If you’re responsible for sales or marketing in a business-to-business (B2B) company, chances are you're thinking about how to handle things through the COVID-19 crisis. Your plans, so well thought out and in execution just 2 weeks ago, now need revision.
It goes without saying that your first concern will be the health, safety and well-being of your family, your colleagues, your customers and community. Once that is assured, though, what should you do about your marketing, the initiatives you have planned for the next few months, and then looking beyond to the other side of the crisis?
Here’s advice from experienced marketers based on past recessions and shock events like 9/11:
COVID-19 and public sentiment is changing daily. A message or campaign that you planned last week is likely to be out of touch with reality today. Re-evaluate if that message or campaign should be parked for now. After all, the work you’ve put into developing it is not lost, but the results will be delayed. Make decisions on a daily basis to ensure you’re not out of step with the current mood and sentiment and that your messages are relevant and sensitive today.
Communicate More, Not Less
Communicate with customers and stakeholders more than usual. Communicate about how you are addressing the virus with your staff first and foremost. There is a lot of sensitivity – and backlash as Whole Foods found out – about how companies are treating their staff in this time. Also communicate about business operations, contingency planning and other details relevant for your company and customers. Be proactive, share, communicate using your social media and email channels, and repeat with updates as needed.
Be as clear as you can, although this is difficult when the situation is evolving as rapidly as it is. Provide caveats if policies are being reconsidered on a day by day basis, this will make it easier if you need to change a policy in the coming days and weeks.
Acknowledge That Sales Will Suffer In The Short Term
We’re in a dramatic business retraction and the weeks ahead will be hard. Except for some niche sectors, there will be a drought in sales. Companies will retrench where they can and cut expenses where they can. They’re unlikely to make any major commitments, so sales will suffer.
Plan for this – your salespeople aren’t going to make their quotas in Q2 and stress levels will only soar by expecting them to. Make accommodations by changing deadlines or levels. Communicate the changes clearly with your team. There are different ways for salespeople to be productive in this time, so switch initiatives (more on this below).
Don’t Cancel Your Marketing
You may be tempted to stop marketing. Businesses want to retrench when things are uncertain, and to preserve cash. But time and again, the data shows that companies who continue their advertising and marketing through a downturn experience more upside on the recovery than peer companies who cut back. Data from the 1980s recession showed that sales of companies that advertised aggressively during the downturn grew 275% over those that didn’t in the 3 following years.
There may be good reasons to consider increasing your investment in marketing in the coming months. Once the shock and intense interest of COVID subsides (it’s hard to imagine, but yes, it will) and normalcy returns to daily life, you can be one of the first to cut through the noise and get your message heard.
Balance this consideration with the short-term impact on your business - because you need to survive this in order to be able to win on the other side.
Do Not Plan To Profit from A Crisis
COVID-19 is a global human health crisis. Your first business priority is to protect the health and well being of your employees and community. Dismiss any notion of profiting from this crisis - no good will come of that. Look at the story of the man who bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer to sell on Amazon and is now being investigated by the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office for price gouging. While he may have thought he was applying some good ol’ business hustle, in turns out that society doesn’t look kindly on anyone (business or individual) trying to make a buck out of suffering.
But, this can present a problem if you have a service that can support people through this time. You don't want to promote it and come across as trying to make a quick buck. In this situation, your wording is everything. Be open that you aren't intending to profit from the terrible situation, that you want to contribute to your community's ability to navigate through the crisis successfully.
I think Poppin did a good job with messaging in this email.
Timing Is Everything
If you're trying to promote an event or sell in the current environment, you're likely to be met with utter disinterest or backlash. Do you really need to send out a sales email promoting an event in June now? No one is interested, and you'll annoy many people. Take a breather for a week or two and re-evaluate whether your message will be well-received then.
Revisit Your Automated Marketing
Don't forget to revisit your automated marketing for relevance and sensitivity of message. If you use a marketing automation platform like Hubspot, you have automated emails going out to people based on actions they took over the past few months. Those messages may no longer be appropriate - revisit anything that was set up before March 15th.
Be Careful About Your Tone
If your company has a brand that is sarcastic or cynical, tone down any negativity right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and a negative tone will play out badly in this context. Humor is fine, but keep it light and positive. Pull some optimism in where you can – everyone needs it now.
Do Something Unprecedented and Unique For Your Brand
There’s an opportunity right now to do something bold and helpful that will raise your company’s profile AND contribute some good to the world. There are several examples:
What can your company and employees do that's bold, unique and helpful? Think in particular about if there’s anything you can do to support local and small businesses - these are the hardest hit by the current economic retrenchment.
