13 Online Marketing Strategies to Survive and Thrive in COVID-19

The Coronavirus and the shelter-in-place have been with us for a little over a month, yet they’ve already changed the way we live, the way we work and the way we shop.
The Coronavirus and the shelter-in-place have been with us for a little over a month, yet they’ve already changed the way we live, the way we work and the way we shop.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

The Coronavirus and the shelter-in-place have been with us for a little over a month, yet they’ve already changed the way we live, the way we work and the way we shop.

This calls for a new strategic approach to marketing that doesn’t just aim to keep your business afloat but also helps you thrive and prepare for the world after.

While many brick-and-mortar operations deemed non-essential had to shut down, businesses online are seeing a surge in demand. So much so that many can’t keep up, having to increase fulfillment capacities in a matter of days.

If your business is stuck right now, don’t give up – learn how to survive.

Be proactive and pivot your business online to keep the revenue flowing (and even make a profit).

Here are 13 actionable marketing strategies that work right now and can set you up for success in the new normal.

TL; DR: If you just want to grab the strategies jump to the 13 Online marketing strategies to survive and thrive section. Otherwise, let me give you some context to better understand current trends and how to use online marketing to get through the pandemic.

The challenge and the opportunity

There’s no doubt that this is a challenging time for everyone.

On one side, people are stuck at home, distancing or isolating to stay safe. On the other, businesses are temporarily closing down, revenue is lost, many employees are out of jobs while economic uncertainty looms.

No one was fully ready for a global pandemic of this scale. It’s proving to be a real stress test for businesses of all sizes.

Many would also argue that the pandemic exposed weaknesses in business models and poor readiness for any potential shockwaves.

One major weakness is not being ready for the digital transformation – not having an online presence.

Your brick-and-mortar operations may have shut down for the moment, but you can still keep your business running – online. Transform and adapt to deliver your products or services safely to customers at homes.

To make it through the current crisis (and thrive) you need a website and online marketing.


Three types of businesses during this crisis

You’ve probably heard many world leaders say that this is a “war against an invisible enemy.”

And it’s definitely true; this is a battle for lives, health, jobs, but also for businesses, livelihoods, customers, revenue and a bright future.

In this global war against the Coronavirus pandemic, which type of business are you?

  • Missing in action – You are someone who has zero online presence. No website, no social media accounts, nowhere to be found online.
  • In no man’s land – You have a website, but you aren’t utilizing it to its full potential. A website is just an afterthought which you never took time to seriously invest in. You never used ads or SEO to attract traffic, gain more exposure and generate leads and sales.
  • Scouting for new ideas – You have a website and you’ve already positioned your business in the online marketplace. You’ve been running digital ads for some time which helped you grow your business. However, the current situation is affecting your existing campaigns which no longer deliver results.

Regardless of your situation, you can find an actionable strategy in this guide that can help you navigate the current situation and prepare for the post-COVID world.


Why you need online marketing right now

Marketing is essential to reach potential customers and drive new leads and sales. And since people are stuck at home and spend most of their time on the internet, online marketing is a huge opportunity to reach those customers.

Understandably, a natural first reaction to this situation is to cut all spending, back out of marketing and wait for things to blow over.

However, this can be a huge mistake. You’d be leaving your business to chance allowing more proactive competitors to swoop in and take over your customers.

There’s only one way of coming out of this battle as a winner.

This is a rare opportunity for smart businesses to shift the entire marketplace in their favour in the long run.

While your competitors are cutting back on spending, it leaves plenty of room for your business to take over and win the minds of your target customers.

A study by Bain & Co. indicates that those that stall during a crisis end up losing their market share, while those that take action grow at an accelerated rate.

Recession growth graph

There are countless reasons as to why online marketing can help you right now as well as in the long run. Here are the main three:

1) Online advertising is cheap right now

Many businesses that focus only on the short-term are pulling back from their marketing spending. Online ads function as auctions; if there’s less competition winning is cheaper.

This resulted in the lowest advertising costs we’ve seen in a while.

And it’s not just that the ads are cheaper. Due to lower costs, it’s also much less expensive to convert users into leads and customers.

