If you’re like most business owners, the COVID-19 pandemic left you facing unprecedented challenges. You may have found yourself working remotely, shifting business priorities, or limiting what your business can now offer—or maybe all three. Now that the initial shock has passed and you’ve navigated your business through this crisis, how can you prepare for what’s next?
Your business has come this far—and you can continue to make it through. It’s a good time to reflect on lessons learned and contemplate the time ahead. You also need to consider strategic steps to take so that your business can emerge from the post-COVID-19 era stronger than ever.
To sustain forward momentum, you must understand customer attitudes and behaviors, refocus your marketing, and create a bounce-back plan. This guide can be a resource to lead you into a positive and prosperous new future.
Step 1. Learn to think and act differently
When stay-at-home orders went into place, your business likely felt an immediate impact. Thinking out of the box and coming up with new approaches to meet your customer needs was essential. There was no way to maintain “business as usual” when everything was vastly different from a few months before.
As more people stayed home, customer buying preferences shifted. The entire experience of shopping changed. Here are a few trends that emerged:
- Changes in spending patterns: Instead of spending on luxury items or expensive goods, people turned attention to necessities.
- Less brick-and-mortar foot traffic: Consumers frequented brick-and-mortar stores less often—and when they did venture out, they needed to wear masks and social distance.
- More online buying: For many people, buying online was the only safe option. People turned to online venues for items they’d usually buy in stores, such as food and household basics.
As we move forward into the post-pandemic era, your ability to think and act differently is going to serve you well. Instead of longing for a world that will never quite be the same, you can use ingenuity and creativity to shape the next chapter.
Hand washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing are all obvious signals of the ways in which COVID-19 has disrupted our lives and businesses. But to really prepare your business for what’s still to come, we need to look a little deeper at how the general lifestyle has changed in recent months.
Beyond canceling travel plans and large get-togethers, people now limit out-of-the-house activities that used to be part of their normal routines. They’ve cut back on visits to public spaces, like restaurants and bars, and skipped trips to brick-and-mortar stores, preferring to browse and order goods online instead.
Even items that are typically bought in-store, such as groceries, household essentials, and personal care necessities, have seen a huge increase in online orders. This is dramatically changing the landscape of online commerce.
Step 2. Understand the impact of COVID-19 on the retail industry
During peak times of the COVID-19 pandemic, online shopping became a convenient, risk-free way to buy needed items for many people. This trend is expected to continue even as COVID-19 becomes more controlled, with research suggesting that consumer behaviors have undergone a fundamental disruption. A survey from the Global Web Index revealed that nearly 50% of customers said they will avoid stores for “some time” or a “long time.”
By contrast, 40% of people affirmed that they plan to continue buying online. But consumers also cited a strong preference for free and reliable delivery. Customers may have been patient with some delays during the worst COVID-19 passages, but they’ll expect speedier deliveries once the worst has passed.
What does this mean for your business? You should see a boost in online shopping over the long term—and that’s good news. However, you need to stay focused on efficient and free shipping whenever possible to stay competitive and meet customers’ delivery expectations.
Step 3. Create a bounce-back plan
Now that we’ve all seen firsthand how an unexpected crisis can suddenly change everything, it’s easy to see how necessary it is to have a plan to recover when a crisis hits. As we start to understand more about how COVID-19 works and will impact our lives in the future, you can build a plan to navigate the inevitable ups and downs that will occur in the months ahead.
When more changes happen, such as a surge in infections and resumption of lockdowns or other restrictions, you can rely on your established plan instead of reverting to crisis mode. You can push your business to sustain or even grow as others fall back on haphazard ways of staying afloat.
To create a robust bounce-back plan, make sure you can answer these questions, which the Harvard Business Review calls the “5 P’s.”
What position can you reach during and right after the pandemic?
Start your planning by taking a realistic look at your market and your role in it. Are your products and services in demand? Or do you offer less immediate value? Depending on your value proposition, you may come out ahead or you may have to make up ground. With this analysis, you can determine your likely position in the post-COVID marketplace.
