There’s no doubt that the American economy is in a precarious position right now. With many schools closed until the fall and businesses across the country being forced to operate remotely or close their doors completely, it’s no wonder that most of us feel frightened about the state of our finances. As of April 23, a record 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in a five-week span. And with many organizations being denied federal funding to assist in offsetting the losses associated with COVID-19, most business owners are prioritizing cost containment above all else.

We’ve seen this before, to a certain degree. Whenever there’s fear of an economic downturn, operating budgets are shifted accordingly. Since consumers aren’t spending as much money, business owners feel they can’t spend theirs, either -- particularly when it comes to their ad promotions. In the wake of the 2008 recession, businesses were forced to make tough choices to maximize the chances of survival. As a result, U.S. ad spending dropped by 13% during that period, with the bulk of the cuts centering around traditional forms of advertising (like newspaper and TV ads).

While it might seem natural to decrease ad spend (or even stop it completely) during national crises, there’s evidence to suggest that’s exactly the opposite of what brands should do. Certainly, cost-containment strategies should be employed -- but slashing your marketing budget shouldn’t necessarily be on the shortlist. In fact, studies show that businesses that maintain or even increase their ad budgets in the midst of a weaker economy are more likely to increase their market share and overall sales during the recession and beyond. Conversely, reducing ad spend in times of economic uncertainty will likely end up hurting businesses for years (even after the economy has recovered).

Of course, the idea of ramping up your marketing during COVID-19 sounds scary. With such high stakes, it may seem like a huge gamble that you can’t afford to take. However, there are a number of good reasons to stay the course -- especially when you’re focused on developing digital marketing strategies.

First, we’ll talk about exactly why digital marketing (and SEO, specifically) can be your lifeline when you’re navigating uncharted territory. We’ll also discuss the ways in which the coronavirus has already impacted internet marketing and how you can leverage your SEO strategies to soften the blow and set you up for success.

Why It’s Smart to Focus On SEO Right Now

To begin with, it’s important to remember that digital marketing offers both a high return on investment and a low initial cost. Although certain aspects of internet marketing may cost more than others, traditional forms of advertising generally cost a lot more -- and are a lot more difficult to track in terms of effectiveness.

Of all the digital marketing techniques, search engine optimization already offers the lowest cost per lead. Although pay-per-click advertising could drive more traffic to your site within a short period of time, those costs can also add up. SEO, on the other hand, is meant to be a long-term solution that’s focused on building an organic presence on a consistent basis. It’s already highly affordable, which means it should be low on the list of costs you’ll want to cut. But since SEO strategies depend on producing fresh content on a regular basis and a slow buildup of certain ranking signals, it would also be to your business’s detriment to put a pause on SEO.

To that point, “pausing” SEO isn’t really possible in the same way that it is for a PPC campaign. You can stop new blogs from being written or new backlinks from being obtained, but what’s already been implemented will continue to impact your SEO. Really, the best thing you can do is to continue to build on what you’ve done and make adjustments based on relevant searches.

It also might behoove you to remember that your competitors are asking the same questions about their own ad spend. And if they’re decreasing their digital marketing efforts, that actually leaves you with an opportunity to stand out. Advertising prices will likely drop during this time, creating more of a buyer’s market and making it a bit more financially feasible for you to amp up your marketing. Moreover, you’ll have an opportunity to position yourself as an industry leader at a time when your competition may not be quite as visible to the public.

Don’t forget that consumers are spending more time online than ever as they shelter in place. Depending on your business, they may not be making the same kinds of purchases -- but they are on the internet. They may have more time to read the emails in their inbox or search for helpful information. This is a great time to focus on SEO if your business provides vital services and products or can offer valuable advice to those who need reassurance. Even if all you have to share are some messages of hope and safety, you may be able to optimize that content so that your brand shows up in searches that concern the pandemic. Queries relating to COVID-19 are currently receiving considerable search volume worldwide.

That doesn’t mean you should try to game the system to show up for these terms, capitalize on public fear, or make light of the pandemic in any way. But writing about this universal experience and sharing recommendations as a gesture of goodwill can be extremely powerful. And since Google continues to provide an essential service, your business can potentially get noticed even more if you’re optimizing for the right search terms. That might not happen as readily until the pandemic is over. But if you’re able to focus on SEO behind the scenes, you’ll definitely be ahead of the curve when the economy re-opens.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted SEO

There’s a lot we don’t know about how the novel coronavirus will continue to affect the American workforce and our economy. It’s a good guess that many businesses will struggle to make it through and may not be able to re-open, particularly since federal funding is scarce. But as far as knowing which businesses will survive or how long we might be impacted, that’s all pure speculation at this point.