Think About The Future - There Will Be A Rebound
BUT: As hard as it is to imagine from this moment in time, this crisis will end. There will be another side. Economists already predict a ‘sharp rebound’ once the virus is contained and the data about that rebound from China is buoying. Keep this in mind as you navigate the short term. Thinking positively about what’s on the horizon will help balance out the negative stories playing 24/7.
Make Use of Staff and Customer Time
Step one in responding to the pandemic is for everyone to adjust to a new working reality and get themselves and their families organized and functional. Once people have done that, they may have time on their hands – because all their meetings, commuting and business trips have been cancelled. They will get through the initial shock factor of this situation and they’ll want to make productive use of their time. This is an incredible gift. it means they’ll catch up on their reading, they’ll dedicate some time to researching things they haven't had time for in the last 6 months. They MAY EVEN ANSWER THEIR PHONES.
For your staff, change your focus in the short-term to internal activities.
Your sales team can research and build lists so they're well organized when it's appropriate to turn the “selling” tap back on. They can finally think about that new sales collateral they say they've wanted. They can update their LinkedIn profiles.
Your marketing team can get case studies written, webinars produced and whitepapers created. They can dig into all that SEO data they keep saying they want to evaluate, but never have time to.
Everyone can spend time thinking about the future, new opportunities in the business, and strategic planning for the next chapter.
For your customers, this is a good time to learn about new solutions, trends and technologies. They will be interested in educational content and will be consuming more of it. For your company, this means you have an opportunity to generate top-of-funnel leads that can be nurtured over the coming year. It won’t mean more business in the next 4 weeks – but it could mean more business in Q3 and Q4. Get your webinars and content out there in the coming months.
To be successful with this, get your tone right – be helpful, sympathetic, useful and aware of the current reality. This is not a time to be in pushy-sales mode (it never is, though, is it).
True Leadership Is Shown In Times Of Crisis
The ultimate measure in marketing is brand trust and brand affinity. If you STOP marketing now and stop connecting with your community, you will erode trust. People will be looking to brands and companies who are acting selflessly and showing leadership now. You can accomplish more in terms of demonstrating the value of your business in the coming months than you would be able to accomplish is 'normal' times.
Guinness has taken a step in this direction by creating a fund to support bar workers. How can you show leadership to your staff, your vendors, your customers and stakeholders?
Chances are that every one of your sales team’s in-person meetings for the rest of this month have been cancelled. And probably even some of their phone meetings. This does not mean that your sales team doesn’t have an opportunity to make great things happen right now. They can rediscover the power of the telephone, or work on other projects like strategy research and planning in new markets that you’ve always been considering. They can connect – if it makes sense given the circumstances in your specific industry - with prospects and past clients to check-in and catch up. Reaching out and making contact - emotionally and verbally - is essential in this time when we have to stay apart physically.
Get Social With Your Business Technology
You're used to using Zoom, GoToMeeting and other video conferencing technologies for business meetings. Use them to host 'social' gatherings instead - team lunches and cocktail hours, virtual coffees. There will be a lot more of this kind of 'getting together' in the coming months - on March 22 over 100,000 people attended a virtual party including Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Rihanna among others.
Provide Support for Younger Workers and Contractors
For those who have not been through a business downturn, these are very scary times. Young people don’t have the financial cushions and they don’t have the benefit of experience to know that they will get through this and come out the other side. Contractors don't have certainty about their next paycheque.
This is a time to act with empathy and kindness. Even though businesses will struggle and need to ensure they are managing tightly through the economic downturn, think about what you can do to truly support your community. Care and consideration of the people you work with will be remembered long after the dust of this crisis settles.
On a practical front, keep people focused on projects and things that have meaning now. Communicate a lot with them. Pay attention to their mental health. Reassure them as best you can with financial support – if you know that you can support them financially through this (i.e., their incomes and jobs are safe) – let them know. Not all companies are able to do this, but every little bit helps younger workers and contractors whose finances are precarious.
Many talented people are going to have extra capacity (lots of it) in the coming months - can you make use of their talents with special projects that help them stay afloat - and also will help your business get ahead down the road?
Above All, Remain Calm
Keep your family, friends, colleagues and community safe. Plan for the short-term difficulties. And then, keep an eye firmly and optimistically on the future. There will be a positive out of all of this, and this is a period of time that you will look back on in the future and be proud of the brave decisions you made.
Thank you to all the expert B2B marketers who have contributed to this list, including:
Leah Andrew, Anita Baldwinson, Mic Berman, Leslie Carter, Andrew Green, Karen Hazan, Camille Kennedy, Aimee Kessler Evans, Jennifer McGill, Ruta Rudminaite, Tracy Staniland, Liz Williams, Linda Wu-Dunphy.