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How to manage Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis through Social Media for SMEs

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

👋 Hello everyone, I hope you are all safe at home and healthy.

Before you start reading the blog to clarify a few things:

  • This blog is not about analyzing Coronavirus itself. There are experts in the medical field that can do this better. More reliable sources right now can be the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or Public Health Emergency. Ensure you're getting information from reliable sources to avoid spreading misinformation.

  • I wasn't very confident about writing this topic, but friends, colleagues, and clients urged me to do. No one knows what's the best thing to do right now in business, but considering public health and human life, I am pretty sure that we will make the best decisions.

  • As an academic professional too, I have done my research on topics like social media learning behavior, social media crisis, and consumer panic with a sociological perspective. I will start with a brief literature review and continue to practical tips and guidelines.

My goal for this blog is to inform everyone that has a business (either online or offline) how they can handle this crisis. Before continuing with this article, I want you to take a deep breath and relax.

Consumer Panic: a Sociological Perspective

People tend to panic when something threatens their everyday life, including adverse weather conditions, strikes, natural disasters, pandemics, and changes in government policies. And it is something natural I could say. More specifically, extreme quarantine measures, including sealing off large cities, closing borders, and locking down people to their homes, are critical to stemming the spread of the virus, just like in the case of COVID-19. This can also cause consumer panic and emergency purchases.

However, this is not the first time in history that we are witnessing similar behavior. Over the past decade, there had been many panic & emergency purchases occurred along with many crisis events, the most representative including food and drug panic purchase during the SARS period in 2003, the water panic purchase caused by water pollution at Harbin in 2005, the garlic snapping during the H1N1 influenza virus period in 2009; the salt snapping caused by Japan nuclear radiation in 2011.

In the situation of panic buying, consumers’ purchase decisions are often influenced by their peers’ choices. Take consumers’ panic buying of food before a severe snowstorm hit New YorkCity in 2015, for example. Asked about the reason for stockpiling, some consumers said that, upon seeing the long queues of hoarders in front of the supermarkets and the panic buying news on the Internet. This demonstrates the impact of social learning (SL) on consumers’ panic buying decisions, under which consumers update their belief about future supply shortage rates based on observation of their peers’ stockpiling choices. This behavior will further influence the total social welfare. So, what can we learn from that? Panic is probably inevitable. However, we can influence social behavior with the help of social media. It is the responsibility of all of us (individuals, businesses, organizations, authorities, etc.) to minimize this panic behavior.

Most of the research on crisis emotions is based on the work of Lazarus (1991), who argued that a crisis triggers an appraisal about one’s well-being and options for coping. Crisis studies commonly focus on Lazarus’ six negative emotions: anger, fright or fear, anxiety, sadness, guilt, and shame. Research has also examined positive emotions like hope, relief, and sympathy, with the latter as the most likely positive emotion to emerge from a crisis. Despite emergency purchases, some people will seek to feel-good purchases. So, we have to question ourselves: What can we do as members of society to increase positive emotions and decrease the negatives? Don't forget that companies play an essential role in communities!

I also came across a very interesting study about developing pandemic communication strategies when there is a pandemic. One research suggested that in the early stages of a pandemic, communications should focus on increasing awareness of the disease and communicating important but simple, protective behaviors to reduce the risk of transmission. In later stages of a pandemic, communication campaigns need to effectively communicate the key messages for each stage of pandemic and motivate the public to engage in the correct preventive actions without engendering unnecessary panic in the community. The research was focused only on the communication between the people and the government. However, this is not the case today. Everyone can share anything that can be visible by anyone on the internet. Good or wrong at this point, it doesn't matter. It is essential though, to take our responsibilities as members of the online community too. Self-quarantine will make people increase their time online, which means increased communication between individuals, businesses, influencers, etc. So, there are questions popping up in business owners' minds, like:

  • So, what can I do? Should I keep posting about my brand or not?

  • Should I stop advertising online or stop for a while?

  • Is my responsibility to inform my followers/ consumers about the prevention of this pandemic?

Don't worry, I will try to answer all those questions later on.

