With the novel coronavirus pandemic upending personal and business plans, forcing consumer habits to shift and enthralling the world, brands are finding online communication more important and more challenging than ever. Digital marketing helps organizations inform and connect to customers during uncertain times.

We look at how brands can benefit from planning for crises before they're imminent and how digital communications outlets inform customers of rapidly changing circumstances efficiently and effectively.

Start with A Plan

The novel coronavirus is affecting businesses in novel ways. Many businesses are changing fundamental aspects of how they operate — and changing them daily. A business must have a crisis plan for the continuity of core operations during such challenging times, but it must also develop a crisis communications plan to ensure key internal and external stakeholders are kept adequately informed and the business doesn’t suffer a loss of trust or reputation from its customers. Crisis communication plans are critical for planning for the future so that businesses can anticipate and quickly gain control over what they might have previously considered impossible scenarios.

Megan Garrett, senior communications specialist at Trilix, said a crisis communication plan is essential to keep business running during any emergency.

“A good plan helps you communicate transparently, a key to maintaining consumer trust and weathering a crisis,” she noted.

A good plan helps you communicate transparently, a key to maintaining consumer trust and weathering a crisis.

A recent report from Edelman reveals that none of the four societal institutions that the study measures, government, business NGOs and media, is trusted. This is because people have fear about the future and their role in it. That being said, this is a wake-up call for brands to embrace a new way of building trust and loyalty among consumers.

“The crisis communication plan serves as a guide for quicker decision-making during a crisis,” Megan said.

“An effective plan saves time, provides steps to maintain the safety of your employees and customers, outlines key strategies, tactics and messaging to keep stakeholders informed and helps keep business moving forward.”

Once you’ve enacted your crisis communication plan and all parties know their roles, gather the leaders in your organization to discuss how this specific crisis — the novel coronavirus pandemic — is affecting and could affect your business.  Will you change hours of operation or shut down business temporarily? Will your services or products change or see any change in demand? How will canceled events and fewer in-person interactions with customers affect revenue streams?

A thorough plan will include preparations for the best and worst scenarios, and those in between. And while circumstances are ever-evolving, one thing is certain: communication is paramount. Consider messaging for employees, business partners and customers.

Online marketing platforms are critical to maintaining communication with customers during a crisis and could even help maintain revenue and build brand trust and loyalty.

Striking a Balance on Social Media

Social media is one of the fastest and easiest ways for brands to reach customers. So far in this emergency, we have seen businesses use social media to inform customers about changes in hours or services, answer questions and continue marketing their products. However, organizations need to be mindful of the virus’ serious and sensitive nature during this health crisis so they are not seen as cynical or opportunistic, said Kramer McLuckie, Trilix digital communications manager.

“Owned channels like social media are important for brands to use during these times because it’s a fairly unobtrusive way to get messaging to the right audience,” he said.

“The usual messaging for owned channels like social media, email and blogs will probably need to be tweaked to ensure it jibes with the new reality we find ourselves in. Promoting large events, topical humor or even imagery of people gathered together or shaking hands might all strike a false note in the context of this crisis.”

Brands will need to operate within the parameters of what their audiences expect of them. No audience is going to grant a brand permission to be less serious than usual at a time like this. But that doesn’t mean they need to adopt a solemn tone with every post. Instead, provide helpful, timely and educational content.

“Not everything needs to switch to be all about COVID-19 all the time, but it can’t be ignored,” Kramer added. “Brands have an opportunity to leverage their power and voices online to bring people helpful information or to spread goodwill during a difficult time, so they should adapt their digital content strategy to that purpose in the short term.”

Brands have an opportunity to leverage their power and voices online to bring people helpful information or to spread goodwill during a difficult time, so they should adapt their digital content strategy to that purpose in the short term.

So how does a brand strike the right balance on their social media platforms? Share information about how the business is responding to the virus when necessary, share positive updates, support other area organizations and share regularly scheduled social media posts so long as they are sensitive to the current climate.

Restaurants offer great examples of this type of thoughtful, sensitive posting during this emergency, informing customers about changes to their hours, promoting pickup and delivery services that may be outside the scope of their normal service options and sharing support for other local businesses. As of March 25, many retail stores are offering curb-side pickup for online orders, discounts and marketing products on social platforms that usually aren’t shoppable online. Some online retailers are promoting pajamas and inside wear. Health care brands are sharing educational tips on staying healthy and managing stress while social distancing.

Engaging human-interest content and even humor is also welcome.

“There is an opportunity for brands to get their audiences’ attention by spreading positivity, whether sharing hopeful news stories, cute pet pictures, words of affirmation or ways for people to help,” he said. “That sort of thing can make a lasting impression if it’s done thoughtfully, earnestly and with good intentions.”

Strategic Digital Advertisements

Digital ads are another great way for organizations to share a timely message in a time of crisis. Brands may also need to adjust existing digital ads to be sensitive to current culture.

Travis Ziemke, Trilix’s media director, said brands can change their ad messaging to make them more relevant and timelier, both from a creative and media placement perspective. For instance, digital ads about large events, trade shows or travel may need to be adjusted or taken down completely.

Alternatively, brands should evaluate the features of their business they can modify to be of more value in the current climate. These products and services can be marketed digitally with keywords consumers are searching, such as phrases related to working from home, health and wellness, delivery, pickup, entertainment, online education and more.

“The creative message should be tailored to connect with audiences who are working from home, home with their kids, changing up their daily schedules, etc.,” Travis said. 

With the uncertainty in the world, audiences are consuming more media, he continued. More people working from home and practicing social distancing will have more of an opportunity to consume web, social media and connected TV advertisements. Nimble brands will be there waiting for them.

Updated Websites

Now is a great time for organizations to update their websites with information about new or changed services, product delivery or pickup, remote work features and any other changes to normal operations, said Yancy de Lathouder, vice president of technology at Trilix.

“The pandemic has dominated enough of our lives to where it’s more or less the only thing happening to us right now,” Yancy said. “With that in mind, if your brand is offering specialty solutions for the pandemic, then that is all your brand is at this particular moment in time.”

A brand’s homepage is a great place to include time-sensitive crisis-related updates. For example, health care providers are displaying information about telehealth and online consultations on their homepages. National box stores have prominent updates with information about adjusted shopping hours.

“This will vary by industry,” he said. “If your brand has any contact with the public for its goods and services, and that contact will be modified by the pandemic, don’t make the information hard to find. The homepage is a great place for it.”

He said brands with walled content such as news sources, fitness or cooking blogs and streaming services shouldn’t necessarily offer free access, but the goodwill they’re currently showing site visitors can be meaningful to a public hungry for positivity.

“Some goodwill goes a long way toward your brand and the public good,” he said. “Content that is particularly relevant to the changes in people’s lives brought by the pandemic would not only be good for business during the pandemic, but it also could make a lasting impression about the company’s values and create loyal customers in months and years to come.”

He added that brands should look at analytics for unusual website visitor behavior that may tip off a crisis-related insight.

While crisis communications plans and digital communications can keep your business functioning and your audience informed during a crisis, it’s difficult to cover every scenario in perfect detail.

"It’s important to continually reassess the plan while not in crisis mode,” Megan said. After all, no one can predict what the next emergency will bring.