In March of 2020, 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment–most of them as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic business shutdowns. At its peak, the US unemployment rate for full-time workers during the COVID-19 pandemic reached 14.8% according to Congressional Research Service (CRS). While the pandemic was certainly an outlier in the grand scheme of potential economic disasters, my goal here is to offer some suggestions on what you can do to help your business, your employees, or yourself if you are self employed, stay productive and generate revenue during a future economic downturn or crisis.

First off–you need to know your business. What is it your business does? More importantly, what does it do best? What type of crisis would most impact your business? Can it continue to do what it does best in the midst of a worst-case-scenario economic downturn? If it can’t, what is the next best thing it can continue to do, or what can be changed to enable it to do that thing?

For example, as seen in the restaurant industry during the pandemic: Here in NYS, restaurants were told they couldn’t offer dine-in services (to comply with social distancing). Most switched to offering takeout or curbside pickup, and some even took on delivery. Some opted to sell pre-made products online (since mail services were considered essential and continued operating, this was a very important adaptation to make). What do restaurants do best? They serve food. There are multiple ways to serve food, and most adapted to their new reality of serving food in a way they may not have done before, and which has continued on even after the global health emergency ended.

Nothing you do or sell matters if the general public isn’t aware you’re doing or selling it.

Read that one more time, out loud.

Promotion is more important than anything else, and if you’re stuck in a rut and business is slow during an economic downturn, that is the time to be thinking and planning. Research everything you can about marketing and advertising, and take notes. I can’t stress this enough. If you are depending on your customers to find you, to know about you, and to come to you, you are losing opportunities and you are losing business. Always assume that no one has ever heard of your business. There is always someone who hasn’t heard of you. Word of mouth advertising is one of the most powerful methods of advertising there is, and you just have no idea how many connections that one person (the one who hasn’t heard of you!) actually has.

If you are not using the internet to market & advertise, you are losing opportunities and you are losing business. You absolutely need to leverage the internet, regardless of economic conditions–not just to sell, because it is also important to consider that in the event of a recession or economic downturn, individuals may be having a very hard time getting by. Offer to help them, somehow. Freebies are great, if you can afford it. If you can’t offer a freebie here and there, consider a discount. If you can’t do that, add a little extra personal flair such as a handwritten “Thank you so much for your business!” note. You want your customers and potential customers to remember you–what better way than to support and reassure them during difficult times?

Remember–you have no idea how many connections that one person has, and word of mouth advertising is one of the most powerful methods of advertising there is.

It’s easy, and relatively cheap, to run an ad on Facebook for a week. Google is almost always mailing out credits and promotions for Google Adwords (assuming your business is listed with Google–something you should also ensure happens!) X (Twitter) is a great place to interact instantly with your customers. Live Tweet Q&A sessions, storytelling, or video sharing are all simple to learn and can build your following. The greater your following, the more chances you have to make a sale. If you’re a visual-focused industry, check out Pinterest or Instagram and make sure your images are high quality. Reddit is another potential source of customers, although much more volatile and less predictable (and you should probably lurk around it for a while to learn the ropes before utilizing it). Lastly, make it as easy as possible for your customers to order your products if you’re selling online.

The most important thing to remember with any sort of internet based marketing is that it’s not just selling–it’s interaction and visibility that matter. You want to build your brand and gain an identity–to do that, you need to engage with your customers (like and comment on their posts, photos, etc.), and stay in the forefront of their minds by making sure to appear in front of them at least a few times a day.

Direct Mail Marketing: A Tangible Connection

Direct mail should be a very important piece of your marketing repertoire. Mail delivery services continued to operate throughout the pandemic, and for businesses whose market may be in a more rural area who may not have access to stable internet, direct mail is the next best option. This can be expensive, depending on how many mailers you send out, but making potential customers–especially local ones–aware of your existence and products will likely be worth much more in the end.

Business cards, postcards, fliers, menus, coupons, etc. can all be mailed in one way or another, and pairing direct mail with internet based marketing can lead to increased brand awareness and hopefully increased sales.

In-Person Marketing: Turning Customers into Advocates

When someone makes a purchase from your business, enlist them as a sales partner, of sorts. Create a referral promotion–anyone they send to you nets them some sort of benefit or reward, be it a discount, a free drink, etc. This ties in to word of mouth advertising, but is achieved by initial interactions between business and customer. While you as a business owner may not be able to interact “in-person,” others might, and their recommendations can act for you.

In tough economic times, the aim should not just be to survive, but to surpass competitors.

  • Find out what your competition is doing, and do it better
    • Offer a specific service/product/recipe they don’t
    • Offer more/better discounts or add value to your service/product/recipe
    • Expand your market to include those your competition won’t service or who are under-serviced
  • Stand out
    • Update your branding
    • Do or create something memorable (viral marketing)
    • Utilize direct mail while everyone else is focusing on internet marketing
    • Ensure your website is easy to use and order from
    • Never underestimate the importance of quality photography and videography
    • Leverage the power of live video for networking and sales
    • Create “experiences” instead of just products
  • Incentivize purchases
    • Offer discounts or coupons
    • Deliver products when the customer spends over a certain amount
    • If you are a restaurant, create a more concise menu to encourage impulse purchases through fewer choices
    • Create a referral program that benefits your customers and the customers they refer alike
    • Form an “alliance” with other businesses and leverage your combined skills and/or share resources to attract customers

In the midst of economic trouble, businesses have to be savvy to survive. Cultivate that savviness. Pay close attention to industry trends and adapt swiftly. Remember, the key to thriving during economic downturns is innovation, promotion, and offering value to your customers.

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