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With regards to digital marketing and social media during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, what does a small business or SME need to communicate?
So sensitive are these times of crisis, no-one would blame a small business or SME for giving their digital marketing plan a sofa, a tub of chips and a jigsaw until the time passes. But it is important to communicate during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic because, until business is back to “usual”, customers want connection. As Ernst & Young principal Janet Balis put it early in April: “People feel vulnerable right now. Empathy is critical.”
If your product relies on discretionary spending or on physical proximity – in other words, if there’s little to stimulate demand in the short term – there’s still a lot to communicate. “A business needs to continue to provide value to the client,” says Sydney public relations and marketing expert Adrian Falk, director of Believe Advertising & PR. “So when doors open, it’s going to be first off the rank.” If, says Falk, a restaurant or bar cannot offer takeaways, it could provide make-this-at-home videos; useful, sharable content, “rather than just blatant selling”.
Celia Harding, director of PR Shed in Sydney, recommends adopting classic crisis management steps during the COVID-19 pandemic. That starts with reviewing campaigns, social media and EDMs and tweaking where necessary and thinking long term. “If the media release can wait, think about a more appropriate time to tell your story,” says Harding, who helps small businesses create their own marketing plans. “Unless your news is coronavirus-related, it may fall by the wayside.” She also recommends that businesses scrutinise everything. “Businesses must be seen to be respecting government recommendations and guaranteeing the safety of their customers, employees and suppliers.”
You can’t always know which customers are doing it tough, points out Carma Levene, founder of Perth-based social media company Carma the Social Chameleon. Levene recommends SME and small business owners ask themselves two questions before posting anything on social media: Is the message about me, or the customers? And if it's about me, will they care right now? “If not,” she says, “that messaging needs to be put on hold.” Falk adds that your social media tone must be respectful but – depending on your brand – not necessarily solemn.
Social media analytics company Talkwalker says it’s time to maximise ways consumers can interact with your business online: offer free trials, inform, assist, reassure and entertain. Falk, who counselled fashion labels during the GFC, warns against hasty collaborations and cheaper price points. “You have to think: is it going to ruin your brand? Because this crisis will pass.” The same applies to digital marketing – don’t rush and have something “out there” you’re not happy with or doesn’t fit with your brand.
Not addressing the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is ignoring one big elephant. But “people want a break,” says Kathleen Casford, founder of Brisbane branding and design studio By Ninja. She recommends focusing instead on fun and health at home and connectivity. “Outline plans for the ramp-up to reopening; give your loyal customers, who want things back to ‘normal-ish’, something to look forward to. Acknowledge the tough times and remind them your business isn’t going anywhere.”
Listening to customers can be a path to connecting with a wider audience. “Frequently asked questions can be turned into the next social media post,” says Brooke Simmons, founder of Pursuit Communications, an agency on the NSW Central Coast. “People are consuming content more than ever, so it's important to continue to communicate and deliver value in every interaction.” But don’t spread yourself thinly across too many social media platforms. “What works on Instagram might not work on TikTok,” says Falk. “Also, you might not need to be on TikTok.”