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Not Business as Usual: Messaging in the New World

By Annabelle Bayhan

As the world settled into sheltering in place back in April, people were flooded with COVID-19 related messages from marketers. I suspect the next phase of this conversation is going to be easing customers back into doing business in person, to which there'll be varying levels of resistance. Businesses will now have to figure out how to welcome customers in person with an offering modified for new rules and restrictions, while at the same time continuing to serve those who aren’t quite ready to go out into the world just yet with online, delivery and pickup offerings. On top of that, they’ll need to keep themselves and their employees safe, and then to let customers know what they’re doing to keep them safe. This is a big business and communications challenge.

Education and Enablement

How can companies meet these twin challenges? We can learn a lot from some of the companies whose messaging really shone as the pandemic settled in. Some of the most successful were those that focused on education and enablement. For example, Home Depot provided tips for DIY home improvement projects, as well as tips for kids on how to build a cardboard box playhouse. Aveda shared a tutorial on how to give yourself a hand massage, which paired nicely with their stress-relieving hand cream.

In my own consulting practice, I have several clients who have indoor play spaces for children. They couldn’t continue the childcare part of their mission during the shelter at home period, but they offered classes on Zoom, which they complemented by offering kits for projects and activities. The messaging was, "We know you can't come into our play space right now, but whether it’s STEM or art or music, we can help you occupy your child at home and keep them learning. And if you need supplies, we will bring them to you."

For a lot of parents, that was a saving grace. When you have a 45-minute meeting and you don't necessarily have the capacity to scroll through Pinterest and find ideas of your own, and a business that you know and trust provides you with those materials and occupy your children, that creates stronger emotional bonds because of the way things are right now.

All of these companies were able to empathize with the experience people were having, find the right offering for the times, and become part of that shared experience.

Start with Empathy

That formula will work again as we shift into this new phase. Start with empathy for what people are going through. What can you do to make people feel safe? Think about your mission, and creative ways to express it right now. What can you do to add value? Don't pretend it's business as usual. I’ve been hearing the word “pivot,” but it’s not really a pivot because you’re only modifying your offering. It’s a rethinking: “I’ve been meeting my customers’ needs in a certain way. How can I give them that same outcome at home, and now, in my place of business, in a way that’s safe and comfortable?”

That may require doing some customer research. Large scale polls tell us that people in general have mixed feelings about going back out in public, but you also need information more specific to your offering. For my playspace clients, we did polls about summer camps via social media, offering three options: "I would send my kids right now;" "I'm a little bit hesitant and would need more information," or, "I am definitely not comfortable right now." From that we learned that about 40 percent of people that are ready to send their kids back into camps because they need to, and about 60 percent are not. That helped them forecast how many kits and online summer programs they’d need to be ready to offer. It also helped to inform their decisions about how to structure summer camp capacity and space out the timing to allow for cleaning.

Other ways of doing customer research could include email polls; surveys conducted after a purchase or online class; studying engagement and responses to your social posts or, for larger companies, even a focus group of your most engaged customers — the people who’ve stayed with you on this journey so far.

Mind Your Data

Once you do open up, you need to be guided by your data. How many people are still interacting with our online offerings? How many people are interacting with your storefront? That will tell you where to focus your marketing efforts, and perhaps point you in the direction of some customer stories you can tell on email or social media to let people know that other human beings are having successful experiences with your business.

We are opening up as a country in phases, and we are opening up as human beings in phases too. There's no way that we can really know where people are unless we ask them and understanding the spectrum of emotions and pain points is really helpful. The more that you can know the customer, the more informed your decision making will be.

The owners of the playspace decided that since they can't necessarily ensure minimal contact, they would make their groups smaller, and curated, with the same pod of people together all the time. And, they would sanitize each station after each child. Grocery stores have been the pioneers here, and the example. They've been sanitizing carts and spacing out customers. They’ve primed customers for the experience of going into other businesses.

An Open Invitation

But, you still have to communicate to the customer and let them know you’re open, because in everyone's mind right now, everything is closed down. We sent all these messages saying, "We can serve you at home, let us be part of your experience." Now you have to figure out how to invite them back. There's following regulation and communicating that you're following a regulation, but I think it's so much more than that. It's inviting the people who have gone with you on the journey to engage with you in yet another new way, without pushing them, and letting them know you can still continue to meet their needs even if they don’t want to come in.

As customers, we can have empathy for business owners too. It’s going to be a stretch for a lot of businesses to operate in this hybrid way. It’s probably better in the long run for them to have some sort of online offering, and this pushed them to develop one. It doesn't really make strategic sense to build something and then just let it go, but realistically, some businesses are managed by one or two people, and unless they're making a lot more money than they were before, supporting two offerings might not be within their capacity.

For business owners, being the company to provide those options and to be the one communicating the process of reopening is an opportunity to draw customers closer, especially when you communicate in a way that is very clear: "This is what we're doing, this is when, and this is how you sign up,” and then “If you’re not ready, this is what we have for you.”

Such a message combined with discount code is usually effective, but it can be more than that. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering; it can be as simple as this:

There’s a burger shack, Red's Java House, near my house in San Francisco, and right now they're open for pickup only. They're known for having pictures of rock and roll stars on the wall and playing upbeat music. On the way to pick up my burger, I was feeling a mix of excitement (I’m finally going to get a burger at Red’s!) and anxiety (I hope I don’t get COVID). When I got there, they had the now familiar six-foot spacers on the floor, and arrows guiding me where to go and how to do things safely, and instead of the usual rock and roll, they were playing relaxing classical music. It made me feel calmer right away and added an element of surprise and delight. It was an acknowledgement that although they were open for business, it’s not business as usual. I thought it was genius.

Annabelle Bayhan

About Annabelle Bayhan

Annabelle Bayhan is a Sales & Conversion Coach, Marketing Consultant, and the founder of The Women and Business Mastermind. During Covid-19, Annabelle has been front and center with many freelancers and businesses helping them to brainstorm and pivot online quickly. Annabelle uses smart business strategy and human-centered coaching to help her clients uncover ways to make an income and an impact.

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