COVID-19 / Ecommerce Marketing

Marketing Through Coronavirus: How to Pivot Your Ecommerce Marketing Plan in Times of Crisis

Victoria Fryer / 11 min read

Marketing Through Coronavirus: How to Pivot Your Ecommerce Marketing Plan in Times of Crisis

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Good marketing, at its core, has to include a deep understanding of your target market — their day-to-day lives, their challenges, their joys, their perspective on the world around them. Once you understand that, you can figure out how your brand fits into that story.

You probably had that down pat. And then the coronavirus outbreak shut down schools and businesses, imposed social distancing, and completely upended almost everything we thought of as typical daily life.

Many of those things you knew about your target audience are different now. People are feeling communal anxiety and grief, their daily routines have likely changed completely, and some have either lost their jobs or are risking their health to keep essential services functioning.

The other challenge is that there’s no playbook for this.

We have to accept that there’s probably not a right answer to the question of how to do all of this — but there are a couple of wrong answers. The keys will be to err on the side of humanity and transparency, and to avoid the big no-nos and faux pas like a tone-deaf ad campaign or insensitive post on social media.

Let’s look at some of the steps you can take to re-evaluate your marketing plans in light of coronavirus and make decisions on how to move forward in these challenging times.

Reanalyze Your Marketing Plan With COVID-19 in Mind

The coronavirus pandemic is a health crisis like we’ve never seen before, so it’s no surprise that it came with disruptions to the supply chain, hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, empty shelves at grocery stores, and stress on Amazon’s warehouses.

In times like these, you need to be able to respond to change in real time. For the first few weeks after the U.S. began taking serious measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, the situation seemed to change daily — having ripple effects on people’s feelings and behaviors.

Dramatic and/or widespread events like the COVID-19 pandemic should always trigger a marketer to first step back and say, “OK — what do I have in market right now?” Here are some steps you can take to reevaluate your plans, recenter your thinking, and focus on what’s next.

1. Stop, relax, and don’t panic.

Seriously, sit down — not in front of your computer — and take a few deep breaths. This is not a time to panic, but to gain perspective. People’s lives are at risk, but not from your marketing campaigns. Your business is so important, but you have to keep your mind first and foremost on your health.

The second part of not panicking is to not immediately pull back on all your digital marketing efforts. It may seem like a prudent option to cut marketing budgets to preserve cash flow, but consider what’s known as the “mere exposure effect,” or the phenomenon that being exposed to something more, will make you like or appreciate it more.

Keeping your business in front of consumers could help improve their perception of your brand even if they’re not buying right now.

2. Evaluate your current images, language, and tone of voice.

Assess everything you currently have in market, starting with the channel that gets the most eyes. Evaluate those assets and messages from a new point of view: one that is living in a world with record-high unemployment rates, economic uncertainty, and general anxiety.

Your messages (both copy and imagery) should take into account the impact of cultural events on your customers. They may be in a sensitive emotional state and possibly not in the mindset to make a purchase from your business.

As the crisis progresses, the level of sensitivity required will likely go down a bit, and at some point some light humor might even be appropriate in certain situations. But you have to follow the organic lead of the community — this is not a place to lead the front lines.

3. Adjust marketing campaigns and timelines.

Let’s face it: your well-laid marketing campaign plans might have to be pushed back. And that’s ok. Don’t nix them altogether, but take a little time out to focus on the situation at hand (and part of that means to get your own house in order — take care of your family and employees, keep them safe, and do the best you can).

And now it’s time to pivot. Craft a message that is sensitive to the current situation, takes into account your customers’ new situations and concerns, and is honest, transparent, and human.

A gold standard for this kind of messaging pivot is what Nike did shortly after Americans were asked to stay home if at all possible.

Nike Play Inside

It’s human. It’s inspiring. It aligns with the zeitgeist. And the simple, black-and-white creative adds to the gravitas of the message without pulling it into dreary gloom. Instead, it has an underlying tone of hope. (And they put it out fast.)

4. Have a positive mindset, but don’t be insensitive.

Try your best to keep an upbeat attitude and show your customers that you are there for them in these uncertain times and also still hopeful for the future. That said, watch that you don’t cross the line into possibly being seen as insensitive by minimizing the scale of the pandemic or its impact on human life.

Retain and Grow Your Customer Base During Coronavirus

The Pareto Principle says that 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your loyal customer database. If COVID-19 has dramatically reduced your sales rates, or you’ve had to temporarily close up shop, it’s your loyal customers who will be the ones to keep your business booming well beyond the end of any international pandemic.

Loyal customers spend more on average, with larger purchases more frequently. It’s a win-win! Here are a few areas you can leverage to maximize your customer engagement now.

  1. Content marketing and coronavirus.
  2. Paid advertising and COVID-19.
  3. Social media marketing and coronavirus.
  4. Offer discounts and promotions.
  5. Email marketing and COVID-19.
  6. Optimize your ecommerce store.

Content Marketing and Coronavirus

Content marketing is all about answering your customers’ questions. What are their questions now? How have they changed? If you can zero in on how to answer, content marketing is a great way to fill the holes left by any paid campaigns you paused to conserve cash.

