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Thank you, everyone, for taking some time during this surreal period we’re in. I’m confident that non-essential or essential businesses on the call will take something away that can help them take steps forward, if not transform their mindset and ultimately their organization’s upward trajectory.

My name’s Patrick King. I’ve been the founder of Imagine since 2004, so I’ve seen the post-9/11 recovery, the Great Recession, and what we’re in right now feels like a bit of both. Imagine is a branding and marketing agency that does more than ads, logos, and websites. We serve as business growth consultants by helping the client solve challenges that aren’t always solved by marketing.

This webinar is about helping you do more than stay afloat during this crisis. It’s about transformation, and positive transformation starts by harnessing one thing.

Essential Businesses Thrive Through Innovation

Innovation is a very organic thing and can’t often be replicated through a one-size-fits-all process, but I’m going to take you through a marketing exercise that could very well ignite some opportunities for innovative thinking. I won’t just leave it there, though. We’re going to go through some current examples of how other businesses – including a couple of our clients – have adapted to the times and have found a remarkable amount of success as a result. The first step of this journey is to ask ourselves where this industry is headed, and there’s no better place to look than the recent past.

By all indications, a new breed of entrepreneurs is coming, and this crisis is only accelerating their arrival. New industries are usually the result of some sort of problem. In 2008, it was high unemployment that assured the arrival of the gig economy. None of these businesses were around before 2008. In fact, the concept of freelance grocery delivery would’ve seemed a bit absurd. But here we are.

The landscape is always changing, but over the next couple of months, what we’ll find is that it’ll change more quickly and that’s out of necessity. All of these companies found a new way to use technology in ways that had never been used before.

As existing entrepreneurs, many of you have a leg-up on this evolution of the industry. You already have customers. You’ve interacted with them, heard their complaints and criticisms (far more than you’d like, I’m sure), and have a deep understanding of your industry. So, with that, let’s learn to access the insights already at our disposal to learn how essential businesses can evolve.

Who Are You Marketing To?

The first thing we need to do is organize all the information we have into something workable. In many, if not all of our cases, we reach out to different types of customers, members, donors, etc. and they all seem rather unique. But we can classify them into manageable buckets through an exercise called persona development. This is where we assign an identity or “persona” to a similar segment of our overall audience.

For this exercise, we’re going to pretend we’re a restaurant – frankly, because it’s one of the industries hardest hit and therefore one of the biggest challenges to solve. There are many different industries represented on this call, but the fundamentals I’m going to follow will apply to all of you.

First, we give the persona a name that’s unique to this segment. In this case, we’ll call him “Family Man Fred”. He’s 25-34, married, and a young parent with a couple of small kids, and they’re all cooped up together. He can telecommute from home but as anyone in his situation knows, it’s not easy. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on social media – instead, he prefers the quick response of chatbots, SMS, and sometimes email. The reviews of others are more important to them than any form of advertising.

This persona is not a foodie and doesn’t have a lot of time to figure out what’s for dinner. What’s on their mind right now is keeping their job, making sure they’re family’s safe and that their parents are staying home. So, you’re not going to get a lot of headspace from this persona.

By this point, you’re probably wondering how I know so much about this subset of people? Well, there are three ways you can get this level of information…

Putting Research to Work

Many, if not most of you, are using Google Analytics on your websites. I know at least some of you because we set it up and help manage it. Anyone that uses Facebook for their organization has access to Facebook Insights – if you use Hootsuite, even better. Your point-of-sale and email marketing platforms have data that you can use as well. A quick note about Mailchimp: If you’ve never used Mailchimp, or have only used their free plan, we’re offering four free months of their standard plan to anyone that wants to sign up. Imagine is a Mailchimp partner and you can get it through one of their partners.

With the following tools – some like Spothopper and Square are optional – you can get the data you need to pull together some impressive personas. Let’s go back to Family Man Fred and see where you can get this information, and how it all comes together.

The data in the orange blocks can all be pulled from reading your Google Analytics. By the way, I say this in every webinar I mention Google Analytics – if you don’t have it set up, let me know. We’ll gladly get you up and running for free. It’s free software and no website should be without it.

The data in the green blocks can be gathered in a number of ways. You can review your email marketing campaigns to see which subject lines got the most opens, which links had the most click-throughs, etc. or if you’ve done periodic surveys, these can be insights gleaned that way. You can also check your social media accounts to see which posts received the most engagement. The survey option is more direct, but all options are reliable enough for this exercise. It can be a challenge for non-essential or essential businesses to get this information due to distance, but proper digital outreach can get you there.

Building Your Marketing Personas

When building your personas, there are a lot of factors you can include but only three that are critical. Of course, the more data you can get, the better but those you must get those three.

The persona structure I used here is available to everyone for free – it’s provided by HubSpot. Simply visit this URL to begin building yours. I believe they give you up to three. Do this same exercise with the top three audience segments you have and, not only will this improve your marketing, you’ll uncover needs and the ability to address them in new ways.

If this seems a bit too complex, there’s another way to uncover customer needs in unique ways to address them and it’s called empathy mapping.