What is your plan to rebound after the pandemic passes?
Once you know your probable position, you can craft a plan to get there. Your plan is the roadmap that helps you make the day-to-day decisions to navigate to your future outcome. Without a plan, you’ll stay stuck in reactive mode and may inhibit your progress.
How can you start to create a plan? Take a hard look at your financials.
Many companies saw business drop in the first months of the COVID-19, so they’ll need to determine how to get back to pre-pandemic levels. You should calculate how many customers you lost per week, month, or quarter and recognize that you may need to increase your marketing investment to recapture that business.
Next, you can assess when you’ll likely regain your lost business. It could take you three or six months—or more—to return to where you were. You may need to make some financial tradeoffs. For example, if a line of business isn’t performing well, you may need to close it down and focus on more successful ones.
Also, examine your competition, industry, supply chain, business operations, and technology infrastructure in your planning. You’ll need in-depth insight into all of these factors to create an effective bounce-back plan.
How will your culture and identity evolve?
It’s likely that the pandemic will cause you to re-examine the core values of your business. You may fundamentally change the way you view your business purpose and the world. Will the challenge you face be a rallying cry to your team? Or will the strife and stress create divisions? The answers lie in your business culture and your preparedness to endure disruptive change. And the outcomes will influence what you can achieve as the pandemic crisis fades.
What new projects can you execute that will future-proof your business?
Inevitably, you’ll need to tackle some projects to weather the COVID-19 storm. But you can’t pursue every good idea or spread your resources too thin. Instead, you need to strategically select projects that address COVID-related problems now, while preparing for the future.
The projects that you choose will be somewhat situation-specific. However, as we noted above, doing an analysis of customer attitudes and behaviors is a must, along with revisioning your marketing and messaging to connect with customers. Revitalizing your web presence to tell your COVID response story or offering new online products or ordering options is likewise critical.
Once those strategic fundamentals are in place, you can determine if you need to launch new product lines, adjust customer service processes, or pursue other key initiatives. Determining critical actions you must take to support the business and setting goals and deadlines will provide a foundation for forwarding momentum.
Are you prepared to execute your plan?
You can lay out a perfect plan, but you need to be prepared to make it work. Be pragmatic about what you can achieve, and adjust timelines as necessary. You may find a shift to remote work stalls progress—or the reverse could be true. New energy and creativity could emerge. In addition, your business’s ability to make actionable decisions influences how quickly you can move ahead.
Also, you need to consider whether you have the resources and staffing levels needed to execute. If you don’t have the right in-house expertise, hiring a freelance consultant can be a cost-effective option. You can hire strategy consultants to assist with planning and marketing, operational, creative, or technical experts to handle specific tasks. Don’t let skillset gaps hold you back when professional consultants can start working with you right away.
Consider each of these “5 P’s” carefully. Ask yourself where your business falls today, where you’ll be right after the crisis, and what you can expect. Document your ideas and use them as the foundation for your bounce-back plan.
For inspiration, you can look at the example of Duluth Pack that pivoted into PPE production. Not only did this shift help them sustain the business during the pandemic, but it also opened up a high-potential new line of business for the future.
Step 4. Adjust your marketing to match people’s changed values
In the upheaval of COVID-19, people’s attitudes, likes, and values have changed—so the way you do marketing must change as well. As many people had to cut back on spending as well and found themselves making budgetary tradeoffs, we all had to analyze what mattered, what we truly needed, and what we could give up.
Your business needs to tune into the new mindsets of your customers and change your marketing to meet them where they are. And you need to recognize customers’ desire for marketing that is relevant to the COVID-19 era—which often means being informative, empathetic, and authentic.
if as a marketer you are able to solve a real consumer issue and generate awareness, then you are in the preferred choice set.
