Back in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to modify day-to-day operations and adapt to start doing business primarily online. Those one-time “nice-to-dos” when it comes to online marketing became a necessity, as digital channels became the only way to stay in contact with customers.
Even as COVID vaccinations continue and we look ahead towards something resembling normal business operations, businesses that embrace a digital-first marketing strategy are the ones that are thiving in a transformed marketplace.
We’ve spent the past couple of years working with small businesses to help them make the smartest use of digital marketing tools, so their businesses could thrive into 2021 and beyond. In this guide, we’re going to share with you the top six lessons that small businesses have learned as they adapted to the new marketing landscape of 2021.
6 Lessons for Small Businesses in 2021
Click to jump to a lesson or scroll down to read all six of our 2021 small business lessons.
1. Don’t be afraid to try something new
Most small businesses start out light and agile. However, once business picks up and there’s a ton of stuff on your plate every day, it’s easy to get stuck in the same old routine. It’s the, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” syndrome.
In 2020, the pandemic took away the option of staying in familiar routines that had been working in the past. Adapting to changes in health and safety protocols became a necessary part of life and everyone was forced out of their comfort zone. This resulted in small business owners around the world becoming more creative and inventive in how they did business.
For many, this “forced restructuring” resulted in finding new ways to conduct business that will benefit them outside of the pandemic situation. So, while you’re getting used to how things have changed, be aware that they’re still changing, and don’t settle into a “new” routine. Instead, keep exploring new ideas, trying new things, and innovating creative ways that you can do business.
Take a look at what’s in front of you
You don’t have to sit in your office night-after-night trying to think of things to try next. There’s plenty of information that can lead you to your next experiment.
Your customers are a fantastic source of information. They know what they like about your business and the way it is now, and they also know what they’d like to see that you don’t currently offer.
Ever had a customer ask you if you deliver? Offer curbside pickup? Gift baskets? Business swag? These are great clues as to what you might want to try next.
Another great source of information is the data created from your marketing efforts. When you own a business, looking at graphs, charts, and numbers all day can seem like the last thing you want to do. However, those reporting tools can tell you what’s working and what isn’t — so don’t ignore them.
If you’re not sure what all those graphs and charts are trying to tell you, think about asking one of your staff members — you never know which unassuming high school student might be a wiz at understanding graphs and charts. If you don’t have someone in your immediate circle who can help, you can always reach out to our Marketing Advisors.
The key to trying new things is to do it on a small scale.
You don’t have to completely revamp your business (although it might have felt that way during the pandemic). What you do need to do is think about what things you’re doing now that you could potentially expand upon, how you can do those things better, and what new things you can potentially try out on a small, manageable scale.
When trying new things, start small. If it works, expand… slowly. If it doesn’t work, either try it a different way or try something else.
Prior to 2020, the founders of Afro Flow Yoga, Leslie Salmon Jones and Jeff W Jones, had spent 10 years offering their services and sharing their practice around the world via live classes. When international travel and in-person interactions were shut down due to health and safety concerns, their business might have come to a screeching halt, but it didn’t.
Instead of shutting down, Leslie and Jeff powered on and stayed as light and agile as their yoga moves. Following the rhythm of their hearts and purpose, overnight, they launched virtual classes. By communicating with their students and teachers via email, they were able to offer their new virtual classes to everyone they had engaged with over the tenure of their business, without missing a beat.
While it may have taken a bit to master the new technology, the virtual classes did so well that Leslie and Jeff plan to continue to offer a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes once health and safety requirements allow them to resume in-person sessions.
Actions you can take
- Conduct a survey. Send your customers an email survey asking what you’re doing well and what they’d like to see you add or change. And don’t stop at just one survey. Think about adding a small survey section, with one or two questions, into your regular newsletter. That way you can receive regular feedback from your most loyal customers.
- Try new tools. If you’ve never used it before, and you think it might fit with your business, try it out. Think about trying things like live video. You can “go live” with your staff as they unbox new merchandise, create a new dish, walk through a new real estate listing, fix a pipe… basically, you can go live with anything you do at your business that might be interesting to your target market.
- Embrace the change. Take a cue from restaurants around the globe who, since 2020, tapered down their menus, added options for delivery and takeout, and moved indoor dining outside — just to name a few of the creative ways they pivoted their day-to-day way of conducting business. Think about what you’re doing now that could be slightly modified to adapt and respond to new demands and requirements.
2. Stay in touch and top of mind
One of the biggest benefits of online marketing tools is that they give you the ability to stay in touch and top of mind.
