do go into effect, build out those campaigns to maximize the impact.

This article from Content Marketing Institute uses a financial services blog as an example. A few months back, readers were more interested in investing tips or retirement planning, whereas now, budgeting posts get the most play.

Knowing this, that company might look for keyword opportunities around saving money. For example, they might create a resource library that helps readers navigate financial relief options, small business assistance, etc.

Social media

With social platforms, it’s super important that you take peoples’ emotions into account and avoid making light of the situation, as well as how you position your product/services.

Consider that people have lost jobs and loved ones, missed major life milestones, or are currently working front-line jobs. Within that context, promoting luxury goods or making bad virus puns is a bad look.

Be kind, helpful, and build your campaigns around trending topics and useful information. Additionally, make sure you’re responding to comments and questions as they come in. This is a real opportunity to build trust and community.

Finally, continue tracking audience behaviors–are certain channels seeing usage spikes? Are people engaging at different times?

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is often aspirational featuring high-end clothing and jewelry, over-priced brunch food, and exotic destinations. As you might imagine, this type of content feels out of touch with reality (just look at the response to celebrity quarantine posts).

However, people are spending more time online and still want product recommendations, entertaining content, and visual inspiration. The key thing to remember is, content must be relatable. Look for influencers that offer a glimpse into real life–new quarantine hobbies, puzzles, pet content, awkward “work-from-home” posts, etc.

For PPC ads, the challenge lies in creating actionable ad copy, while remaining sensitive to the situation.

A few recommendations from Google:

  • Be aware of the context and tone of your ads. Words like virus, protection, or checkup might come across as tone deaf or violate Google’s coronavirus policy.
  • Avoid linking to landing pages that depict large gatherings or human interaction or contain messaging that may be inappropriate at this time.
  • Consider focusing on new conversion goals. For example, you might promote free online workshops or downloadable resources to capture new leads. Or, you might promote a podcast or video series.
  • Continuously review ad groups and be prepared to adjust copy as needed.

Additionally, as mentioned above, if you’re running national or international campaigns, you’ll need to be careful about making sure your message reflects what’s happening at the local level, then tweaking those communications to match those policies.

Final thoughts

In sum, here are the main things to take away from this:

  • Be aware of changing regulations. What changes are you required to make to keep doing business? What safety measures are health experts recommending?
  • Look toward what’s happening on a cultural level. How are people reacting to regulatory changes? How are they reacting to brand responses?
  • Keep customers informed of your current situation–hours, product/service offerings, shipping delays, and if applicable, what will happen as you re-open your doors to the public.
  • Cater to customers’ new habits, needs, and address these changes with empathy.
  • Keep track of emerging trends, traffic spikes, keyword data, etc. — making sure you’re set up to respond to changes quickly.

While it’s imperative that you approach each step toward reopening with care and caution, remember, we’re all playing it by ear.

In any case, focusing on delivering value to your audience and communicating with empathy will go a long way with customers. Even when things go back to “normal.”

Resources

https://www.whitehouse.gov/openingamerica/

https://www.business2community.com/digital-marketing/reshaping-your-digital-marketing-playbook-based-on-covid-19-consumer-sentiments-02306805

https://www.prweek.com/article/1678489/people-want-hear-brands-during-pandemic

https://www.cmswire.com/digital-marketing/how-to-strike-the-right-tone-with-your-covid-19-marketing-messaging/