Jessica Wells Russell

Right now, we as a global community are facing a pandemic the likes of which many of us have never seen before. These are extraordinary circumstances, not only for individuals and their families, but businesses and their brand reputation as well.

The spotlight is on social, and target audiences across the globe are spending more time on these platforms than ever before. Much of this is a result of shelter-in-place orders, or the shift from on-site office presence to remote, work-from-home situations.

As more consumers and other business stakeholders more frequently scroll through social, there’s little room for missteps. And there are numerous mistakes brands could potentially make with their social presence during this time. Many marketing teams are asking themselves which is worse – appearing inauthentic and opportunistic, or going dark altogether?

Before you cease all social posting, interaction and engagement, there are a few things your brand needs to know about social in the time of the novel coronavirus. First and foremost: You can continue to support your target audience with meaningful content that helps to propel the image of your brand.

Consumers cared before – but the heat is on high now

The good news is that COVID-19 represents an opportunity to further craft and hone your brand’s core values, and figure out ways to demonstrate these to your target audience, and beyond. Consumers were already looking to brands to showcase their values and beliefs, but now is the time for these elements to shine.

Accenture found in a 2018 study that brands that did demonstrate meaningful, authentic and thoughtful core brand values were more successful than those that didn’t. Of the massive group of 30,000 consumer survey participants, 62% said they appreciate when brands take a stand on relevant issues, and the same percentage agreed that their purchasing decisions could be influenced by a brand’s ethical values and level of authenticity.

In light of the recent public health emergency, consumers aren’t just looking to brands for their stand on traditional social, environmental, political and other issues – consumers are also judging brands on their response to COVID-19. This includes how they might be contributing to the cause through support or donations, and how they’re accommodating their employees.

In this environment, social provides a direct channel to consumer audiences and enables brands to show their response, provide meaningful content and continue to engage with their followers.

Brands can take this opportunity to adjust their social strategy, and provide social content that will help their brand image, but also help their audience get through this trying, unusual and sometimes frightening time.

Best practices for social posts

There are a few guiding elements that we’re suggesting brands apply to their social media strategies, now and moving forward as we all deal with the COVID-19 outbreak:

First things first: Don’t go dark

We’re in uncharted territory here, folks, and no one is completely sure of the right answer or the best move to make. This includes even the savviest social media experts.

That being said, and while it may be tempting to do so, it’s important not to go dark on social during this time.

About two-thirds of the American public was already turning to social media as a leading source of news, and we’d bet good money that has increased during the new stay-at-home normal. This means that the follower group your brand has already built will be looking to social, not only for news about what’s going on amid the coronavirus outbreak, but also what brands are doing in response.

What’s more, chances are good that your top competitors won’t go dark. It’ll look suspicious and inauthentic if, during such an extraordinary time, your brand has nothing at all to add to the conversations on social.

So, put the prospect of going dark out of your mind. (Unless, of course, social media activity will make your brand look opportunistic, but more on that a bit later.)

Practice social listening

During this time, things are changing incredibly quickly, and these shifts will continue as the outbreak progresses. Elements that may have resonated with your target audience in the past may not hit the same in light of the outbreak.

So, before you charge forward with some new brand messaging that helps support your core values, listen to what’s being discussed on top social channels. This includes listening to the larger discussion happening around COVID-19, as well as what users are saying about your brand in particular.

Some trending keywords to monitor here include:

  • #coronavirus
  • #covid19
  • #covid_19
  • #washyourhands
  • #stopthespread
  • #flattenthecurve
  • #stayathome

Rethink upcoming or preplanned posts

Almost everyone’s plans have changed in recent months, and we can almost assure you that one or more of your brand’s upcoming social posts will need some tweaks. It’s important to demonstrate empathy during this time, and to lead this charge with thoughtful social content that doesn’t include triggers, or may come across as insensitive.