When the pandemic hit, everything changed. Communicating online became more important than ever before. And due to all of the changes, small businesses learned they needed to keep their customers informed more frequently.
Communicating clearly and often is still important in 2021 and will remain so going forward. You’ll want to keep customers informed of additional changes, how you’re meeting their needs, and how you’re making them feel safe. Of course, you’ll also want to keep them engaged and interested in your products or services.
Use the following tips to ensure you’re effectively staying in touch and top of mind this year.
Update all communication channels
When it comes to communication for your business, you want to use a variety of marketing channels to push the word out.
No matter the change, it’s important to ensure that anyone can find it no matter where they may be looking. That means updating the information on your:
- Listing and review sites
- Social media channels
The idea is to keep your customers informed and help you stay top of mind so they’ll be more likely to do business with you.
Reach customers where they are
At Constant Contact, we often get asked, “Where the best place to reach people so you can market to them?”
Different people will be looking in different places. You’ll have prospective customers finding your business from a Google search, leading them to places like your website, listing and review sites, and even social media channels. For many existing customers, you’ll be able to reach them directly in their email inbox and even on social media.
Just remember, email is a permission-based channel. When people give you their email address, they’re asking for you to communicate with them via email.
And with social media, you want to be on the platforms your current and potential customers are already using. Think about the demographics of your audience, their age, and interests to determine which platforms are best.
It’s important to remember, however, that social media channels use algorithms to selectively serve users with content, which means that not every follower will see all of your posts. You’ll want to consider using a mix of paid social media and organic (non-paid) social media to have the best shot at reaching your full audience.
It’s ok to communicate more frequently on social media and email
Even before the pandemic, one of the most common questions we received was about how often small businesses should be communicating with their audiences.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach as there are a variety of factors to determine how often you should communicate with your audience: their demographics, age, lifestyle, as well as the type of business you’re running, etc.
If you’re not communicating enough, you’re likely missing out on sales and getting your audience to do business with you. And if you’re over-communicating, you run the chance of turning them off.
The thing is — your audience is busy and may get distracted. On social media, they may not even see your message, depending on how the platform you’re using works and whether you paid to promote your post. And remember — most social channels move fairly quickly. So in many cases, it’s ok to communicate more frequently.
With social media, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Communicate at a cadence that is doable for you. Ensure you’re sharing information that is important and valuable to your followers. And keep in mind, each social platform is different.
When it comes to email, you want to communicate on a regular basis so your customers begin to expect it from you – at least once a month. If you really want them to take a specific action, it’s ideal to send multiple emails reminding them. Just make sure you’re sending relevant information to the right people.
Your email and social media stats provide a lot of insight into whether you’re communicating at the right frequency.
The actions or inactions your subscribers and followers take will clue you in. Pay attention to when you get the most opens, clicks, or engagements from your audience to see whether your communication frequency is appropriate. Take a look at your unsubscribe report to understand why people unsubscribed as well.
Constant Contact customers have taken strides using online marketing tools to communicate more often with their audiences, especially since 2020.
Siena Farms has always grown delicious vegetables and served local restaurants and communities with their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option with fresh farm-to-table produce. In 2020, they noticed a new strong demand from their local community for their CSA farm share. At the start of the pandemic, they sent one email and as Chris would say, “the spark that lit the fire that turned their farm business around” and their farm share subscription skyrocketed. So much so that they hired new farmers to help pick and pack the produce for their farm shares.
Another customer, Juliana and her team at The Energy Barre have built a close-knit group of clients who they serve through fitness and wellness classes. When the pandemic hit, Juliana didn’t let social distancing keep them apart.
Juliana started offering virtual and on-demand classes while communicating every step of the way. From closures and planned reopening to addressing other social issues that came up along the way, Juliana and her team know what it means to stay in touch and stay connected with the people they care about so much.
Actions you can take
- Update all communication channels, more frequently than you think. Don’t just post an update on one channel and expect everyone to see it.
- Watch your stats to see how people react to your frequency.
- Reach customers where they are. Use a variety of channels to communicate with customers and communicate when you need to.
3. Do more business online
COVID-19 brought many challenges that forced us all to think differently about how we live, interact, and do business.
For small businesses, surviving meant a shift in how you operate and meet the needs of your customers. With ongoing concerns about the health and general well-being of friends and families, customers continue to look for safer ways to get the products and services they need.
Namely, they went online.
It’s time to take your business online
Having an online presence has always been important, but since 2020, it has become absolutely critical. And it starts with having a mobile-responsive website. This is a place you own and can direct people to so they can learn more about who you are and what problem you’re solving for them.
