iQoncept - Fotolia
Marketing to consumers during a time of crisis can be a difficult undertaking. What buyers once deemed important when choosing where to spend their dollars may be completely turned on its head, leaving businesses searching for more creative ways to reach customers.
Influencer marketing is one such strategy to reach customers who may be bored and anxious during the COVID-19 crisis, but businesses also need to maintain consistent brand messaging, show empathy and engage with customers.
"During this period, brands need to be focused on more long-term brand building," said Danielle Bailey, managing vice president at Gartner. "People are going to remember the good brands and good citizens during this time. Influencers can help you maintain that mindshare and maintain that positive glow around your brand."
Use influencers to reach customers
With such a large captive audience online at home and communicating via social media, just trying to pass time during the coronavirus crisis, this is an opportunity for marketers to engage and interact with potential customers, said Ryan Skinner, principal analyst at Forrester.
According to an online 2020 research study by Influence Central, a Massachusetts-based marketing and advertising agency, consumers have spent 20% more of their time seeking out content from influencers during the COVID-19 crisis.
Influencer marketing is a form of social media marketing in which influencers -- celebrities, subject matter experts and other people that consumers know and trust -- promote products and services that a brand is selling.
While a time of crisis may not be a good time to plug a particular product or service, it is the right time to provide people with a distraction, Bailey said. Some brands are leaning into using influencers to give them that "social distance" -- engaging with customers while demonstrating that they, too, are adhering to social guidelines.
"The reason businesses work with influencers is because they have credibility and established expertise," said Shelly Kramer, senior analyst and partner at Futurum Research.
Experts have seen increased adoption of influencer marketing in China in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, Skinner said.
China started the trend of using furloughed employees as influencers, but now this is happening with brands in the U.S. and Europe as well. Businesses are accessing an otherwise idle workforce for their expertise and using their resources wisely, Bailey said.
For example, with more than 60% of its stores closed, Chinese activewear company Anta Sports turned to more than 30,000 of its employees and distributors to take part in a social commerce campaign. The company incentivizes these workers with commissions when a referral purchase is made, using unique QR codes.
While using influencers is not without cost, it is a cheaper and a more efficient way to redistribute marketing spend, Bailey said.
Show empathy and social good
From the same Influence Central study, consumers want to see businesses doing good in the community, with 54% of survey respondents valuing charitable donations by brands.
Many brands are trying to do good during the coronavirus crisis, Skinner said. But in addition to donating masks and money, companies need to ask what value they can contribute from a social good perspective.
For example, a brand that specializes in hobbies can create a video teaching people how to do a craft in the house, which can help to flatten the curve, Skinner said.
IBM recently posted on LinkedIn showing how two of its employees spearheaded a project to donate 15,000 masks to the Santa Clara County hospital system in California after the city of San Jose sought the community's help. In a post on IBM's website, it also mentions that the company has retained enough in its own stockpile for its own employees if the need arises.
"[As a customer,] I want to see what you're doing to help your employees, your customers and community," Kramer said. These are the companies that I'll want to do business with later."
Maintain consistent brand messaging
While the use of influencers can be an effective crisis marketing strategy, businesses need to maintain consistent brand messaging. If a business specializes in sports and creates a meme, the message should play on the sports theme and not be completely out in left field. Businesses shouldn't make a joke just for the sake of it.
Companies should enforce the same guidelines for influencers and train them to create clear brand messages.
Shelly KramerSenior analyst and partner, Futurum Research
"Now is not the time to take a risk with your brand," Bailey said. "And there is inherent risk anytime you work with influencers."
It's also important for brand messages not to be tone deaf during times of crisis, Kramer said.
An example of bad messaging is a company that says, "If your business or restaurant is temporarily closed, now would be a good time for a deep cleaning of carpets, tile and grout and area rugs."
"If your business is closed, the last thing I'm thinking about is getting grout cleaned," Kramer said.
Keep customers engaged
Ultimately, the best thing businesses can do during times of crisis is to continue to be active -- even if they can't sell anything.
"This is a time to keep people engaged and excited," Skinner said.
To do this, businesses need to figure out how to be helpful and how they can make a customer's home life more comfortable, Bailey said.
Disney, for example, has been keeping fans engaged with videos on the Disney Parks Blog page on Facebook. One such video is of a number of cast members from the Magic Kingdom's barbershop quartet singing four-part harmony together from the comfort of their own homes. Another is of cast members from a percussion ensemble at Epcot, creating rhythms together from items around the house.
"When [brands] can bring joy in any way, that's super important," Kramer said.