This is my weekly private letter on marketing and distribution models. When relevant, I'll also share numbers and discussions on Buffer projects to give you an insider look at the daily life at a tech company.
(Private letters are usually for paying subscribers online. But it just feels right to make this one available to all.)
It is hard to discuss many things without mentioning the COVID-19 situation. The pandemic is taking lives and also threatening businesses and livelihoods. Many businesses are affected because of supply chain issues but also distribution problems. The lower foot traffic in many countries has affected many physical stores, which are struggling to even stay afloat now.
What can they do?
JD.com began as a chain of small electronic stores. When SARS broke out in China, its founder Richard Liu was forced to close the stores and the company resorted to selling on chat groups and online forums. In the following year, they launched their e-commerce store, which is now China's second largest online shopping site after Alibaba.
Shopify might be a good e-commerce platform to move to now. Free trials for new signups are extended 90 days, all Shopify users can now offer gift cards, and retailers with its point-of-sales system can offer in-store or sidewalk pickup for online orders. The Shopify team has also prepared several resources to tide businesses over. The House of Watchbands is a watch retailer that has moved to Shopify in the last few days to cope with the fall in sales. Ottobar, a music venue in Baltimore, had to close its venue but set up a Shopify store to sell their merchandise and collect donations.
If you are not sure how to get started, Kelly Vaughn, founder of The Taproom Agency, and several others have offered to help brick-and-mortar businesses get set up on Shopify at no cost so that they can start selling online. Deb of Causeway305 has offered to help single parents with a Shopify store write email marketing content.
Online ordering, curbside pickup
The Ruby Tap closed their bars, and within 12 hours, set up an online ordering system for same-day curbside pickup. They handpick their personal favorites, which customers can purchase for $33 (two bottles), $66 (four bottles), or $99 (six bottles). They received more than 50 orders the next day.
What's amazing is they seemed to have accomplished that without any coding. They used WordPress, a Stripe plugin, a Zapier connection, and Google Sheet.
Online coaching and classes
What happens when you need to shut your gym? The Strength Co. in Southern California lent out all their lifting equipment to their members and have helped set up 20 home gyms so that people can continue to exercise while staying at home. They are also now offering coaching for at-home workouts at $29 per month, which includes daily videos and access to a private Slack group.
Dance classes require participants to be in close contact so Jade Duffy, owner of Body Electric Dance Studios in Australia, decided to stop the classes in their studio. To help their customers stay connected, they are streaming their dance classes online.
I'm sharing this with much hesitation because as Poppy Noor and Danielle Renwick have written, "is it morally acceptable to ask others – normally in less secure jobs with worse pay – to take on a risk that you don’t want to?" Couriers, being out and about, risk being infected. Carissa Véliz, an ethicist, said that it doesn't feel unethical if we are ordering from a family business (or online service, I'd add) that treats their workers with care. On the flip side, these small businesses could go under without any orders, which could be worse for the families and the economy.
With that caveat, I think food businesses should consider temporarily setting up on food delivery services such as Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Postmates to get more orders. These services will take a cut of every order, though it feels more viable than setting up your own system — online ordering and delivery — now. Uber Eats is waiving delivery fees to encourage users to support their local restaurants. DoorDash and Postmates are also taking steps to support their couriers.
(If you are ordering food, consider giving extra tip, opt for contactless deliveries, and thank the courier.)
Does it make sense for all brick-and-mortar businesses to move online? Probably not. And it's definitely much hard during this trying period. But if your product can be sold online or if you provide a service that people would usually research online first, I would think it helps to be online.
Building your online audience
Moving online won't solve most businesses' issues right away. Most physical stores benefit from foot traffic. But unless you have an existing audience online, your new online store won't get any visitors right away. Nobody is following your new social accounts, and no one is on your mailing list.
The pandemic is an extreme way to highlight the importance of having an online audience.
It will be tempting to use ads to attract people to your online store. It is easy to set up Facebook and Instagram ads, you can show your ads to very specific groups of people, and you can measure how good (or bad) your ads have performed. But I wouldn't usually recommend running Facebook and Instagram ads because it is not sustainable. In the current situation, however, it might be worth trying a few ads to reach potential customers right away. The cost of the ads will eat away some of your profits but it'll be better than having no profit.
Simultaneously, if you can afford, you should start investing in organic channels such as search and social, which are more sustainable than paid channels. It will take a long time to see any results from organic channels so you would want to start as soon as possible.
Choosing to build an online presence is making a trade-off because you have to take time out from somewhere else in your business or hire someone who could be doing something else for the business, to work on that. And it is especially challenging in times like now when sales are low.
But businesses that are able to adapt and take advantage of the Internet — either by selling online or having an online audience — will likely come out stronger when this is all over.