Do you own a brick and mortar business? What products and services do you offer to customers in person? Start selling and offering them on your website with an online store or with a shoppable landing page.
Taking your business online doesn’t just preserve your ability to do business with your existing customers. It also opens your business up to new potential customers that may not have been reachable in the past.
Use email and social media to drive business
Once you get your business online, you need to drive people to your website to start generating revenue. That means using other channels like email and social media to connect with your existing customers to drive repeat business and gain new customers.
Email marketing is one of the most effective ways you can build relationships and stay top of mind with your audience. It gives you that one-to-one communication with your customers, provides opportunities to educate them on new products and services, and drives them to ultimately make a purchase. In fact, 66 percent of consumers have made a purchase as a result of an email marketing message.
Social media marketing is an excellent way to reach new customers by getting your business’s name out there. And brand awareness and recognition is an important part of growing your business and generating revenue.
Any business can benefit from using social media but that doesn’t mean you have to be on every social media platform. We recommend starting with one. The social platform you start with should be where your customers are. For example, if you are a business that provides services to other businesses (B2B), you will probably want to start with LinkedIn as opposed to Instagram.
Using social media marketing will help you connect with new and existing customers, showcase your business’s personality, and help drive traffic back to your website or landing page where they can take action like make a purchase or connect with you directly.
Embrace an online-first marketplace
Every year, our team takes some time to plan out the next year. We revisit and refine this plan many times throughout the year to adjust to what’s happening now. Let’s face it, it’s impossible to know what the future holds, but it is possible to take a step back and evaluate the present.
And that is exactly what every small business should do when it comes to the experience, services, and overall care you give your customers. Are there things you’re currently doing or providing only to those customers you see and interact with in-person? Are there activities that you had to pause because of the pandemic?
Now is the time to move those activities online if you haven’t done so already.
Get creative with how you adapt those offline activities to an online format. Use imagery and video to show customers what that might look like. The important thing is to keep the customer’s needs at the forefront of all you do.
With the shift in 2020, Adie, the head baker of Treat Cupcake Bar was finding a lot of customers reaching out through social media and receiving notifications at all hours. She used the social media integration through Constant Contact to link the Treat social accounts with her Constant Contact account, making it easy to manage her marketing all in one place.
Our Marketing Advisors helped Adie to update Treat’s website and transfer to the Constant Contact Website Builder. With their newly updated website, they could offer their new online ordering, easily update product offerings and information, and have a modern and mobile-responsive online experience.
At the same time, they received a new branded email template to carry over their updated branding throughout all of their marketing.
Actions you can take
- Take your business online. If you don’t currently have a website or are looking to give your website a refresh, check out Constant Contact’s Website Builder.
- Sell products and services you offer online. Set up an online store through Constant Contact or create a Shoppable Landing Page.
- Use email marketing and social media marketing tools to drive business to your website or online store.
- Review offline activities to see how you can move to an online format.
4. Collect and take action on customer data
If there’s one thing the experts can agree on, it’s that customer data plays a key role in your success. As you’ve likely heard the phrase, “the money is in the list,” the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 highlighted the importance of being able to reach your customers directly — especially as many business owners found themselves needing to communicate changes made to day-to-day operations.
Those businesses that had email addresses, for example, were able to get updates to their customers without worrying about algorithms on social media platforms limiting their reach.
Secondly, using data like interests, demographics, and past behaviors allowed them to dig deeper to highlight existing products and the availability of new offerings to the right people at the right time.
As you continue through 2021 and beyond, you’ll want to continue your focus on collecting contact information and then taking action on what you learn from the data.
How to collect customer information
At the very least, you’ll want to make sure that you’re collecting email addresses. Constant Contact offers a suite of list-growth tools that allow you to build a permission-based list of contacts that want to hear from your business. You can use these tools to build your list in person, in print, and online.
TIP: Make sure you’re offering something of value in exchange for someone’s email address. This could mean something like a discount, whitepaper, or free gift.
You can even let people choose specific interests as they subscribe so you can serve them content and offers best suited to them.
Understand that not every contact is the same
Today, people expect the messages they receive from you to feel timely and relevant to them. The better you can group your contacts based on things like interests, demographics, and actions, also known as segmentation, the better you can create more relevant messages for those groups.
For example, a real estate agent would want to communicate with buyers, sellers, and past clients very differently.
You can even use features like click segmentation to group contacts based on links they click in an email. You can also automatically create segments based on certain criteria such as contact activity, list membership, contact details, and tags.
