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Marketing Expert: Engaging Your Customers in a Time of Social Distancing

Published Mar 20, 2020 by Maggie Martin

Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order on March 19 prohibiting any social gathering of more than 10 people. It's the latest move in a broader effort by federal and local governments to encourage social distancing. According to guidelines from John Hopkins Medicine, that means staying at least six feet away from other people to lessen the chance of catching or spreading COVID-19. (See other public health resources here).

The policy poses a particular challenge for businesses, especially those that rely on face-to-face interaction with their customers. 

For best practices on how businesses can engage their customers from a distance, Aimee Woodall provides insight below. She's the president and founder of The Black Sheep Agency, a marketing, brand strategy and design agency.

What sectors or types of businesses are impacted most by limited contact with customers?

Everyone. In ways they never imagined. If it's not hitting now, it will hit in the next few months. This is not going away. We're thinking positively, but we have to be realistic. Marketing will never look the same. Things we have long assumed about customers are rapidly changing. 

Service industries have immediately been put to a halt. One of the most talked-about is the hospitality industry, but there are less visible professions, like massage therapists, specialty doctors (dermatologists, acupuncturists, physical therapists), personal trainers, nail technicians, hairstylists, event planners and producers—anyone who plays a role in gatherings, large or small, is having to rethink how they do business (and fast).

I’m missing thousands of professions here because human connection fuels every business segment. Even in the most automated of businesses, they are still people, full of ideas and emotion, behind the machines. Now we have to figure out how we can create, operationalize, recover and reinvent in this unknown and incredibly isolated territory. But first, we have to survive until we know where it’s all headed.

What are the greatest challenges? And are there even some opportunities?

Events are being canceled or postponed, but no one really knows how long social distancing will need to last, so their revenue is unreliable and hard to predict timing. Most people in this industry are shifting their thinking to digital production and gatherings, which will become a necessity as the world sorts out how to move forward, and human connection becomes a desperate need. When the world recovers from this pandemic, we will be powerfully connected in new ways and, ultimately, businesses will run more efficiently because of it. 

On top of potential new efficiencies, great leaders are born in times like these. There are so many opportunities for businesses of all sizes and offerings to stand firm in their conviction and rise up in how they support and are viewed by the community. How?

Place people over profit. Your shareholders hold high expectations around your organization’s output and performance, but this is the time that your employees, families and partners will remember the way that you performed for them. Look internally for meaningful ways that you can provide the kind of support that your teams need to feel the security and opportunities. Survey your team, speak up and down the chain of command to hear what they hear on the ground and actively seek feedback on the programs that you launch so that you can pivot and improve.

Fully realize your company's vision and values. Those powerful things you say on your website and business cards? This is what those words were written for—those guiding principles and visionary ideas that help you navigate when the path is dark and uncertain. Bring these important ideas back to the forefront of your team’s mind as you live them out loud and empower others to do the same. And, if those words are stale or do not serve you any longer, you know a critical activity that needs to happen when your organization is in a place to revisit who you are and what you dream of as an organization.     

How can those businesses keep their customers engaged from a distance?

Mental and emotional bandwidths are increasingly limited in times of uncertainty. Your goal should not be to continue your regularly scheduled programming but to reflect on the nuanced shifts in your business environment that are impacting the humans that build your client and community ecosystem. Sometimes this means amplifying others in lieu of self-interested promotion. Sometimes this means creative and unexpected partnerships that bring an entirely new success metric within your organization.

‘Nothing will ever be the same’ is a phrase we’re all hearing and repeating at the moment. Find a path through that feeling of confusion and hopelessness by closely monitoring what content, services and products are viable and tapping into your internal brain trust to deftly maneuver out of what’s stale or currently inappropriate and what should be escalated into reality. 

We shouldn't be thinking of engaging customers in a traditional sense anymore. We have to think in quick phases:

  • Phase 1: Are my employees okay and taken care of? What can I do to ensure that?
  • Phase 2: How can we be inventive with revenue streams? What needs to move digitally right now and how can we act, test, learn and apply to be the best at it?
  • Phase 3: New business. What's the most valuable win that will get us through the next 4-6 months? What's our back-up plan?  The thing is, these phases aren't over the course of months. They are choices we are making every minute in these next few days.

What are the potential takeaways of implementing those practices for the long-term?

People will have an extreme impatience for marketing or organizational choices that feel selfish. Selling like our stereotypical image of a car salesman is completely out (it was already passé, but now it will enrage people). We will have to shift to asking for what people need most, not what they want. What are the necessities? What can we do together to get to a new stage where we have the resources we need to feel good about things again? I hope, much like after the disasters we’re regrettably more accustomed to, we’ll bond together, support each other and show the rest of the world how Houston handles the toughest of times.

The Partnership has put together a list of items companies should consider when preparing for and dealing with the impact of the coronavirus. 

The Partnership's Houston Coronavirus Resources guide provides information around the virus to businesses and individuals in our region. We will continue to update this page as new information becomes available.

