How to build an audience when times are tough.

digital marketing

In uncertain times, a dedicated audience and your business can help each other out

·      The market is disrupted; marketing has become a tightrope walk

·      To build an audience, focus on short-term & long-term goals

·      In the short run, empathize with people in their hour of need

·      Changes are here to stay in the long run, businesses need to adapt

·      Pay attention to design thinking & customise your strategies to cater to consumer behaviour changes

pic of football stadium with crowd depicting audience building

In the best of times, marketers will agree that it is difficult to get the attention of your target audience. If that wasn’t enough, now businesses have little choice but to capture the attention of their audience during the present times. The market is disrupted, there is low consumer demand as several product and service categories are no longer the priority for consumers. With both buyers and sellers trying to understand the new normal, this is a tightrope walk that you can’t afford to fail. One false step and you risk the chance of being seen as a selfish and predatory brand.

While it is true that people have limited number of things to do now during lockdown, their attention is still focused on the news about the virus. This means that your content has to be strong, meaningful and relevant enough such that, it diverts their attention from the news, even if it happens momentarily. Capturing attention is paramount for a business but all attention is not good attention.

Living through a global pandemic means that companies have had to think on their feet as there is no similar instance in history to fall back upon. The challenge here is to build and captivate an audience with such content that you will continue to remain top of their mind  in these trying times as well as once things get back to normal. This is easier said than done but we have tried to bring together some ways in which we feel it is possible to do so. 

Every business irrespective of size and sector can profit by setting some goals – short-term and long-term goals. The immediacy of short-term goals will help businesses to showcase their empathetic side while long-term goals will help businesses achieve the twin goals of adjusting to the new normal in the post-COVID world while also building an audience.

 Immediate short-term goals – Stand by the people in their hour of need

People are afraid at the moment and flooded with conflicting information about the pandemic and its effects. Your job is to stand out amidst the noise as a reassuring voice that is standing by the people. This is the need of people that your business is going to fill in the short-term. 

The short-term goals are – 1. Service vs Sales 2. Develop a Crisis Communication Plan

 Focus on service not sales as a strategy

You might be thinking that focus on service is something that is true irrespective of crisis or no crisis. It is natural to think that but it is also important to remember that right now more people than ever before are interested in seeing what you have to offer to your customers Buying into a sale is not uppermost in the minds of people at the moment. 

Find out what is bothering your audience and try to answer that if possible. However, beware of creating content that adds to the noise and simply tries to ape what others are doing. For example, just because everyone seems to be creating content around COVID-19, you should not blindly rush to do the same. Audiences can see through such behaviour. Ideally, your service should have flexibility and room to address customer issues during this crisis. This is where PR, customer service and crisis communication have a big role to play.

Develop a crisis communication plan

Every organization should develop a Crisis Communication Plan and should follow that template in times of a crisis. The plan with its standard operating procedure, will help the organisation fight out any calamity or an emergency like situation. In the present COVID 19 crisis, we saw that certain ecommerce vendors who were delivering essential items, were blindsided by the lockdown. And their services were completely paralyzed. Worse was that even after the lockdown was temporarily lifted and essential services were exempted from it, they made very limited efforts at reaching out to their consumers to tell them what was happening on ground. Simply, keeping their customers updated and informed about their services would have sent a message of empathy to their customers. This tells us that they had no pre-existing crisis communication plan.

Lack of proper crisis communication can earn you the ire of your existing customers and potential customers too. Your crisis communication plan should definitely include a mechanism that utilizes different channels to listen to and resolve questions of customers. There should be outreach also and 1-on-1 communication with your business partners and customers.

Your crisis communications plan should develop relevant internal and external messaging and have both pre-crisis and post-crisis templates. The crisis team’s roles should be clearly defined. Here, when we say crisis communication, we are not referring to only businesses or professionals who are suppliers of essential services. Even if you are providing non-essential services, customers might have questions regarding the state of your service or product. In such a scenario, you should be able to give them reliable and timely information.

When people see that you’re making timely and sincere efforts to reach out to them and you empathize with them, your customers will feel confident about you. They understand that you are a compassionate and empathetic brand. It does not matter whether you are providing essential services or you a brand that provides non-essential services. The only thing that matters is that your customers confidence in you.

 Long-term goals – Digital transformation to address to the changing consumer behaviour

Digital transformation man's finger touching a screen

 In a survey conducted among a European audience of executives, 70 percent said that the pandemic is likely to speed up digital transformation. The speed is already evident across sectors and geographical areas.

The writing is on the wall. The goal is to prepare businesses for a world where digital is the primary and sometimes only channel of engagement. Customers should be reached in an agile manner which adapts to the changing behaviour of the customer.