The dynamic role of social media during a crisis

Despite the innovative features of social media (and other technologies) and with the power to influence how the public receives information (especially in a crisis), social media provides tremendous opportunities as well as challenges and barriers to overcome. Social marketing is widely accepted to be a powerful and useful tool that, if utilized correctly, can bring about behavior change for the benefit of individuals, groups, and societies.

“Consumers of information are simultaneously contributors of information, thereby providing the basis for user-generated media. The news of a crisis can be shared and reshared, reaching millions of people without the intervening presence of journalists”. Word of mouth news often shared through social media, is tremendously influential and even perceived as more trustworthy than mainstream media in some instances. I guess this answers the question, "Is my responsibility to inform my followers/ consumers about the prevention of this pandemic?" - YES! Moreover, you are responsible for sharing information from ONLY reliable sources.

A relevant research study about H1N1 and the use of social media also makes the point that people are getting information from not just traditional news or even one source of information, but a wide range of different sources. From videos that appeared on YouTube to updates on Twitter to specific individual blogs – people are sharing information with others virtually from multiple outlets, which is the main point of social media. Virtual dialog among organizations and individuals is a fundamental aspect of social media. Vieweg, Palen, Liu, Hughes, and Sutton (2008) discussed the possible risks that organizations can have if they communicated false information to stakeholders in a time of crisis. Some of the organization's stakeholders are becoming influential in their own right thanks to social media. These individuals have their online presence and have the influence to motivate others to act or behave in a certain way – and can be conceptualized as being social media influencers.

Professionals of social marketing campaigns will face several challenges, including the need to raise awareness and concern about COVID-19 to a level that motivates consumers to respond but not to a level that causes public panic; the need to ensure that control measures are identified to the public before and during the COVID-19 outbreak; and the need to convince persons that they need to comply with all of the recommended control measures, not just those that they feel are important.

Another study I found helps fill in the gaps in social media message distribution following a crisis presented by theories like the Social-Mediated Crisis Communication (SMCC) model. This study’s results provide insight on social media behavior beyond the nature of the sender (i.e. influencers, creators, and followers). A major proposition of SMCC is that people will engage social media amidst crisis for one of three reasons: issue relevance, information-seeking and sharing, and emotional support. In the case of self-quarantine people will also seek distractions and helpful tips online!

All crises have the potential to cause emotional, physical, financial, and environmental damage to the stakeholders involved. Your social media actions will not be about making a profit now. So what you need to do is

  • Join the conversation #stayhome

  • Determine the best channels to reach segmented publics

  • Check all information for accuracy and respond honestly to questions

  • Follow and share messages with credible sources

  • Propose crisis coping activities

  • Develop a virtual dialogue on social media

How social media can help businesses during Coronavirus crisis

I know it's tough. I have never created a social media post about my clients with a message "We have to close down for a few days...", and I am sure neither you did. No one was ready for something like that. There are big companies that can practically help this situation with donations and by providing their online tools for free. However, there are SMEs that are merely trying to survive right now. And the following tips are mostly for them.

However, with the research I have done so far and the social monitoring I am doing for the last few days, I can propose the following. I have divided the guidelines based on the phase a business can be during the outbreak of the virus:

  1. Have shut down their business - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

  2. Have shut down their business - With the capability of online transactions

  3. Still operating - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

  4. Still operating - With the capability of online transactions

Now, let's take each category individually and give some examples to make things clear. The guidelines can be for both business owners as well as for marketing managers.

Category No. 1 | Have shut down their business - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

If you fall into this category, you are probably very stressed. I totally respect that. Apart from giving you advice on what to do through social media, I will provide you with some further guidance 😃. You may have a spa, a hair salon, or a dance studio, and your business is closed for everyone's safety.

1. Be transparent

You should use your social media accounts to make public the reasons you have shut down your business. Make sure that you will update all your accounts, with nothing too much (use Canva for quick posts), and make sure that this information is on top (with Facebook pinned posts, Twitter pinned tweets, Instagram highlights, etc.). Reassure your followers that you will update them as soon as you have any news about your business situation.

