Why are you selling when you could be serving?

'We are here for you' is not a strategy. Engaging prospects and customers through content and community is, writes Marketing and Digital Strategy Advisor Perry Hewitt

The human tragedy and uncertainty of COVID-19 have caused unprecedented economic impact and pose an immediate challenge for marketers. Marketing playbooks have been set aside, campaigns tossed, in-person events cancelled, and product launches delayed. No one wants to be blindly pushing products and services to anxious consumers and businesses right now. Smart marketers recognize this time as an opportunity to serve rather than sell.

What does service look like in this new context?

The fear and isolation caused by social distancing have spurred renewed desire for connection and community. Marketers can serve prospects and customers alike by:

Acknowledging the crisis clearly and succinctly
in outbound communications. This isn’t the time for generic “we’re here for you” messaging. Which initiatives is your organization launching during this crisis? What are the challenges you and your industry are observing and responding to?

Finding out the issues that are top of mind for your prospects and customers
You’ve shared your organizational view: what can you learn from other vantage points? That process might include analysis of search referrals, social media monitoring, emailed surveys, and even picking up the old-fashioned phone. This outreach will let your organization know where your audiences’ energy is currently focused. Which are the industry-specific concerns where you might provide insight? Where can you provide thinking to address those concerns -- even when they are not directly met by your products and services?

Delivering content in the context of community
People are spending more time than ever in front of their screens, physically distanced from others. The value of the content you share with them goes up exponentially when it’s expressed in a way that people can share reactions.

Think: Fewer gated whitepapers, consumed alone, and more digestible, interactive content served alongside others.

Community experiences on the rise are not limited (thankfully!) to endless Zoom sessions, but include LinkedIn Q&As, intimate invitation-only online events, and pop-up conversations powered by tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

Getting the community piece right is critical. What makes for a successful community? Attracting and engaging right participants is always the first steps, and you have customer lists to segment and learn from.

As you get started:

Ensure you are regularly seeding your community
with high value content -- not the stuff your product marketing team insists you put in the FAQs, but the topics and insights that you learned your customers were concerned about in the near term. This is the time to experiment with different formats: More authentic video with lower production values. Live Q&A with your thought leaders. Recordings sent out to all participants -- without an email gate!

Use technology that encourages connection
among members, whether that’s threading or emojis or visibility of top ranked comments. This isn’t the era of the webinar where questions could only be submitted to the presented for consideration. Surface the engagement of others, and let them build upon their areas of interest.

Invest in community management best practices and people.
If you do not already have a community management capability, this is an opportunity to start -- perhaps using personnel shifted from other marketing activities in recent weeks. In addition to driving digital engagement, a community manager function distributes content, and also can provide a feedback loop on particular resonance.

Your community management capability provides an opportunity to build brand presence and trust, which is vital at a time where your broader brand advertising and outbound may be declining.

How will you know when your community is working?

Content performance (views, likes, shares) and feedback provide a few important data points. Rachel Happe, Founder and CEO of The Community Roundtable, advocates for a metric of “number of questions asked” as the most powerful sign of community health. Your customers may not be in a position to buy today, but will experience a greater connection to your brand when experienced as a place to go for answers rather than a sales engine.

As we emerge from the pandemic, consider the role service over selling will play in your future marketing. The current “social distancing” may or may not prove to be a unique moment in time, but the lessons around the value of community connection will endure.

This article was taken from issue 6 of Marketing Society publication EMPOWER. Read the archive here.