In times of uncertainty, our brains encourage us to do what others do. Our brains don’t care what others actually are doing. They could be running around naked in the rain, for all our brains care, but the simple act of mimicking others reduces uncertainty-based anxiety. That is why in times of crisis most business owners freeze and don’t take any action. They wait until the rain ends and everyone has dressed again before resuming business as usual.
Doing what all the rest do seems safe, especially in uncertain times, but it is not a recipe for success. Have you ever heard about a super-successful person who “just did what everyone else did, thinking inside the box, and that’s what made her so successful?” No? Me neither.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates became one of the most powerful and wealthiest businessmen in the world not because he followed others but because he did things differently. Many times, he went in the exact opposite direction of the reasonable, or safe, path. During his pursuit of success, he may have used some fairly ruthless tactics, which could be one reason he famously said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on [public relations].”
Gates realized the importance of marketing to the success of a business—every business. A marketing plan should be an essential part of daily operations, but there are two periods when it is especially important: when times are very good, and when times are very bad.
And there lies the problem: Many businesspeople, if they think about marketing at all, feel it’s important only during the in-between times, when the situation is neither very good nor very bad. When sales are good, they say, “Things are great. I’m making lots of money. Why should I spend on marketing now?” In times of crisis, they say, “Sales are down. I don’t know what will happen next month. There is no way I’m spending on marketing right now.”
Marketing is tricky like that. It seems easy and basic, like something anyone can do successfully, but it’s not. Many times, good, effective marketing means doing exactly the opposite of what most people would do or are doing.
In times of prosperity, you have more funds to invest in marketing to grow revenues and market share. In times of crisis, the price of media often is lower than usual so you can afford to invest in marketing and get in front of many more people for much less at a time when everyone else is pausing their spend. I stress invest because, for successful business owners, marketing is exactly that—an investment. If you want to be successful, reposition the term “marketing budget” in your brain accordingly.
Let’s focus on marketing in times of crisis. When you don’t know what tomorrow holds, the most effective question a business owner should ask is, “How can I increase customer retention?” Yes, you should focus your attention on retention, not acquisition. Instead of stressing about where you will find new sales, consider how you might sell more to those who already bought something from you. It is much easier to convince someone to buy again than to convince them to buy for the first time. Research indicates the probability of selling to an existing customer can be 60 percent to 70 percent, while the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5 percent to 20 percent.
Here is a real-world example: Toward the end of February, I started pushing two companies to ramp up their social media and newsletters using a more personal voice, showing they are working to meet the needs of their customers, and focusing less on trying to sell. One client (who sells high-ticket items) doubled down on newsletters and Instagram posts and started posting Instagram stories. The other maintained its status quo, posting to Instagram at a slow rate. Additionally, the content was not authentic enough, not personalized, and focused on the company as opposed to focusing on clients.
The client that followed my suggestions generated a ton of engagement, attracted more user-generated content than ever, gained more traffic to its website, and saw more sales in March than in previous months. The other client saw no increase in engagement, following, or sales. In fact, this client had to let two employees go.
The situation was sad, but also a definite marketing mic drop.
The second question to ask is, “What channels can I use to increase retention?” Digital channels work well, because they are relatively easy to track and can be automated. But don’t forget old-school marketing tactics such as phone calls and snail-mail (yes, actually sending letters via regular mail). Those methods allow you to achieve a personal connection that can produce big sales. Traditional advertising, too, can be beneficial.
Don’t overlook building retention opportunities. There are three ways to increase retention: repeat sale, up-sell, and cross-sell. You should use all three in different ways, depending on the channel and the customer’s journey stage.
Here are just a few examples:
- Contact your biggest customers and offer them an exclusive promotional deal. Phone calls work well here. Fans will be happy to receive a personal phone call. When you are on a one-on-one call and the customer doesn’t want to buy, it’s easier to maneuver around their objections to make the sale.
- Set automated emails to be sent to customers at a specific time after they order, asking how they’re enjoying the product and offering them a deal on another one. Or, ask them to sign up for a monthly service that offers them the same product at a discounted price. This method is hassle-free because they don’t need to order every time, and the service saves them money because they get the product for a reduced price. Amazon makes a fortune using this tactic, which it calls Subscribe & Save.
- Send segmented newsletters offering relevant deals to existing customers based on their purchase history. Since the newsletters are segmented, the chances they will generate direct sales are higher than with regular, unsegmented newsletters. The latter are like shooting in the dark and hoping for the best.
- Automate checkout so visitors are presented with a compelling offer just before their transaction is complete. The offer can be to buy a better model for a price that is not much higher than the price they were about to pay, a complementary product at a great price, or some other creative pitch that not only gets them to spend money but also convinces them you’re paying attention.
- Insert a time-sensitive coupon when shipping items to buyers. Make sure they know they may pass the coupon to friends and family.
There are many more ways to increase retention. Be creative, consider what your community may want, and use the data you have on existing clients—what they buy, how much, when, and so on. The idea is to act, instead of freezing, when times are hard.
Adjust your marketing in times of crisis, but don’t stop. Someone in your circle of competitors will emerge potentially battered but prepared to be even stronger as the situation improves. Ensure that someone is you.
Dino H. Carter is owner and chief strategist at D Branding, a brand consultancy helping clients develop unique strategies to grow market share, deepen brand awareness, and sustain growth. He possesses more than twenty years’ experience in marketing with companies including Levi’s and MTV Europe.