Here are some ideas to jumpstart a content marketing strategy that aligns with the changing situation and evolving customer needs and desires.

1. Perform a content audit.

Just as you assessed your marketing campaigns, do a quick audit of your content. Make sure that what’s out there is appropriate for the times — especially what’s featured on your blog homepage or website.

Then, think about what kinds of content would be useful to your customers now, and if you have anything relevant you can update and re-release. There are some common threads running through the reactions to the COVID-19 crisis that can be served by content that’s not at all related to the virus. If you have articles on working from home, dealing with stress or anxiety, or how to entertain children stuck inside, for example, those may well become very valuable.

2. Provide information.

As we already mentioned, content marketing is about answering questions. But that doesn’t mean you should be the one-stop shop for COVID-19 facts and figures. Provide relevant information to your customers, like if you expect shipping and delivery times to be delayed, or you want to communicate how you’re keeping your customers and employees safe.

Other information your customers may need will likely depend on your vertical or specific products. If you run a toy store, maybe it’s a blog post on the best toys for kids to entertain themselves. If you sell office furniture, you could post about ergonomics and how to make sure your at-home setup works for you.

This example shows CBD for Life featuring relevant content around relaxation and anxiety-relief:

CBDforLife Content Marketing

Providing useful information without pushing a sale is something that customers will remember and return for — and retention is a step on the path to loyalty.

3. Aggregate resources for customers.

What do your customers need? Again, don’t come at this with the mindset of being your customers’ one-stop shop for pandemic facts. This is to meet a specific need that is relevant to the product or service you offer them.

For example, if you sell primarily to small businesses, resources on small business loans or other relief programs may be relevant. Or, if you’re a lifestyle brand with a strong community, you could create virtual events or aggregate a list of those that might be of interest.

Paid Advertising and COVID-19

I’ve heard lots of stories about brands pulling back on their paid advertising to conserve cash flow. But the other side of the coin is that, when we come out of this on the other side, your brand may have been forgotten. Outta sight, outta mind, as they say.

If you can afford it, keep your paid ads running, and find ways to budget instead of killing the program entirely.

What you should consider, though, is moving away from conversion-focused advertising toward brand marketing. The message now is more about communicating your identity and values than “Buy this blender.”

Social Media Marketing and Coronavirus

Social media is a wildcard on a good day, so tread carefully — but tread you must. If you have an established presence on social channels, you should be there now. Especially if you find yourself having to pull back on ad spend, you’ll need to (responsibly) take advantage of all your organic opportunities.

1. Be there, and be social.

One of the biggest takeaways for me across this whole pandemic is the vast number of people who have thrown up their hands (figuratively) and said, “You know what? I’m human. I hurt, I get scared, and I’m protective of the people I love.”

If your brand can be like that person — and receptive to the person on the other end — your social media platforms can be a powerful foundation for building trust and relationships. But you have to be engaged.

Jeni’s Ice Creams hits that note of compassion and empathy so well in this post on their Instagram account:

Jenis Instgram

2. Be part of the conversation.

Embrace the conversation when it’s appropriate for you to do so. Start conversations, engage with the community, and try to make it right with dissatisfied shoppers. And remember to be compassionate towards people who may have a shorter fuse than normal.

That said, that insertion in the conversation needs to be organic, not forced. If you don’t have anything relevant or substantive to offer, you may at best look out of place, and at worst be perceived as insensitive or tone deaf.

Offer Discounts and Promotions

In the early days of crisis, it could be seen as gauche or inappropriate to advertise discounts and deals. Carefully and consistently gauging customer sentiment will be important. But as the situation evolves, and instead descends into what may likely be an economic recession, price-conscious shoppers will be looking for those deals.

Discounts can be helpful in attracting new customers, building loyalty among existing customers, driving traffic to your site, and increasing your sales. Here are a few different types of discounts and offers you could try:

  • Select two or more complementary products and discount the bundle, giving customers an opportunity to try new products.
  • Use volume discounts to raise customers’ order values.
  • Offer discounted shipping, or ship for free if customers reach a certain order value.
  • Maximize cross-sell opportunities and/or order value with buy one, get one promotions.

One other opportunity is in charitable sales promotions, like donating a portion of all profits for a certain period of time, or doing a give one, get one promotion. These can encourage conversion because customers can purchase items for themselves while still doing good for others.

LARQ is offering customers the opportunity to take $20 off their purchase price and donate it directly to frontline workers through Direct Relief:

Larq payitforward

Email Marketing and COVID-19

It’s no secret that communicating with your customers is an essential step to retaining them. Still, there’s a fine art to that communication, and one of the indisputable kings of comms is email marketing.

With 59% of people saying that email marketing impacts their purchase decisions, it is still by far the most effective long-term method of marketing communication.

And now, more than ever, it’s vital that you’re keeping your customers abreast of any changes affecting your businesses, stock, and industry.

So how can you ensure that you’ve got your email marketing down pat at a time when clear, goal-based communication is essential?

1. Set your sights on a goal.

As we alluded to, it’s vital that your email marketing has a goal. Not only will a goal help you to measure the success of your marketing efforts, but it will also give your customers a clear direction as to what you want from them.

