How to get ahead of your marketing in a time of crisis

Marketing in a Crisis: The Dos and Don’ts and How to Move Forward

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Most of my fellow tourism marketers right now fall into two camps: either extremely overworked as they attempt to keep their counties and cities informed on what’s going on during this global pandemic or, on the flip side, their work has come to a screeching halt. If you’re in the latter category and not sure what to do with your time, marketing in a crisis can be a slippery slope.

But don’t rest on your laurels: Use this forced downtime to reevaluate your marketing strategy going forward and start implementing changes now.

How to get ahead of your marketing in a time of crisis

Here are a few ways you can do just that and continue to produce marketing content for your city, tourism entity or brand, even when the future is unknown.

Don’t be tone deaf

Popular footwear brand Rothy’s is under fire again—two years ago, it also used breast cancer awareness as a cheap ploy to sell shoes—this time for creating a purchase-to-donate initiative that struck many followers as just icky.

Rothys' coronavirus response

If you’re a brand like Rothy’s who has the means to donate to essential workers or others who need assistance, whether money or product, just do it already without using it as an attempt to move more product. Philanthropy is an awesome use of time for those who are able; profiting off of a crisis is not.

Similarly, Draper James promised teachers a free dress and collected their information and email addresses for marketing, failing to note that they only had 250 dresses available to give away. While well-intentioned, Reese Witherspoon and her team should have made it known that this was actually a raffle and not everyone who entered would be the recipient of the dress, before one million excited teachers filled out the form. This backfired as Draper James lost a whole lot of online support and potential customers.

If you do make a misstep, however—and we all do, we’re only human—acknowledging your mistake and apologizing in a real and heartfelt manner will go far with your followers. How you handle it is what will resonate with your brand following.

Make people smile

What’s more important than joy,  laughter and lifting spirits during these uncertain times full of sorrow and strife? Very little. If you, or your business, can be a source of someone’s smile—even just a single follower—give yourself a pat on the back. That’s why John Krasinki’s Some Good News was an instant smash hit. And if you’ve yet to watch the Hamilton episode, I insist you do that right this very second.

My friend and fellow tourism marketer, Sara Beth Urban, sent me this example of a social media post from Visit Lake Charles (Louisiana), stating “this is one of the best examples of solid marketing [during coronavirus]: making people smile while taking the guidelines seriously.”

Lake Charles, Louisiana marketing

Be a source of information

I’ve been told by Williamson County businesses how impressed they’ve been with their convention and visitors bureau, Visit Franklin, who has stepped up to the plate and worked overtime for the past month helping its partners and residents alike, thus hitting a home run with everyone who follows them online and are looking to the CVB for up-to-date information. In addition to pushing relief efforts through for businesses and hospitality entities, the team’s focus has shifted from marketing to out-of-towners to catering to locals by becoming a one-stop shop for anyone in the tourism/hospitality world—COVID info, where to go for SBA loans, who’s doing what for fundraisers, etc.—through aggregating all the different information into more easily digestible nuggets, all housed in one place.

Visit Franklin, Tennessee

Several other tourism bodies have risen to the occasion, like Visit Lex, who is hosting everything from virtual bourbon tastings to online kids’ yoga classes via Facebook. In Memphis, the CVB has not taken a break, consistently pumping out new marketing content saying they miss their visitors, hope they’re staying safe while sheltering at home and can’t wait to welcome everyone back again, while also reminding them of how awesome Memphis is by hosting virtual music festivals and van jams.

The Memphis Travel website follows suit, with the homepage now reading:

Here in Memphis, we’re missing fans like you.

But right now, nothing is more important than your health and safety. Understandably, you might be rethinking your plans to visit Memphis. We’re doing a lot of thinking, too, closely monitoring how COVID-19 is impacting our city. As of today, many Memphis attractions, museums and restaurants are temporarily closed or operating on a limited basis to help #FlattenTheCurve. Visit our Coronavirus Info and Resources page to learn more.

Are we disappointed? Of course. Inspiring visitors to come to Memphis is our job. But right now, we know the right thing is to encourage you to stay home.