We’re seeing huge drops in both CPC and cost per lead in all our clients’ accounts.

Drop in CPC cost graph

2) Let the data guide you

The current situation is dynamic and unpredictable. However, digital marketing and advertising provide unprecedented amounts of real-time data that can help you identify trends and understand customer behaviour.

Online ad campaigns are highly flexible. You can quickly and easily modify campaigns or shift budget in the right direction depending on real-time data and results.

3) Follow the money

If you’re strapped for cash and revenue is an issue, you need more sales. To get more sales, potential customers need to know what you’re offering.

With online ads, you can reach those customers where they spend most of the time right now – online.

During a crisis, your business may need to pivot in a matter of days.

Online marketing and advertising platforms provide data and targeting to make these transformations timely and deliver results fast.

13 Proven Strategies to Survive and Thrive COVID-19

Get 13 actionable strategies to help your business go through a crisis and thrive in the post-COVID world.


13 Online marketing strategies to survive and thrive

To help your business cope with the effect of COVID-19, we’ve developed 13 unique and actionable marketing strategies that can turn a downfall into an opportunity.

No matter if you’re a brick-and-mortar business with zero online presence or if you’re already firmly positioned online, you can find a strategy that fits your situation and can help you fight through.

These are hand-picked online marketing strategies based on three main criteria:

  • Fast setup and results – You need fast results, so these are strategies that you can implement and execute immediately. They should take no more than 3 days to set up and deploy.
  • Affordable solution – It’s important that these strategies don’t require a huge investment and risk. Some strategies on this list will cost $0 to run. All it takes is a bit of time and patience.
  • Scalable for the new normal – These strategies need to go beyond and prepare you for the world that comes after COVID and the rise of the contact-free economy, aka the “new normal.”

Customer behaviour has changed significantly. However, experts also predict that these changes are here to stay.

In many industries like retail, services and even health, Coronavirus seems to be a turning point that shifts towards the internet, e-commerce and even providing services online.

To quote a line from McKinsey’s article “The future is not what it used to be: Thoughts on the shape of the new normal:”

“In effect, it is becoming possible to imagine a world of business—from the factory floor to the individual consumer—in which human contact is minimized…the trends are unmistakable—and probably irreversible.”

So, these 13 strategies will not only help you cope and survive the current crisis but also set you up for long-term success in the new normal.

NOTE: This guide is based on a presentation we delivered at the Toronto Chamber of Commerce. You can download the full presentation here.

  1. 1. Move your business online

Right now, more than ever your business needs an online presence.

There are 2 critical parts of this new paradigm shift:

  • People are at home
  • People are online

So, you need to bring your products online and into customers’ homes.

Products are sold and bought online more than ever. With the fear of going outside and stay-at-home orders, there’s been a shift in online shopping for essentials like food, groceries and cleaning products as well as medications.

Medications are among those that have shown a big rise in online sales. Studies predict this trend to continue even more after the pandemic.

Rise in online medication buying


However, online shopping isn’t limited to essentials only. People continue to buy other products like clothes and gadgets as well as entertainment like books and online courses.

This is nothing new. Customer behaviour has been shifting towards internet shopping for quite some time already.

And people are not just buying small and inexpensive items and gadgets.

Even before the pandemic, you could go and buy an $80K Tesla car directly from a website.

Online store for Tesla cars

No matter what industry you’re in, if you had to close your physical retail store or business, you can still bring your products and services online.

This may sound daunting at first since you need to make a big business change. But you have no choice if the demand has moved online.

And this is not just a current situation, shopping malls and physical stores have been closing for a while. It’s a trend known as “retail apocalypse.

With people getting even more used to the convenience of online shopping during the pandemic, it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever come back to physical stores in great numbers.

Moving from offline to online is something you cannot afford to miss out on. Even if you intend to continue running your physical store after the pandemic, you need an e-commerce website both to survive this period and set a foundation for the future.

When it comes to creating a website and an online presence, WordPress has emerged as the most popular platform that powers over 34% of all websites on the internet.

It also features an e-commerce store platform – WooCommerce, that’s used by over 26% of all online stores.