You need to consider your messages and the channels where you deliver them. Chances are, the campaigns and messages you planned before the pandemic need some adjustment to address current realities. In fact, ninety-two percent of brands said that they’d shifted advertising messages since the pandemic hit in March 2020, according to the Association of National Advertisers.
This shift in values should be reflected in any of your marketing efforts, but there are four digital marketing channels and strategies that most clearly demonstrate this societal shift. Here’s how and why you should adjust your marketing via social media, digital audio, mobile devices, and loyalty and rewards programs.
#1 Social media marketing
Social media marketing isn’t a new phenomenon in the COVID era, but the rise in time spent on social platforms and the new habits developed during this time are likely to endure. This means it’s time to revisit your social media strategy and align it with consumers’ new expectations for brands.
What do today’s consumers want from you? Here are three types of social messages that are gaining traction in the COVID period:
- Authenticity: Consumers don’t want to see social messages or ads that reflect the time before COVID. Instead, your social outreach should reflect current realities by showing people wearing masks, holding video calls, or engaging in socially distanced activities.
- Practical Advice: People want real-world advice on steps they can take to make life better for themselves or their families. Craft social messages that address everyday life needs like cleaning, cooking, gardening, mental well-being, or exercise to resonate with your audiences.
- Good Works: Today more than ever, people want to choose to do business with companies that are making positive contributions. Showcase your community outreach or donations to let customers know you care about others.
To engage your following, you’ll need to analyze your audience’s current values and needs. Social media is also a great resource for insight into people’s sentiments through social listening.
What is social listening? It’s the practice of assessing social conversations happening around your company and industry. Your goal is to understand why, where, and how conversations relevant to your brand are happening, even if people don’t specifically tag or mention your brand.
Social listening tools can streamline this process. But before you invest in one, you need to determine the outcomes you want to achieve. Here are a few examples of what social listening can help you gain:
- Understand how people feel about your brand and what questions they have about your products.
- Keep watch on emerging industry trends or analyze your competitors.
- Determine whether your audiences are connecting with and understanding your social campaigns.
This insight can help you fine-tune your campaign messaging and imagery to be more effective. One benefit of social marketing is that you can quickly adapt your messages from one day to the next. On your channels, if you find certain types of content that generate high engagement—including likes, shares, and comments—you can continue to post similar content. And you can discard content types that don’t resonate with your audiences.
With social advertising, you can watch metrics to determine which ads generate interest and action. It’s easy to pause social campaigns that show less engagement and tweak them to be more successful. By keeping a close watch on your social advertising trends and results, you can build an engaged following and drive more sales.
When outings were limited, people turned to podcasts, for entertainment and information. One study found that global podcast listens have increased by 42% during the pandemic, and European listens are up by 53%
Your business can make the most of podcasting, as in addition to providing you with the opportunity to promote your company’s culture and drive new leads your podcast can also provide you with opportunities to create new business and partnerships.
Remember that people may not be looking to fill shopping carts right now. But they will have positive feelings about you if you communicate in a respectful and socially-responsible way. The goodwill you earn can help you sustain growth in the post-pandemic era.
#3 Mobile marketing
Mobile advertising held a relatively steady trajectory during the COVID-19 era. The rise of mobile devices is well-known, but was best demonstrated during the pandemic: in-home mobile data usage surged nearly 20% over the prior year during the first weeks of the stay-at-home directives in the US. On certain days of the week, mobile data usage was 50% higher compared to the prior year.
Another notable data point: Mobile advertising engagement grew 15% in the first few months of COVID-19. Since more people were turning to smartphones for information and entertainment, ads were grabbing people’s attention and provoking interest in brands and products.
With this increase in mobile ad engagement, your business has new opportunities to reach your target audiences with ads. Combine this with new ways to create personalized ad experiences, and you’ll be well-positioned to grow your business through mobile advertising efforts. Here are a few key trends to keep in mind as you adjust your mobile strategy:
- Increased traffic to news sites: Many people are turning to news sites to keep up with the latest in COVID-19 news, so those venues can offer excellent opportunities to reach customers.
