By Greg Sterling, Uberall's VP of Market Insights
Right now many brands are having to develop marketing and communications strategies on the fly, during this very strange and uncertain time. But we’re starting to see some companies do a better job responding to the crisis and communicating with customers.
One could say there’s a set of “better practices” beginning to appear. The discussion below touches on some of those but is by no means complete.
This article is part of an evolving and ongoing discussion we’re having with colleagues and customers on this blog, over the phone (and video calls) and in our forthcoming reports and webinars.
Business Listings & Reviews
As a brand with physical stores or locations, it goes without saying that hours or store closure information need to be updated in Google My Business and other relevant directories (i.e., Yelp, Bing, Apple, TripAdvisor, etc). Consumers are very much still searching for local information, especially for opening hours and product availability. They also continue to make phone calls to local businesses.
Search is a critical communication channel and should be immediately addressed, if it hasn’t been already. Indeed, it’s not enough to simply email existing customers about coronavirus-related updates; it all needs to be discoverable in search.
What products are in stock; is e-commerce now your focus; have you undertaken necessary precautions or safety measures (e.g., if you’re a restaurant offering takeout or delivery); are you doing remote consulting or instruction? This also implies new content and maybe landing pages that answer these and other customer questions.
We discuss listings management and how to accomplish many of these necessary changes in more detail on our Corona FAQs page. (Google also provides guidance on updating critical business information and temporary store closures.)
Reviews and brand reputation are very important during the crisis. In the words of SterlingSky’s Mary Bowling, a local SEO veteran, “In a crisis your reputation is all you have.” Some consumers have sought to help local businesses by writing positive reviews (which may violate review guidelines). But there’s also the risk that confused or frustrated customers might write negative reviews if they discover inconsistencies between online and offline information.
Accordingly, Google has temporarily shut down “new reviews, review replies, and new Q&A.” It’s not clear for how long.
In the US, Yelp has done something less drastic but similar. It has changed review guidelines temporarily to protect local businesses against reputational harm from misinformed consumers who might write a critical review because a particular store or location wasn’t open, and so on.
Given these developments, the main focus of your “reputation management” strategy should shift from review solicitation to communicating and being responsive to customers and their needs. This will later translate into positive consumer sentiment and favorable online reviews.
Another (more technical) thing to be aware of is schema for “coronavirus special announcements.” While this is not applicable to all categories of businesses, it’s worth investigating and potentially implementing. It can help with coronavirus-related optimization.
Customer Communication & Content
We said it before but it’s worth repeating: don’t create generic-sounding content and customer communications. This is a time for genuine (“authentic”) messages to your audiences. Empathy is an overused term in marketing but it applies here; think about the person on the receiving end of the message. He or she may be highly stressed, out of work, dealing with bored or restless kids, and have cabin fever from “sheltering in place” for weeks.
People may therefore be more or less receptive to your brand messages depending on their circumstances. Emails and other customer communications that fail to acknowledge the strangeness of this time will appear insensitive. But be careful about tone; people don’t want you to amplify their fears (“we know this virus could result in millions of layoffs”).
Conversely, making light of circumstances may come off as inappropriate. Humor is an effective tool, especially during a tense time like this, but it can also misfire if poorly executed.
Be aware of what competitors and peers are doing but don’t mimic them. Be a leader, not a follower.
The first wave of emails with the subject line, “An important message from our CEO” probably got attention. Over the following week or so, the next 150 with similar subject lines probably got ignored. That’s what I did.
Don’t talk to your customer at length about internal company matters or logistics unless it’s directly relevant to them. Think about what the recipient wants to hear from you. If you run a restaurant, they probably want to know it’s safe to order food for takeout/takeaway.
Images of employees wearing gloves might provide reassurance in that case. If you’re a traditional retailer focusing all your attention on e-commerce, shoppers might want to know more about your newly more flexible return policy.
Many companies, including Uberall, have pivoted from existing content calendars to address the coronavirus. That’s entirely appropriate. But so has everyone else. The danger is that everyone’s content becomes “all corona all the time.” And that’s what’s happening with PR right now. This isn’t the first “coronavirus checklist” article you’ve read this week and it likely won’t be the last.