2. Don't lose contact

The least you want now is to keep a distance from your followers. We say YES to social distancing and NO to online distancing for the time being. Because your business has closed, it doesn't mean your communication with your clients should shut down too!

  • As we have discussed above, you could inform them about the virus and what they can do to prevent its spread. Remember, you must use only credible sources!

  • Moreover, you could share with your audience tips and ideas on what to do while they #stayhome. If you own/manage, for example, a playground you could share creative things parents can do with their kids. If you own/ manage a hair salon, you could share with your followers some tips on how to take care of their hair on their own. You can even share a 5' dance routine every day if you own a dance studio or even schedule a live free course through Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube Live, etc. once a week. Don't forget that people seek hope and relief in such situations.

  • Finally, you could share some #throwbacks of your services and help people distract from the panic and all the negative feelings they are experiencing these days.

3. Go online

And now, I am talking exclusively to the business owner. I know you have been thinking of providing some or all of your services online. You may own a dance school or a gym, and physical contact is essential. I know! I miss my dance teacher and my gym routine... However, with the help of the internet, you can offer your services to everyone online! Ask for help, and build a website that can help you reach people in need of your services while they are in self-quarantine. If you had an event scheduled and had to cancel it, consider hosting it online for free or at a reduced price. We need to be flexible to survive. I am quite confident that we will see an increase in online medical consultancy, online education, remote working software licenses, online banking, online real-estate agents etc.

4. Time to do what you have been postponing

Last, I would like to remind you of the things you have been postponing all the time, and now the circumstances urge you to spend most of your time at home. You may have wanted to refresh your sales presentations, to read some new books related to your industry, or take some online courses to sharpen your skills. Well, this is your time. Exploit all the available hours while at home and get better for the next days. Re-evaluate brand positioning and proposition. Check your portfolio of services and products. Consider creating a plan for the next crisis so that you can be prepared.

Category No. 2 | Have shut down their business - With the capability of online transactions

The good news about this category is that despite your physical stores may be temporarily closed, but your government has not shut your online business down (and hopefully won't have to).

1. Once more, be transparent

People now will probably care only to buy essentials. Oh, and all the available 🧻 toilet paper (let's just not judge panic buying behavior - and remember consumers’ purchase decisions are influenced by their peers’ choices. If they saw/hear someone purchasing toilet paper they will do the same). However, don't feel guilty for continuing to operate your business online. Make sure to inform your customers that your physical stores are shut down for a while, but your online store is running. It is imperative to tell them about all the measures you have taken to keep your personnel safe and that you follow all the hygiene procedures. Don't be afraid to share photos, videos or even host a live video explaining everything! More online touchpoints to consider:

  • Update your website with a FAQ section to address customer concerns.

  • Add a live chat to your website in case you didn't have so you can assist them immediately.

  • Use email marketing to let customers know about changes to your business or the procedures of online ordering.

  • Write a blog post detailing what your business is doing to keep your customers and staff safe. Then share it to your social media accounts!

2. Adjust your social media ads spending

The economy is in unchartered waters right now. You may want to minimize the social media budget right now. However, I would suggest you not to close all your ads. People will be online more than ever and will explore new brands as well. They will never stop making dreams for the future, so they will visit websites and e-shops while being in self-quarantine. Give them reasons to come back to your shop when this crisis will pass, and we will all have recovered. 'Cause we will. History has proven it.

3. Communicate effectively with your audience

Again, this is not your time to make a profit. We are talking about spreading positivity and increasing good feelings like hope. Don't overpost about your online shop. You should also provide credible information to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, helpful tips on how to spend their time at home, and in general, try to be their online comfort at this difficult time. You should exploit all available tools like the Instagram polls, questions, etc. to interact with your audience meaningfully.

4. Get prepared for the next day

As I said before, we will recover from this. We are all together in this situation, and we all have to handle it. Most probably, every next day it is not meant to be an easy one. Having a plan (B) in your pocket may be lifesaving for your business! Talk with all the stakeholders in your company, discuss all the issues and make sure to be transparent with your audience too. There is no one-size-fits-all plan. You may want to change some of your policies online, like the return or refund policy. You should consider managing your inventory and adjust your timeframes for a while. Make sure that you will update your website and social media so that everyone will know.

