COVID-19 forced many businesses to modify operations and adapt to doing more online. For most businesses online marketing has become a necessity, as social media and other digital channels are often the only way to stay in contact with customers.

While COVID has had a negative impact on many businesses of all sizes, those that are pivoting to a digital-first marketing strategy have been able to survive and even thrive, in a transformed marketplace.

Many of our CoLab members are small business owners and entrepreneurs and we’ve spent much of the year working with them and discussing the challenges they face in today’s business world. Listed below are some of the tools and tips we have learned from them as they navigated an unpredictable and unprecedented year.

Be Flexible

Most small businesses start out lean and adaptable. However, once business picks up it can be easy to get stuck in the same old routine.

For most businesses, the pandemic took away the option of staying in familiar routines that had been working. Adapting to changes in health and safety protocols became a necessary part of life and everyone was forced out of their comfort zone. This resulted in many small businesses becoming more creative and inventive in how they did business.

While you’re getting used to how things have changed, remember they’re still changing, and don’t settle into a “new” routine. Instead, keep trying new things and creative ways that you can do business.

These days, it seems like the only thing certain about the future is that it’s uncertain, so it’s important to prepare for that. It might seem impossible to plan for the unexpected, but there are some important concrete steps you can take now to make your business more prepared for anything that might come your way.

Now is the time to assess, reorganize, re-prioritize, and re-imagine critical business infrastructure, crisis plans, and resources to ensure you're set up for success, whatever comes next.

Start Small

One key to trying new things is to do it on a small scale. Think about what things you’re doing now that you could potentially expand upon, how you can do those things better, and what new things you can potentially try out on a manageable scale.

Stay in Touch

One of the biggest benefits of online marketing is it gives you the ability to stay in touch and in your customers' minds.

Communicating clearly and often is important in 2021 and beyond. Savvy businesses will want to keep customers informed of additional changes, how you’re meeting their needs, and how you’re making them feel safe. Of course, you’ll also want to keep them engaged and interested in your products or services.

Do [Even More] Business Online

For small businesses, surviving in 2020 meant a shift in how to operate and meet the needs of customers. With ongoing concerns about the health and well-being of friends and families, customers continue to look for safer ways to get the products and services they need.

Do you own a brick-and-mortar business? Having an online presence has always been important, but now it’s critical. What products and services do you offer to customers in person? Start selling and offering them on your website with an online store. Taking your business online doesn’t just preserve your ability to do business with your existing customers, it also opens your business up to new potential customers that may not have been reachable in the past.

Collect and Use Customer Data

Customer data plays a key role in the success of almost any modern business, and 2020 highlighted the importance of being able to reach your customers directly — especially as many businesses found themselves needing to communicate changes made to day-to-day operations.

Businesses that had email addresses, for example, were able to get updates to their customers without worrying about visibility on social media.

Using data like interests, demographics, and past behaviors allows businesses to dig deeper to highlight existing products and the availability of new offerings to the right people at the right time.

As you move into 2021 and beyond, focus on collecting contact information and acting on what you learn from customer data.

Tell Your Story

As small businesses move their marketing and operations online, they join a new, vast digital marketplace. With that shift comes opportunities like new customers and new ways to sell goods and services, but it also comes with competition. In a digital world, customers have virtually infinite options available to them. So how does a small business compete with larger, more established competitors?

Many consumers want to shop small, especially since the pandemic hit. Your main advantage when it comes to competing with the major retailers is your identity as a small business, which should be a prominent aspect of your brand.

Capitalize on consumers’ existing desire to shop small by leaning into your own story — your identity as a small business — in your branding.

People want to hear your story. Share with them why you founded a business or consider posting an update about how it’s going or how friends and family are pitching in to help. These stories help motivate people to become customers. For existing customers, these stories might motivate a repeat purchase or even better — they might share your content with their networks, exposing you to a whole new batch of potential customers.

And make sure your brand identity is reflected in every customer interaction you have. If you portray yourself as warm, friendly, and personable, then that’s exactly how the customer experience should be. Otherwise, you risk appearing inauthentic or unreliable, which could hurt your brand reputation (and your sales).

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