Pay attention to what your reports are telling you to get better results
Look at your email reports to gauge what people are opening and clicking on and when they’re doing it. You should also pay attention to what’s happening on your website and on your social media accounts.
Don’t forget to go beyond opens, clicks, reach, and engagement by paying attention to the business actions you want people to take like making a purchase or contacting you for more information. Then use this information to try out a new offer or messaging.
How to get even more data you can use
Something as simple as sending out a basic survey to collect customer preferences can point you in the right direction. Syncing your contact details from other platforms that you use can also provide more insight into opportunities for your business.
Deliver more relevant experiences to your customers automatically
If you’re using an ecommerce platform (such as Shopify, BigCommerce, or Magento) and have a list size of five thousand or more contacts, you can tap into artificial intelligence (A.I.) that learns customer behavior and automatically determines the precise next best action for sending relevant email campaigns that lead to sales.
When Soluna Garden Farm had to temporarily pause meeting their customers in person, owners Amy and Tatiana knew just what to do — stay connected to them through the email list they had developed over the past 10 years. They created an entirely new community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription peony share that they sold in their new online store and announced in an email. The share sold out in one day.
“Every time we send an email we notice a bump in sales. If we didn’t have our mailing list, we would not have a way to easily reach all the customers when the pandemic hit,” says Amy.
See all of the examples throughout this post. The businesses highlighted here were able to maintain or in many cases thrive based on their ability to communicate with their customers and reach them directly to drive sales.
Actions you can take
- Collect emails and more at every touchpoint
- Dig into your reports to find new opportunities
- Use advanced techniques like segmentation and behavioral analysis to get even better results
5. Build your brand with storytelling
As small businesses moved their marketing and operations online, they joined a new, vast digital marketplace. With that shift came opportunities like new customers and new ways to sell goods and services, but it also came with hefty competition.
In a digital world, customers have virtually infinite options available to them. So how does a small business compete with retail giants like Amazon and Walmart?
Small businesses can compete in a vast digital marketplace with strong branding
You might be surprised to learn that small businesses have a leg-up on the big retailers. That’s because consumers want to shop small, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought to light just how important it is to support your local community and small businesses.
Your main advantage when it comes to competing with the major retailers is your identity as a small business, which should be a prominent aspect of your brand.
Our own research found that compared to 2019, 60 percent of consumers have made more of an effort to support small businesses in their community. And another 20 percent intend to make the effort to shop small.
You can capitalize on consumers’ existing desire to shop small by leaning into your own story — your identity as a small business — in your branding. When we talk about “brand,” we simply mean your reputation — the impression that your business gives others through online communication, as well as in-person interactions. Your brand story goes a little further and speaks to your identity as a small business.
Define (or refine) your brand story
The first step in using your brand’s story to find more customers is defining it. In general, your brand story is who you are. It’s a combination of:
- The people behind your business and their values
- The purpose of your business or the problem you’re trying to solve for customers
- Your relationship to your customers and how you interact with them
These identity points come together to form your brand story, which should play out in all your communications, from the About page on your website to every email you send.
Make sure your digital marketing reflects your brand story
Remember — it’s important to emphasize your identity as a small business in all of your branding. Don’t be afraid to pull back the curtain and show the real people behind your business. Keep your communications more personal.
For example, you could experiment with sending out your email communications from the business owner or manager, rather than from your business name. Let them write a personal greeting to start your email and highlight the real people who are the hustlers behind your business. You’ll find that people want to support you.
People want to hear your story. Share with them why you founded a business, or consider posting an update about how it’s going or how friends and family are pitching in to help. These stories help motivate people to become customers. For existing customers, these stories might motivate a repeat purchase or even better — they might share your content with their networks, exposing you to a whole new batch of potential customers.
And as always, make sure your brand identity is reflected in every customer interaction you have. If you portray yourself as warm, friendly, and personable, then that’s exactly how the customer experience should be. Otherwise, you risk appearing inauthentic or unreliable, which could hurt your brand reputation (and your sales).
The Concord Cheese Shop has always had a strong brand reputation in their town of Concord, Massachusetts, based on their strong in-person customer experience. But when the pandemic shifted the way we all do business, the shop’s cheesemonger/marketing guru Steve Dahlgren made it a priority to fully bring their brand to life online.
While the shop was already using a website, email marketing, and social media to connect with customers, but the “personality” of each platform felt disjointed. Steve made it his mission to refine the shop’s brand and make sure it played out consistently in all of their marketing channels. The result? They were able to power on and thrive during a challenging year.