Focus on quality rather than pushing a regular “cadence” of content simply to stay top of mind or because others are doing it. Consider what makes your content stand out, more helpful or useful to your audience than the deluge of other Covid-19 content coming at them? It’s a challenge, but one question to keep asking is: how does this inform or improve things for my customers or my audience?
Marketers get into the habit of mechanically creating content for PR or to rank in search results. This is the conventional approach to content creation. But this isn’t the time for conventional thinking, sell copy or perfunctory content. This is the time for real information, help and support. What that means specifically depends on your industry and customer base.
Together with email and search, social media is another important channel to communicate with customers and your broader audience. Messaging and calls on Facebook and WhatsApp, for example, are seeing huge spikes in usage in multiple countries hit by the virus.
Social media is also a potentially much more interactive channel, where companies can have a dialogue with customers and respond to questions very directly. How you do this at scale, as a multi-location enterprise is a different discussion.
But companies need to be prepared to communicate at the community and local-store level rather than purely from global brand pages. That’s an execution challenge for sure, but it will be much more effective and impactful for the audience.
As with your general customer communication, be thoughtful. Don’t publish social posts simply to publish. Use social to discuss any hours, service or inventory updates (you just got hand sanitizer back in) and to answer questions. The more responsive you can be to your audience the better. And turn off any scheduled posts or updates that may seem tone-deaf or insensitive in light of the crisis.
Depending on how many social media channels you’re using, you’ll need to adapt your content and potentially your strategy. Although usage in some contexts has grown, there is also data showing social media engagement rates are off right now. To get attention, your content and ads need to be really useful, interesting or entertaining.
Search Engine Optimization
As a business with locations, first and foremost, you need to optimize for Google My Business and make the necessary changes there. But you also still need to optimize your site for organic search. Presumably you’re already doing that and working with an agency or in-house SEO team.
The initial impulse at this time may be to pull back or pause budgets. If you’re in travel or hospitality or the conference business that may make sense temporarily. Otherwise, you probably need to double-down on SEO and invest in relevant new content and landing pages — one might call them “coronapages.” A great example is Tom’s Guide optimizing for “Clorox Wipes” and where to buy them online and off.
SEO is critical to the ongoing and long-term visibility of your brand. And if you’re in an industry that is seeing high demand right now (e.g., home office equipment or food delivery) now is the time to invest more in SEO — and PPC.
Paid Search & Social
A number of industry forecasters are negatively revising their estimates for global ad spending, because of the coronavirus, and some quite significantly. However, one of those forecasters, eMarketer, anticipates a return to growth during the second half of the year and is actually expecting overall ad revenues to still exceed 2019. That very much remains to be seen.
Regardless, the coronavirus is having a significant impact on paid search and paid social trends, just as it is on local organic search. Wordstream’s Mark Irvine published a lengthy analysis of how the virus was impacting Google Ads (clicks, CPCs, conversions) across 21 industries.
In the aggregate, according to Wordstream, clicks and conversions have declined. However, there have been increases in some verticals: non-profits, health and medical, finance, on-demand media, beauty and personal care, gifts and flowers. Irvine points out that many of these verticals are seeing reduced CPCs and improved conversions. By the same token, some industries are seeing terrible results. That latter category includes travel, restaurants, live entertainment and conferences, as you might expect.
In other categories, you may want to maintain or even increase your paid-search spend in the face of improved conversions and lower CPCs. Obviously, this is a category by category and case by case decision right now.
In terms of paid social, there is some conflicting data about what’s happening.
As mentioned, there are indications people are spending more time on social media but that engagement rates for brands are down across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with Twitter not quite as bad as Facebook and Instagram’s declines.
Just as CPCs in search have decreased in many categories, due to less competition, the same appears to be true of paid social. According to Facebook marketing partner Matchnode, “CPMs have fallen 16% compared to the previous 7 days. Some advertisers are seeing 50% CPM dips in their campaigns.” Paid search and paid social, during a time like this, are not just channels for selling but also for brand management and communications.