Empathy Mapping

If you’ve done a SWOT analysis, then empathy mapping is going to be very familiar. What you’re doing is filling out the first two columns based on social media engagement, in-person conversations, surveys, etc. Then you complete the third column with their biggest frustrations (pains) and what matters most to them (gains).

A completed empathy map for Family Man Fred looks like this. You’ll see that it’s very simple and incorporates some common sense about what they would want as a customer. This persona isn’t necessarily fictional – we didn’t create it just for this webinar. It’s one of four personas we created for a client and we’re in the process of adapting their business to what we found out.

Now you may be wondering how you – or your communities – can sell anything if hardly anyone is working outside of their homes. While it’s true that a lot of businesses have reduced capabilities, there are a number of industries that are still alive and kicking. Each of these businesses has employees – some are working harder than you may think. In the DC area, construction is still moving right along (taking appropriate precautions, of course). Realtors are still allowed to conduct business as long as they don’t hold open houses.

So, customers are still out there and while you probably can’t serve them as you could a few weeks ago, there is still opportunity. In order to see this in action, I’ve gathered a few case studies of what we’re working on the moment with some various clients.

Essential Business Thriving During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Cuban Gypsy Pantry

The first is Cuban Gypsy Pantry, a small chain of restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. We had just completed the grand opening of their new location in North Charleston in February, so we had to rely on insights from other sources to complete the persona exercise. We also couldn’t make this location-specific – that would be too complicated and there would be too many factors to consider. Instead, we developed one plan company-wide…

Cuban Gypsy Pantry’s food is amazing. If you go on to Yelp, Google, or TripAdvisor, you’ll see that people rave about it. But their model of family-style dinners made traditional delivery complicated, so we’re doing bulk meals that can feed families for a couple of days instead of just one meal.

Since no other restaurants in that area are doing the bulk model and the Pantry’s food is so unique, there really isn’t much competition so no need to lower margins. The wait staff is staying on in fulfillment/delivery roles, and the packaging allows for food to be frozen, stored, and reheated separately for each meal.

This social media post was from Monday and within 24 hours, it had reached almost 10,000 people and the Pantry’s Facebook page, website and phone are going non-stop with orders.

Sinistral Brewing Company

For the next case study, let’s go with someone local. Sinistral is, as you’d expect, one of our fun clients. The people are fun, the place is fun, so the work is fun. This case study didn’t need any research – beer lovers love beer and Sinistral has a very devoted following.

Instead, we developed an e-commerce platform on their WordPress website in about four days that would accept online ordering. The brewery has now become a production facility, and the whole staff is still working, canning beers for pickup. The tips that staff would make is not included in the price of the beer – which is still cheaper than many other breweries. There are platforms for DIY e-commerce like Shopify or Etsy that’ll allow you to take your brick and mortar online in a matter of days if not hours. For more unique cases, send me an email, and let’s put a plan together.

I’ve also heard other stories about restaurants placing little gifts inside their customers’ take-out orders. If it’s a meal for two, they’ll put a rose or some candles in the bag. In the case of breweries, a sticker or low-cost piece of merch. Those little touches are very shareable on social media.

A Shift for Essential Businesses

Some businesses that can stay open are also looking for new and more innovative offerings. Some photographers are finding new ways to work within our social distancing guidelines and are offering outdoor photos shoots. One particular photographer is offering porch photos. This adheres to everything we’re supposed to do. Families stay home, the photographer keeps their distance and the rest is handled online.

Hotels and similar venues are temporarily changing their models. Hilton is offering one million rooms for healthcare workers so that they don’t risk coming home and infecting their families.

So now to your essential business. By either using technology, repurposing your space, finding a new audience or simply finding a new way to work within our new normal, how can your business evolve and adapt?

Essential Businesses Can Learn from Their Examples

How can you take the restrictions we have today, and the opportunities we still have, and find a path between them? I’d like to wrap up with a few pieces of advice I’ve received over the years about innovation and how to nurture it.

  1. Don’t wait for your idea to be perfect. When you’ve gotten to the point where the time feels right, you’re too late because someone who got to work and experimented along the way has probably beat you to it.
  2. Keep the team of people building your idea small. Design by committee is paralyzing, you’ll end up with more opinions than you need and the whole exercise will revolve around consensus.
  3. Fight the fear. The amount of anxiety and stress during these times is crippling but in order to innovate, you need to make changes that are uncomfortable in order to adapt. You may even want to look at what you’re afraid of and ask yourself if it’s fear or ego holding you back. It makes things easier if you realize it’s ego – then there’s really nothing to be afraid of.
  4. Persist. Don’t stop marketing, don’t stop having conversations with your customers, clients, vendors, members, donors and partners. The businesses that survive this will be the ones that saw the challenge and instead of slowing down, they hit the gas.
  5. Break a rule or two. To achieve radical innovation, you have to challenge all the assumptions that govern how things should look in your environment. Business is not like a sport with well-defined rules and referees. It is more like art, calling for improvisation and intuition. Besides, the rules are always changing. As long as you stay within the confines of the law and morality, you can write your own rules.

To sum up, every small business is an essential business. They all have families that rely on them, communities that need them, and they deserve a future. Let’s work toward ensuring that their future is secure.


Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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