Recently, a couple of business owners contacted me with the issue of how to sell when they can’t connect live with prospective customers as the COVID-19 crisis continues. One is up against company salespeople lock-out policies after depending on face-to-face sales visits for 40 years. The other offers hands-on education kits that the owner claims have always “just sold themselves” to people visiting the company’s booth at summer fairs and industry conferences.

Like these examples — numerous businesses around the country find themselves up against some version of this problem. Obviously, they must adapt how they market and sell, yet how to do that isn’t necessarily obvious or straight forward.

Moving operations online is a good place to start. That’s where people are buying, which is why researchers at McKinsey and Company call it “the great digital migration” in a recent article on consumer trends.

At the same time, there are businesses getting creative with niche, offline and hybrid options that work for their products and customers.

What research indicates about changing consumer behavior

In just eight weeks, consumers leapt five years in their adoption of digital. Two other figures shared by McKinsey further attest to the magnitude of the great digital migration, not only in the U.S. but abroad. Mobile app ordering went up an average of 250% while 13 million Visa cardholders in Latin America and Caribbean made their first-ever online purchases in the quarter ending in March.

Additional insights from McKinsey show how COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior in significant ways. Basing strategy around these can help businesses better serve consumers as they shift and change their buying priorities.

With continuing pockets of COVID-19 transmission popping up, buyers are taking health and hygiene into serious consideration in their buying habits and choice of where to take their business. Contactless activities, such as curbside pickup and self-checkout, are growing in popularity.

Supporting familiar, local businesses has also become important to many U.S. communities due in part to greater confidence in their quality and safety according to McKinsey’s ongoing ethnographic research. Along with personal health, consumer-sentiment research shows that economic wellbeing is a top-of-mind concern for people in many countries.

“The near-total shutdown of travel and other current lockdown constraints have made local neighborhoods much more important,” write the McKinsey authors. “Many community social-media pages and forums have been created to connect people with local volunteers and mutual-aid groups.”

This points to the benefits of businesses localizing their marketing which could include messages tailored to different neighborhoods and delivered through the newly established community networks like Nextdoor and Facebook groups. In my own town, the go-to Facebook group in our community recently alerted us that at a specific time and day local women would be selling embroidered face masks outside the community center.

On a larger scale, the ed-tech business that usually sells to schools may want to plug into the newly developing learning pods that are developing in communities around the country.

Using online tools to carry out your marketing and sales strategies

Once you have your strategy clear, there’s an impressive number of online vehicles to help you implement it. A blog by Matter Solutions in Australia lists several online options like livestreaming, email, online classes and courses, affiliate marketing and social media along with ideas on how they can be used.

Pinpoint the strengths that have helped convert customers in the past and use those in the virtual arena. The folks at Matter Solutions did just that. They took what people love about their face-to-face WordPress training and turned it into an online course.

Back to my client who'd been in business for 40 years, one trait that set his business apart from his competition was a huge emphasis on quality. In fact, they’d recently invested in a series of videos demonstrating the thorough testing each product undergoes before being delivered to the customer. I suggested getting more leverage from those videos through their social media channels.

The business that usually sells through sales visits could enable a live chat on their website to allow prospective customers to ask initial questions of the sales team before ordering or scheduling a video meeting.

Similarly, with the product that sells itself by being touched, video or livestream is the next best way to give prospectives that visceral connection with the product. If you have any doubt about the power of video, watch young YouTubers transform squishes or make slime. YouTube is only one place to get your videos seen. Previously, I shared the benefits of TikTok.

For both of these clients, I recommended outreach to current and previous customers via email. As Andrew Davis emphasizes in his regular blog the Loyalty Loop, successful businesses gain momentum through the people who already know and love them. These loyal customers can help with referrals especially if you offer incentives, and it takes less to convince them to try a new product or upgrade.

Reaching these people can happen through social media like LinkedIn and Facebook groups. Yet it's worth considering the secret Ann Handley, Wall Street Journal bestselling author and chief content officer of MarketingProfs, revealed, shared in a previous article — email is the only avenue that your recipient, not an algorithm, controls.

If you already use email, it may be time to reassess how you’re using it. In an article for retailers, Kara Holthaus, vice president of client services at SmarterHQ, warns retailers not to resort to blasting their customers with generic messages and deep discounts. Since these contribute to the white noise in their inboxes and could lead to heavy unsubscribes, she says personalization is key right now.

“Target deep discounts and sales to those most likely to buy based on past interest to keep inboxes uncluttered, and incorporate in-email personalized modules to keep blasts highly relevant to a customer’s current activity,” she advises.

Regardless of the marketing strategies and tools you elect now for your business, you’ll need to continually monitor the shifting needs and expectations of your customers and prospects. Adapting your business to this constantly evolving normal means being nimble and bold.