It’s going to be okay. We’ve been weathering the blues for more than 200 years. Most importantly, we’re all in this together. Let’s think of it as physical distancing, not social distancing.

That positive, yet honest messaging is clutch.

Visit Seattle also revamped its entire website to cater to those who need virtual resources. In fact, the homepage homepage now states “Visit Seattle … from a distance.” Great job to all of our proactive friends who work in tourism marketing and PR! We see you and we thank you for the excellent, mindful work.

Visit Seattle and coronavirus approach

Meanwhile, where I live, our city government website is not user-friendly, and the social media channels aren’t overly informative. We love the people who work there, so this isn’t a slam at them, but rather a plea to prioritize funding of key marketing assets (like the city website) in the future and invest in information technology. Our city has no tourism arm or CVB keeping businesses in the loop, so all of that falls on the city government, and it’s tough to get information about what’s going on a good day, much less in a crisis. In times like these, I miss living in cities like NYC and San Francisco who are on top of the messaging for residents and tourists alike.

I have, however, been both impressed and extremely appreciative of one alderman who has taken it upon himself to keep the public informed on the number of cases in our area, any new closures or state mandates via a nightly Facebook Live. If you are an elected official, now is your time to shine and actually serve the public you promised to serve when you were sworn in. I guarantee you they’ll remember who rose to the top in need periods when they next take a trip to the ballot box.

Provide your followers with fun freebies like Zoom background

Like many others, I’ve been living my life on Zoom this past month. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t have three or four Zoom conference calls during the day, and a Zoom happy hour or two with a group of friends in the evening. As an extrovert who has also worked from home for 12+ years now, it’s funny how these interactions make me feel more connected to many than ever.

Tennessee Whiskey Trail Zoom background

It’s not just me who feels it; Zoom’s users rose from 20 million in February to more than 200 million in March. That’s a lot of potential new customers for you, a travel or tourism brand! So why not provide your fans or followers with free Zoom backgrounds that speak to what you market? SVV and I have both been changing our backgrounds up for every call, depending on the content and purpose. Today, during a meeting with a distillery and members of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, for example, I set my background to a photo I’d taken at Nelson’s Greenbrier a few years back. It boosted my mood and gave them a good chuckle, while putting us all in the mindset to talk spirits and marketing.

And if you don’t know how to change your virtual background, it could not be easier. To change it on your computer, look to the bottom left of your screen where it says “Stop Video.” Click on the upward-pointing arrow to the right, then you will be prompted to choose a photo or video from your desktop. If you’re on mobile, you’ll use the three dots where it says “More” to find where you can add a background. It’s a fun way to set the mood and bonus: You don’t have to clean your office before calls!

Setting your Zoom virtual background

I’ve also received several press releases from companies like Jaguar and Land Rover who are putting out free Zoom backgrounds for their fans, and literally any company could do this. Simply create license-free imagery—with written permission from the photographer, of course—that you share with your followers on social media and encourage them to download and use as their Zoom backgrounds. Likewise, you can provide them with iPhone wallpaper in the same manner—just be sure to size this one appropriately, in portrait format. It will take you a matter of minutes, and it’s great for brand awareness. 

Allow your customers to visit, even when they can’t

Why not go virtual, if you have the means? Surely, if Alexis Rose can do it, so can you. It’s fun seeing so many zoos, museums and attractions providing virtual experiences via web cams, tours, or access to archives for both learning and pleasure. This has introduced so many new users to places they never before knew about.

Penguin Cam at Tennessee Aquarium

Prime example: National Cowboy & Western Museum in Oklahoma City. Thanks to a security guard cowboy named Tim giving Twitter a daily peek into the museum’s vast collection, its social media following has grown by more than 10 times. That’s a whole lot of new visitors who are going to want to go to the cowboy museum when it’s safe to travel again.

