And what business owners should do instead when sales slow down.
My ears perked up the other day when I heard my roommate making fun of people who were hawking new offers online in the wake of this pandemic.
“What’s your problem with self-promotion?” I asked him.
I thought this was a classic case of someone feeling embarrassed by watching another self-promote.
And hell, it’s quarantine, and I was itching for a deep discussion about financial and egoistic hang-ups.
But as the conversation progressed, I realized that my roommate’s instinctual crawling away from #COVID-19 self-promotional posts was not about the act of self-promotion itself…
“When this guy on the internet asks people to buy his thing to support him because he’s struggling right now… I don’t know, I feel guilty. Like he’s expecting me to save him or something,” my roommate admitted after I pressed him.
There it is.
Even though this internet guy’s offer may have been genuinely useful to my roommate, he couldn’t see past the way he “sold” it.
Internet Guy didn’t “sell” his offer by crafting something too good to turn down, or even by persuading his audience to believe that the offer was too good to turn down.
Instead, he attempted to “sell” his offer by saying, frankly, that you should buy it because he needed the money. And shouldn’t you care about his well being?
“Of course we should!” the compassionate part of me shouts. I’ve even spent some money supporting businesses who appealed for sales in a similar way.
But my roommate’s reaction reveals the insidious side effect of the “Please support my small business” ask that tends to arise in times of crisis.
Some people will respond favorably and buy your offer. Others won’t.
But both will internalize the idea that buying from your business is to do your business a favor.
Their purchase, in their minds, was akin to an act of charity.
In other words, the benefit your customers get out of purchasing from you in this way is the same do-gooder feeling they get from donating to a charity.
Importantly, that feeling is the main motivator for buying—not the actual benefit they get from your product or service.
“Is that so bad, though?” you might ask.
I think so.
While this ask might drum up a short-term infusion of cash and might even temporarily energize your community, it hurts your brand deeply in the long-run.
Because it’s the sort of marketing that flips the relationship between your business and your customers on its head.
Normally, your customer is the one with the problem or desire. And your business is the one with the answer, solution, or map for how to get what they want.
But when you appeal to customers to help keep your business running, you invert this relationship, positioning your business as the one with the problem and your customer as the one with the solution.
Worse, your marketing ceases to be about your customer—breaking the golden rule—and becomes about you.
Attempting to switch the relationship back to the way it was after the crisis is over won’t be immediate nor easy, as customers who supported you in that time subconsciously believe they don’t truly need (or even want) your product or service.
After all, they were just doing you a favor.
The feel-good factor of supporting a small business should be the icing on the cake, but not the cake itself
I am aware that many people buy from small businesses year-round instead of buying the cheaper option from Amazon because they prefer to support small businesses. (I am one of these customers myself.)
And I don’t think small businesses should ever ignore this completely.
An about page that reveals a business is family-run, a mission statement that explains why staying small is vital to producing quality products, content that shares the humanity inherent in such a small company, a brief mention in your crisis-time marketing that your brand is small and decent and good, publicly thanking a community that’s risen up around you without you asking….
…These are all powerful ways to tap into people’s desire to support small businesses.
But business owners should always be careful not to position their size (and possible precariousness against deep-pocketed corporate competitors) as their entire value proposition.
Supporting small, local businesses should be the icing on the cake for their customers—perhaps a final nudge that convinces someone to choose handmade vs. made-by-Target.
But it should never be the entire cake.
Even in crisis mode, small businesses should resist the temptation to “just sell the icing” to jumpstart sales.
What to do instead of “asking customers for support”
I’m not advocating for small businesses to quietly shut down in times of crisis if sales are slowing.
No, you can and should appeal to your customers in the midst of crisis—and strengthen your brand at the same time.
Pour your energy into creating an offer that can help people who are suffering from the same sort of emotional panic and financial hardship you are.
Or market an existing product in a whole new way, one that addresses the Big Feelings swirling around right now.
Discount offers not because you need more sales right now, but because you’re trying to lessen the financial burden on your customers.
In short: Don’t let your panic take over your marketing. Keep marketing to your customers as a business, not a charity. You’ll be glad you did, later.
But what if my product or service is not essential?
This is a question that many, many small businesses are wringing their hands over right now.
It comes from a place of fear that no one needs their product when they have bigger (possibly even life and death) things to worry about.
It comes from a place of fear that the business will be seen as callous or out of touch for trying to market a “luxury” item at this point.
These are valid fears (fears I have, too!).
But even in the midst of my anxiety as a person in the world right now, I still want—no, need—to find joy, escape, and connection in my day-to-day.
Products and services that aren’t technically “essentials” but speak to one of these very important desires are needed right now.
Art is needed. Fashion is needed. Books, plants, skincare, vitamins, musical instruments, paints, children’s toys are needed. Design, photography, writing, music, massage, acting, yoga are needed (albeit virtually).
So you must market non-essential products and services in a time of crisis. You just have to change your approach—slightly:
First, acknowledge what’s going on with as much empathy as you can. Then deliver your offer in a way that addresses a real need for joy, escape, and connection.
I’m working on another article collecting examples from brands doing exactly this.
Until then, I’d love to hear from you. What did you think about this article? Send me your thoughts on Instagram @kristawalshcopywriter. You can also join my email list, here.