Our top 4 tips on how to engage with customers during COVID-19

Brendan Straw - Chief Sales Officer, Ovato

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt across the entire world. It’s impacted every facet of our lives, from work to play, in ways that we might not feel fully for some time.

For retailers with a physical presence, especially those in high-rent spaces like malls and shopping centres, business has been hit hard. Social distancing and never before seen lockdown laws mean that many stores are being forced to adapt to a new way of operating or shut down indefinitely. Customers are staying in and staying safe.

It’s critical to reduce the impact on your business and maintain brand awareness and recognition. Luckily, there are still ways to stay connected and engaged with customers during this difficult time.

Adapting your business to operate within new restrictions

The hospitality industry is one of many under strain. Thousands of bars, pubs and clubs across Australia have shut their doors to reduce the likelihood of community transmission cases.

This has driven many businesses to diversify. Where previously they relied on customers coming in and sitting down for a meal, they’re now transitioning to offering home delivery of pre-prepared meals or pick-up. And they’re using social media and a healthy dose of humour to spread the word that while the world has changed, they’re still there and in business for those that want to have a night off cooking.

In Sydney’s Inner West, The Italian Bowl has changed dramatically. There are normally crowds snaking around the block waiting for a seat. Now, it’s moved from a traditional seated restaurant to become a delivery and pick up service, its tables and chairs moved to one side. To keep its loyal customers in the know about changes to delivery and pick up requirements, it is spreading the word through Facebook posts.

This isn’t just the Australian experience. Across the globe there are examples of restaurants changing their menus or moving to a more staples-driven offering that gets people the food they need and want, and using social media to keep them across menu changes. Everyday people are getting in on the act too, such as local online groups that communicate how to support small businesses and share updates from their community.

Going virtual to stay in front of customers

How do you hold an expo, a convention, or an event of any kind when people need to stay 1.5 meters away from each other? Virtually.

Brands are turning to virtual events or community experiences to stay engaged with customers and promote their businesses. Fashion and fitness brands were quick to jump on the technology. Examples include activewear brand Jaggad, which held a free virtual workout to celebrate the launch of its new collection and Chris Hemsworth’s health and fitness program Centrfit, which is offering six weeks of free workouts.

With everyone at home, innovative retailers and brands can stage virtual pop-up events and experiences to engage with customers. There’s a huge number of streaming platforms out there waiting to host your event, and even more people eager to beat lockdown inspired boredom. Showcase your goods, engage with a captive audience and keep yourself front of mind.

There’s no end to what you can do over a stream. Fitness guru Joe Wicks is live streaming morning workouts from his living room on YouTube for kids who can’t leave the house. The 90th Annual Geneva Motor Show was one of the first big trade shows to be cancelled because of the pandemic, but car manufacturers swiftly organised a series of webcasts and online reveals of their latest vehicles and Australian DJ Tom Lowndes has been streaming his signature Hot Dub Time Machine raves from his living room to up to 10,000 people at a time.

Embracing your community

Social media is a perfect channel to set up groups and engage brand fans as a community. People are seeking connection and interaction while home on their own or with limited socialising, and it’s something that brands need to be offering at this time.

Sports teams and leagues around the planet are leaning into this trend in a big way. They’ve cancelled games and suspended competitions for the foreseeable future. But there are still rabid fans out there with a real urge to engage in their passion. The NFL is dipping into its film archives and offering fans classic games to watch for free on YouTube while Leeds United is using the video game FIFA 20 to play games that have been put on hold and streaming them to Facebook. And Major League baseball is ‘continuing’ the season by offering “Opening Day at Home” - a full slate of 30 games broadcast nationally across various platforms.

Retailers should follow suit. For example, if you run a bookstore, why not offer a Virtual Book Club that lets avid readers gather online to discuss a new release? If you’re a homewares retailer, you could set up and host a Facebook group where people share how they’re making their home pleasant and inviting while spending time indoors.

Online is your new point of purchase

With little to no footfall, traditional retailers are leaning on online shopping platforms and using technology to enhance the experience as stores are forced to close.

If you’re a brand that historically hasn’t had an online presence, it’s essential to make the shift. There will be a large portion of consumers moving online, and your brand needs to be there to meet them. Getting a website and digital catalogue set up will let people shop from your product list as usual. Embracing social media or digital communications such as email marketing will enable you to keep customers in the loop about changes that affect them.

Make sure you’re supporting “new” shoppers online, such as elderly customers, with tools to help them place orders easily and with confidence. While you can’t engage with your customers face to face, you’ll can make sure your pre- and post-sale messaging and follow up emails are prepared. Asking ‘How did we do?’ is critical, so tailor your comms for the right audience, to deliver virtual support that offsets the lack of direct human interaction.

Also, remember that even though your customers are at home, not all engagement has to be online. Offline marketing - including letterbox sampling - supports brands, and it is often how non-digital seniors become aware of products and offers.

You might have moved to an e-commerce model, but print catalogues are still an effective way of reaching and engaging customers at home, and there is real strength in online and offline working in partnership.

The time to adapt is here

These are difficult times for all of us. Businesses face pressure to maintain relevancy in the mind of customers who are forced to shop differently, and to keep things ticking over until brighter days are here.

But you can keep the lights on by making some changes to the way you operate. Embracing community, getting online, diversifying your activity and engaging with your customers in new ways that reach them in their home will all contribute to helping your business weather the storm of COVID-19.