Give yourself permission to be real at a time when people are craving human interaction.
A period of economic instability can seem like a good time to keep your head down and scale marketing back to the minimum. But history has shown us time and again that the companies that emerge from an economic downturn in a strong position are those that continue to engage their target customers and offer them something truly helpful throughout a downturn.
Companies should keep connecting with new markets and new customers during this COVID-19 crisis, but recalibrate the approach. A downturn of this magnitude has a human impact as well as an economic one, and when it’s the result of a pandemic that affects people’s mental and physical health as well as their financial wellbeing, things get even more complicated.
Here are some ideas to help companies keep moving forward as best as they can and pivot marketing strategies to align with the new reality.
Don’t retreat—move forward
When the U.S. economy took a downturn in March, I reached out to 15 companies in my network—a mix of public and private in a range of sectors—and I asked the CEOs how they were responding to it.
I found that for the most part, these companies were taking one of two distinct approaches. Two-thirds chose a defensive approach, looking internally and asking questions such as: “How can we resize the business? How do we defend ourselves during this crisis?” The other one-third took an offensive approach. They looked outward, focusing on the immediate and evolving needs of their customers.
While everyone was prudent in looking for ways to reduce risk and keep people safe, those who chose an offensive position also identified new opportunities by engaging their customers in deeper, more relevant and timely conversations. It’s still early, but the companies that chose to keep moving forward are already seeing more success in terms of engagement.
Those who chose an offensive position also identified new opportunities by engaging their customers in deeper, more relevant and timely conversations.
Find your role and valued-added perspective
While companies need to take an active role during a downturn, they should define what that role is first. A lot of the early email campaigns we all saw were focused on amplifying information about COVID-19. Companies saw an opportunity to reach their customers by blasting out content about the progress and impact of the pandemic. But was that the role our customers were looking for us to fill?
David Stillman, the CEO of ExecVision, said it to me best: “We are not a news outlet. It’s not our position to inform our ecosystem of a disease that has already been over-communicated. Our job is to support our customers and enable them with information that can allow them to get through this crisis as it relates to their employment, their remote working, their health, their mental health and their ability to deal with this crisis and serve their customers.”
Don’t try to compete with CNN. Focus on the unique perspective and knowledge that only your company can bring.
Identify and solve the business pain
Going on the offensive means taking a deep look at your product offerings in the context of the business pain your customers are experiencing right now and reaching out with solutions. As the lines between work and home are blurred, that business pain is being experienced on both an organizational and individual level.
The most forward-thinking companies I talked to were aligning their products and marketing message with customers’ needs to manage a newly remote workforce, as well as to help their own end users be more successful. They represented a range of products—productivity tools, conversation analysis tools, digital marketing solutions, and more. In each case, they examined the customer segments that were hardest-hit by the pandemic and reached out to offer relevant, helpful information. And, in some cases, they are offering access to free or discounted products and services that could directly help solve real-time pain.
In one example, a company launched a free webinar series on work-from-home productivity hacks and how to coach remote sales reps to keep them productive. By helping address customer challenges in this way, they were seeing engagement rates rise by 20-30%.
As the lines between work and home are blurred, that business pain is being experienced on both an organizational and individual level.
Get to know your customers as people
Businesses are made up of human beings, and those human beings are under considerable stress right now. Life used to be a lot more segmented and organized. Today, personal and professional are converging into one space, and the pressure is tremendous.
While companies understand the customer from a contractual or service-delivery perspective, many have never formed strong human bonds with them. First, make sure you know who will be the decision-maker in terms of whether your solutions will remain in use or be reconsidered during cutbacks. Take the time to show empathy, understand their primary concerns and fears—on a professional and personal level—and make sure they understand the value proposition you offer.
Also, identify the true end-user who experiences your value in their day-to-day, similarly show compassion for what they’re dealing with right now, and ensure they are using your tools to their full potential. There may be features or add-ons they aren’t aware of that can help with emerging issues.
While companies understand the customer from a contractual or service-delivery perspective, many have never formed strong human bonds with them.
Focus on the relationship, not the sale
A company needs revenue to survive, but this is a time to focus on expanding relationships with customers rather than making a sale. That doesn’t mean that you should stop promoting your solutions, but you likely need to adjust your marketing strategy and any sales offers to fit the reality of the times.
I sit on the board of a company that was ready to launch a prototype during a high-profile event. When the event was canceled, they planned to shelve the prototype for now and focus on the crisis at hand. But I suggested that instead of delaying the launch, the company approach its 10 biggest customers with an offer to trial the prototype for free, with full support.
They are now in talks with the CEOs of all 10 priority customers. The contact rate was 100%. While this won’t result in near-term revenue, they’ve structured agreements to stipulate that if the customers see a measurable reduction in risk and improvements in productivity after 120 days, they will revisit the potential to convert pilot projects to paid subscriptions.
By focusing on a win-win relationship rather than an immediate sale, this company has transitioned from a vendor to a true partner, and not one of those high-value customers will forget it when the crisis is over.
Be more human as a company
There’s a reason Netflix and YouTube initially struggled to handle the surge in usage during this crisis: people are looking for emotional connection, humor and escape during this time.
Give yourself permission to be authentic and real at a time when people are craving human interaction. Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself. Be vulnerable. Let your employees use social media to share their experiences and talk about the issues they’re dealing with as they adapt to a new way of working. In a time of uncertainty, people – including customers – need that moment of laughter and connection. You may want to set a few ground rules or do a little training internally first, but if your company culture is shaped by gratitude, humility and authenticity, it will only draw your customers closer.
Here’s the bottom line.
Whether we are business owners, employees or customers, the one thing that connects us all at this moment is the fact that we are human beings. We are facing an unfamiliar level of uncertainty and seek comfort and support. The companies that will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever are those that are actively reaching out to their customers and finding ways to integrate the human factor into every interaction.