Look over your upcoming or recent posts, and adjust or delete posts that include:

  • Any reference to canceled events. While your timely March Madness post may have been perfectly crafted, it’s no longer relevant, and it’s best to put this away in a folder somewhere for next year. Same goes for any posts that mention a conference or event that’s been postponed or canceled – if it isn’t happening, don’t post about it.
  • Images of people touching or working in traditional settings. Stock photos of individuals hugging, shaking hands, or even simply in near proximity to one another are a no-go right now. The same is true of images of people working at office desks, or other traditional working environments. Posting these will make your brand appear tone-deaf, and your followers are sure to call you out on it. What’s more, a photo of someone in an office could also be taken as a reflection of how the brand is treating its own employees – in other words, don’t make it appear as if your company is not following social distances orders in its own “house.”
  • Posts for upcoming holidays. While many brands usually have a field day with creative seasonal and viral content, it’s probably best to hold off on these kinds of posts this year. Similarly, if you had content or visuals planned referencing Easter gatherings, you may want to put them on the back burner as well.

However, some brands have provided us with stellar examples of relevant, thoughtful and even uplifting posts that bend these rules a bit.

Take Guinness, for example, which faced an incredible challenge of posting on social around St. Patrick’s Day. The brand created a flawless video, coupled with hashtags that made its followers feel connected and unified, even if they couldn’t do so physically.

Engage with your followers and show appreciation

Keep in mind that many of your followers are dealing with the so-called “new normal” of social distancing and working from home. Many are feeling a bit isolated, and look to social as a way to reach out to one another, and not feel so alone. If ever there was a time to encourage engagement on social, it’s now.

In this spirit, it’s important to continue to engage with your followers, and demonstrate your appreciation for your customers. Establish your message protocol, continue to respond to incoming comments and save those responses so your social team can use these for future engagement. Consider putting together FAQs for your internal social team, so everyone stays on-message and maintains protocol.

Another helpful engagement strategy is using interactive content that aligns with your brand image.

Check out this example from Reebok. The post not only helps engage the brand’s followers, but is on point for its image and provides something highly valuable for users:

Or, take a page from the Getty Museum’s playbook, and put out the call for user-generated content. People have a lot of time on their hands these days – what better way to put it to use?

This fun challenge has already garnered tons of hilarious and amazing user responses. Even for users who don’t participate themselves, it’s hard to scroll past content gold like that.

Other brands like Chipotle are engaging followers through live video:

Little details, like naming the Zoom meeting “Chipotle Together” take this example over the top.

Even businesses that have felt the impact of stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders are crafting social posts to help their followers. For instance, despite having to close gyms in many states across the country, fitness studio Orange Theory is helping its members remain active at home.

Before posting, ask yourself these questions

Above all, it’s important that any and all content you put forth on social helps your brand demonstrate empathy, and that it supports an authentic and transparent brand image.

In this spirit, as you’re crafting your upcoming social content and before you hit the “post” button ask yourself:

  • Does this post include references or images that go against any current public health guidelines? Like we talked about earlier, this is the opportunity to nix images of large groups, remove references to canceled events, and replace or postpone this content. KFC provides a good example here – despite using its famous “Finger Lickin’ Good” tagline for over half a century, the brand decided to pause this branding for now.
  • Is the tone of the post appropriate? Even brands and celebrities known for their humor aren’t making jokes these days. Read the room, so to speak (ahem ~*social listening!*~ ahem) and leave the meme-making and sharing to the people. While many are seeking out levity these days, make sure that content doesn’t make light of what is ultimately an incredibly serious situation for people across the globe.

  • Does it come off as opportunistic? Here’s the thing – we all know that certain brands are making a killing in this environment, and not just those deemed “essential.” Clorox, for example, has pulled social advertisements, as well as ads on Amazon, and hasn’t posted to its Facebook page since the end of February. While we don’t recommend going completely dark, it’s also important that your brand not appear opportunistic, or look like it’s taking advantage of the situation.
  • Will this content create a panic? People want to remain informed, but it’s imperative not to sensationalize, and we’re going to leave it at that.
  • Does it offer value? This is a question you should look to answer for any social post, but it’s especially pertinent now. You want to remain relevant and continue engaging your followers, but don’t post just for the sake of posting – make sure your social content provides something of value for your audience.
Source: Ogilvy.

It’s a difficult time for us all, and it’s hard to know what the optimal move is right now. However, it’s best that you continue to post on social, but pivot this content so it takes into account the “new normal.” We’re all in this together, and we’ll all get through it together.