Screenshot of Woocommerce site

You also have the option to use Shopify, the second most used e-commerce platform that allows you to build an online store fairly quickly using templates.

WordPress, WooCommerce and Shopify all allow you to build a website by yourself or hire a development agency (like StableWP) to do it for you.

As a way to help out the community and bring small businesses online as fast as possible, we’ve developed a special pre-configured e-commerce store – StableCommerce based on WooCommerce.

online store example

The great thing about it is that it doesn’t require any setup, development or design. Everything is ready out-of-the-box.

You only need to add your inventory, upload product images, set your prices, and you can start selling online in a matter of days.

Another essential feature is that you can connect your physical store POS system with your e-commerce store to manage all of your shops (online and physical) from one system at no extra cost. With a synchronized inventory all your stores are connected into one system in real-time.

If you want to accept payments online directly from your store, you can choose payment processors like Stripe and PayPal which can get you approved fast. (internal)

Stripe home page

For more expensive items there’s the option to allow customers to buy now and pay later.

Companies like Affirm and PayBright can be easily integrated into your e-commerce checkout flow to allow your customers to pay back the cost with monthly payments.

Paybright home page

This can significantly help you sell more expensive and non-essential items online since shoppers won’t have to fork up a large amount of money right away.

Finally, when I say to move from offline to online, it’s not just for merchants.

A website is much more than just a place for retailers to sell online. For example, appointment-based businesses like consultants, clinics and salons can offer online booking.

Online booking example

We’ll talk more about how your service-based businesses can leverage the internet to survive the current crisis in a later section.

For now, it’s enough to know that a website can do so much for your business, especially with people stuck at home and brick-and-mortar businesses having to shut down. Consider hiring a local web design team to help you get your business online fast.

2. Make use of your CRM and email list

If your demand is down or you can’t afford paid advertising, you can still keep your business afloat. Scrape your CRM for existing customers or leads and run email campaigns to re-engage those users.

This is where that email list you’ve hopefully been building, comes in.

It’s a free way to leverage what you already have and reach people on a large scale.

Use your email list in the following two ways:

  • Find the most valuable customers and provide special offers or just show empathy
  • Reach existing leads that haven’t bought from you yet with special offers

Since email marketing is one of the lowest cost and highest return digital channels, leaning on your email program can help you survive by keeping lines of communication open with your existing customers and leads.

MailChimp, an email automation software, is offering a price relief in support of small businesses affected by the outbreak.

Mailchimp price relief for Small Businesses

MailerLite, another email automation tool, offers to send 12K emails per month for free to small businesses.

Email automation tool - sending emails 12k/month

Most email tools are easy to use; you can quickly master the basic functionality to get started with email campaigns.

Templates and drag-and-drop visual email builders can help you design a beautiful, professional newsletter or promo email to blast out to your leads.

Mailchimp email template

3. Focus on PPC ads

Running PPC ads on Facebook and Google is essential if you want to generate sales and customers right now. You need ads to quickly reach potential customers, show that you’re back in business and promote your new offerings.

How else would potential customers know that they can now get your products or services online?!

People stuck at home are spending more and more time on the internet and social media.

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google and others are reporting huge spikes in usage and traffic since the Coronavirus struck.

Using desktop more - The New York Times statistics

So much so that Facebook’s increase in traffic has got the tech giant concerned whether their systems can handle the usage.

Ads on Facebook, Google and LinkedIn are proven digital marketing channels that not only attract traffic to your website but also drive direct leads and sales. Hence the name direct response marketing.

These platforms allow you to reach potential customers by targeting:

  • Who they are
  • Where they work (LinkedIn)
  • Their interests
  • What they’re in-market for
  • What they’re searching for on Google, etc.

Online ads are very engaging and work to grab attention, raise awareness and generate interest in your offerings, directly resulting in more sales.

Ostrichpillow Facebook ad example

On the other hand, another emerging trend is that the cost of online advertising is at its lowest.

Due to business disruption, there’s a decline in demand for advertising. This leads to lower CPM (cost per thousand impressions) on Facebook and Instagram, with some reporting that the costs are down by as much as 51%.

Global metrics on Facebook and Instagram

If you read the previous sections, you’ve already seen that the advertising cost (CPC) for many of our clients has dropped by as much as 73% compared to February.