Hashtag the Cowboy in OKC
Hashtag the Cowboy in OKC

Below are some of my other favorite virtual offerings, many of whom are doing regular Facebook or Instagram Live series to keep content fresh and exciting. For those of you homeschooling, these are great learning resources for your little ones:

Do your part if you have the means

I love seeing brands like Starbucks provide free coffee for front-line responders, in addition to donating money to certain organizations that support these efforts. Other small businesses and restaurants have been stepping up left and right, even as their own business suffers financially.

Celebrity chef José Andrés was one of the first to act, jumping in to help even more quickly than the government by setting up field kitchens through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen to provide meals to people in need across the country. Currently, the organization is serving tens of thousands of meals daily in New York City, Washington DC, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Newark, Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami, Puerto Rico and USVI to communities that need support, for children and families to pick up and take home, and via delivery to seniors who cannot venture outside. 

In Austin, Nic Patrizi (owner of Patrizi’s food truck) was set to open his new restaurant, Vic and Al’s, just before COVID-19 swept the nation. Rather than go the safe route and lay off his employees, he promised to keep them all on (part time or full time) for a minimum 12 weeks as he opened a soup kitchen of sorts—only with much better, more substantial food—instead, providing free meals to affected service industry workers or anybody dealing with hunger or in low spirits. This act of kindness made my heart sing, and you can bet I’ll be visiting Vic and Al’s on my next trip to Austin.

Vic and Al's in Austin

Hundreds of big brands—from Peloton to SiriusXM to, yes, Zoom Premium—also are providing their services for free during this time of crisis. I was happy to get a three-month refund from Adobe for my Creative Cloud subscription once coronavirus became wide-spread; as a small business, every little bit helps, and on the flip side, it’s a way to build brand loyalty for when this is all over. Consumers remember who stepped up and looked out for their customers during a global crisis.

Don’t be stingy

Maybe you don’t have money at your disposal to contribute; that’s totally fine. But perhaps you do have the time and skill to help out a friend, acquaintance, or past or potential client, even if their budget is nonexistent and it means no current paycheck for you. Be a team player, and I guarantee you will be the top of their list when they do have the funds to hire a consultant or other professional help.

My sister, a CPA, is a great example of that; she and her fellow accountant husband have been working overtime—and in the height of tax season at that—to help many small businesses prepare their paperwork to apply for the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program. Sure, it’s taken a lot of time away from her paying work (and her baby), but I have a feeling those clients she’s helped will be with her for years, if not decades, to come.

Be transparent with your audience

Whether you are a big brand, a city government or a person who has gathered a few likes on social media, remember that communication and authenticity are key. This is why so many have gravitated toward the Cuomo brothers during this period; actual transparency ties right back into being a human being, instead of some stoic online robot.

The vulnerability of the human spirit is what binds us all together, and trying to put up a facade of professionalism and action or flippancy in the face of uncertainty doesn’t do anything more than create a sense of disconnectedness from the current situation. Or, at worst, there’s a perception that there’s a lack of compassion, and nothing, my friends, can create a more visible divide between us than that.

None of us know what our future is or how we should navigate this or how we’ll interact with each other when we come out on the other side, but what I know is this: If we move forward with heart and grace and persistence and respect and thought for the other living things on this planet, we will be able to take our last breath with ease. 

What great—or, on the flip side, tone-deaf—examples of marketing in a crisis have popped up on your radar? 



How to get ahead of your marketing in a time of crisis
How to get ahead of your marketing in a time of crisis
  • April 18, 2020
    Tiffany W.

    Gator land! Live on YouTube @ 3:00 every day. They are doing live feedings of their crocs & alligators and showcasing other animals in the park. Also, on Facebook they have the School of Crocs at 10:00 AM for school learning.

    Shoutout to all the authors and artists taking the time to read books and teach drawing classes (Mo Willems, Mac Barnett, @animwoodsy, Emily Gravitt, #savewithstories, etc.).

  • April 23, 2020
    Oliver Lewis

    The hardest thing I am finding at the moment is getting new and exciting content for social media. I seem to be recycling the same stuff over and over.

  • April 25, 2020
    Amit wadhwani

    I completely agree that a transparent and more humane approach is the need of the hour for businesses. There is a time to make money, and there is a time to touch lives. And I am sure today is the latter.

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