When COVID-19 hit the United States, shifting from an abstraction on the news to a tangibility in our communities, I saw a mobilization of marketing and advertising professionals being compassionate, reaching out to local businesses. Media associations, agencies, consultants and media companies offered webinars, free consulting and an abundance of advertising packages for local businesses.

Advertising right now is, of course, the right play for small businesses. Although that may be hard to see in a time of crisis.

Research shows this to be true – there is long term value in advertising during a down economy. There is less noise as fewer businesses are advertising. If you are a small business that can remain open in any capacity, and you can afford to advertise now, you should.

I Am a Small Business Owner

I run a digital advertising agency and software company that supports local advertisers, small businesses, and large companies trying to scale locally. For almost 30 years I’ve worked with businesses and media companies to position digital advertising with traditional advertising. I subscribe to this combination.

And just like my counterparts across the country, I am telling my fellow small business owners that what works in a strong economy will work now.

My business is also struggling through these decisions: How do I pay my employees? How many of them can I keep? How long do I wait it out? Where do I dedicate my limited resources? How do I keep my company relevant in this challenging time? What I do know is that I don’t have all the answers. Some of my ideas won’t work, but some will.

I also know it helps to have conversations with other media professionals and other businesses. They help me plan. And with a plan I will get through with more grace, compassion and resolve.

The Value in Conversation

The value in my conversations is not in recommendations on where to advertise, or even that a business should advertise. Nor is the benefit in ideas or strategy. Instead, it is simply the compassionate ear, the willingness to listen, and the opportunity to help business owners generate their own plans.

Time and time again, regardless of the business, I see the same pattern. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: How are you?

Small Business Owner: You know. Doing okay, considering.

Me: Are you able to keep your business open?

Small Business Owner: I don’t know, perhaps. But in a different capacity. I don’t know if it’s worth it. The costs might not make sense.

Me: That’s a tough call. Have you thought in terms of what you want your business to look like in a month, or two months, or even six months…as the economy restarts?

Small Business Owner: No, I haven’t gotten that far. Not much I can do but ride it out.

Me: True, you can’t change the current conditions. But can you offer help to the community, or to other businesses?

Small Business Owner:I could do…(fill in the blank based on business), restaurant owners offer free food, gym owners are doing live online workouts and taking their training on the road, bike shops are offering free tune ups and rides, etc.”

Me: Now, in doing that, can you be a little selfish? Of course you can. And you should do whatever you can to be helpful! But, going forward, you are a business owner. And your business is “essential”, at least to you, your family, your employees, and your community. It, too, deserves a chance to survive and thrive. How do you apply this to positioning your business to grow and prosper going forward?

Me: Can you message the community more broadly? Of course, you are reaching out to your email database and your social media followers. But can you boost a post, or use a targeted email campaign. Or perhaps call the local TV station and suggest sharing or providing content to help them better help the community?

Small Business Owner: “I could try”…

Then they come up with ideas that fit their business. They start reaching out to contacts, and begin to put the ideas into motion.

From Fear to Engagement

It’s really amazing to witness. In this simple five minute conversation, business owners move from fear to engagement; from inaction to action. Will they advertise? I don’t know.

But what I do know is they seem to feel better, like they can make it through these challenging times and they now have the energy to tap into their foresight and ability to do it.

And perhaps most importantly they now give themselves permission to think about themselves and their business. It’s a tribute to these business owners that in the middle of this crisis, where they could lose everything, their focus is on helping others and not on the strategies that will allow them to grow their businesses.

As for me, my work there is done. It’s back to basics for us in the marketing and advertising profession. Lend an ear, engage your local business owners in a conversation, point them in the right direction… and then listen. They will figure it out, and they will forever be grateful for the conversation, compassion and permission to think strategically.

The small business owners I know are doing an amazing job in these challenging times. Stay tuned as I highlight a few of them over the next couple weeks as they navigate themselves, their businesses and their communities to other side.