However, we are already starting to see how the pandemic has changed internet search trends and SEO. This is data we can readily access in real time, which can provide marketers with some insight on how to move forward.

It should surprise no one that online shopping is on the rise. In fact, CNBC reports that U.S. e-commerce spending rose by more than 30% from the beginning of March through mid-April, as compared to the same period last year. At a time when most businesses with physical locations are closed, it’s clear that the retailers that can provide access to products and services via online portals will certainly fare better.

But since many Americans are concerned about how they’ll weather the financial storm, they may not be in the position to spend hundreds of dollars on clothing or jewelry. Searches for essential goods -- such as nearby resources for toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, and thermometers -- are definitely on the rise. The same can be said of grocery and gourmet food items. But many residents have shifted from stockpiling these kinds of supplies to making a mad (virtual) dash for books, sports and recreation equipment, toys and games, electronics, home improvement products, and even beauty and cosmetic items. Those purchases aren’t just happening on Amazon either, which means that consumers are willing to look beyond more established brands to find what they need and even lend their financial support to smaller businesses.

This tells us that Americans have moved beyond panic-buying and are thinking about more than mere survival. That means there’s probably a bit of wiggle room for businesses that don’t offer essential supplies and services to make a dent with their marketing. It also means that many consumers want their dollars to count -- and that the playing field may now be a little more leveled. Since Amazon has delayed many of its shipments, the allure of one-day shipping may not carry as much weight. If consumers have to wait a little longer for their deliveries anyway, they may be more willing to support a smaller business directly. They may also be more willing to rely on a Google search, rather than typing a keyword into Amazon’s own search bar, to find what they need. And if they’re ready to use Google to their advantage when making online purchases, that gives other businesses an opportunity to compete -- which is where SEO becomes really important.

It’s not just e-commerce that’s been seeing increased traffic, either. News outlets, health and wellness information sites, food and recipe blogs, and outdoor recreation and home fitness resources have seen major gains in search volume. This makes sense, as these sites provide consumers with what they want to know and provide the value they can currently use while they #stayhome. Even if your website doesn’t operate within any of those verticals, you may still be able to make some progress if you can zero in on what consumers need during this uncertain time. That may or may not be a product or service they can immediately buy -- but if you make a great impression, this can do wonders for your brand visibility even after the coronavirus subsides.

SEO Strategies to Pursue During a Pandemic

So now you know that you shouldn’t stop your digital marketing during COVID-19. But what exactly should you focus on?

For starters, take this time to make sure your website is a well-oiled (and well-optimized) machine. If you’ve put off increasing your site speed, need to overhaul your design, or have fallen behind on posting blogs, now’s the time to work out those kinks. Take the time to optimize your meta descriptions or take a closer look at your target keywords, as well. And if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, change that immediately. More consumers are conducting internet searches on their smartphones and other devices than ever, so you won’t want to miss out on that traffic (or risk a rankings drop).

If you’ve already taken care of those aspects, make sure you add a pop-up or a prominent site banner that notifies customers about what they can expect during the pandemic and the steps you’re taking to protect your employees. This can put consumers’ minds at ease and make all the difference when they’re deciding who to support.

You may also want to explore new ways to deliver valuable content to your audience. Publishing timely blog posts can be an excellent idea, but so can hosting webinars and sharing video content. Since everyone has quickly accustomed to video conferencing, media involving video is more shareable than ever. This can provide a way to entertain audiences, provide valuable information via a different platform, or allow you to share the human element behind your business; either way, you’ll connect with your target demographic in a whole new way. Above all else, you should be creating content that fosters trust and comfort.