And low CPM and CPCs leads to cheaper customer acquisition costs (CAC) as well as more profitable sales and advertising.

4. Leverage video conferencing

Service-based businesses that depend on close contact with clients now have more options to service their clients’ needs and keep their business running.

Telehealth, online video sessions and consultations, home learning are just some of the ways to leverage online video to safely provide services online during social distancing.

For instance, physical therapy patients can lose a lot of progress if they don’t stay consistent with their therapy.

Physios can continue to provide therapy sessions to patients via video chat online.

It’s a completely safe way for patients to get the treatment they need and for physiatrists it keeps the practice running.

Online physical therapy platform

Much like other digital transformation trends, the switch to telehealth is not new and not inherent to just COVID-19. Coronavirus

Studies from 2019 indicate that 61% of patients would switch to telehealth for faster and more convenient service. 25% would switch from the current physician to a doctor that can offer video sessions.
Other service-based businesses and professionals can also leverage online video to provide services, sessions and consultations.

  • Fitness instructors can provide 1-on-1 personalized training sessions and nutrition coaching
  • Legal professionals can provide online consultations
  • Clinics and doctors can provide online video assessments and appointments
  • Renovation contractors can offer online video consultations and quotes (the customer can take the measurements)
  • Coaches, teachers and tutors can provide online classes, etc.

We already see many yoga and fitness studios offering personal on-demand sessions via Zoom or other video platforms.

Platform for online yoga classes

Remember to use ads on Google and Facebook to promote your new video sessions and offers, stay top-of-mind and bank on low advertising costs.

Crossfit ad on Google

5. Promote items for home use

Being smart about how you spend your advertising dollars is always important. But in a crisis situation like now, it becomes even more critical.

Your goal is to maximize sales as quickly as possible, which means promoting items in demand – those that could be used around the house.

Items like sweatpants, slippers, etc., are more likely to be sold than handbags, lipstick and sunglasses.

Well.ca focuses all their online ads on skincare products that can be used at home as well as their free home delivery.

Selling skincare products online

Instead of canvas shoes, sunglasses and handbags, promote items like cozy slippers and sweatpants.

Coupled with some clever ad messaging that targets the current living and working conditions, your ads are bound to resonate and get you traffic and sales.

TOMS Facebook ad for slippers

Similarly, other homewares are a good option to promote during the shelter-in-place.

With outdoor activities being restricted, families are turning to traditional home activities such as baking, reading books and home decoration. Make smart promotion choices based on what’s in the highest demand right now.

To increase your average order value (AOV) and make sales profitable, bundle up products in stay-at-home kits.

Toys” R” Us offers a perfect stay-at-home play set to keep children busy while they have to remain at home.

Toys r us online store example

Even restaurants, that have been affected the most, can leverage online ads to promote their new home delivery and curbside pickup options.

BBQ restaurant Facebook ad

6. Prioritize retargeting and Lookalikes

Focus your ad budget on efforts that are most likely to lead to fast and immediate returns.

This means prioritizing retargeting ads as well as Lookalike audiences on Facebook.

Online ads are perfect for generating lots of website traffic and product views, but not everyone buys immediately. Retargeting ads give shoppers a reminder to come back and complete their purchase.

With people spending more time online, now you have extra opportunities to re-engage previous website visitors.

Get them back to your site and in the shopping mode with incentives like free shipping or special promos and discounts.

Daily Harvest special discount example

In the spirit of creating highly effective ads as quickly as possible, dynamic product ads (DPA) are a natural fit.

With dynamic retargeting ads, users would see the exact same product they viewed on the website. You can automatically sync the website product catalogue to Facebook via WooCommerce integrations and run DPA.

Offering a coupon code is useful when remarketing to incentivize prospects to come back and complete their order.

Dynamic product ad example

Right now, is not the best time for broad prospecting. However, you can still try to reach new people with Lookalike audiences on Facebook.

This will target users that are similar to people that already bought your products or converted on your offers.

Looalike audience - Facebook Ads Manager

Upload email lists of previous leads or buyers to create high-quality lookalike audiences that can be used within minutes.

