Five Key Moves to Make Now to Adapt to the Coronavirus Economy

March 25, 2020

This article originally appeared in Ad Age.

Collectively around the world, we have been thrust into an unprecedented commercial environment. The global COVID-19 epidemic has, in the span of a few weeks, completely upended how businesses carry out their everyday activities. While the gravity of the situation to health, economic stability and public safety cannot be overstated, the way in which we as a society are addressing it—by encouraging mass isolation—will have the effect of accelerating a number of trends that have already taken root in digital marketing. 

The critical research assembled in ForwardPMX’s “Leading Through Adversity” playbook for navigating the coronavirus economy shows that while all industries will be impacted by this disruption, the hardest hit will be travel, hospitality and luxury; healthcare and insurance will actually experience an uptick. As physical movement becomes restricted, consumers will adapt by turning to digital channels for every part of the purchase funnel, from discovery through purchase. 

How should brands react? 

There are a number of key ways brands can remain one step ahead as the ground gives way beneath their feet and successfully calibrate for the widespread anxiety and social distancing that will characterize the next quarter and beyond. Here are five specific moves brands can make to come out strong in the post-coronavirus economy:

1. Floor the gas pedal on e-commerce and m-commerce. 

The ForwardPMX research shows that during health crises, consumers become fearful and risk-averse. Behaviorally, this means a shift to staying home and buying online; in China, self-isolation led to a 20 percent surge in mobile usage. Brands should be making immediate investments in advanced digital capabilities to create an e-commerce experience that can substitute for the physical one, not just supplement it. 

To do this, brands must first emulate the most mature e-commerce websites by utilizing a personalization platform that customizes the site’s architecture and content for each web visitor. In addition, during times of unstable supply chains, it is especially important to have web optimization integrated with inventory management systems, so that out-of-stock products are not presented to consumers. Similarly, robust optimization tools can use machine learning to determine which products resonate with consumers and give them prime placement on-site. Finally, whether leveraging the major e-commerce platforms such as Salesforce Commerce Cloud or Magento Commerce or architecting a custom site, the focus should be on efficiencies that have an immediate impact on on-site conversion rates: seamless checkout experiences, instant add-to-cart buttons and sitewide cart accessibility, among others.

2. Enlist chatbot and voice assistants.  

With consumer touch points moving almost exclusively online, this is the time to innovate. Chatbots can live on your website or inside chat apps such as Facebook Messenger. Bots can serve a variety of functions, like answering FAQs, and providing the type of guided selling services previously only possible via live sales agents. For some of the verticals hardest hit by current events, such as travel or luxury retail, bots can be a high-impact digital asset that injects into the sales process the same expertise, excitement and encouragement required for considered purchases. As a chatbot and voice developer for numerous retail brands, our platform-wide data shows that this kind of dynamic, interactive and highly personalized buying experience can boost on-site conversion rates by up to 18 percent. Additionally, by asking questions and learning about the consumer, bots serve as an insight-collection mechanism to boost first-party data collection.

3. Be an early mover in voice search.

A surge in e-commerce coupled with a consumer base largely staying home can be expected to expedite the growing instances of voice discovery. At the close of 2019, over 60 million Americans owned a smart speaker, with the market dominated by Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home. Currently, about 20 percent of those people make purchases through their smart speakers, but all evidence indicates that we are on the verge of a major boom in voice shopping; eMarketer predicts that by 2021, 38 million Americans will shop via their smart speakers. Brands should be actively preparing to capitalize on this coming wave by implementing voice search strategies as part of their existing SEO plans to ensure that they rank in the most relevant voice searches. As we have seen with other emerging digital channels, early movers will reap oversized rewards, so brands should look to their agency partners for guidance on early positioning in voice search.

4. Focus on first-party data.

All good marketers know that first-party data is the holy grail of customer information. With regulations such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now in effect, brands must strike the right balance between complying with applicable regulations and offering a first-class, personalized buying experience powered by information collected directly from consumers. Numerous studies have shown that customers are willing to provide their personal information when there is a compelling reason to do so, such as faster and more seamless checkout or customized recommendations. There are numerous ways to collect it: Google Analytics, online forms, surveys, even chatbots. At the same time, having a top-tier customer data platform in place to manage this information is critical as an upfront investment of resources and bandwidth that will pay dividends going forward. 

5. Embrace the “Personalization Renaissance.” 

The COVID-19 epidemic coincides with the early days of a monumental shift already happening in digital marketing: a cookie-less world. Google, for example, announced earlier this year that by 2022, Chrome browsers will no longer support third-party cookies. Luckily, although behavioral targeting is becoming more difficult, personalization via other methods is becoming increasingly sophisticated. With the demise of cookie-based behavioral targeting comes the revival of contextual targeting. There have been impressive advances in contextual, although it still remains more difficult to track than behavioral. Other limitations on frequency capping and attribution mean that contextual will never offer the same precision that marketers get with behavioral targeting, but it is a tool worth taking out of the toolbox and beginning to sharpen. Additional personalization strategies include content optimization, utilizing chatbots and voice assistants to engage with each consumer’s individual needs, and optimization of ad content or creative in real time based on feedback and testing.   

This is a challenging time for every person and business, and most companies will concentrate on making it through with as few battle scars as possible. But now is also a time to think about the investments that can be made to position your business for a strong third quarter—and to withstand the next unexpected challenge thrown at your business.

And Dana Gibber
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