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Operating During COVID-19: Helpful Tips for Local Businesses

Operating During COVID-19

Local businesses know better than any other model what it means to fully participate in community life. You are the good neighbors who are there to serve, inspire, and sustain the people and traditions that make your town a unique and enjoyable place to call home.

As we explore this topic of what local businesses can do during the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to honor all that you have always done to take care of your community as a local business owner or marketer. Thank you.

In this article, you will find local SEO tips that could make a difference for your business in the coming weeks, innovative resources for support, advice from my own tight-knit community of some of the world’s best local SEOs, and some serious thinking about building a better local future.

Adhere to all regulations

First and foremost, start each day with a review of both local and national news to be sure you are complying with the evolving regulations for your city, county, and country. Policies designed to mitigate the harm of COVID-19 vary widely from region to region, and your business must keep informed of which forms of service you are allowed to offer in this dynamic scenario.

And, while social media can be a great connector within your community at any time, beware of misinformation and, sadly, scams in the days ahead. Get your news from sources you trust, and if you are not certain about interpreting a guideline, directly contact local authorities. This article does not take the place of laws and regulations specific to your community.

Communicate abundantly

The most helpful thing any local business can do right now, whether it’s deemed an essential or non-essential service, is to provide accurate information to its community. There are three key places to do this:

Google My Business

“More than ever, your Google Business Profile is a critical communication nexus with your customers”.

 

As of writing this, there are four fields you can utilize to communicate current information to customers via GMB, but please be aware that some edits may take several days to go into effect:

Name

Google is allowing businesses to edit their business name field to reflect that they are offering curbside service, takeout, and delivery. For example, if your current name is “John’s Grill”, you are allowed to temporarily change your name to “John’s Grill — Delivery Available”.

Phone number

If regulations are keeping you at home but you still want customers to be able to reach you on your home or cell phone for information, update your work answering machine to reflect the changes and edit your GMB phone number to the appropriate new number.

Hours of operation

The discussion on how best to show that your business either has no hours or limited new hours is ongoing. I believe the best route for the present is to use Google’s method of setting special hours. This option should be especially useful for multi-location enterprises who can set special hours via the API.

Be advised, however, that there are some instances of agencies setting special hours for clients and then clients receiving emails from Google asking if the business has closed. This can alarm those clients. However, to date, it appears that when Google receives responses to this prompt that yes, the business is closed, they simply put a message about this on the listing rather than remove the listing entirely.

On March 25, Google implemented a “temporarily closed” button inside the “Info” tab of the GMB dashboard, I recommend using this button if it applies to your business as Google has confirmed that the “temporarily closed” function should not impact rank.

COVID-19 update posts

Google has newly created a Google posts type that you’ll see as an option in your GMB dashboard. While other post types have been published sporadically, I am seeing examples of the COVID-19 Update posts going live. Try to fit as much information as you can about the changed status of your business into one of these posts.

In addition to the edits you make to your GMB listing, update your most visible local business listings on other platforms to the best of your ability, including on:

  • Bing: A “Temporarily closed” business status is available in the Bing Places dashboard.
  • Yelp: Yelp has introduced a new field called “temporarily closed”. This is meant to be used by businesses which are or will be closed (but not on a permanent basis) due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses need to indicate the “end date” for when this business status will end. Given the uncertainty surrounding timelines, Yelp is allowing users to provide an “estimate” for the end date which they can always update later. Special opening hours can be added on Yelp itself, too. Neither field is available in the API.

Website

Google My Business may be experiencing support issues right now, but thank goodness you still have full control of your website as a home base for conveying important information to the public. Here’s a quick checklist of suggested items to update on your site as soon as you can:

  • Put a site wide banner on all pages of the website with key information such as “temporarily closed”, “drive-up service available 9-5 Monday – Friday” or “storefront closed but we can still ship to you.”
  • Provide the most complete information about how your business has been affected by COVID-19, and detail any services that remain available to customers.
  • Edit location landing pages in bulk or individually to reflect closures, new hours, and new temporary offers.
  • Be sure hours of operation are accurate everywhere they are mentioned on the website, including the homepage, contact page, about page, and landing pages.
  • If your main contact phone number has changed due to the situation, update that number everywhere it exists on the website. Don’t overlook headers, footers, or sidebars as places your contact info may be.
  • If you have a blog, use it to keep the public updated about the availability of products and services.
  • Be sure your website contains highly visible links to any social media platforms you are using to provide updated information.
  • It would be a worthy public service right now to create new content about local resources in your community for all kinds of basic needs.

