How local businesses should be communicating with customers during COVID-19
Hear how local search veterans are using every channel available to help their clients stay relevant and keep customers informed.
“The question should be, ‘How do I get proper COVID messaging to my communities or my customers, wherever they may be?’” says Adam Dorfman, director of product management at Reputation.com, highlighting the need for effective communication between businesses and customers during the coronavirus outbreak.
Social distancing and other safety measures have severely impacted day-to-day operations for local businesses, and these changes can be jarring for customers caught unaware. During our local search edition of Live with Search Engine Land Friday, Dorfman and other members of the local search community shared communication strategies and tips agencies and business owners can use to keep customers informed.
Use your site to inform customers. “It should be front and center, because everybody wants to know, are you at the very least keeping your own employees protected — all that sort of information,” Dorfman said, recommending that local businesses make their COVID-19-related announcements and information prominent and easily accessible on their sites.
Google recommends displaying a banner or popup informing visitors of your business’ status, delays, pick-up or delivery options, etc., so that your customers can proceed with appropriate expectations.
Business owners can also add pertinent updates to their FAQ pages, as well as markup their FAQ sections, product availability, event status and special announcements with structured data to keep users informed right from the search results page.
Be creative with email. Consumers received an initial wave of coronavirus-related emails from businesses explaining how they were responding to the then-epidemic. Resist messaging your customers again with bland, or worse, irrelevant response updates.
“People are looking for things to kill time,” said Krystal Taing, listings management product specialist for RIO SEO. She recommends marketers get creative “to break up the dry email that doesn’t really make sense right now.” Taing cited a local restaurant promoting a DIY pizza kit, which included a pack of toilet paper, as an example. “Anything you can do to humanize [your communications] — if you can make it funny, that’s great as well,” Taing said.
Update your Google My Business profile. “You can update the name, the description and Posts are going to be really helpful,” said Taing, pointing to a few ways local businesses can use Google My Business to relay information.
Google has even created a special COVID-19 Post category that enables businesses to include changes to how they are operating, special hours and temporary closures, requests for support and safety and hygiene-related updates.
Be aware of Google’s local review embargo. Google has temporarily disabled new local reviews as well as the ability to reply to reviews, with no announcements on what will happen to reviews left during this period.
“Right away I told clients to stop asking for reviews on Google,” said local business consultant Tom Waddington, adding that, for some customers, reviews are the only means of communication with a business. “[The review] is not going to get posted; they don’t realize it; the business has no idea that the customer has a complaint . . . I didn’t want my clients asking for reviews on Google because they could be potentially missing out on a customer that they need to respond to immediately.” Finding alternative ways to engage with customers can enable you to better serve them during this period; however, not asking for reviews may be a risky decision with unintended consequences.
“Review signals are certainly prominent in rankings for Google Maps and local search results,” said Dorfman, “so, while you may not want to heavily push Google review requesting right now, to shut it off entirely might have long-term effects.” If competitors are still asking for reviews and the review ban lifts, competitors’ review counts may outpace yours, which could affect your organic visibility. The right strategy will vary from business to business, Dorfman said.
Seek deeper engagement via social media. “If you want to talk about clever COVID messaging . . . Instagram is where I see the best of the best,” said Dorfman, referencing his own local gym’s social media campaign in which members take videos of themselves performing an exercise at home and tagging others to do the same. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the follower counts are growing because of this . . . they don’t have a business to run necessarily day-to-day, so they have all of this time and resources to put into social media,” Dorfman said.
“I saw a local school on Facebook the other day that was having teachers do Facebook Live storytime for the kids,” said Niki Mosier, senior account manager at Two Octobers. Encouraging direct engagement between your staff and your audience via social media can help you humanize your business, continue to serve your customers and keep you relevant while social distancing is in effect.
Incorporate offline messaging. “I was walking around downtown and just about every business that’s closed has some kind of notice from the owner on its door with their phone number on it saying ‘if you need something, call me,’ and to me, that’s a really good way to deal with it,” said Mary Bowling, co-founder of Ignitor Digital, emphasizing the value of a back-to-basics approach.
Putting up a storefront notice with contact info can show customers you’re still within reach. However, if you typically receive high call volume, keeping customers on hold for a long time can backfire, Taing pointed out. Consider directing customers to your website (perhaps by including it on your storefront notice), where you can publish complete details and address their concerns without keeping them on hold.