Africa Travel Week

Marketing your business in a COVID world

Marketing during a crisis can be challenging. You want to engage with your customers, share information and offer meaningful support. But emotions are heightened, and sentiments can change in an instant. What can, in normal times, come across as witty and wholly innocuous, may hit off centre during a crisis. And when that happens, social media and her trolls are not kind.

This is especially pertinent now as travel businesses grapple with marketing during COVID-19. As one of the first and hardest hit industries globally, travel went quickly into survival mode. And in seeking immediate financial relief, many businesses looked at slashing their marketing budgets to a minimum.

Travel businesses should consider a more measured approach. Cutting your marketing may temporarily boost your cash flow now, but it may hurt you more in the long run. Marketing is like telling your customers a continuous story about your brand. If you pause or start telling a different story – your audience is going to pick up a different book.

There is evidence that shows that organisations that continue marketing efforts during a crisis bounce back faster and greater once “the new normal” emerges. Research by BrandZ and Kantar found that brands that continued to project strong brand images by investing in marketing throughout the 2008 financial meltdown recovered nine times faster than the ones that didn’t.

So how do marketers read the room during COVID-19 – when the room seems to be less of a room and more of an ever-shifting void?

Customer empathy

Empathy is a tenet of any marketing strategy – at any time. Brands that master empathetic communication do so by understanding their customer’s underlying need and then crafting a compelling and relevant response that addresses it.

This is customer-centricity. And despite its buzzword status, it’s surprisingly absent from marketing, even in the best of times. The CMO Council reports that only 14 per cent of marketers say that customer-centricity is a hallmark of their companies.

But in a COVID world, customer empathy, or customer-centricity, is absolutely crucial. To intuit what customers are feeling, and moreover what they need, travel businesses need to operationalise empathy. This means opening channels for two-way communication, reading customer messages, and monitoring behaviours and trends. If your marketing doesn’t address an observed customer need, you may have veered off course.

Review your short term strategy

The first step, if you have not done so already, is to review your timeline of scheduled campaigns and content. The last thing you want is for a tone-deaf piece to go out to customers – at best, they’ll brush you off as inadvertently out-of-touch. At worst, you could be labelled as insensitive or even irresponsible.

Pause anything that may be deemed inappropriate in the current climate. Look at upcoming campaigns that will likely be lost in the noise of COVID-19. Push out your timeline for when the impact of these campaigns will be more meaningful.

In the interim, consider how you can adapt content that you’ve already created, or prioritise certain messaging. How quickly and adeptly you can pivot your marketing, will signify to customers that your brand is worth their attention.

Review your long term strategy

With what little certainty we have at the moment, try to plan out at least two to three scenarios of how the next few months to year could play out. Consider what each scenario means for your marketing strategy and customer segments.

Many predictions assume that business travel and domestic travel will recover first – followed by a staggered recovery of regional and finally international travel. This will initially be led by the more intrepid, independent travellers. Mass travel such as cruising, group series and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and events) will take longer to recover.

Travel businesses need to ensure that their marketing strategies are positioned to intersect with this phased recovery as it happens. The opportunities therein will differ for each company, but you need to be proactive in preparing for them.

Re-evaluate your marketing channels

Little remains untouched by the impact of COVID-19 – including how we all consume media.

Global Web Index found that over 80% of consumers in the US and UK say they consume more content since the outbreak.

Online videos (YouTube, TikTok) and streaming services have spiked amongst younger generations seeking entertainment, while broadcast TV is the primary medium for boomers and Gen X. Millenials, in particular, are voraciously consuming more media across all platforms including online press and video games.

Re-evaluate the various channels through which you engage with customers. What was effective before, may have lost relevance now.

Provide real value

It’s not new for consumers to receive several brand messages delivered to their inbox and phone and plastered across their social media daily. What is new is that they have less of an appetite for content that doesn’t add real value to them, in some form.

It may be pertinent information you’re sharing – changes to your business that will impact customers, channels through which they can receive support, products that actually provide support – but it can also be light-hearted.

As we move through this crisis, people will crave distraction, entertainment, and connection – as well as inspiration for that next trip. The surge in popularity of virtual tours proves to be a great example of this. Customers find value in these boredom-busting resources, while destinations can safely and effectively market themselves.

Don’t take advantage of the situation

The truth is, every business is looking for opportunities right now – a crisis environment is full of opportunities. You want to maintain brand awareness, maybe even identify new customer segments, but make sure that your marketing doesn’t come across as promoting sales or capitalising on the situation. It’s a fine line indeed – but one which is critical to heed.

Today’s travellers are shrewd detectors of superficial brand engagement. They place a premium on authenticity and transparency. And COVID-19 has only made this more acute. 

Consumer engagement at the moment is high with all indications suggesting that they’re receptive and attentive to brand messaging right now. But empathy and context are everything.

Try to stay positive in your messaging, while not appearing ignorant to the reality of the situation. Focus on the true reasons why people travel. Champion your community, whether that’s your actual community, your customers, partners, or industry. Authentic and trustworthy communication will be valued more than ever.

Marketing in a COVID world is no easy feat, but continuing to invest wisely in your marketing now will pay dividends down the road.

Emily Djock

Emily Djock is an Account Manager for Big Ambitions. Her background in scientific publishing has stoked her passion for distilling complex information into compelling stories. She loves to deep dive into research and write about emerging trends, technologies and innovations. You’ll find her at her happiest when she’s got her analytical cap on or when she’s promoting (and engaging in) sustainable travel.