How can small businesses maximize their online strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing financial stress for small businesses across the United States. And while some businesses are allowing employees to work from home, others depend on in-person interactions, i.e. restaurants, retailers, coffee shops, venues, museums, etc. for revenue.

As of March 16th experts estimate that by May is when we will start to feel alleviated from the virus. In a recent New York Times article Morgan Katz, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said, “I’d say the beginning of May we’re going to feel like we’re coming out of this.” But that doesn’t mean the financial effects from the pandemic “shut down” won’t last longer than two months.

So how can businesses start to look at their online strategy and innovate to alleviate some of the financial effects from the COVID-19 virus? We’ve pulled together five online strategies that businesses can start implementing now:

1. Online To-Go Ordering

We are already seeing restaurants switch to ‘to-go’ ordering and curbside pickups. Businesses can set up online ordering through a third-party service such as Doordash, GrubSouth, etc. Through these services, restaurants can display their menu and have the logistics covered by another company. However, the onboarding of a third party delivery service may take longer than desired. An alternative is for businesses to look at adjusting internally in order to best benefit from online ordering. Consumers can also be incentivized to order directly from the business if delivery fees are removed or lowered. First, your company website needs to be mobile-friendly. In 2019, “mobile accounts for approximately half of the web traffic worldwide” according to Statista. Additionally, make sure your phone number for online ordering is properly listed on your website, Facebook, and Google My Business. Lastly, most businesses don’t realize how many decisions are made visually. Your menu needs to show high-resolution images of each menu item in a visually appetizing way. Low-quality flip-phone images will not do.

2. Creating Virtual Experiences

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden recently implemented “Home Safaris” using Facebook live. In addition to using the live videos as a teaching platform for kids at home, they are generating leads through online forms and ticket giveaways to be used when they reopen. Fitness centers have also started using live videos to promote at-home exercises for their members. Museums can implement similar techniques with virtual tours or online art classes. Businesses now more than ever will need to look at maximizing virtual online tools for their strategy.

3. “Pay Now, Use Later” Method

Some businesses have started “pay now, use later” strategies that allow patrons to purchase gift cards to use once they reopen. In order for this to be successful businesses must have a user-friendly e-commerce site. Platforms like Squarespace, WordPress, Shopify, etc. make it easy to set up an e-commerce site in a relatively short turnaround. However, be considerate that the current economic climate will elude consumers from spending out of necessity. A small discount for those who purchase gift cards now and use later can be used as an incentive. This tactic is not uncommon, in fact, Groupon was founded upon a “pay now, use later” strategy.

4. Harness Social Media

If businesses haven’t focused their marketing strategy on social media in the past, they will need to going forward to stay relevant. Businesses will need to harness social media to educate consumers on what changes they’ve implemented since the shutdown. Social media consumption will be at an all-time high as people are forced to work from home and school closures spread further. Businesses will need to practice consistent posting with appealing visuals and clear messaging. That being said, businesses will need to check pre-scheduled posts to make sure they match the tone of the current environment. Overly ‘salesy’ posts are not appropriate during this time. Stick to educational posts that show how you are supporting your customers and employees.

5. Ensure Your Hygiene Practices Are Known

Consumers want to know how you are keeping in mind their safety and that of your employees. If you are implementing to-go ordering and curbside pickups, how are you ensuring proper hygiene practices? Are you using ‘touchless payments’? What precautions are your employees using when handling consumer orders? Businesses will need to clearly state what hygiene practices they are using on multiple platforms including email, social media, and on their website. Being specific and not overly broad will help establish more trust with consumers.

There are many uncertainties of the impact the COVID-19 outbreak will have on U.S. economy as concern has recently escalated. We are just in the beginning stages of seeing how this will affect small businesses long term. Businesses that were resistant to the “digital shift”, are now going to have to evolve, and quickly. Though the above-listed strategies are no cure-all to the long-term economic effects of this virus, businesses can leverage them to maximize their online strategy for new consumer buying behaviors.