What’s your biggest priority right now? As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, many people are scrambling to protect jobs and business interests. But we’re also looking for ways to help each other. Here’s how to adapt your business during a crisis, make a positive difference – and prepare for the future.
The world has been turned upside down. While we’re all keen to get back to normal, most people acknowledge that it will be quite some time before we can return to our regular social lives, shopping habits, and workplaces. Wearing masks, washing hands and keeping six feet of distance will be our everyday reality for months to come.
In the midst of all this, businesses still need to serve customers and support their staff. But how?
In this article, we’ll cover some ways to reassure your customers, take care of your employees, and come up with a sensitive response to the wider crisis. We’ll also take a second to think about future crisis planning, and how to implement the lessons learned from this time.
But first, a word about sensitivity
Some brands are hesitant to respond to COVID-19 publicly. They’re worried about coming across as tactless or exploitative during a crisis. And look, I get it – I hesitated before deciding to write about this topic.
But there’s a big difference between exploiting a crisis, and responding appropriately. The chances are that your business does have something positive to contribute right now – even if it’s as simple as reminding people to wash their hands. Whether you’re B2B or B2C, brick and mortar or direct to consumer, your crisis response matters.
Take the example of Visa: while financial services might not be consumers’ biggest priority during a pandemic, the brand still found a way to respond. Visa scrapped all their Olympics programming and replaced it with a campaign to encourage hand-washing:
That campaign probably won’t have a direct effect on Visa’s share price. But it does show an appropriate response to the crisis, it supports Visa’s brand image, and it might even save lives.
Review your products and services
My favorite quote in a crisis is “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. (Theodore Roosevelt said it – now there’s a man who knew something about crisis management.)
Sit down and think about what your customers need from you right now. Try and see things from their perspective. Think about the restrictions, problems and worries they face.
If you’re used to trading in-store, can you switch to delivery services? If you have delivery services up and running, how can you make sure those deliveries are safe and hygienic? Depending on your location and the specific crisis at hand, you might also need to check in on your supply chain, reach customers who have had to move abruptly, and make sure that your store or office is safe to access.
Most importantly of all, are you offering the right products? Your priorities might have changed – just as supermarkets suddenly found that toilet paper was the best-selling item of 2020. You might find that your customer base shifts from commercial businesses to private homes. You might even see an opportunity to change your products completely, such as swapping beer for medical supplies; or a chance to apply your skills to new challenges, such as professional cycling teams helping out with grocery deliveries.
This shift in priorities applies to digital companies, too. At one company I work with, Easypromos, over half the team has young children at home. So when the pandemic took hold in Europe and Spain entered lockdown, their working style and interests changed abruptly. Within a week, they had totally shifted their product focus from marketing tools to educational games and entertainment.
For B2B companies, you can also look at ways to support your business clients. For example, the razor company Schick has been raising funds and providing work for barbers by giving them a platform to share home haircut tutorials. Michelob Ultra has a similar scheme for personal trainers.
These B2B crisis responses have some key traits in common which make them successful. They tap into consumer needs during lockdown; they’re easy to share online, and they put customers before profits. They’re also great examples of content marketing.
Content marketing in a crisis
What’s the first thing you should do in a crisis? Ask an experienced marketer, and they’ll tell you: Pause all scheduled posts, pop-ups and sales emails.
A crisis changes what people need and how they are likely to respond. For example, if a travel agency sent out an email right now encouraging people to get a change of scene… they wouldn’t get many clicks. They’d also risk causing confusion or a backlash.
When it comes to the message you send out, according to Hot In Social Media, most of your customers are looking for three things:
• reliable information about COVID-19
• opportunities to help other people
• offers of support or assistance from your brand
Those offers of help include things like free online classes, trials for digital tools, and even homeschooling resources for frazzled parents. There’s a strong focus on relevant, actionable content.
Online classes, webinars, resources and even digital meet-ups are the break-out stars of this time. The best part is that these content formats don’t require any special technology or equipment. You can teach classes with a social media livestream, run webinars with video chat tools, or even just email out a pdf full of content.
As Influence & Co point out, the most successful content will focus on skills and activities which are relevant to the crisis – such as activities for kids, supporting mental health, staying fit at home, and remote working advice.
For example, fitness influencer Joe Wicks raised thousands of pounds for health charities in the UK by offering free daily P.E. lessons for kids online:
If you’re really not sure what your customers need, then start by checking on your customer service queries and organic search terms.
