Living through a once-in-a-generation crisis has affected all of us. Life will return to some of its previous norms after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, but it will never go back to “normal.” Thousands of lives have been lost, and millions of jobs have been slashed. It’s a sobering time—and there’s no clear end in sight.
What does this uncertainty mean for your small business? For starters, your customers have gone through the same types of struggles as you. By extending empathy to them, it’s not hard to imagine some of their losses and hardships. After all, they’re not so different from you.
The Balance of Old vs. New
Your customer base is the fuel that drives your business. But in the post-COVID world, you won’t be able to simply rely on your base. You’ll need to extend your reach and attract new customers, which requires a delicate balance.
Imagine that you have a litter of kittens in your home. Of the 6 kittens, 3 love staying on the couch and sitting on your lap. The other 3 haven’t established a connection with you and instead wander around the house. If you try to bring the 3 wanderers to the couch, you’ll need to leave your most loyal cats sitting there. They might stay put while you search for the others, but chances are high that when you return with the 3 adventurous cats, 2 or 3 of your loyal cats will have wandered away.
“One of the most significant challenges of growing a business is keeping its initial customer base satisfied,” explains Forbes. “When a company is small and has a limited customer base, it’s easy to talk directly with consumers and get a feel for their wants and needs. However, as the business starts to scale up, entrepreneurs may lose contact with the core consumers, leading to problems with meeting their needs and engaging their feedback. Losing that rapport can have disastrous consequences on the company’s bottom line.”
Nurturing your customer base while also attracting new customers requires you to understand the wants and needs of everyone involved. You might feel that you’ve done a great job of this in the past, but your 2019 playbook will need some retooling.
Profiling the Post-COVID Customer
Global research from McKinsey and Company reveals that consumer optimism is slowly ticking up in Asia but dropping in North America. This shift is hardly surprising, given the fact that 32% of American respondents anticipated an income decrease within the next 2 weeks. Correlated to decreased income is lower spending, with US consumers feeling reluctant to open their wallets for purchases. Things are even more grim in Canada, where more consumers reported an unwillingness to spend than in any other country surveyed.
As for how long these conditions will last, 75% of global consumers anticipated that the financial impacts of the pandemic would last more than 2 months.
“Looking ahead to the ‘next normal,’ consumers remain hesitant to return to some of the activities that were part of their daily life before the start of the pandemic,” concluded the McKinsey study’s official report. “Consumers globally do not intend to undertake international travel soon, while consumers in several countries—with the exception of Germany and France—plan to restrict domestic travel as well. Most consumers expect to shop less frequently in physical stores for items other than grocery, simultaneously shifting that spending online.”
It’s not likely that your customers will match up exactly with the averages produced in this study. But the general trends are undeniable, which means that the customers you hope to attract in the future will not behave quite like those you brought into your base in years past.
Strategies for Success
Despite so much emphasis on change, many of your pre-COVID marketing plans are still relevant. It’s important to consider them with a fresh perspective for the remainder of 2020.
Here are 8 strategies for connecting with new customers. If you’re not currently using them, consider adding them to your arsenal—and if you’re already using them, look for ways to elevate what’s already in play.
1. Provide superior customer service: While many strategies for attracting customers require you to put money and effort into various marketing channels, this is the purest plan of all: simply focus on your customers.
“All humans, including the humans we call ‘customers,’ tend to remember what happens to us in our lives in terms of stories,” says customer service expert Micah Solomon. “The implication for any company striving to build customer engagement and loyalty is this: Merely satisfactory customer service, when everything is ‘just fine’ but not extraordinary, may not be enough to lodge yourself indelibly in the memories of your customers. For this, you’ll need to step it up, at least in some interactions with your customer, in order to ‘wow’ them in a way that will be truly memorable.”
You’ll need to work hard to provide the level of customer service that gets people excited. Some experts refer to this extra-mile approach as “finessing the finish.” Whatever you want to call it, these positive interactions build momentum and carry throughout your customers’ circles of influence. You’ll simultaneously build loyalty and bring new people into your business’s fold.
2. Be proactively transparent: Here’s another strategy that directly involves your interactions with customers. Communication with your customers is always important, but it has taken on a whole new significance during this crisis.
Use every available channel to deliver clear and honest messages to your followers. Tell them when you’ll be open, how your plans adhere to the guidelines of your region, and any precautions you have taken to improve their safety. If you’ll be wearing masks, let them know that—and if you won’t be wearing masks, you’d better share a good reason for that decision. Make sure to relay everything you are doing to benefit their health, safety, and overall experience.
Use communication as a way to bring your customers closer, not as a reactionary way to try to stop them from leaving. Your goal: communicate so clearly that it will be impossible for you to be misunderstood.
3. Partner with another business: It’s helpful to combine your resources when you’re trying to make every dollar count. Search your network for noncompeting businesses that offer relevance and value to your customers, then find ways to work together for a common goal.
An essential element: collaborating with small businesses that share similar customer profiles. This alignment empowers both parties to connect with a wide swath of potential customers that might not have been reachable otherwise.
“Make your strengths and shortcomings known up front and insist on the same level of honesty from your partner,” advises a business analysis from Inc.com. “Both companies have to be transparent about what they lack and what they offer before deciding whether the partnership is a good idea. You also have to remain transparent for both sides to capitalize on every opportunity and learn from every failure. Honesty is the best policy when building any relationship. You’ll get more out of your business partnership if you make it a priority.”
