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Marketing in Uncertain Times by Hummingbird Marketing Services

Marketing in Uncertain Times

What is the right message and when is the time to deliver it?

By Andi Lucas

Wow, what a strange time we’re living in worldwide. Mandatory “stay at home” orders, restaurants and bars closed, grocery store shelves ransacked, and very little traffic (especially weird here in Seattle). Fortunately, during this unprecedented period, we have the Internet, smartphones, video conferencing, text messaging, email, and social media to help deliver information and, above all, keep us connected to friends and loved ones from the safety of our homes.

Imagine a pandemic like Coronavirus (COVID-19) happening 30 years ago. In 1990, we didn’t have mobile phones (not even flip phones), the Internet, or 24-hour news networks.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve received a lot of emails from companies about how they might be handling the pandemic, that they’re still open, that they’re temporarily closed, etc. Although I appreciate most of the information, some of it felt like the company was almost using this pandemic as a reason to reach out, with nothing helpful to say.

So in looking at the “bright side,” where we are able to provide up-to-date communication with our customers, the question becomes: When is it the right time, and what’s the right message?

I recently read an impactful article from Google called, “5 Media Principles in the Wake of COVID-19.” It’s part of the company’s Think with Google series, and I highly recommend it. Google’s five principles are to: Keep Context in Mind, Constantly Reassess Your Message, Consider Your Creative, Change Priorities as Needed, and Contribute Where You Can.

In the article, Google is very transparent about what the company is doing and how each of these principles have affected its marketing strategy. I especially appreciate this example:

We’re asking ourselves every day, “Is this creative or ad placement right for this moment and in this context?” And when the answer is no, we pivot. For instance, we’ve had an Android campaign running that referenced being “out and about.” Was that OK in the U.S. market a few weeks ago? Sure. Today? Not so much.

But not all of us are even a sixteenth the size of Google. So how do smaller companies move forward with marketing in uncertain times? I have a few ideas.

Update Your Website (and More)

This pandemic is changing things every day and every hour throughout the day. Make sure that your website clearly states any changes to your hours, closures, and updated policies. In general, your website is the first place that potential and current customers will go to find information. So make sure it’s updated!

The second place they’ll go? Facebook, Yelp, and/or Google My Business. On Facebook, if you have an important update, make a post and pin it to the top. And on all three platforms, update your hours. You can even choose “temporary” hours that you can change when we go back to (a new) normal.

In addition, if you’re working from home because your business is deemed non-essential, make sure that your voice mail is up to date. Let customers know how to reach you.

Marketing in Uncertain Times: Rainier Veterinary Hospital's Pop-up for COVID-19

To help our client, Rainier Veterinary Hospital, communicate with clients, we created a website popup, which links to COVID-19 page about new policies and procedures. We featured similar messaging and links to the COVID-19 page on the homepage, Appointments, and Contact Us pages.


Examine the Why

If you are going to communicate directly with your customers, start by asking yourself why. Fill in the blank: Why am I sending this email? Why am I posting this on social media? Why am I mailing customers this letter? If you are providing helpful and relevant information TO YOUR BUSINESS during this pandemic, go for it.

For instance, are you letting your customers know that your takeout menu is different than the in-restaurant menu? Great—share it! Are you letting your clients know that all sessions will be over video conference for the next few weeks? Fantastic—let them know! Or are you just saying, “We’re here for you”? Ugh. If you aren’t providing information that your customers will find helpful, don’t send it.

I received an email from my business insurance company with that very subject line: “We’re here for you!” Inside, however, the email was just a reminder about the company’s strong history and that they are here to help. But how? Will you be suspending premiums for all clients for a month? Are you offering to help me reevaluate my policy to possibly lower my premiums? No. And so how did I feel after reading it? Kind of gross.

On the other hand, I have received excellent communication from both my veterinarian and my eye doctor, sometimes multiple times in a week, letting me know how the offices are being sterilized, the changing hours, and, in the case of my eye doctor, the temporary closure of the office.

Marketing in Uncertain Times: Shawn O'Donnell's Email Updates

These are four emails I received from a local Irish pub and restaurant, Shawn O’Donnell’s, throughout March. The first email expressed concern about the virus but explained that the restaurant was open for business. The second (on March 12) noted that St. Patrick’s Day was not cancelled for the restaurant and hoped I would join. The third (March 16) came on the heels of Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordering that all bars & restaurants in the state close, which meant that the St. Patrick’s Day plans were cancelled. However, the restaurant was still offering takeout of traditional Irish food as well as a gift card special ($100 for $120). The fourth email explains that two of the restaurant’s four locations are closed, and provides the safety measures being taken at the remaining two open locations. These emails are a fantastic example of effective, helpful marketing during a crisis.


Show that You’re a Human, Not Just a Business

There’s a reason that hashtags like #InThisTogether and #WeWillGetThroughThis and #WeCanDoThis have hundreds of thousands of posts associated with them on social media. Because we are all in this together, and only through working collectively to #StayAtHome will be beat this virus.

In your communication to customers, I would encourage you to share your non-political thoughts on the current situation, inspiring stories you’ve heard or even witnessed, what your business is doing to help support the community, and what you’re offering during lockdown that customers can buy now and use later.

For example, a restaurant in my neighborhood (Casa Oaxaca Mexican Bar and Restaurant) posted that they are providing free meals to children under 12 while schools are closed. The post has had 167 reactions and has been shared 119 times. Another local store (Plum Bainbridge), which has temporarily closed for safety, is encouraging followers to get creative with an online poetry contest, Haiku-style, about the quarantine for a chance to win gift certificates to the store when it re-opens.

Marketing in Uncertain Times: The Tin Room's Instagram Post about Specials

The Tin Room always has great Instagram posts, but I love this one that shows the staff still trying to have fun despite the lockdown. Plus, they’re offering great specials!

• • •

Although we don’t know when, we will someday be back to, what will be, a new normal. Until then, be safe and healthy, stay positive as much as you can, and know that your customers will return as soon as they can. As always, we are here to help with any marketing needs, from updating your website and online hours to crafting effective messaging to customers.

Andi Lucas

Andi Lucas is the founder and owner of Hummingbird Marketing Services. She has more than 20 years of professional writing and editing experience as well as almost 15 years of online marketing experience. Based in our Seattle headquarters, Andi can enhance your small business marketing strategy to help grow your business.

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