Check out this innovative and eye-catching one-off email campaign that Texas-based clothing retailer, T.C. Elli’s sent to customers at the start of lockdown.

T.C. Ellis

In the email, T.C. Elli’s draws their customers’ attention to the store’s social media channels, creating more potential contact points and strengthening their ties to their customers. From here, they can promote stock and sales, encourage customer feedback, and delight and excite customers with ongoing updates.

It’s clear from this email that their main goals are to gain social media followers and, by offering a 20% off sale store-wide, encourage sales. And while we’re here, special mention to their outstanding design that really draws the customer’s attention to those main cues.

2. Go with the flow.

And by this, we mean automated email flows. Nailing the basics of your email marketing can be as simple as making the most of automation.

The essentials of an automated email flow are as follows:

  1. The first email is triggered when a customer becomes part of a segment by completing an action; e.g., they abandon their cart without completing a purchase. The email communication doesn’t stop there, though.
  2. If the customer doesn’t make a purchase, they’re still within that same segment and could still be compelled to make a purchase. The email flow is designed to send them a series of emails encouraging the customer to make a purchase (through offering a discount).
  3. If, at any stage, the customer completes a purchase, they are instantly removed from that segment and will no longer receive the other abandoned cart emails from that flow… unless, of course, they abandon their cart again.

Automated email flows — like happy birthday campaigns, win-back flows, or abandoned cart emails — can make all the difference. Throw in tools like a product recommendation engine that accurately predicts products that your customers will like, or adjustable discount codes and customer segmentation, and you’ve got a recipe for tailored, targeted emails that are easy to design.

Check out this example from Singaporean lingerie retailer, Our Bralette Club. Our Bralette Club designed a captivating automated email flow designed to re-engage customers who have not shopped in 60 days and are at risk of not shopping again.

With GIFs that help their emails to stand out, clear branding, irresistible discounted offers, and product recommendations, Our Bralette Club is keeping their customers entertained while also encouraging them to shop again.

With $4,700 in attributable revenue in the year since they enabled this automated email campaign, based on data from Marsello, Our Bralette Club is really showcasing the power of automated marketing.

3. Incentivize customer loyalty.

Combining your email marketing with your loyalty program might not seem COVID-19 specific, but trust us, if you’ve skipped this step, you’re missing a retention marketing cash cow that could be the ticket to getting your store through even the toughest times. Need we mentioned the Pareto Principle again?

Optimize Your Ecommerce Store

Consumers are turning to online shopping for many things they may have previously preferred to purchase in person. You want to make sure your store is optimized for findability and usability, and that you’re featuring the products that resonate with customers today.

1. Evaluate your homepage SEO.

The purpose of your homepage is to introduce customers to your business. It’s your digital storefront. Users should be able to quickly and easily understand your business and its value propositions.

As far as keywords, it will likely be more effective to focus on a small subset of keywords that tie into your brand and site theme than to try to rank for one branded keyword. Make sure to work those keywords in naturally to any content headers on your homepage.

2. Optimize your product pages.

Start with keyword research: what terms are your target audience using to search for products like yours? Identify a couple of relevant long-tail keywords to work into your page copy as well. While you’ve probably already done this once or twice, consider how search trends and shopping behavior are different now, in the face of coronavirus, and make sure your strategy is responsive to those trends.

Once you’ve identified the right keywords, create your product description copy, headers, title tag, and meta description. Each page on your website should have a unique title tag and meta description.

3. Reduce page load speed.

Page load speed is a huge factor that sometimes gets overlooked. But its implications are twofold: pages that load slowly frustrate users and cause them to bounce, or at least leave your site before purchasing anything. Page load speed is also one of the signals Google uses in its page ranking algorithm, meaning sites that load more slowly may not rank as high as those that load quickly.

Here are some ways you may be able to reduce page load speed:

  • Compress your images to reduce the file sizes.
  • Assess your ecommerce site integrations, and make sure they’re all still necessary and useful.
  • Minify Javascript and CSS.

Conclusion

In these challenging times, digital marketing is often the last thing on people’s minds. But as marketers, we still have to pay attention. And our jobs change with the seasons, in that we have to respond to the world as it is, as it changes — not the world we wish it was, or the world it used to be.

For those businesses seeing lower sales during the crisis, take advantage of that downtime and be ready to come back strong. Focus on building up your SEO, improving your website design, and optimizing your site’s UX for better conversion rates.

Marketing in the conditions imposed on us by the coronavirus must lean on community, brand building, and relationships with existing customers. If you can strike the right tone in your messaging to speak to these people as they are, and that message resonates, your business will be in a good position to retain market share (or even gain it) as economic activity across the U.S. begins to reach a new normal.

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    Victoria Fryer

    Victoria Fryer

    Victoria is a content marketing writer, researcher, and content project manager at BigCommerce. Specializing in writing and web content strategy, she previously spent eight years in public relations and marketing for Tier I research universities. She holds a B.A. in English Writing and Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Liberal Arts from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

    View all posts by Victoria Fryer

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