Local Businesses Lean Heavily on Digital Tools During Covid-19

This post is the latest in our “Commerce and Coronavirus” series. It will be an editorial focus for the month of April, and you can see the rest of the series here. Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann, Pixabay.


It’s been just over two weeks since Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order for all California residents. For local business owners, it feels like an eternity.

Across the country, businesses are adjusting to life without physical storefronts. Retailers that have been deemed “non-essential” are quickly launching websites to sell their products online. Restaurants that have had to forego dine-in service are jumping on social media to promote new take-out and delivery options.

Even when businesses shut down temporarily, the need for online marketing remains. Store hours and contact information need to be updated across digital channels, and social media pages have to be updated to let customers know when—or if—their businesses will reopen.

Digital platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Yelp, and Twitter have never been more important for local businesses. With 80% of customers saying they are scaling down their restaurant visits now, restaurants are in uncharted territory. Local businesses in every industry are being forced to adapt their marketing strategies on the fly and use digital channels like Google and Yelp to keep people updated on their status.

Restaurants that were previously hesitant to use delivery services are now jumping on the bandwagon, and apps like DoorDash, Instacart, and UberEats are seeing a surge in businesses using their platforms. Smaller restaurants, retailers, and other local businesses are also beginning to accept more orders through messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Larger organizations are managing an influx of customer service calls using chatbots on these same platforms.

“There is no question that the coronavirus is impacting food consumption in a number of ways,” says Guy Bloch, CEO at the delivery service platform Bringg. “While we are already starting to see an increase in demand, we expect an even larger surge in demand for delivery services and accompanying data-driven contactless options.”

What about the smallest businesses — the ones without websites or mature email databases? In an article on Street Fight, TigerPistol’s Analissa Moreno recommended that restaurants without existing websites run reach campaigns targeting their delivery areas. Businesses that are temporarily shutting down should also consider running conversion campaigns to encourage community support through gift card sales until they reopen.

Google has opted to temporarily disable certain Google My Business functionalities in light of the rapidly evolving Covid-19 crisis, such as the ability for people to leave new reviews and for businesses to reply to reviews through the Google platform. Businesses are still able to update their store hours and contact information on Facebook and Yelp. The goal is to let as many people know about the changes as possible, and to promote any new marketing strategies—like free delivery, curbside pickup, gift card sales, or heavy discounts—to the potential customers most likely to be interested.

“I think everyone would agree that search and social platforms were caught unprepared for the crisis, not that I consider this a big mark against them – everyone was,” says Damian Rollison, senior vice president of product strategy at Brandify. “They’ve been scrambling to make it possible to indicate the kinds of special offerings and circumstances businesses need to communicate. Sometimes this has caused problems rather than solving them, at least initially, but in the longer term, the improvements and new features have been helpful.”

Yelp has opted to suspend ad fees for small businesses, with a focus on restaurants and nightlife, and highlight “contact-free” delivery options for restaurants in its app. The company recently announced a partnership with GoFundMe that would provide local businesses with a quick way to accept donations through their Yelp Pages. The initiative was not without its problems, though, as some business owners were frustrated that they were automatically opted-in to the fundraiser and said the process to opt-out was cumbersome. Yelp eventually made the program opt-in only.

Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social networking service, has introduced a way for businesses to add gift card URLs to their Nextdoor Business Pages. Businesses can also add new take-out and delivery options to their pages, and link any GoFundMe campaigns they have running right now.

Changes in Customer Sentiment

A number of social media companies have rolled out specialized tools to track mentions and chatter about businesses during the pandemic. StatSocial launched an audience insights service called Crisis Insights, which tracks changing consumer sentiment and audience dynamics. StatSocial has identified more than 30 segments affected by the Covid-19 crisis. With its new tool, businesses can get real-time updates on those shifting dynamics and find out what media and influencers their customers are getting information from online.

“We are already working with the CMO of a major electronics manufacturer that sells through retail stores. With that channel now on hold, we’re helping them identify and reach new customer segments based on their responses to the crisis,” explains StatSocial CEO David Barker.

During a pandemic when many people are locked inside, local businesses must navigate the tension between technology and person-to-person connections. That means using social media and other digital communication channels when possible, but also using actual salespeople to give their businesses a real identity.

“Having salespeople who provide trusted guidance combined with self-service tools that enable engagement with customers when traditional paths aren’t available will be critical to organizations any time, but particularly during challenging cycles,” says Scott Webb, CEO of Avionos, a company that designs digital commerce and marketing solutions.

Chatbots are one of the ways that businesses are communicating with customers while their stores are closed. Ecommerce is providing another opportunity, especially for businesses that sell physical goods.

“Digital commerce has always been about making it easy for your customers to do business with you, and in our current environment, the importance of being easy to do business with has increased substantially,” says Avionos Senior Director of Commerce John Brumbaugh. “Ecommerce can keep you in touch with your customers and allow you to deliver the products they most need in these challenging times. It also allows you to keep open, real-time communication with them about updates in stock availability, delivery dates, and other aspects of your business, which will be pertinent information as changes develop.”

Fast-Tracking New Channels

Of course, businesses that weren’t already selling online before Covid-19 are struggling as they rush to launch ecommerce websites and enable tools like virtual service appointments.

“Whereas for some businesses simply putting up a website may be enough, other businesses that rely on checking IDs or verifying people’s identity from a trust and safety perspective might need a digital identity verification solution,” says Rick Song, CEO of Persona, a company that offers automated identity verification tools. Grocery stores, stores selling alcoholic beverages, and healthcare providers are among the types of establishments that may benefit from identity verification solutions.

Whether a business changes its hours, changes its services, or shuts down temporarily, now is the time to engage with customers and create the kind of relevant content that drives continued loyalty. In an interview with Street Fight, Formation.ai’s Nicole Amsler recommended that businesses make sure their marketing messages are relevant in the context of what’s happening in the world—both during the current pandemic and in the coming months afterward.

“When engaging with customers right now, companies need to understand that this isn’t business as usual and show empathy. Brands’ messages to customers need to reflect that,” Amsler said. “Not every message needs to be about what a business is doing in response to our current situation, but companies need to make adjustments to ensure they’re at least acknowledging that this isn’t business as usual.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

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