7. Promote gift cards and vouchers

Promote gift cards that can be used when your business resumes.

If you have to close temporarily, consider offering gift cards or a discount on future visits as a way for others to support you during this time.

Vouchers and gift cards can work for almost any industry. For instance, restaurants, salons, fitness studios and spas can offer vouchers at a discounted price that can be used at a later time.

Gift card example

Restaurants can keep some revenue flowing in by promoting gift cards that can be used once the venues are open.

Once the venue is open gift cards

Be sure to incentivize your vouchers with free gifts, discounts, bundles or other specials.

Service-based businesses could let clients prepay for classes, training packages or membership dues.

Consider offering deals on class packs or future memberships to support you during these challenging times.

Gift cards for future memberships

For example, you can offer a prepaid membership that promises a lifetime discount which can be used later after the lockdown.

Facebook is also reaching out in an effort to support small businesses with Digital Gift Cards that allow users to easily discover your offer on Facebook at no extra cost.

These can be found in the new “Support Local Businesses” section on Facebook.

Facebook Support Local Business

You can also share gift cards, food orders, and fundraiser stickers in Instagram Stories and on your profile.

Instagram sticker as a discount

In addition to that, you can use your social media community (if you have one) and others who want to support your local business to reshare your gift cards and help out your business.

8. Turn in-person services to home-delivered products

Businesses that can’t provide their core services can still transform a part of their service into products that can be safely delivered to people’s homes.

Restaurants have been among the hardest-hit industries. However, there are quite a few creative ways we’ve seen savvy restaurateurs combat the situation.

Offering food preparation kits is an excellent way to earn some much-needed revenue, stay top-of-mind and nurture customer relationships and even win new parts of the market.

Food preparation kit example

HelloFresh, Cook It and Omaha Steaks have built a multimillion-dollar industry out of selling meal preparation kits. So, it’s definitely a proven business model that’s in high demand right now.

Extra points for those that combine meal kits with online video classes. Chefs can use live video or provide recorded video cooking classes and teach how to prepare delicious meals at home.

Another idea is to use excess restaurant stock and offer fresh produce and even alcohol (i.e. wine and cocktail kits) as home delivery options.

Governments are lifting bans and permitting licensed restaurants and bars in the US and Canada to sell alcohol with takeout and delivery orders. You can see a full list of updated alcohol regulations during COVID-19 here.

Customers can still get fresh ingredients and produce at their homes and support their favourite restaurants.

It’s safe, convenient and helps an important cause right now which is to support local restaurants and prevent layoffs.

Other options include takeout, home delivery or even curbside pickup.

Inventiveness and flexibility are important in crisis situations. And there are many ways you can turn your services into products.

We’ve even seen fitness studios renting out their equipment to members to keep training from their homes.

Renting training equipment Facebook post

Beauty salons that had close down can still offer hair and beauty products online.

Hair products store

Massage salons, days spas and others can offer homecare kits in place of their regular services.

Popup homecare kit offer

Physios, dentists and others can also sell equipment that their clients can use at home.

9. Use virtual showrooms for high-ticket items

Businesses that offer high-ticket items, complex products or provide a personalized product or service, can host consultations over video.

You can set up virtual showrooms or provide consultations to help potential customers pick the right product, size, colour, etc.

Jewelry stores can promote online video consultations to help couples select their wedding ring style and size.

Jewelry showroom

Even car dealerships are providing virtual showrooms as well as online car purchases. A trend started by Tesla Motors a few years back.

Car dealerships showroom

Realtors have also been using virtual tours for years to promote homes online.

Home virtual tour

It’s a strategy that’s proven to work for many industries that sell high-ticket, complex or personalized products.

You can promote your virtual showroom or consultations via Facebook Ads or as organic social media posts.

10. Use the power of online data

Harness the power of data and let it guide your business decisions.

Look through unprecedented amounts of data available online and in your analytics to uncover new opportunities, find products and services that are in demand, modify your campaigns and budgets, and always stay ahead of the curve.

Google Analytics allows you to analyze your traffic, keywords, traffic sources, landing pages, etc. (internal)

Google Analytics ABC report

If you have an online store, dig through your GA e-commerce reports to identify products in demand and items that deliver the most profitable sales.

