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4 Ways the Crisis is Changing Customer Engagement for Online Businesses

Eric Goldschein

Editor and Writer at Fundera
Eric Goldschein is an editor and writer at Fundera, a marketplace for small business financial solutions. He covers entrepreneurship, small business trends, finance, and marketing.

There are few silver linings when it comes to the economic impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on American small businesses. One area of the economy seeing a boom? E-commerce.

In these socially distant times, shopping online has never seemed more attractive. Online retailers’ year-over-year revenue growth is up 68 percent as of mid-April. People are looking to buy just about anything online, from groceries and cleaning products to clothing and books. If you were an online shopper before, you’re probably doubling down now; if you weren’t much into it before the pandemic, you might be changing your tune these days.

Not only are we seeing an increase in online shopping—a trend that likely won’t go away anytime soon, even as brick-and-mortar businesses re-open over the summer—we’re also seeing a change in how customers engage with the entire online shopping process.

Consumers are buying things they never bought before online, trying new brands, responding to marketing efforts differently, and above all, are championing the businesses they love.

If you run an online business, it’s worth noting the following changes in customer behavior—and how those changes can impact your bottom line.


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Customers are more responsive to marketing efforts

According to a survey from Yotpo, online shopping behavior is changing. Most notably, 35 percent of respondents said that they are checking out a variety of marketing messages, including email, SMS and social media advertising.

We’ve long known how effective email marketing is (it is typically cited as the digital marketing strategy with the biggest ROI), but some brands have been wary of moving into SMS marketing, or spending on social media ads.

If there was ever a time to test the efficacy of these marketing efforts, it’s now. Remember, the majority of your sales and revenue will come from your loyal customers. That means turning a new lead into a first-time shopper, or a first-time shopper into a loyal customer, is one of the keys to success.

If you can get your brand in front of new customers for the first time and entice them with discounts, deals and other offers to get them into your sales funnel, it will pay dividends in the long run.

Customers are more interested in trying new brands

Another data point from that Yotpo survey: over 40 percent of respondents said they would turn to less familiar brands as options if the products they want are unavailable.

This presents a unique and exciting opportunity for emerging retailers. Customers will buy from new brands, even if they have a long-time favorite or often shop through behemoths like Amazon and Target.

If you are in a niche seeing immense growth and demand at the moment—such as books, healthcare and wellness products, games, or food and drink delivery—now is the time to make your move and let customers know you have what they want.

Shoppers are spending more time online browsing than ever before, probably because they are spending more time on their computers and phones than usual. But they are also seeking alternatives when the brands they support are unable to meet their needs, for whatever reason.

Circling back to number one, this should be an impetus to invest in or experiment with new kinds of marketing. Put your best foot forward and you may convert a customer previously committed to a competitor.


Related: 5 E-Commerce SEO Best Practices to Boost Store Traffic

Customers are still shopping for at-home needs

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth a closer look: People are not buying as much when it comes to, say, travel accessories, or other products that don’t meet at-home needs right now. Shoppers are looking to buy things that will enhance their lives while staying at home. If your business can cater to that need, take advantage.

A perfect example of this is within the restaurant industry, which has shifted from dine-in to almost all takeout business. In order to supplement that revenue, some restaurants have become makeshift markets as well—selling produce, cooking supplies, alcohol and other pantry staples. While restaurants are beginning to reopen in some states, many are doing so with caution and continuing their suspended hours of operation out of caution.

All e-commerce businesses can take advantage of this shift by offering new products that cater to this moment in time. Marketing your games as “boredom busters,” or creating experiences that can be consumed at home—such as classes or webinars over Zoom—are great ways to catch the attention of consumers that do have discretionary spending power and are looking for ways to use it.

With this in mind, update your messaging, landing and product pages, and even product lines to reflect this shift in needs for consumers right now.

Customers want to help spread the word

There is a deluge of articles online right now telling customers how to support the small businesses they love. Some of those tips include buying gift cards for future use, or making your purchases directly, rather than through a third-party service.

Another line item: encourage your customers to leave positive reviews on sites like Yelp, Facebook and Google.

One of the truisms about online reviews is that it’s much harder to get someone to leave a good review than a bad one. People who have negative experiences love to go online and tell others about it. But that is not always the case when people have good experiences. That mindset has shifted, as the majority of consumers now want to champion the small businesses they love.

Encourage your customers, through banners on your site, on order confirmations through email, and on social media, to leave you positive feedback if they are so inclined. This may be the best time to build up a repository of social proof that your business can mine in marketing efforts going forward.


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The bottom line

Customer behavior has undergone a radical transformation over the past few months. While some of these changes in behavior won’t last forever, businesses looking to survive (and thrive when the economy begins to turn around) should see how they can leverage these shifts to establish their brands, generate sales, and build goodwill.

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