Going viral has taken on a whole new meaning. The novel coronavirus has impacted everything. Nothing is as stable or predictable as it was just a few weeks ago. And the pace of change is accelerating and unrelenting. All local businesses are feeling it. Whether you operate a local restaurant, a hair salon, a bakery, or even a dance club. There’s pandemic at the disco.

It was hard enough before, but marketing for local businesses in the post-pandemic world will be even more challenging, to say the least. Even as we begin to “reopen”, local businesses expecting a return to normal will almost certainly be disappointed. Many of the changes we’ve experienced in response to COVID-19 will be permanent. For local independent businesses without the resources or scale of their corporate competitors the concerns are many, but these three are at the top of the list:

  • Survival
    • Emerging from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic will be like coming out of a shelter. The world will be different. Your business has survived, and that’s great. Now your competitors are fewer, but stronger. How will your business compete? Will your market “pie” stay the same, and because there are fewer competitors will your share grow? Will corporate or online competitors who have gained market share keep it, shrinking your local market? What marketing strategies or techniques should you employ to maintain or grow your share?
  • Consumer behavior
    • Have you ever had the experience of having someone tell you about “talking” to someone only to find out later that the so-called conversation was actually an SMS chat? Long before the pandemic, growing numbers of consumers preferred texting, interacting with virtual agents, conducting product research through social media and ratings sites, and online ordering over visiting stores or having actual phone conversations. The trend toward low to no-contact preferences — a movement that already had significant momentum among shoppers — will continue with new pace and urgency. Can your business position itself to take advantage of this trend? What would that look like?
  • Consumer expectations and confidence
    • For businesses requiring close physical proximity or actual contact with customers – think hair salons, restaurants, gyms, etc. – sanitation protocols are no longer optional. It’s no longer “If you build it, they will come.”, it’s “If you clean it, keep it clean, and show me how you keep it clean, they might come.” Even for those businesses that do not require close contact with customers, this will be a concern. Is your staff outfitted with appropriate PPE? Has your in-store merchandising changed to remind customers of social distancing? How will you communicate this with prospects and customers?

So, what is a local business to do? Here are 5 marketing lessons that local businesses can learn from the way their big corporate competitors are (or are not) responding that will serve them well.

  1. Big data is not just for big business anymore. It is not something mysterious, expensive, and unattainable. Simply put, big data is the voice of your customer. Are you listening to what they have to say? In the early 2000’s it was the big guys with the deep pockets who learn to collect, aggregate, and analyze information from online and offline sources in order to tell them more about their customers. The explosion of apps and social media means that these tools (most of them, anyway) are available for you. Consider: today 72% of adults in the US are regular users of social media. Online media companies from Facebook to the less well known Q1 Media (ask for CJ if you call!) make actionable marketing intelligence from big data sets available to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). And they’ll also give you the tools to measure what’s working and what’s not.
  2. Working the remote. No, I’m not talking about your TV. Working from home used to be only a remote possibility. Facebook is making it permanent for some employees. Does your business have employees who would be just as productive (if not more so) working from home? The talent pool for marketing expertise is wide, deep, and varied, especially when you remove geographic boundaries. Do you have an employee with other significant job responsibilities to whom you’ve assigned marketing (web design, social media, media planning and placement, production, etc.) as an internal “side hustle”? This is not as unusual as it sounds, and the results are often – and predictably –disappointing. A lot can be gained by keeping that good employee’s focus on her primary responsibilities and tapping into the specific marketing expertise that is available, on-demand, and just a few mouse clicks away. Bonus: you don’t need to pay them a salary and benefits.
  3. A-maze-ing. The customer journey is a lot more nuanced than Awareness-Consideration-Shop-Purchase-Loyalty. It no longer starts with a visit to a brick & mortar location (it hasn’t for a while now). It’s not a straight-line sequence of events. It’s not always in a forward direction. It could start with an impulse transaction that results in a negative experience that leads to online research and then seeking referrals from social media that leads to more research that results in an in-store visit that leads to evaluation of the competitors on ratings sites, that ultimately leads to a purchase and a positive experience that results in a personal referral of a friend who has a good experience that leads to (conditional) brand loyalty. It’s not so much a funnel as a maze. Big businesses have figured this out, and they are responding to the current pandemic by tailoring their marketing messages, whether performance or brand based, to consistently reinforce each other for the prospective customer at whatever touch point they have with the company. Is your business delivering a transactional message (“On Sale Now!!!) to an audience that still needs to develop a relationship with your brand? Or vice versa? Or does your transactional message reflect an integral part of your brand? Like their big-box competitors, sensitivity to the customer journey and consistency of messaging across all media are key to the marketing success of SMBs.
  4. One negative tweet. That’s all it takes to undo thousands of dollars in marketing investment. Your customer is in charge. It’s been this way since the dawn of the internet. Acknowledging and embracing the fact that every customer interaction is a marketing touchpoint is no longer optional. Each interaction can be positive or negative, (or, rarely, neutral). Pre-internet, a personal experience story about your business would begin and end with the colleague at work or the next-door neighbor. Now it is amplified through social media to hundreds or thousands, with the opportunity to “go viral”. Big business knows this. It’s why the Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable fell apart back in 2015. A justifiable reputation for lousy customer service by both companies amplified by outrage on social media led to unflattering news coverage that in turn put pressure on legislative bodies and regulators, ultimately quashing the deal. The lesson for SMBs: Take care of your customer first. This is where you, as a small or medium sized business, have an advantage over the big guys. You have the flexibility, agility, and control that allows you to put processes in place quickly that reflect these values. In addition, you now have access to reputation management services and tools to solicit and enhance positive reviews and to alert you to immediately respond to negative customer comments online. Use them.
  5. Advertising media ain’t what it was (if it ever was what it ever was). Remember the yellow pages? Your customers have moved on. Following the lead of their big business competitors, so have SMBs. During the month of April, in the heart of the current pandemic, the two digital advertising platforms that fared the best were Facebook and Google. This is largely because these companies are the primary local media resources for SMBs. This is another area where you have an advantage over your corporate competitors. “…small business have been disproportionately resilient as advertisers during the pandemic, at least on digital media, according to Brian Wieser, global head of intelligence at Group M.” Your targeted investments in local PPC (paid Search) and Social media can give you as large a presence as anyone within your market, geographically, demographically, and behaviorally. And with innovations in streaming video you can achieve similar results among video consumers. As long as you’re delivering the right message in a compelling way, of course.

Small businesses have always had a lot of marketing lessons to learn from the big corporate guys. The difference today is that more and more of what you learn is actionable, due to the availability and affordability of new marketing tools and strategies. The days of “Well, that works for them because they have a […huge budget, experts on the payroll, better data, etc.]…” are over. Increasingly, these same tools, resources, and strategies can be put to work for most SMBs.