Digital Marketing Illustration

How to Pivot to an Online Marketing Strategy During COVID-19

The novel coronavirus has taken the world by storm, and it’s proving to be very difficult to control. Until such time as an effective vaccine is developed, the future is going to be uncertain.  Even then, it’s entirely possible that this disease will have left an indelible mark on the way our society functions, and we’ll all have to adapt to the new normal.

Businesses essentially fall into four categories during this pandemic.

  1. Businesses that have grown due to the new needs of society. Zoom is a great example.
  2. Businesses that are essentially unchanged. Many online SaaS apps fit this description.
  3. Businesses that can function, but at a lower level than before. Non-essential retail outlets fall here.
  4. Businesses that cannot function during lockdowns and restrictions. Your gyms, event venues, and bars fall into this category.

The first step of pivoting to a successful pandemic marketing strategy is figuring out where your business is, and how you can adapt to improve your situation. It’s easy enough to figure out where you sit: how has your bottom line changed over the last few months?

The strategies for pivoting into a more online space during the pandemic will remain the same no matter where your business lies, but your starting stage will help determine how much room for improvement you have, and how desperately you need it. Remember, there’s currently no cure and no viable vaccine for the virus, and it is likely to be several more months at the earliest before anything can go back to “normal” if normal will ever return. Can your business weather the storm, or do you need to make pivoting a priority?

Analyze Your Business Model

Once you know where you stand, you can take a look at your business model. Are you already at least partially online? Can you pivot to an online business model with an optional physical business, or are you stuck? A gym, for example, will have a hard time pivoting online because its primary offering is access to machines. A fitness trainer is used to working with people in person could pivot to online-based lessons or classes, though it might be uncomfortable at first. Different business models have different possibilities for an online space.

Business Model Shipping

Generally, you’ll have three options for a business model shift.

  1. Shift to an online storefront. Instead of selling things in a physical location, offer the ability to sell them online, with shipping, delivery, or pick-up as necessary. Retail outlets and restaurants have done this.
  2. Shift to remote presentations. People who run a consulting business, teach classes, or in-person training can use tools like Zoom to offer classes and consulting remotely, to help keep both themselves and their customers safe.
  3. Shift to smaller, more restricted business offerings. Some event spaces are open for smaller groups, for example, with proper sanitization, masks, and distancing regulations in effect. This is a “last resort” for many businesses but is better than closing entirely.

The third option is difficult because it’s in a precarious position. Every state, and sometimes every city, has a different set of regulations about these kinds of spaces and services, and their restrictions. Those regulations are changing on a weekly or monthly basis, and it’s difficult to plan around them. In general, we recommend thinking in the strictest possible terms that allow you to operate, and go from there.

Analyze Your Supply Chain

Depending on the kind of business you run, you may have to look to your supply chain and determine if you’ll be able to keep operating or if you’ll have delays or stoppages. A lot of international commerce, for example, is being delayed, and factory workers are in short supply. Shipping is experiencing issues – though it isn’t entirely due to the pandemic – and even some raw materials are in short supply.

Supply Chain Illustration

You’ll want to look through your supply chain and see if there are any potential blockages along the way. Line up alternative suppliers or couriers as necessary.

Analyze Your Current Marketing

Have you looked at your current marketing efforts in March? If not, you might want to do that. Take a look at your messaging. Are you encouraging people to stop in, visit, or invite groups? Do you have images that seem to encourage groups flaunting social distancing or mask rules?

You should also look one layer deeper, at considerations relating to the shift in the global economy. Millions are currently without work, without much disposable income, and living with anxiety over what the near future holds. Think about your marketing and messaging within that context, and consider if anything could come across as offensive, tone-deaf, or otherwise out of place.

Analyzing Marketing

Sensitivity is, right now, at an all-time high for these situations. In a few more months, it will probably die down some, but most businesses will have adapted. Just remember that it may be too soon for jokes, especially considering how many people are suffering and dying from the disease. You don’t want to mobilize a mob to boycott you because of a tone-deaf joke.

Connect with Your Customers

The number one thing you want to do during this pandemic is to focus on your customer base. Some of them are certainly going to be out of work or in a position where they aren’t able to purchase whatever it is you’re selling, but plenty of them will be in a decent position and may still intend to be loyal customers.

Social Media Connections

Use your marketing channels to communicate with your customers and keep them up to date on what your plans are. This might mean using Facebook and Twitter to reach out to them. It might mean sending updates to your email list. It might mean using space in your monthly mailers or in paid advertising to draw people into more electronic means of communication. It doesn’t necessarily matter how you connect with them, so long as you connect.