Read our latest issue of Economy at a Glance. It looks at what we know about the COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact on Houston as well as the plunge in oil prices.

Related News


Houston Economy to Face Major Job Losses, Recession from Coronavirus and Oil Plunge

Houston is likely to see significant job losses and a prolonged drain on its economy from the COVID-19 coronavirus.   That was one of the major takeaways from a virtual presentation by Patrick Jankowski, Partnership Senior Vice President of Research, on March 31. Jankowski discussed his latest analysis of COVID-19, collapsing oil prices, the imminent U.S. recession, and their impact on Houston’s economy.  Jankowski stressed that because of the unprecedented and ongoing nature of the situation, predicting the economic impact is difficult at this time. “With the situation changing daily, we can’t really get a good read on what’s actually going on yet,” he said.  Jankowski referenced the next Bureau of Labor Statistics’ jobs report, which will be based on the number of employees on payroll during the second week of March and won’t include the waves of layoffs that happened during the third and fourth weeks of March. It won’t be until the April report is released in early May when we will see the real impact on the job market. Pandemic will determine recession’s length and severity  “We are coming off a period of 113 consecutive months of job growth, the longest expansion in US history and a phenomenal jobs report,” Jankowski said. “Last week we saw 3.3 million claims for unemployment benefits, and I believe that number will only rise as more people are laid off, the system becomes less overloaded and people figure out how to apply for benefits.”  Given the single week of job losses based on the initial claims for unemployment insurance in Texas and Houston’s share of Texas’ jobs, Jankowski estimates mid-March losses in the region will be around 37,945 jobs.  Jankowski noted that measures to combat the coronavirus are also combating the economy. He referenced the U.S. GDP forecasts from major financial institutions that estimate a decline in GDP for the first quarter of the year that continues through the rest of the year.   “From my perspective - yes, we are in a recession and the situation will worsen in Q2,” Jankowski said. “We hope to have some growth in Q3, but we will end of the year worse off than at the beginning.”  Add that to the drop in oil prices and the Texas Railroad Commission being asked to regulate crude oil production for this first time since the 1970s, Jankowski believes the crude collapse will only add to Houston’s misery.  Small businesses and other industries hurt the worst  Jankowski mentioned the Partnership’s survey of its small business members and found that 29% were unable to deliver goods or services, 59% are operating below half capacity and the most concerning, that 41% can survive only 1 to 4 weeks.  He also highlighted industry sectors that are most at risk during this initial period and the 777,000 jobs tied to those sectors. The sectors include those impacted by social distancing (like retail), those whose services can’t be delivered remotely (such as plumbers and other home services), those that aren’t considered essential (such as the arts), and most small businesses (that tend to operate on thin margins).   “If this virus continues after May, every job is at risk, every sector is at risk,” Jankowski stressed.  “And even if you are working from home and able to provide services to some degree, you may be affected. We will see additional layoffs to what we’ve already experienced.”  Houston predicted to lose at least 150,000 jobs  There are two ways to predict how Houston will fare – looking at models based on assumption or based on history.   The Institute for Regional Forecasting shows 18 different scenarios of how the virus and oil prices will play out, with the most likely scenario from their prediction showing Houston down by 44,000 jobs. On the other hand, The Perryman Group’s model is forecasting 256,000 jobs lost.   “These are two very different forecasts and you’re really seeing that uncertainty play out in these models,” Jankowski said.   By referencing the history of recessions Houston has experienced, Jankowski estimates Houston’s jobs loss will hover between 150,000 jobs and 350,000 jobs.   “Given how Houston fairs when oil is faring badly and then when the US economy not doing well, we are likely to look like between 2008-09 recession and oil bust we had in the 1980s,” Jankowski said.   With a job loss of 13.2% from 1982, that amounts to about 417,450 jobs today. Using the Great Recession benchmark of 4.5%, that loss is closer to 142,325 jobs.  Collapsing oil prices on par with 1982 energy bust  With the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia spilling onto the world stage and affecting the price of crude, Houston has already felt the effects.   On March 30 of this year, the price of oil closed at $21.07 a barrel. During that same month in 1982, the price was $10.25 but adjusted for inflation, it closed at $24.37 a barrel.   “We can expect crude to slowly climb back into the low $30s by mid-summer without a Russia-Saudi deal,” Jankowski said. “We’ll see any jobs we regained from the 2014 fracking bust disappear and a leaner, smaller industry in the next two years with more consolidations and bankruptcies taking place.”  Houston in one word – resilient  One of the biggest determining factors in an economic rebound will be the level of fear people still have around the virus, Jankowski said. Even on the downward slope people will practice at least a degree of social distancing. He reiterated the damaging shock to consumer confidence the virus has caused.   “The economy really won’t be able to recover until people feel comfortable spending again. However, if there’s one word I would use to describe Houston, it would be resilient,” Jankowski said. “We've been through five downturns since the 1980s and yet the economy is larger now and more diverse than ever before.” 
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