Companies have been forced to learn and adapt more quickly than before. Those companies that show maximum agility and can make their learning stick will be most likely to succeed after recovery from COVID and beyond.

   The long-term goals are 1. Design thinking 2. Custom Strategies for a changed world

 Design Thinking – Adapt a design centric approach where the customer feels that the brand thinks about them

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Without getting into the different textbook definitions that might exist for what is design thinking, let us explain it to those of you who might be hearing this term for the first time as a methodology of solving business problems using a design-centric approach. Design-centric here means using principles used in designing a product by designers with the primary emphasis on good design which leads to convenience of use by a user. Design thinking has five phases to it – emphasize, define, ideate, prototype and test. These are non-linear steps in itself but can help to understand your target audience, attract them and implement desired actions.  

a)    Empathize with your audience – Learn about your target audience, their habits, their motivations and their barriers to performing what they seek to achieve.

b)   Define the issues your audience faces – You will begin to see problems as you empathize and get to know your audience. There might be multiple problems but there will be some that can be addressed and some that can’t. Focus on attainable solutions and move on to the ideate phase.

c)    Ideate – This is the phase where you try to find solutions for a clearly defined problem in hand.

d)   Prototype generation – In this phase, you zero in on a solution to prototype.

e)    Test – The final phase where you present one or more prototypes to your audience and see their feedback.

As the above phases illustrate, design thinking when used correctly is always focused on the end user or the customer.

Design thinking is important for the future because it can give you the biggest competitive advantage that you can have – the loyalty of your customers. Because when you put their problems first, your customer will reward you with their loyalty.

In the present COVID-19 crisis, for a business it means understanding how different elements of the business such as competitors, suppliers and channel partners are responding to the crisis and the challenge is how are they evolving for the future normal that emerges after the crisis has ended.

For example, during any crisis there is need for consistent and standard messaging to reach your target audience. We could see that in the messages of the UK government about the national health service (NHS) which used design principles in coming up with their message of “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” This message was dispersed widely via the internet and media. Emails, posters, SMSs – all had the same consistent messages which has proved effective. What is the message in the above example?  

The message is that design thinking can help you captivate your target audience 

Irrespective of sectors, the benefits of design thinking have been shown time and again in  fields as varied as corporate, social entrepreneurship and FMCG. 

 Consumer behaviour changes in post COVID world – Businesses should adapt and customize their strategies

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 Touch and proximity-based communication as we know them might change completely. This is going to be true for the immediate future if not for forever in the distant future. People are now afraid of contact with any surface and other people. This acquaints us with two realities.

a.    Touch based UIs will not be favoured immediately post pandemic 

b.    Virtual communication will be preferred to physical communication

 Are you keeping yourself abreast of the latest developments in these two domains and visualizing how your business might utilize or might be forced to adapt to these technologies? For example, Google is working on its radar tech project Soli which is a miniature radar that understands human motions and thus can be used for contactless interactions. It can fit to a chip, can be produced at scale and can fit into small, everyday objects such as a watch on your hand or perhaps an ATM vending machine. Contactless payment terminals, transportation passes and contactless grocery stores (Amazon Go Grocery) are already being used in countries such as the US. Imagine shopping for essentials in a contactless store during a pandemic and ensuring a checkout-free experience for your customers? Amazon Go Grocery has translated this thought into reality.

This is just one domain. Telemedicine was not unheard of before the pandemic but now health officials are pushing healthcare systems to adopt telemedicine through smartphones.

Getting an online consultation with a doctor and an online prescription too is no longer in the realm of future.

Similarly, as schools and universities across the globe remain shut, there has been a jump in remote learning. Universities have started going online and offering virtual classes. 

Another behaviour change brought about by the pandemic is the emergence of homes in a multi-functional avatar. Homes are the new workplaces, leisure places and social hubs. This is a trend that is not going to go away anytime soon. As homes increasingly become the centre of our daily lives, it will be interesting to see how businesses adapt to this change and fulfil the requirements of people. Technology will have a major role to play here in connecting people and keeping them occupied. Virtual meetings and conferences have seen an increase while in the not too distant future, AI powered homes where your home becomes your personal caretaker is not too far away.

Some of these changes have reached India while there are others that might reach sooner than you imagine. How will changes like these affect your business? How are you preparing for them?

Consumer behaviour has changed and is changing as we speak. Keeping track of these changes will enable you to provide solutions to them and in turn will attract them to you. There is a first mover advantage to be had with the early adapters.

The global pandemic is a human tragedy but it can also provide us with opportunities to become resilient, learn from our mistakes and let go of outdated ways of functioning.

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