The past two years have presented marketers with unprecedented challenges. Some saw their organizations bear the brunt of shutdowns while others went into overdrive. And whether business was up or down, everyone has had to rethink engagement. This shift was on even before the pandemic — largely due to increasing digitalization — but the meter moved significantly in just 18 months. In fact, the IBM U.S. Retail Index projects that the pandemic accelerated a shift to ecommerce by five years.
With so much still fluid, it isn’t easy to define marketing strategies, tactics and messages. The rules of engagement have changed and continue to do so. Even if future norms are still coming into focus, we believe it’s helpful to focus on five areas that shape how — and how well — we engage with customers, employees and other constituents.
1. Continue Emphasizing Your Digital Accessibility
Even before the pandemic, 87% of all consumers began their product searches online.
Digital marketing is now the dominant way, if not the only way, to reach customers. And because technology is evolving so fast, you’ll need to continuously refresh your tactics as the drive toward ecommerce continues. According to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, online consumer spending in the first two months of 2021 was up 34% over the same period in 2020.
Screen time is way up, whether it’s email, text, social media or video. One study found U.S. adults spent an average of nearly eight hours per day using digital channels, an increase of 15% over 2019 — growth that will be retained through this year. In Salesforce’s State of the Connected Customer report, 57% of consumers said they transformed how they engage with companies during 2020. Two-thirds said COVID-19 elevated their expectations of companies’ digital capabilities.
Leverage your digital presence across channels to evolve marketing tactics that make a deeper connection. For example, if you have a mobile app that makes contactless ordering and pick-up enjoyable, highlight it in an email campaign. If you have helpful videos that allow people to DIY around their homes, emphasize how your customers can get professional help while following stay-at-home guidelines. Through your marketing messaging, help your customers understand how you can help them access the products and services they love without sacrificing their own safety and those around them.
Related Article: How to Engage Customers in Times of Uncertainty
2. Be Bold in Your Quest to Stand Out
The food service industry was one of the first to feel the impact of the pandemic, and it was a devastating one. Organizations had to get creative because their livelihoods depended on it. One organization that saw an immediate drop in business when restaurants closed was George Fourkas, a produce supplier to some of Chicago’s most upscale restaurants. The company quickly pivoted to create GFP Chicago, which provides weekly home delivery of produce boxes, now across the Midwest. Likewise, Panera launched Panera Grocery, enabling customers to buy high-demand grocery items such as bread, produce and milk — along with soup and sandwiches. In addition, many restaurants joined the ecommerce platform Goldbelly in 2020. In turn, the platform introduced an interactive, virtual cook-along series called Goldbelly LIVE!, along with other experiences for consumers to interact with their favorite restaurants and chefs.
There are many other examples of creativity. For example, in an effort to help parents with kids at home full time, Time for Kids magazine gave everyone free access to its 2020 digital editions. In addition, Amazon Prime provided kids with free video content.
Indeed, innovation in products and services is essential. But so too is innovation in marketing. In Salesforce’s State of Marketing 2020 report, marketers cited “innovating” as their top priority. Eighty percent of those surveyed use email marketing, but high performers are 1.8 times less likely to use email marketing the same way they did a year earlier.
If you’ve launched a new service, think of a new product launch campaign — bonus points for striking the right chord such as “we are making our resources available to you so you aren’t left without the essentials in these times.” If you’ve hit upon something in your business that makes you stand out, think of ways to highlight it in your marketing communications.
3. Humanize Your Brand
In marketing, relevance has always been key, but coupling it with a “do good” theme is increasingly important at a time with a heightened sense of looking out for one another. In Salesforce’s State of the Connected Customer, 68% of customers expect brands to demonstrate empathy. Think auto insurance providers giving discounts or rebates since members don’t drive as much. Or OpenTable showcasing local restaurants or “food tours” to encourage patronizing of local economies and a sense of community. One brand that got it right early on was Adidas and its #HomeTeam hashtag.
Find complementary marketing tactics that combine your brand identity with some empathetic elements such as giving back, helping the local economy, emphasizing the importance of staying at home, or helping people through the effects of quarantine.
Related Article: Pandemic or Not, You Need Empathy-Driven Customer Experiences
4. Take Extra Care in Crafting Your Messaging
The 18 plus months of COVID-19 didn’t necessarily just bring the direct effects of the virus itself. Other important themes intermingled throughout this period, including racial justice, the climate crisis and political divisiveness. Individually, each of these factors requires care in messaging. Collectively, they increase the challenge of saying the “right thing.”
Extra care is required to make sure messages are not tone-deaf. While you need to sell your product or service, you also need to connect who you are with a caring/careful tone. Reassure audiences that life will settle into more of a “normal,” but also describe how you’re there with them until that happens. Messages should shift from “here’s why you need to buy” to “we are here for you when and where you want us to be.” Examples include sharing “a bit of good news” or giving “permission to disconnect.” Stay away from fear, uncertainty and doubt.
More than ever, it’s critical to test messages, making sure they resonate before you deliver them broadly.
5. Double Down on Emerging Channels
One of the most significant developments has been the rapid adoption of video engagement. A Vonage report projects that video experienced four years of growth in just seven months. There are plenty of examples out there: The emergence of telemedicine is a common one. Lowe’s also launched a video chat tool that provides professionals with virtual consultations guided by augmented reality and computer vision technology.
While digital access is more important than ever, this shift also accentuates the imperative to design and deliver a consistent and seamless experience across channels. Customers will increasingly interact through multiple digital channels and physical channels. For example, an Adobe study found that the combination of online grocery shopping with in-store or curbside pickup remains popular with consumers.
Marketing through multiple channels is more imperative than ever. Evaluate what other channels vis-a-vis your existing marketing channels make sense to expand into and double down on them. Emphasize your tele-anything services/ offerings.
Marketing strategy and tactics need to continue to be the same in many ways long considered best practice — relevant, personalized and timely. But they also need to be different in a few ways in the current climate — innovative, empathetic and accessible. And remember, the moment you think you have it down, the “next normal” will more than likely come about. So be prepared to reevaluate and rethink again!
Amy Fletcher is a senior director with West Monroe Partners and leader of the firm’s Seattle customer experience practice. She has more than 20 years of global management and technology consulting experience across various industries.