Social Distancing: Marketing's New Strategic Mandate
Long before the fear of contracting COVID-19 entered our collective consciousness, and thanks to modern society’s reliance on electronic devices, many people were already practicing a form of social distancing. Without leaving our own homes, we text or play video games with friends. Many of us no longer call family members as often.
I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has simply accelerated social distancing, and that it will normalize self-imposed isolation long after it's over. We may all be in this together, but social distancing has also changed the meaning of what “together” really means. This will likely have a lasting impact on our global society, on how people communicate with each other and on how marketers will reach and influence people in the future.
If these predictions are correct, and people continue to reduce their interpersonal contact, here are some tactical suggestions involving three major categories of marketing activity.
Many companies have abused email to such a great extent — bombarding clients, prospects and referral sources with email blasts, self-serving newsletters and other useless information — that it’s now extremely difficult to get noticed or gain meaningful traction. But marketers who know how to craft an enticing subject line, and who can write effective copy, can break through the clutter. Include the person's or company's name in the subject line to distinguish it from spam, for instance. More importantly, remember that long, rambling messages rarely get read. Less is more, if it's well written.
I also recommend practicing the art of the physical letter. In terms of visceral impact, I believe there's still no substitute for ink on letterhead that's hand-signed and delivered in an envelope featuring an attractive commemorative stamp. Snail mail, which for decades was blocked by executive gatekeepers, is now such a rare occurrence that personal letters often receive immediate attention. I've found that letters also make it far more likely that the recipient will remember the communication and take a follow-up phone call from the sender.
With the exception of sophisticated e-commerce businesses, I've noticed that most companies maintain a “brochureware” website that's rarely refreshed. Many have blogs featuring content that most visitors neither read nor comment on. Very few companies seem to monitor website analytics, and even fewer understand the complex world of SEO. A significant number of companies also maintain a presence on social media platforms and publish posts for a relatively small group of followers, many of whom are not their target audience.
Although most company CEOs or owners would never consider operating without a website — which serves as the modern-day storefront — many of them over the years have confessed to me that they see no tangible connection between their website or social media and tangible business outcomes, such as lead generation, increased sales or new accounts.
As social distancing drives even greater reliance on information that’s gained through online search, marketers will likely need to establish a much higher bar for themselves in terms of the ROI for the content they produce. Repurposing third-party information with (or without) your firm’s introductory comments, or posting online versions of sales collateral — under the guise of thought leadership — is simply noise.
Earned media has the highest value on the credibility scale. Rather than posting a self-serving white paper, work with a vertical trade or professional publication to produce an objective bylined article on the topic. Then, promote that content, which is far more likely to be read and to deliver higher online visibility and sustained Google search ranking compared to any blog or social media post.
The practical business benefits of participation in large conferences, symposiums and seminars have always been difficult to measure. The sales team rationalizes the significant investment of time and expense for these events by claiming the company “would be conspicuous by its absence,” or that they are a cost-effective way to meet face to face with many of the best clients. The veracity of those claims notwithstanding, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely reduce the attendance levels and ROI of large industry events for at least the next few years.
Marketers have always used targeted, efficient means of reaching and influencing large groups of current and potential customers — most often through webinars and other online forums that leverage technology. With the reduced availability and impact of live industry events, I believe marketers will need to step up their game in terms of how they create, promote, manage and leverage online group forums.
With few exceptions, the standard webinar protocol is to create an agenda that (directly or indirectly) highlights the company’s capabilities, and engage a webinar technology firm for logistics. You then promote the event through blast emails and social media and throw any attendee leads over to the sales team for follow-up. If the process yields any new customers, the event is considered a success.
But as the number of online events greatly increases to compensate for fewer industry events, you'll need to squeeze much more juice out of this tactic. Squarely address and promote the “What’s in this for me?” factor in your webinar content. Make sure your agenda is 100% educational and devoid of self-serving slide presentations. Allow attendees to draw their own conclusions regarding your company's value proposition, based solely on the quality of the intellectual capital that’s displayed during the discussion. For many marketers, it may be a major hurdle to persuade senior management to make this cultural change.
If your webinar content is truly educational, then you can repurpose it — perhaps as a bylined article or long-form LinkedIn post — for people who didn't attend the online event.
Beyond adjusting your tactics, consider how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect personal values. In this new world, I believe authenticity, empathy and courtesy will be key factors in decision making, and they should be reflected in everything the company communicates internally and externally.