Pivot Offerings and Online Sales if Possible

As mentioned up above, businesses tend to fall into four categories, and each of those roughly corresponds to how online the business was before. Since we’re talking about pivoting to an online marketing strategy, we’re going to assume you weren’t an online business beforehand.

Website Sale

At this point, you want to figure out how you can use online technology to keep your business running. Can you set up Shopify and get an online storefront up and running? Can you set up a system to accept and process orders online, or book individual appointments? Can you set up Zoom or another online communications system in place of in-person meetings? Virtually every business has some kind of option, you just need to figure out what it is.

Unfortunately, this pivot will generally take time and money to pull off, and you may need to research specific tools to do it. Simple storefronts, scheduling plugins, and other tools are easy to find, but specific narrow industries might need more custom solutions. We can’t offer specific advice unless you come to us with your situation, but we’d be happy to help if you did.

Invest in Your Blog

The core of any good marketing strategy online today is content marketing. Building and maintaining a blog is how you ensure people know your business is active, you’re offering modern solutions to modern problems, and even how you can attract new potential customers. In some situations, you can even expand your business this way.

If you don’t currently have a blog, you’ll want to set one up. If you have one you haven’t really maintained, you’ll want to dust it off, perform a blog audit, and get it up and running according to modern standards. If you’ve had one up and running, you might consider investing more heavily in it.

Adding a Blog

One major mistake we see a lot of businesses making right now is pivoting their blog to be all about them and their COVID response. It’s important to have that information readily available, yes. We would recommend writing a single post about it, pinning that post to the top of your blog homepage and linking to it via a banner, and keeping that post up to date. Writing numerous posts about it just leads to confusion when people find a post that says one thing and another that says another, even if dates would clear it up.

In addition to your usual flow of content, consider writing more content that focuses on aggregating resources for your customers. You might not be able to provide all of the answers or every service they need, but you can make yourself a hub they can use to find those other resources.

Analyze Marketing ROI

A lot of brands right now are pulling back on their paid advertising, as a way to save funds while the coronavirus suppresses a lot of businesses. For some companies, that’s a smart decision. Is it for your business?

If your business is capable of, well, doing business, you might be just fine continuing to invest in paid advertising. In fact, with so many other brands pulling out or dialing back in the space to save money, you can get better positioning and better traffic for the same or less money, just due to the lower competition at the ad auctions.

Facebook Ads PPC Cost

The key now is the same key it has always been. Paid advertising is only effective as long as you have a positive return on your investment. If you need to adjust your marketing to make that positive ROI, so be it. If your ROI is already positive, there’s no need to dial back on your budgets or your marketing. Indeed, it might be an opportunity to expand.

Don’t be afraid to invest more in marketing to capitalize while you can.

Keep People Safe

Right now, a significant portion of the global audience for your business – no matter what your business is – has personal safety in mind above all other considerations. No matter how strong the draw of a return to normalcy is, millions of people are going to avoid visiting businesses or supporting them when they flaunt public health. Just look at the meat-packing industry and their horrible COVID-19 response, or the backlash bars and schools are receiving each time they open up and infect dozens or hundreds of people.

As a business owner, it’s your job to keep your employees safe first, your customers safe second, and your business safe third. Opening up and forcing employees to come in, especially if you don’t have to, can be devastating for huge brands and a death sentence for smaller companies.

We get it; many people out there disagree with the restrictions imposed by governors on masks, social distancing, and so on. Regardless of your personal feelings in the matter, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Flaunt the rules, infect your customer base, and then were are you? Your loyal customers, the ones willing to come in and shop during a pandemic, could die. That’s very much not something that will help your business.

Focus on Agility

The situation with the pandemic is changing on an almost daily basis. The behavior and spread of the virus, the reaction to it, the availability of treatment, the regulations from state and national authorities, it’s all a mess. The best you can do is try to keep yourself and your business safe while pivoting towards more evergreen, resilient channels.

Social Distancing Illustration

Don’t invest too heavily in any one thing that can be pulled out from under you. It’s hard, especially for businesses in some spaces, like event hosts, to rely on anything right now. You will need to adjust rapidly to changing circumstances.

You may need to adjust everything from your return policy to your sales to new user promotions in response to the changing situation with the pandemic. Do what your business needs to do to keep everyone safe, first and foremost.

Businesses can pivot and make it through this crisis, and be stronger for it when coming out the other side. There may be some hard times ahead, but with agility, planning, and redundancy, you can make it through.

William Smith