- Shifts in peak online times: People are online at times of the day that marketers may not expect, especially when more people are at home. For example, more online shopping activities may occur during mid-day.
Staying abreast of these types of digital trends is crucial as the pandemic situation evolves.
Also, stay in touch with the prevailing emotions of the time and be ready to shift your mobile advertising approach as required. That way, you can keep audience needs at the forefront and match your ad messaging and creative assets to those needs for maximum impact.
#4 Promotions, discounts, loyalty programs, and perks
COVID-19 led to widespread income loss, creating financial challenges for consumers everywhere. Even people with steady income streams became more cautious, causing an increased interest in rewards and loyalty programs.
A multinational study that assessed consumer trends tied to the COVID-19 pandemic found that around one-third of people said they’d wait for sales to buy items. Many people indicated that they would be delaying purchases for travel, technology, clothes, shoes, automotive, and luxury items.
- Extend expiration dates: Since people’s budgets are tight, many are forgoing some purchases. If you extend promotions or opportunities to redeem loyalty rewards, you let people know you’re sensitive to their need to scale back purchasing—but you’ll be there for them when they’re ready.
- Offer bonus rewards: If your loyalty program includes earning points, offer customers bonus points as an incentive to buy. You could offer double points for a brief time or provide extra points for purchasing certain items.
- Reward charitable giving: Align yourself with a charitable cause that is performing vital services and ask customers to donate to that organization through your website or app. Offer those who donate a reward, such as a percentage discount or extra loyalty points.
With promotions and programs adapted to contemporary realities, you send a signal that you’re in touch with the needs of your customers. This sensitivity to the challenges of the current climate shows your audience that you want to help people navigate this complicated era.
Step 5. Find where your customers are going and meet them there
As COVID-19 compelled people to stay at home more often, many people flocked to social media in even greater numbers than before, using it to seek hope, encouragement, and community in an unprecedented time. Understanding how consumers think and act differently in regard to social media is key to your post-pandemic business mindset.
You need to first understand which social sites drew the most traffic since the pandemic hit. The top social media destinations during the pandemic include:
In March 2020, when stay-at-home directives became commonplace, there were nine billion more minutes spent on social media than there was in January 2020. That’s a huge shift in a very short span of time.
Another key trend emerged: Consumers wanted the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic acknowledged in social advertising. Eighty-five percent (85%) of customers appreciated brands that offered practical advice on dealing with the pandemic. This advice could range from health routines to kid-friendly activities to occupy long days at home.
A great example of a company that understood and acted on this shift in attitudes quickly is food manufacturer Kellogg’s. The company saw recipe searches spiking and practiced social listening to understand its audience’s needs. The response? A creative “21 Days 21 Breakfast Recipes” campaign targeting families seeking a variety of healthy and tasty breakfast foods. The entire time spent from concept to launch was 72 hours.
Kellogg’s found that the YouTube campaign was extremely well-received by its audiences. In its first weeks, the campaign reached over 20 million viewers.
What does this mean for your business?
Understanding the social media habits of your customers is a must. You need to learn which social networks customers frequent and built a presence on those sites. But also take time to learn about customer needs, wants, and desires.
Analyze new customer behaviors and attitudes in your niche and use this insight to re-learn how customers engage with your products. Whenever possible, communicate real-world advice that your audience can put to use to show them that you’re committed to helping them make it through a tumultuous time.
If the shift to conducting business online over the past decade didn’t prompt you to move your company online, it’s likely that COVID-19 did—especially if you rely primarily on a brick-and-mortar location to generate revenue.
The sudden necessity of having an online presence prompted dozens of creative ways for typically in-person businesses to operate remotely. For example, dance and yoga studios began offering video-based classes. Art instruction studios offered kits that could be ordered online, safely picked up, and completed at home. And restaurants and boutiques created online or app-based ordering to stay connected to customers.