Category No. 3 | Still operating - Without the capability to sell/offer/work online

Because you are still operating, the first thing to do is to keep your business safe. Update your employees with the latest news and health regulations. Take all the necessary steps to ensure limiting coronavirus' spread. Companies falling into this category can be delivery stores and takeaways, for example.

1. As you have guessed, be transparent

In this case, it is more important than ever to use your social media accounts to inform your audience about all the measures you have taken to keep your personnel safe and that you follow all the hygiene procedures. If anything changed in the way you operate, make sure that you will make this public through social media.

2. Post guidelines and safety tips

Create clear safety guidelines for your store and share them with visitors. Make sure these guidelines are consistent with your local health organization’s recommendations. Include reminders to wash hands, avoid unnecessary contact, and touching of the face. Ensure your customers have easy access to handwashing facilities, hand sanitizers, etc.. Include sanitation gel or face masks with your giveaway bags. If people need to stop by your store, you should make it safe for them and let them know in advance through your social media accounts. Keep posting information from credible sources to limit the Coronavirus' spread.

3. Don't exaggerate in ads

Your business is running, but this doesn't mean you have to invest all your money in ads. Keep unattached most of your budget for when you will fully operating. However, for the case of a local store, I could suggest advertising that you are operating under the government's guidelines. But, targeting the appropriate persona now is crucial. Before anything, you should discuss it with your digital marketing consultant.

4. Go as digital as you can

Provide customers with an easy option to order online—pick up or delivery. Partner with delivery sites and apps or build your delivery website as soon as possible. I know you wanted it before... Now is the time to do it! You can even use special offers to make this option appealing or reduce your delivery rate and offer deals for repeat & loyal customers.

Category No. 4 | Still operating - With the capability of online transactions

This category includes all types of businesses that are still operating and work from home and/ or running an e-shop. Working from home was something I chose a few months before, but I understand that it is difficult now to adapt remotely working to some organizations. Here you can find some tools to use for #remotework. We are all in this together!

1. Make sure to be straightforward

Once more, it is crucial to use your social media accounts to inform your audience about all the measures you have taken to keep your personnel safe and that you follow all the hygiene procedures by working from home.

  • Make sure to update your website with all the new information.

  • Send emails to your clients and inform them about your support system and what has changed.

  • Publish this information to your social media profiles. #WorkFromHome #StayProductive

2. Interact with your partners and customers

Don't forget your responsibility to society and the vital role you have to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Two social media goals for you: (1) Inform your network about the pandemic and help prevent its spreading. (2) Minimize the panic and increase positive feelings. Here's what you could share:

  • Encourage your employees to share photos while working at home and share them with your social media followers.

  • Remind everyone, both your employees and your customers, to increase their personal hygiene measures with either funny videos (from Tik Tok, for example) or with videos from credible sources. At this point, let me remind you that WHO has recently joined TikTok with the #safehands challenge! I am sure you can be creative too!

  • Go virtual with partners using tools like Google Hangouts, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and more, and share pictures of the online meeting within your social media accounts. Lead the way!

3. Encourage online shopping (until further notice)

Online shopping right now feels the safest option to keep businesses alive. So how can you encourage online shopping? Some ideas:

  • Post updates related to how your business follows all the hygiene procedures after you have received an order, until the moment you are sending it.

  • Make online visibility and transaction easier. Include more payment options to accommodate clients during this period and share it to all your social media accounts.

  • Be where your customers are now. We may witness a shift to YouTube and Tik Tok as people find time to entertain themselves.

  • Invest your media budget wisely. There will be a post-outbreak phase and you will rebound faster and more robust if you sustain some exposure throughout this crisis.

Yes, we can do this! That was all I could suggest for the time being. Now is a time for your brand to add value. We will see an increase in online orders for supermarkets and pharmacies and a massive decline in the tourism sector. Brace yourselves. This will mark us. Let's make something positive out of it. Take care of yourself and others!

Have a social media tip that I missed? Let me know below in the comments section what you're doing to keep your business' social media running smoothly.

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