How to create authentic digital engagement in COVID-19 era

These are highly unusual, uncertain and unsettling times. The evolution of the COVID-19 story over the past 2-3 weeks has been so rapid that making predictions is tough.

But here are some observations so far:

  • Retail has changed forever. Digital is driving a large proportion of revenue by necessity right now but these shopping habits are quickly becoming normal.
  • The digital experience you provide is more important than it’s ever been – both now and once all this is over.
  • While digital is critical, everyone is struggling. Empathy, authenticity, and trustworthiness are increasingly vital for the foreseeable future.

Digital reliance skyrockets

Reliance on digital engagement has been a clear and predictable trend. Online shopping volumes have increased massively, particularly for household staples – which has been widely reported by now. Peapod experienced a 33% surge in demand in the first week of March (before the crisis deepened). Adobe has more recent figures and reports surges in a number of categories. Overall web traffic is also way up on normal. People are living their lives online right now and this period is only likely to accelerate the digital transformation that has been ongoing for a number of years.

Increased social media usage

Unsurprisingly, there has also been some noticeable shifts in social media activity. During the quarantine period, people can’t go anywhere and have a lot more time on their hands than they usually do. In such a scenario, it’s no surprise that the first thing they probably reach for is their phone when looking to fill their time.

Twitter usage is up, with 164 million people on average having visited that particular social channel in the past quarter – an increase of 12 million from the previous quarter and a 23% jump from a year earlier.

If you use Instagram, you’ll have noticed the addition of a “Stay Home” sticker in the last few days. This was created by the platform to encourage social distancing to stem the spread of the virus. Instagram campaigns generally are proving more successful too, with ad posts attracting 76% more likes than in more “normal” times.

Instagram’s “Stay Home” sticker has been shared broadly on the platform (Credit: Flipweb)

How can retailers and brands be successful right now?

While everyone’s first priority right now is of course the health of themselves and their loved ones, life and business still goes on – as much as that is possible.

Retailers and brands therefore need to figure out how to be successful in these new conditions. They can’t just drop everything.

With this being the case, digital offers the clearest opportunity – both now and whenever we get back to “normal”.

Above all else, though, you need to be empathetic, “real” and authentic. It should go without saying that you need to be sensitive to the emotional toil a lot of people are going through.

Before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, 90% of millennials said “authenticity” is the most important factor for them when choosing between which brands to shop with. It’s unlikely that figure would have declined in the last few weeks.

How to be more authentic

Outside of existing conditions, the appeal and effectiveness of sponsored content and celebrity influence were already decreasing.

Another study showed 57% of consumers believe less than half of all brands actually offer meaningful, authentic content. And 60% say content from friends or family influences their purchase decisions, while just 23% say content from celebrities and influencers are impactful. At the same time, brand trust has never been harder to earn. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer found only 34% of consumers have trust in brands they use.

Celebrity campaigns are becoming less and less effective, and are completely inappropriate right now

With all this now occurring against a backdrop of surging social media engagement and ecommerce revenue due to COVID-19, there is a clear opportunity for thoughtful and sympathetic digital engagement. 

Celebrity-based campaigns are already perceived to be disingenuous at the best of times, and that is even more likely to be the case in these uncertain times. Even though they can reach huge audiences, messages stemming from these “hired guns” simply come across as not believable. As a result, they do not provide the necessary inspiration to motivate customers to hit the “buy” button.

Celebrity and macro influencers are no longer hitting the mark

In fact, 25% of U.S. consumers do not trust celebrity product recommendations. Add in today’s environment and you actually risk coming across as crass, insensitive and potentially doing your brand more harm than good. More generally, social media influencing is at a critical inflection point: engagement rates are declining (down to 2.4% from 4% in 2016).

What are “everyday influencers”?

Instead, consumers need to be served up a wide array of customer-generated content. What does this mean? Online word-of-mouth style guidance and recommendations that they actually believe. Most importantly, this content must be created by those they trust most – friends and family and everyday ‘people like them’.

“Everyday influencers” are authentic, real and relatable. They are your neighbor, your brother, your mom’s friend, or your college roommate. People you trust and “word of mouth” for the digital age. Most importantly, they are an antidote to the skepticism of online communities.

But the information they share needs to be as emotionally relevant and/or personalized to each customer as possible. Now this may seem an impossible challenge. How can you scale such a personalized approach?

“Everyday Influencers” are real people who customers can relate to.

How to run “everyday influencer” campaigns

Non-paid “everyday influencers” with an authentic presence on social media are the key. But where do you start? Identifying the right people for your brand from a vast network, engaging them via sampling, and encouraging them to share images through their own personal social media accounts. The cost benefits of such an approach are obvious.

But to ensure ongoing authenticity and effectiveness, you must find the best methods to inspire these consumers, gather their content and use it in a meaningful way. This means targeting the right people with the right samples at the right time.

Certainly, you can leverage your own database and CRM data for this purpose. This should incorporate a lot of the information you need to execute one of these campaigns – from contact information and purchase history and potentially even social media activity.

Alternatively, there are vendors with the expertise to help with this process. We ourselves have a network of more than 480,000 “everyday influencers” who we can target precisely and with efficiency to ensure your products are endorsed in a sensitive and authentic way.

What do I do with this “everyday influencer” content?

The organic social media engagement generated should provide significant visibility and reach. However, promoting this content across your own digital properties provides additional impact (i.e. your social media channels, your website, and mobile app). At a time when people are really searching for a sense of community online, this type of authentic engagement is likely to resonate even more than usual.

In conclusion

COVID-19 presents huge challenges for companies still looking to make the best of a dire situation. They still have jobs to protect and revenue objectives to hit but a customer base that is struggling against a fast-evolving environment.

In these times of social distancing and quarantining, consumers are naturally turning to digital to meet their needs. For organizations figuring out how to be successful, digital is likely to provide any opportunities that do exist. But whatever marketing campaigns they end up implementing, they need to be executed thoughtfully with empathy and understanding.

All this is occurring against a backdrop of consumers generally becoming more suspicious of all content they see online. As a result, celebrity endorsements are not proving as effective as the voices of “real” and “everyday” people – which are deemed more trustworthy and authentic.

Social campaigns that leverage these new types of “influencers” are therefore extremely powerful – not to mention far more cost-effective – in today’s frenetic media market. COVID-19 presents a number of unique opportunities to create meaningful and emotionally-connecting digital engagement through these voices.

If you’d like to find out more about why companies are increasingly looking to the customer-generated content developed by “everyday influencers” in their marketing campaigns:

From everyone at PowerReviews, stay safe and healthy.

Andrew Smith

Andrew is an experienced ecommerce technology marketer. When he's not thinking about his day job, he's running around after two small children in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.


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