Google Analytics e-commerce report

Another great and free tool that offers fresh and timely data is Google Trends.

Use Google Trends to uncover trending products or services by analyzing what people are searching for on Google.

The search for “home fitness” more than tripled in popularity indicating a big surge in demand.

Google Trends graph example

With timely data, you can learn exactly where to pivot to offer items in demand.

Fashion retailers use the new trend to offer items like face masks which everyone needs right now.

Face mask discount example

If you’re using multiple marketing channels analyze Top Conversion Paths report in Google Analytics to understand which channel combinations are converting the best.

Google Analytics Channel Grouping Path

11. Automate everything you can

Digital marketing and online sales allow you to automate a bulk of your operation to cut costs and preserve precious cash in these uncertain times.

Chatbots can automatically answer customer questions, take orders and cut down sales and customer service costs.

Chatbot example

A chatbot allows you to automate customer service conversations. For more complex issues your staff can take over and continue as a live chat.

According to IBM, up to 80% of routine customer service questions could be answered by a chatbot. They can be trained to respond to customer service questions and provide fast solutions, 24/7.

Chatbots can be implemented on your website and even on your Facebook and other social media messengers.

You can now auto-respond to common questions directly from your Facebook page with a Facebook Messenger chatbot.

Facebook chat bot example

Facebook also offers Message Ads that open conversations with customers.

Use the Messages objective in combination with click to Messenger ads to generate leads, answer questions, drive transactions and offer support.

Facebook message ads example

If you’re running a business that offers appointments, consultations or sessions, you can use online booking solutions to automate scheduling those appointments.

You can easily integrate a booking system with your website to allow customers to reserve their own appointments.

Booking system example

This eliminates the need to hire extra staff just to answer phone calls and make appointments.

In a crisis situation, this can be a huge lifesaver that can help you preserve precious cash while at the same time allowing you to stay organized and offer quality service.

12. Build a database

Even if you can’t pivot your business model as shown in the sections above, you can still advertise and take advantage of low CPC to reach potential customers, raise awareness and build a database (email list) of leads for the future.

Offer online quotes, strategy calls, e-books, cheat sheets, etc., as lead magnets to capture contact information on your website.

Many services are still in demand even though companies cannot provide them at the moment.

If you use “Google Trends” you’ll see that people are still searching for “bathroom renovation” services and the demand is even going up.

Bathroom renovations graph on Google Trends

Essentially, you need to be available online to potential customers when they search for what you offer so you can effectively capture leads that you can target once your business resumes.

If you are not there, you can bet your competitors will be.

Google ads example

Be sure to adjust your ad messaging to reflect the current situation and offer relevant products in services.

Relevant Google ad

Use your ad budget efficiently by tightly controlling your search terms, audiences and placements, bidding, etc.

Dive into your Google and Facebook Ads dashboard to inspect where and how you’re ads are showing to optimize campaigns for best results.

Google Ads dashboard

13. Utilize free tools

Many marketing and software companies are doing their part supporting the community in these uncertain times.

Most are offering free access to their tools and resources:

  • Email marketing
  • Keyword research for SEO and PPC
  • Social media management tool
  • CRM and marketing automation
  • Online video and conferencing
  • Business operations
  • Remote work
  • Marketing promotions
  • Accounting software, etc.

These tools can help you manage, market and run your business more easily from home and help alleviate some of the pains of transferring your business online.

Key takeaway

We live in a very challenging time. But every crisis can be turned into an opportunity.

First of all, make sure to stay safe and healthy.

Secondly, use some of our strategies to guide you through these uncertain times and help you cope and survive. Stay strong and be sure that there’s a silver lining in all this.

Finally, build a foundation for the future. Even when lockdown restrictions begin to ease, you’ll need to adjust how you operate in the world that comes after, that new normal that everyone talks about.

Hopefully, this guide has shown that there’s light at the end of a tunnel and inspired you to take action and pull through this situation that’s been hard on everyone.

If you need help moving your business online, using online marketing, or even just advice, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

And please let us know how you’re doing down in the comments.

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