Survival for small businesses in this unusually sensitive time has been a titanic endeavour.
The COVID-19 shutdown has been challenging for businesses of all sizes, but small businesses have been hit particularly hard. More than 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed since the beginning of the shutdown, according to a recent study.
As states around the country begin the road to reopening, the good news for small businesses is that consumers “will want to spend money on brands that they have been loyal to in the past and those that define their neighborhood or culture,” says Sloane Humphrey, president and CEO of Powell Communications, a New York corporate public relations firm.
Consumers are open to receiving marketing messages from businesses, but they also want to know which efforts companies are taking to address COVID-19. “Consumers aren’t going to penalize businesses for marketing,” says Kelty Logan, an associate professor at the College of Media, Communication, and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. “But they want evidence that businesses are doing the right thing and taking care of their people and taking care of us.”
Small businesses should feel comfortable reaching out to their customers and the larger community through email and social media — but they need to be thoughtful with their messaging to avoid alienating people during an unusually sensitive time.
Here are some ways small businesses can effectively reach out to their customers in this new post-COVID-19 world.
Use the right language
The most important thing to remember when crafting marketing messages during, and even following, a crisis is to strike the right tone. Customers want to hear how you’re navigating the crisis, but they are also sensitive to any sign that you are attempting to exploit or profit from it.
Proactive business move: For now, put overt sales messages aside and strive for an even, reassuring, and optimistic tone. If you’ve reopened, it’s okay to send an email with a celebratory subject line like “We’re back!” or “Open for business!” Then, use the body of the email to carefully explain what precautions you’ve taken: “For now, we will be limiting in-store capacity to four customers at a time,” or “we are offering curbside pickup: here’s how it works.” The key is to make sure you are giving customers the information they need to feel safe patronizing your business.
In your first communications with customers, avoid overly pushy sales language, like a subject line advertising “Big savings!” But if you are running a sale or specials, it’s fine to include those in the body. For example: “To welcome you back, we are offering 30% off special items throughout the store.”
Spread the word
If your company temporarily closed during the shutdown, it’s important to let customers know that you’ve opened up again. Now, more than ever, letting people know that you’re a part of their community and eager to provide a service could entice first-timers to give you a try.
Proactive business move: Small businesses should consider implementing an email marketing program to remind customers that they are open for business — and to help identify new patrons. Square’s email marketing tool allows you to design, send, and measure email campaigns quickly.
When starting an email campaign, be mindful of how frequently you hit send. Emailing too often could annoy recipients, while emailing too infrequently could weaken your results. The rule of thumb is to respect your customer’s inbox and email only when you have something to say. If your emails are always useful and informative, you will find customers much more eager to engage with them.
As Americans emerge from their homes, lingering fears of virus transmission will help determine where they choose to spend their time and money. All companies — particularly those with a physical location that is open to the public — need to let customers know which steps they are taking to keep them and their employees safe.
Proactive business move: Use your social feeds and email communications to explain your new health and safety procedures. If you’ve recently implemented a contactless purchase system, like the one Square provides, advertise that your business has taken proactive steps to make your customer’s experience more comfortable for them. Don’t be afraid to share those messages widely, as they have an impact far beyond your customers.
In general, small businesses should be communicating regularly via their social feeds during this time, Humphrey says. “Frequent updates via social media will be mission-critical,” she says. That means friendly reminders like, “we’re still here” and “things will be different, but we’re the same brand you remember.” It’s a great way to let customers know you’re open for business and be sure they keep your company top of mind as they venture out.
Proactive business move: When developing a social media content plan, it’s best to think in terms of themes. For example, you could try to fit each of your posts into one of the following themes
- Brand education: The basics about your business and what people need to know to do business with you.
- Updates and announcements: Notes about new products or locations, expanded (or reduced) hours, and major staff changes.
- Behind-the-scenes access: Photos or videos that give your customers a sneak peek into what makes your company unique.
- Social good: Let your customers know about any charity or community work you or your staff are doing.
- Redeemable offers: Coupon codes, limited-time offers, free shipping.
If you haven’t already, now is a great time for small businesses to start a customer-loyalty program, which can drive a sense of belonging among everyone who does business with you. They can also ensure deeper engagement with walk-in customers.
Loyalty programs are a proven way to retain customers, and studies show that existing customers are far more likely to buy from your business than potential customers. The cost of retaining customers is also a fraction of what it costs to acquire new ones.
Proactive business move: If you’re starting a loyalty program for the first time, be sure to let your customers know about it through email and on social media. Make sure that your program offers rewards that your customers want and a path to getting them that is easy enough (but not too easy) and fairly quick.
Walk the walk
In times of crisis, consumers look to local businesses to do their part. If you’ve donated any money, goods, or services to COVID-19 relief causes, don’t be afraid to let your community know about it. You should share even small measures that you’ve taken. Consumers don’t expect local shops to make large-scale contributions. They just want to see your values in action.
As challenging as the coming months could be, they present a unique opportunity for small businesses to come out stronger than ever. By effectively communicating their value and commitment to the community, companies can help customers — and themselves — more rapidly adjust to the new normal. The trick is to walk the walk and show consumers you have them in mind every step of the way.