You’ll also want to stay active on social media and through email blasts during this time. While you should be careful not to overload newsfeeds or email inboxes, consumers will be readily scrolling and refreshing more than ever. This can be a good way to cross-promote everything you’re doing with your marketing during COVID-19 and promote consistent communication with your customers. Be sure to always lead with empathy and to emphasize compassion. While it’s fine to offer discounts on products and services right now, make sure not to make light of the pandemic or prey on panicked consumers as a way to turn a profit. While some humor can be welcome during this time, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

If your business has a brick-and-mortar location and you’re still operating in some capacity (either remotely or as an essential business), you’ll also want to focus your efforts on local SEO. Many residents in your area may be willing to make a trip to your business if your doors are still open, particularly if you can show you’re taking all necessary precautions to keep them safe. Most of us are keenly aware that small, independently owned businesses will be hurting as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, so consumers are often willing to do what they can to lend their support. It’s a good idea to optimize your website to highlight offerings for contactless delivery or online ordering in your specific area. You’ll also want to update your Google My Business page to ensure it offers accurate information. You can even start publishing GMB posts to promote certain deals or to update customers with necessary info about your operating hours or delivery options. This can allow you to reach consumers more readily and focus on those within your immediate service area.

And while you shouldn’t panic and shut everything down, you should take some security precautions. Because many people are feeling desperate about their own financial situations and may have more time on their hands, it’s likely that websites may be vulnerable to attack. You can’t afford to lose brand trust during this time, so you should make every effort to beef up your site security. You can easily do this by updating plugins (which could otherwise be vulnerable) and switching over to a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate to protect customer data. Not only will this provide consumers with peace of mind, but you could actually improve your rankings, too.

We know business owners will be faced with some difficult decisions in the coming weeks and months. But by leaning into your digital marketing during COVID-19 and being smart about your SEO, you’ll be able to maintain your brand visibility, connect with your customers, and set yourself up for success in the aftermath of the pandemic.

How Has Your Digital Marketing Strategy Changed Since April?

When we first posted our “COVID-19 SEO Strategies” blog, we were only a couple of months into the coronavirus pandemic. Although many businesses are still operating remotely (ours included!), others across the nation have opened back up. Of course, operations will likely look a bit different for the foreseeable future. Not only is COVID-19 still a present threat, but it’s certainly changed the steps we take to develop a digital marketing strategy.

Some experts are referring to this as the “post-COVID” reality. But we’re still in the midst of a pandemic -- and if this health crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we need to become quick studies and roll with the punches.

In the interest of staying adaptable and agile, we need to reflect on where we’ve been this year and where we’re going. There are still many unknowns -- including if and when a second wave will hit -- but we’ve definitely learned (the hard way, in some cases) quite a bit since the spring. Here are a few of the main takeaways that both Semify and some of our partners have implemented over the past few months -- many of which you can continue to use as we navigate the rest of 2020 and into 2021.

Using Paid Ads to Reflect a Shifted Business Model

Before the pandemic, e-commerce websites were uniquely positioned to appeal to consumers looking to place orders for essential (and non-essential) goods online. The sudden need for remote operations made many business owners rethink their formerly successful models in order to adapt.

Those effects seem to be lasting, as COO of Shopify Harley Finkelstein recently explained: “[The coronavirus] is accelerating the catalyst for people to move from wholesale businesses to direct to consumer businesses and move from businesses that traditionally were only brick and mortar to being more of a brick-and-click sort of model.”

Adaptability is essential here. If your business has decided to pivot away from your traditional business structure in order to survive, you certainly aren’t alone. Of course, you’ll need to remember to market those changes accordingly. In many situations, focusing on Pay Per Click advertising can be the best way to drive traffic and increase brand awareness in the event of a business shift. For example, if you’ve decided to embrace a B2C business model in lieu of your former B2B approach, you can adapt your digital marketing strategy accordingly so you’ll increase your chances of reaching the right consumers.

While many businesses abruptly put a hold on PPC campaigns when the pandemic hit, most organizations aren’t as hesitant to start spending money on ads again. Since SEO is meant to be a long-term digital marketing strategy that won’t yield overnight results, supplementing with PPC in order to promote new offerings can be a good way to go.

Highlighting Your Values in Practice

As a business owner, you already know that your company values need to permeate your marketing and all of your operations. But it’s one thing to identify with some buzzwords; it’s another to put those words into action.

At Semify, we believe that growing together creates the freedom to be more. That’s not just a phrase we like to throw around. It’s something we deeply believe and use as a touchstone for all of our interactions -- both with each other (which takes place through a screen, for now) and with our resellers. We’ve dedicated ourselves to helping our partners grow so that we can all enjoy more fulfilling lives.