Social media and email

“Make it clear what you’re doing, such as things like home delivery or curbside pickup. And mention it EVERYWHERE. The companies that are being successful with this are telling people non-stop how they can still support them. Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have supported you via social media in the past and ask them to mention what you’re doing.” 

 

Whether your customers’ social community is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or another platform, there has never been a more vital time to make use of the instant communication these sites provide. It was Fred Rogers who famously said that in times of crisis, we should “look for the helpers.” People will be looking to your brand for help and, also, seeking ways that they can help, too.

If you can make the time to utilize social media to highlight not just your own services, but the services you discover are being provided by other businesses in your city, you will be strengthening your community. Ask your followers and customers to amplify information that can make life safer or better right now.

And, of course, email is one of the best tools presently at your disposal to message your entire base about changed conditions and special offers. My best practice advice for the present is to be sure you’re only communicating what is truly necessary. I’ve seen some examples of brands (which shall remain nameless) exploiting COVID-19 for senseless self-promotion instead of putting customers’ concerns and needs first. Don’t go that route. Be a helper!

Beyond your local business listing, websites, social media platforms, and email, don’t overlook offline media for making further, helpful informational contributions. Call into local radio shows and get in touch with local newspapers if you have facts or offers that can help the public.

Operate as fully as you can

“Find out what support is being made available for you at [the] government level, tap into this as soon as you can — it’s likely there will be a lot of paperwork and many hoops through which you’ll need to jump.” 

 

While the social safety net differs widely from country to country, research any offers of support being made to your business and make use of them to remain as operational as possible for the duration of this pandemic. Here are six adjustments your business should carefully consider to determine whether implementation is possible:

1. Fulfill essentials

If your business meets local, state, or federal regulations that enable it to continue operating because it’s deemed “essential”, here are the ways different business models are adapting to current conditions:

  • Some healthcare appointments can be handled via phone or virtual meetings, and some medical facilities are offering drive-up testing.
  • Drivethrough, delivery, and curbside pickup are enabling some brands to offer takeout meals, groceries, prescriptions, and other necessary goods to customers.
  • Supermarkets and grocery stores without built-in delivery fleets are contracting with third parties for this service.
  • Farms and ranches can offer honor system roadside stands to allow customers to access fresh produce, dairy products, and meats with proper social distancing.
  • Companies that care for vulnerable populations, banking, laundry, and fuel can implement and communicate the extra steps they are taking to adhere to sanitation guidelines for the safety of customers and staff.
  • Brands and organizations that donate goods and services to fulfill essential needs are taking an active role in community support, too.

2. Evaluate e-commerce

If your local business already has an e-commerce component on its website, you’re many steps ahead in being well set up to keep selling via delivery. If you’ve not yet implemented any form of online selling, investigate the following options:

  • If you have a credit card processing machine, the most basic solution is to take orders over the phone and then ship them, allow curbside pickup, or deliver them.
  • If you lack a credit card processing service, Square can work in a pinch.
  • If your site is built on WordPress and you’re quite comfortable with that platform we would recommend the WooCommerce plugin for getting online shopping set up with PayPal as a built-in payment option. It allows easy setup of flat rate or free shipping and local pickup options. WooCommerce automatically sends order confirmation emails to both owner and customer and even supports creation of discount coupons.

3. Connect virtually

In my very large family, one relative has transitioned her yoga studio to online classes, another is offering secure online psychotherapy appointments, and another is instructing his orchestra on the web. While nothing can replace in-person relationships, virtual meetings are the next-best-thing and could keep many business models operating at a significant level, despite the pandemic. Check out these resources:

4. Use downtime for education

If COVID-19 has somewhat or completely paused your business, it’s my strong hope that there will be better days ahead for you. If, like so many people, you find yourself with much more time on your hands than usual, consider using it to come out of this period of crisis with new business knowledge. Please make use of this list of resources, and I want to give special thanks to my friend, Claire Carlile, for contributing several of these suggestions:

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