For example, if you’re getting hundreds of emails about no-contact deliveries, then that’s something you should implement and inform people about. If your website is getting thousands of hits from people who want banana bread recipes, then you know what to write.
If you’re still stumped for ideas, then try running a quick poll or survey to ask your followers what they want to see from you – just like Google did:
Don’t be shy about sharing content with your followers and customers. Based on research from Twitter, we know that consumers want and expect brands to carry on advertising and sharing content. It gives people a sense of normality.
However, consumers do expect you to adjust your tone of voice – and they want to hear positive stories about how you’re doing your bit.
Here’s a nice example from ProductHunt. They’re still sharing weekly newsletters with their regular product round-up, but they’ve adjusted the tone and content to focus on supporting workers at home:
Of course, not every business has the capacity for content marketing right now. You may have to furlough employees, or (in some cases) be so busy with online orders that you don’t have time for anything else.
However, you should still make time to speak to your customers. A quick pinned post on your website and social media will do. It’s important to reassure people that you are still around, and you’ll be back online when you can.
Support your team
So you’ve got an action plan in place for your business. You’ve put out a reassuring message to customers, you’re figuring out what they need, and you’re ready to ride out the storm.
All set? Well, not quite… because you also need to take care of your employees. Your business won’t survive without them. And if you get your crisis response right, you could even improve staff turnover and figure out better ways to work.
Just like you did with your customers, start off with some imaginative role reversal. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees and ask yourself what their worries and needs are. Don’t forget to consider differences in salaries, working hours, and working conditions.
Is it safer for them to work at home or in the office? Do you need to set up more flexible hours, or rearrange the workspace? Make sure that everyone has the tools they need to carry on working, as productively as possible, without letting standards slide (including information security).
For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, most office workers have switched to working from home. But they still need support from their employers, including remote working tools, flexible hours to manage childcare, open communication channels, and moral support.
Some employees will need extra accommodations, such as tech support or specialized office equipment for accessibility issues. Make sure everyone on your team knows that they can talk to you about these individual needs.
In other professions, where people can’t work from home, but their jobs are still essential, supporting employees looks different. Healthcare centers, warehouses and charities are implementing hygiene protocols, offering counseling to staff, and making sure that vulnerable employees are given extra protection.
And of course, some companies have simply had to furlough workers for the duration of the crisis. However, that doesn’t mean signing your employees off and ignoring them. Just as you need to stay in touch with customers, it’s equally important to stay in touch and share information with employees.
If you do have to furlough someone, then agree on a plan with them – both short term and long term. Talk about when you can discuss lifting the furlough, help them to access government assistance, and be clear about the level of support you can offer.
Based on Twitter’s research during the 2020 pandemic, we know that your customers want to hear about the changes you make to protect your employees. If you’re working with your team to keep people safe, happy, and busy, then that’s a good news story that you can share with your customers and followers online. You could even ask employees to share photos and videos about their crisis experience. This content could be light or serious; either way, the act of sharing experiences will boost morale for everyone.
Adjust your business plan and prepare for the future
Whatever your crisis working pattern looks like – remote work, business as usual, or a smaller staff – you’ll need to adjust your expectations. In this interview with the founder of Google Growth Lab, Matthieu Pellerin recommends focusing on short-term priorities and tried-and-tested marketing methods. Now is not the time to experiment or start a once-in-a-decade overhaul of your business plan.
In addition, you should be prepared for a “crisis hangover” when life starts to go back to normal. It will take time for public transport to be fully restored and childcare centers to re-open. Some employees may also need time to catch up on missed medical appointments and family events.
Be open with your employees about the process of coming back from a crisis, and keep encouraging them to come to you with any problems or questions. Be open to the idea of keeping some of your crisis practices going, such as more flexible hours or remote working options.
Finally, try to make time to document your response to this crisis. Whether or not you already had a crisis management plan on file, there are valuable lessons to be learned right now. The way you handle COVID-19 will be the template for how you respond to the next crisis – whenever and whatever that turns out to be.
Corinna Keefe: Author’s Bio
I’m a freelance writer who specializes in digital marketing, social media and tech, including with Easypromos. I’ve previously written for publications including Social Media Examiner, Foundr, Growth Marketing Pro, Astrogrowth and Jeff Bullas.