By bringing your best to the partnership, you’ll create a positive arrangement where both businesses realize clear benefits. In the process, you’ll also provide a valuable resource to your current customers by introducing them to this other brand.
4. Always offer fresh content: The quarantine has given many of us lots of time to sit on our couch and consume content—so you can assume that your loyal customers have already read everything posted on your website and blog.
As we transition into the recovery phase, it’ll be crucial to create new content that provides authentic value to your customers. One approach could be an insightful article about how your industry is adapting post-COVID. Or you could share a teaser for a new product or service. Finally, there’s value in humor, so don’t shy away from posting a funny article that’ll bring some brightness to your customers’ day.
The added benefit of loading your website and blog with quality content: your search engine rankings will improve. While the various SEO formulas are constantly in flux, fresh content with relevance to your business is consistently advantageous.
5. Use videos in your marketing: Your marketing collateral is never mutually exclusive, so consider adding video to social media, display, and email whenever possible. Why the focus on video? Research shows that 85% of Americans take the time to watch online videos each day. If you don’t think video is relevant to your customers, you probably don’t know your customers as well as you think you do.
“Video’s popularity has exploded in recent years,” explains Forbes. “Now, more than 250 million hours of videos are watched each day on YouTube, and it has become the new format of choice for younger Americans. According to a survey conducted by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, the next generation of teen and tween consumers have doubled the amount of time they spend watching online videos every day since 2015 […] Now, it’s up to marketers to make sure they’re creating video content in a way that keeps their audiences coming back for more.”
Your videos could be anything from short snippets highlighting a product to long-form features that share customer stories. Production quality is a plus—but it’s not always necessary. Using your smartphone, you can often create nimble, relevant videos that will get your business noticed.
6. Lean heavily on digital: If you prefer old-school advertising methods like radio, print, and outdoor, you should reconsider depending on them now that COVID-19 has altered the landscape so thoroughly. These traditional methods are time-consuming and costly—2 factors that you probably have less patience with now.
“In the coming months, businesses are going to become more reliant than ever on their digital strategy,” asserts a business strategy report from Forbes. “Without wanting to sound too alarmist, in many cases it will be the deciding factor in whether they make it through the tough times ahead. The unprecedented, almost-total disappearance of all channels related to live events and conferences, and the increasing barriers on face-to-face business, pose an enormous challenge. Key to resilience is the development of ongoing contingencies to mitigate against this loss.”
Your customers were already migrating online before the pandemic. Social media use has been on the rise for years now, and 80% of American consumers shop online. As these trends continue climbing, it’s estimated that online shopping revenue will top $4.8 billion in 2021.
Digital marketing allows you to create cheaper content and reach customers faster. Featured in the same online spaces where your customers already spend their time, your marketing content allows them to engage with your business via the mere click of a button. This immediacy jibes perfectly with customers’ online habits like instant content and 2-day shipping.
7. Base all your marketing on profiles: While it’s always been important to speak to various customer demographics in unique ways, COVID-19 has made it an absolute necessity. For example, different regions of the country will have different guidelines and protocols in response to the pandemic. So if you use a generic approach to promote a special event at your stores, it might not even apply to many of the customers who see the advertisement.
“Different marketing strategies focus on different geographic reaches, including local communities, larger regions, entire countries, or an international scale,” explains small business guru David Ingram. “Marketing degree programs teach a wide range of techniques useful for large, corporate businesses, but small business owners have to get creative to reach a smaller local or regional audience. Knowing how to market your product on a local and regional level can save you money while boosting your marketing effectiveness.”
How do you make sure to reach the right people with the right message? You need to use the targeting tools that are common in digital advertising. For example, Facebook makes it easy to select certain criteria for those who will be served your ads. And you can take things further by using geotargeting to deliver your content to the most relevant customers.
8. Tap into your base: Your customer base has never been more crucial than in the post-COVID recovery phase—but don’t expect them to simply stick with you out of loyalty. It’s likely that many of them have suffered financial hardship and won’t be eager—or able—to spend money on even their favorite businesses.
Show your respect for their opinions by sending out surveys to find out how to best serve them. Be sure to follow up on their feedback—let them know what you’re implementing and why you’re doing so.
You can also send out exclusive offers to your base. Communicate how much they mean to you and that you’re happy to reward them for their commitment to your business.
Finally, ask your customer base for referrals. Many of their friends and family members will probably match up with your customer profile, so this is a powerful way to build your base. Just be sure to offer an incentive for all referrals so that it’s a two-way street.
Your marketing strategies should continue to evolve throughout the rest of the year. What worked yesterday could flop next week. This is a volatile period of time, and you’ll need to embrace agility if you want to succeed.
“Marketing plans are just that, plans,” says Forbes. “Once put into practice, you will quickly know what is not working. It is important to be flexible in your approach. Don’t be afraid to shift as needed. It is imperative to A/B test, see what works, and lean into those successes. More often than not, what we think will be our core strategy is adjusted by the response we get from the consumer.”
Stay close to your base and deliver what they need in the ways that they want it. Be responsive to them and keep on the lookout for ways to improve your messages—doing so will position your small business to weather this storm and create an even stronger foundation for the future.