Admittedly, growth has been hard to come by during the pandemic. But we’ve done everything possible to provide support to our existing resellers -- many of whom struggled to retain business during the pandemic. For example, we created a custom plan for a reseller that focused on affordability in order to help restaurant end clients. We also provided content free of charge to a non-profit organization focused on connecting those in minority communities -- who are most impacted by COVID-19 -- with medical personnel and health resources. In addition, we made the decision to become a sponsor for a United Way golf tournament presented by one of our valued partners. Not only did these acts help our clients, but we hope they also have ripple effects on different communities across the nation. And while not unique to these uncertain times, we offer free proposals, keyword research, and sales call support to our new agency partners to set them up for success.

While you don’t want to brag as part of your digital marketing strategy, keep in mind that post-pandemic consumers are more discerning about who they do business with. In order to build trust, you may need to be more explicit about all of the good work you’re doing behind the scenes. Whether it’s donating money to a worthy cause, partnering with a charitable or social justice organization, or making changes to embrace sustainable practices within your company, you may need to do some show and tell with your marketing.

Another place you need to be explicit is the safety procedures you’re following. Although most of us have some level of pandemic fatigue, consumers are still actively looking for confirmation that businesses are following required guidelines and even going above and beyond to ensure both staff members and customers are safe. Whether that means you’re open in a limited capacity, require customers to wear masks, or need to warn about shipping delays, it’s important that you display this information prominently on your website and that you intermittently remind your audience about what they need to know.

It might not seem like an exciting lead-in as part of a digital marketing strategy -- and nothing says that this should be your only focus -- but it’s important that you continue to keep consumers informed as we head into month seven of the pandemic and beyond. Ultimately, it’s actually about more than providing valuable information. It’s also a good way to express your values as an organization and show customers what you’re all about. That can feel scary at times, especially if you’re worried about a loss of business due to backlash. But if you approach this with empathy and with an emphasis on safety for everyone, you’ll probably end up giving your brand perception a boost.

Updating Your Buyer Personas

Some businesses have made changes to their target audience due to shifting business models. But even if your audience has stayed the same, it’s likely that your former buyer personas have changed a bit. This may be a good time to do some internal branding work to ensure that your buyer personas are updated for a post-pandemic world.

Don’t assume that your buyer personas from a few years ago still apply. Our reality has changed drastically, as has the way we interact with others, shop for goods, and spend our money. It’s likely that your customers’ priorities have evolved -- and that may mean that your previous digital marketing strategy won’t be nearly as effective as before. If things are still relatively slow, seize the chance to review your buyer personas and incorporate what your sales and customer service team members are hearing.

You may find you actually have new buyers who are suddenly interested in what you have to offer. On the other hand, you may discover that the type of buyer you used to be able to count on for the bulk of your business is no longer relevant. But you’ll never know for sure if you don’t take the time to gather and implement feedback. Once you do, you’ll be able to make any necessary changes to your digital marketing strategy to reach your target audience more effectively.

Balancing Automation With Genuine Connection

Automation can be a real gift during a time of economic downturn. It can allow you to cut costs and shift responsibilities, which can be immensely helpful if you’re facing the possibility of layoffs or you’re grappling with other losses.

For example, marketing automation can help you drum up leads (particularly through email). However, you can’t replace personalization with automation. Customers want to know that you care; if they feel like just a number, that can damage your relationship.

Moving forward, you’ll need to balance the desire for automation with the demand to connect. For example, you might want to use a platform that sends out email blasts automatically -- but you’ll want to make sure each segment is personalized to maximize interest and clickability. Using a chatbot on your website can be helpful in certain situations, but using automatic responses on social media can come with negative consequences.

When it comes to customer service, in general, there’s no substitute for genuine connection. Social media and website chat features are an extension of your customer service experience, so don’t sacrifice that aspect for the sake of convenience. There are other areas of your business that can probably benefit from automation -- so be choosy about what you turn to technology for. At a time with so much uncertainty, a human connection goes a long way.

The truth is that none of us knows what the future holds. While we’re optimistic, the reality is that COVID-19 is still a huge threat to both public safety and the economy. But as we get used to this new normal, savvy business owners are figuring out ways to adjust -- not just to survive, but to thrive. And by using what we’ve already learned to inform our digital marketing strategy decisions in these months to come, it’s our aim to grow together.