As Steve told us, “The most noticeable thing is that when COVID-19 hit, it didn’t crush us. Three shops in our community have closed, but we’ve been able to keep going. Not only were we able to pivot in ways that helped our community but because we now had a consistently branded online presence, we were able to communicate that information to our customers.”
Actions you can take
- Take some time to define your brand identity, document it, and reference it when crafting all of your marketing and communications.
- Make sure your digital marketing reflects your brand identity. Think about if you need to update your website or to create a new logo to show people who you are.
- Make sure your brand lives not only in your marketing, but in your customer experience. Everyone at your business, especially those who interact with customers, needs to be familiar with the brand experience you are trying to provide.
6. Prepare for uncertainty
These days, it seems like the only thing certain about the future is that it’s uncertain, so it’s important to prepare for that. It might seem impossible to plan for the unexpected, but there are some important concrete steps you can take now to make your business more prepared for anything that might come your way.
Now is the time to assess, reorganize, re-prioritize and re-imagine critical business infrastructure, crisis plans, and resources to ensure you’re set up for success, whatever comes next.
Assess the efficiency of your “normal” operations
First of all, you’ll want to make sure that your normal business operations are running as smoothly as possible. You don’t want to be establishing your initial online presence, catching up on payroll paperwork, or making sure your business is adequately staffed at the same time you’re trying to adapt.
When COVID-19 hit, business owners that had their day-to-day operations running like a well-oiled machine had more time to problem solve and take full advantage of the resources available to help them power on through the pandemic. Conversely, businesses that weren’t caught up on payroll records risked missing out on the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Do your best to anticipate anything in your business operations that could gum up the works and pull your focus, should you need to lead your business through a rapid change.
Take stock of the resources available to you
Another critical element of preparing for uncertainty is making sure you have a good grasp of the resources available to you when you’re navigating an uncertain situation. Remember — you don’t have to go it alone, so take some time now to familiarize yourself with the resources at your disposal.
As you do so, you’ll also want to look for gaps in resources — things you might need that you don’t currently have access to.
- Where can I turn for business guidance?
In times of uncertainty, many small businesses lean on support from their local chamber of commerce, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and organizations like SCORE. Take time now to figure out where you can find the best guidance for your business.
- Where can I get help and advice when it comes to marketing my business during a crisis?
Constant Contact has a library of free online marketing advice and resources, as well as expert Marketing Advisors who are on-call and available to help you navigate your business’s marketing needs.
- What other resources do I need in a time of crisis?
Do you need to have a legal advisor on-hand? How about a go-to financial advisor? Maybe a staffing agency? It’s best to familiarize yourself with these things and identify helpful resources now, rather than in your time of need.
Test your preparedness and take precautionary measures now
In addition to asking yourself the questions above, you can test your preparedness for uncertainty by imagining a scenario and simulating your business’s response.
A good first step is to imagine if you could go back in time to before COVID-19 hit, but with all the knowledge you have now. Do you know what you would do differently? Are you prepared to handle such a rapid shift in the way business is done? If not, think about how you can be more prepared and take action on that.
The easiest way to assess your basic preparedness might be to go through one of the step-by-step small business action plans we developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Find the plan that fits your industry, and go through it, looking for action steps that might require some planning ahead or some pre-work. Wherever possible, do that thinking and pre-work now, so that you’re as prepared as possible.
Actions you can take
- Assess the efficiency of your current daily, weekly, and monthly operations. Look for inefficiencies, or opportunities to streamline and automate if possible.
- Take stock of the resources available to you and identify any additional resource needs you might have.
- Test your preparedness by going through one of our small business action plans. If you had to utilize such a plan, what might you need to do before you could take the steps outlined in the plan? Are there any steps you can take action on now? If so, do it!
Watch the on-demand webinar: 6 small business lessons for 2021
With change and uncertainty comes opportunity for small businesses
Imagine if you could adapt your business to meet people’s heightened demand to find information, make purchases, and communicate with the businesses and causes they care about online. Doing so would allow you to reach your customers directly so you could power on through these times and thrive.
In the old world, you didn’t necessarily need to have a website or an online store, maybe you didn’t need to use email and social media marketing, and maybe you didn’t have to embrace online marketing. But now you do.
Tap into your unwavering resilience and resourcefulness to power on in 2021 and beyond. Constant Contact will be there with the tools, experience, and advice to get you game-changing results without the need for technical knowledge or a marketing degree.