Between the Two Waves: Marketing During the Pandemic

By Cara Bedford

As the threat of a second wave of the pandemic continues to linger in the background, the new normal ensures that there is no going back to the old way of doing things. Rather than engaging in (post)apocalyptic scenarios, however, we need to understand the current moment. As most of the office-based workforce retreated to their homes and engaged in remote interactions, a new discourse emerged. Remote work, which used to denote an option embraced by more tech-savvy companies immediately became the most sought-after quality that an employer can have. However, several challenges have emerged for all industries. One of the biggest challenges that seems to have no immediate resolution is for marketers and event planners. How do you market to an audience that is stuck inside? How do you establish rapport with a new client when you can’t meet over coffee or glass of wine, or when all anyone wants to talk about is the virus? How can you bring together experts and learners when there are restrictions on in-person gatherings? And how can you create content that is useful yet sensitive?

I certainly do not have all the answers, and it seems that no one can know what to do or what to expect for certain. What things look like in a month or two, let alone in a year, is still up in the air. But we can look at what opportunities have presented themselves so far. There will be a post-COVID, but no one is sure what that will look like. We do know that it won’t look the same as we were once used to.

Being Available While Being Apart

Means of consuming information have changed. COVID-19 took away the social function of the workplace, and removed the ability to meet with current or potential clients in an inviting, social setting. As the restrictions are lifted, individuals are eager to continue doing things as they were before. However, key elements of the crisis may have permanently shifted the very notion of in-person interaction. Teleconferencing, digital platforms, and webinars have come to the forefront as the most viable tools of communication and events.

As daily life was disrupted at the onset of the pandemic, online apps continued their fierce competition now that their communication channels became mandatory for people wanting to maintain their social and professional functions. Skype, once a ubiquitous platform for video calls and group chats took a step back in order to accommodate the rise of Slack and especially Zoom. Both companies reported a spike in demand that will certainly reflect on their future position in the marketplace. It proves that sometimes, you need an exclamation mark to conclude the initial part of your development process; for Zoom, it took nearly a decade to become profitable – and a perfect storm of circumstances to finally become a household name. 

The Cross-Platform Nature of Social Networks

Quite predictably, social networks are the infrastructure best suited to weather out the storm. Everyone had to obey the restrictions, but news needed to be shared and opinions needed to be expressed. Corporations have moved to capitalize on the health and safety lingo of daily briefings; their campaigns utilize nearly identical talking points like “being there” for their consumers and “overcoming adversity.” Corporations now consciously try to speak directly to individuals over social media platforms, sometimes even admonishing them in order to signal boost a social cause tied to their brand. They do so by conversing as an individual would, with the goal of presenting a relatable image. Brands cannot seem as greedy, opportunistic, or out of touch with the current reality, or risk alienating their customers. 

But, undoubtably, social and digital platforms are where consumers are and will be for an extended period of time. Now is the time to elaborate on your digital strategy, or start one if you never had one before. Where we might normally be pulled in many directions, now is a good time to really focus on developing a strong digital identity. 

The Value of Distraction

The immense marketing potential of social networking is contained within the devices we use on a daily basis. People might be stuck inside, but they are still consuming social and digital media more than ever. In some ways, it is easier to determine where best to market because audiences are restricted to digital spaces. It’s no surprise that TikTok has exploded in popularity, as the casual format of homemade videos aligns with the reality of many people’s quarantine experience. On TikTok, production value is not that important, and this is one of the situation’s big takeaways: visibility boosts are far more important to sales than a slick, studio commercial. This DIY-aesthetic is a trend that is starting to seep into other social platforms. Consumers want their content to be relatable and authentic, and polished ads are becoming less relevant. It’s why celebrity-messages-from-mansions are backfiring on social media: they’re not seen as relatable or useful. Aspirational luxury has faded for the time being. What might have worked last year is no longer a good strategy.

At the moment, it seems that short video clips are the equivalent of status updates that drove previous generations’ engagement on Facebook. As trends come and go at lightning pace, the chaos of the platform represents a coherent reminder that marketing profits rely on the impermanence of all things currently in vogue; constant course correction is the only route towards innovation. Ultimately, the fact that we often use the exact same apps for social and professional purposes means that the line between our living room and our office has become blurrier than ever before. While this might sound like a dystopian premonition, it means individuals are all on the same platforms for multiple needs, including for their professional work.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to hop on TikTok—the platform skews to younger consumers and might not be the right fit for your business. But some brands have found success on the platform, and what this really demonstrates is how we need to be thinking outside of the box and trying things never considered in a pre-pandemic world. For instance, marketing has to account for geographical differences in restrictions, a potential second wave, and different levels of consumer comfort. While small in-person events may be permitted, that does not mean that customers will feel comfortable attending or paying full price for an adjusted experience. For marketers, we are all in a period of trial and error and educating consumers about the new normal: once-sought after marketing events may need to make a temporary move online, and innovation, creativity, and an open mind will be needed to make a virtual event an immersive one.

Redefining the Restructuring

Summer of 2020 could represent a moment in time where companies with more tangible assets – those needing to transfer, store, and sell physical goods – are still trying to figure out what the future holds, and adjust both their business model and their vertical structure accordingly. The ensuing shift is yet to be fully defined, but it will most certainly involve a thorough redesign of the entire purchasing process. This means dedicating a portion of the workforce towards ecommerce, including customer service and fulfilling orders.

There is a prevailing sense of urgency that characterizes marketing campaigns in the time of COVID-19, sharply contrasted with a soothing tone some of the notices designed to prevent widespread panic. It may leave people agitated, and certainly more aware about the messages they’re receiving. While this means that brands may reach their core audience more easily by taking a conscientious stance towards public health or offer a generous discount on a widely used product, it can also place them under more scrutiny than ever before. We live in an era of marketing where everyone is free to participate, but not all voices manage to be heard. It may be an echo chamber, or it may be curated content; but it is content nonetheless, and it comes with a huge potential for profit. 

No matter what kind of developments await us in the year’s final quarter, the intersection of politics, health, and marketing spheres is where a flexible solution must be sought. Even as restrictions ease and the number of cases decreases, the return to “normal” will be slow. The two most important thing for markers to do is to be flexible with their strategies and empathetic with their customers. Now more than ever it’s important to listen to changing customer needs and really “read the room,” as we’re in an unprecedented period of flux. A focus on relationships and collaborations should be a front-line strategy in how we overcome the new market realities that we face. Collaboration in-house, with customers, and with other businesses and brands will be key. We’re all in this together.

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