A fully online model may not work for every business, but building up some online presence and offerings is absolutely essential to adapt to our new world. Be flexible and stay open-minded to uncover new ideas as you move through this process.
Why move online?
If you learned any lesson from the pandemic, it should be that you can’t rely on a physical presence alone to be successful. You need an online presence—and it should be more than just a simple, static website. Here are the chief reasons why your business needs to be online in the post-pandemic world:
- Most businesses are now online: Due to the pandemic, many companies have amplified their web presence and ordering capabilities. Others have shifted to video classes or consultations. If you don’t keep pace, you’re likely to find yourself falling behind.
- Customers like buying online: Customers have grown used to transacting online. In fact, many have started to look beyond their usual set of preferred online retailers and added more companies to their consideration set. At times, product shortages compelled people to cast a wider net for necessary goods.
- Online tools are readily available: Fortunately, there are many tools to help you build a more robust web presence. For example, web content management system (CMS) solutions are affordable and configurable to meet your specific business requirements. It’s easy to find off-the-shelf payment solutions that can support online ordering or web conferencing tools to help you expand into classes or consultations.
Were you ready to expand your business and support online sales before COVID-19? If you didn’t have strong online capabilities at the start of the pandemic, you need to take action now. You have the unprecedented opportunity to position yourself in front of new online audiences and expand your reach.
But you don’t need to go it alone. A freelancer with web design and development expertise can listen to your vision and help bring it to life. Often, some site upgrades or additions can occur very expediently with the right professional supporting you.
During the hardest-hit days of the pandemic, many Americans saw buying from favorite businesses as a positive move. One study found that 79% of people in the U.S. agreed that it was important to continue shopping to support the economy during the pandemic. With a strong web presence that supports online purchasing, you can tap into this ready-to-buy market. Without it, you lose the business of consumers who are eager to support their favorite stores and services.
Another way to connect with your audience is by emphasizing the positive actions you have taken during the pandemic. Did you make a donation to a charitable organization? Did you adapt your product offerings to carry new necessities, like masks or hand sanitizers? Have your team members delivered meals to at-risk community members? All of those stories can win customer retention and trust.
Also, since many people are spending more time engaging with media, they are more aware of what brands are stepping up—and which aren’t. One study found that 65% of people expect that brands will commit to improving society. Also of note, 93% wanted brands to support the most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and front-line workers.
Undoubtedly, you’ve had to make tough decisions about your business in the COVID-19 era. You’ve had to adopt an out-of-the-box mindset, refresh your understandings of customers, and revamp your marketing quickly. People’s lifestyles changed and their attitudes and spending patterns changed too. You may have found yourself in a sweet spot or a free fall—and either direction had its challenges.
Amidst all the chaos, one thing was certain: More people turned to online shopping. When stay-at-home orders were in place, online ordering was the only safe option for many people. Even as restrictions lifted, many people continued buying online. For some, health and safety were a factor, but others enjoyed the convenience and selection they found online.
That’s why maintaining a robust online presence is essential to navigating the COVID-19 era and beyond. You need to find creative ways to bring your business online, whether it’s video-based training or consultations, or an e-commerce store. The investments you make in your web presence will have enduring value, even as we enter a new normal.
What does that new normal look like? And when will it finally arrive? No one knows. But instead of waiting and hoping for a positive future, you can create one for your business. Understand your market position and build a plan. Recognize that your culture and identity may change and that you have to be prepared to select and tackle tough projects.
Fortunately, you don’t need to do all the work yourself. A strategy consultant can provide guidance, marketing pros can fine-tune your campaigns, and web experts can perfect your online presence. With a team supporting you, you can achieve more than you ever would alone.
We’re all wishing that this hard passage will end—and it will eventually. Understand where your business needs to be when we emerge from this pandemic and create a roadmap to get there. You can make consistent progress during these unsteady times and position your business to thrive in the post-pandemic period.