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Most everyone is suffering in some way due to COVID-19, but small business owners have been especially hard hit by various states’ shelter-in-place mandates and the swift, dramatic economic downturn.

As businesses start to shutter, those still in operation are wondering: How can we continue to market during a crisis?

What to Do When You Think Your Marketing Budget is Zero

With COVID-19 came a massive economic crash. With that, many economists suggest that we’re in for a severe recession, if not a downright depression.

Marketers need to learn to work within a radically different budget.

Many marketers devote between 30 and 40 percent of their budget to travel-related expenses, such as visiting conferences, sponsoring events and participating in trade shows.

Because in-person activities are canceled for the foreseeable future, that money needs to be reallocated to digital marketing strategies, like content marketing services, email, social media, SEO, paid media and the like. If events are critical to a business’s marketing, leaders should investigate ways to transition to digital event spaces, using tools like Zoom or Skype.

It’s important to note that reducing the marketing budget to zero is an extremely bad business strategy.

Throughout recessions going back to the ‘70s, businesses that have survived and thrived have invested in marketing that engages their loyal customer base. Because digital marketing is relatively inexpensive, even the most cash-strapped businesses should be able to develop razor-thin marketing budgets that continue to accomplish goals and drive engagement.

Two Types of Marketing Content to Create During a Crisis

Some projections suggest that unemployment during the COVID crisis could reach as high as 30 percent.

At the height of the Great Recession, unemployment barely reached 10 percent, and even during the Great Depression, unemployment hardly hit 25 percent. Though the employment rate should spring back to normal once businesses can open for business as usual — but in the meantime, there are millions upon millions of Americans with almost nothing to do. There is an almost overwhelming demand for new content, and businesses need to be able to deliver.

Content produced in the wake of COVID-19 need to offer one of two effects:

Focus on Safety and Provide Reassurance

Though there have been some recent scares with H1N1, SARS and MERS, the last true pandemic was about a century ago. Disease on this scale is unfamiliar and exceedingly frightening to most people, who aren’t sure whether the world is ending or whether everything will return to normal in a matter of weeks.

Businesses need to do their best to reassure their audience, if not about the state of the world at large then at least about the future of their products and services.

This means looking into your business and making a marketing message shift.  Instead of higher-level benefits, put your focus on the basics; security, safety and fulfilling on physical safety.

Here’s an example of a snippet from email from an elder law attorney:

email for marketing crisis challenges

Entertain Your Audience

As mentioned before, vast swaths of the country are becoming bored out of their minds and desperately need something to entertain them through the weeks and months ahead.

During this time, businesses should do their best to put out content that is as interesting, amusing and engaging as possible. Experimenting with new content forms and formats might be worthwhile; media like videos, podcasts and the like require more attention from audiences for an extended period of time, which can be beneficial.

If you’re a subject matter expert with an artistic flair, this is the time to show your freak flag!

Here’s a Facebook post from small business marketer, John Jantsch entertaining his neighborhood during the stay-in-place order.

John Jantsch playing guitar

Now is the Time to Build Audience and Relationship

Inside this COVID-19 crisis, is a deep feeling among small business owners that it’s somehow “wrong” to sell and pitch and promote your products or services.

In some ways this is correct.

When your market is going through any kind of crisis, you don’t want to appear tone-deaf to the difficulties your customers are going through.

A crisis is the ideal time to realize the “why” behind your business.

As a business owner, your goal is to be of service; to help people with their problems. And that means that you need to put your focus on the top of the funnel activities.

Because a crisis creates disruption, your business might not see a return on your marketing investment as immediately as you might be accustomed to.

Even though the response to marketing endeavors might be delayed, businesses should continue investing in various digital marketing tactics.

While consumers have been driven indoors, they continue to engage with the brands they love.

So take this time to connect with your audience, educate them, build your list.  All of those relationship building in the pre-sales process.

In time, that engagement will translate into sales — businesses just need to be patient and trust in the marketing that will preserve them through this crisis.