Scott Jones is the CEO of 123 Internet, a full-service marketing company that is helping clients meet the challenges of the current COVID-19 outbreak. Follow him on LinkedIn or visit his brand website.
You seem to have adjusted quickly to the enormous changes in the economy. What was this process like for you and your company 123 Internet?
It was a big shock to most companies, I think. A pandemic is the one thing you don’t really put on the radar. We’re quite lucky in that we are used to using tools that are conducive to working virtually, so for our company, it was pretty straightforward to transition. For our employees, who already used both desktops and laptops, it really wasn’t much of a change in how they usually do things.
The biggest change has been working from home rather than working together in an office. In the office, we have a breakout area where we typically have a lot of face-to-face time together, and that has been missed greatly.
One thing we have done is to have bingo night or poker night over Zoom to give people a way to still interact, but virtually. Of course, some have young kids at home and really have their hands full with that, as well.
What concerns have your clients expressed about the current marketing environment?
The main concern for most companies right now is expenditure. Should we be spending money at all right now, and should we spend money on digital marketing or any kind of marketing? Most of the companies with which we work are product- or service-led, and business owners want to know what they should be doing about marketing if people are not in a position to buy what they are selling right now.
They want to know whether they should be cutting back on marketing spend in the current environment. Some are doing that, but the majority of our clients have been pretty proactive. They’ve changed the tone of what they’re saying to their customers and prospects right now, which has been positive.
It’s not about selling products right now; it’s about supporting their customers during this time. The brands that are doing a great job are doing whatever they can to help people, give advice and sometimes entertain them. Those are the ones that will be remembered and will have more momentum behind them, post-COVID-19.
For instance, one of our clients is a debt management company that would normally be knocking on doors and asking people to pay their debts, and they are now helping NHS deliver medications to people that need them. That’s really incredible.
How have you answered those concerns?
We have worked on reviewing the company’s structure and helping them transition—temporarily—from a sales structure to a structure of helping others. It’s very different, and it changes their whole business. We have clients right now that have changed their entire manufacturing process and supply chain to make products for NHS that are needed to fight COVID-19.
We have been helping clients promote what they are doing because many have been reluctant to self-promote during this time. That’s almost dangerous, because people need to know what they’re doing and that it is part of who they are as a business. So we’ve been encouraging promotion as part of their marketing. They’ve invested time in helping others, and people need to know about that.
Choices seem more limited for consumers as many businesses are shut down. How does that impact the customer experience aspect of digital marketing?
I think right now, communication is key. It’s so important to let customers know what to expect from your business and be as honest as you can about that. In the case of restaurants that have had to shut down or only offer takeout and delivery, putting up a landing page to explain what they are doing can be a crucial step.
Some businesses have previously offered next-day delivery service, but there have been many delays in shipping as capacity is diverted to essential items people need most right now. Customers will appreciate businesses that are realistic with them about delays and don’t pretend that next-day service is still going to happen.
Customers realize that things are not normal right now, and they are generally very understanding about that if companies are transparent and upfront about it. Being realistic is appreciated and it improves the customer experience.
Is online reputation something that can be more easily ignored during widespread business shutdowns?
Online reputation is still key—it’s how you respond to customers, being frank and honest with them. It’s also not about selling right now, as too many businesses are still trying to do. Consumers want support. They want advice, and they want to be entertained online. They don’t want to be sold to by brands.
Being online is about the conversation. If they can’t really have a conversation, then they don’t really want to be involved with the brand. Brands need to remember that the engagement piece is what it’s all about at this time. Entertainment is a great way to engage people who are at home and looking for something to do.
Have you seen a greater or lesser response to customer surveys in the last month or two?
Customer surveys have always been crucial to our business, but we honestly thought that people would disengage from that right now, in the middle of a crisis. What we have found is that people are more likely to engage (maybe it’s boredom). They have been more likely to give feedback and actually tell you what you’re doing wrong or right.
If you can embrace honesty, you could get some really important feedback and answers about your business that could help you position yourself favorably when this crisis is over. It could be an important time to make changes that will help you in the long run.
I have seen an uptick in brands doing surveys, and part of that is because they’re planning for the future during what is likely a downtime for them. I think this is a really important time to communicate with existing customers and get the information you need to move forward in a powerful way when this is all over.
What do bored and homebound consumers want to see in a company’s digital marketing?
Right now, people want to see that you’re a real brand, that you employ real people and that you have real feelings. For instance, at 123 Internet, we’ve been hosting a number of hashtag events: online bingo, what’s in your fridge, etc.
It shows that we are real, that we have genuine employees that are real, and that we are all going through this time together. The events have gotten a number of small businesses involved (excitedly so), and that has been a positive thing for us and for them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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