How do you market during a pandemic with integrity? Paul talks to small agency owner, Sarah Williams, on how some big companies miss the mark communicating during a crisis, and how small businesses are critical to the community.
Episode 7: Sarah from 816 New York
Paul: Hey there friend, I’m Paul Jarvis, and you’re listening to Call Paul, business as unusual, where we explore how business owners are working their way through their first pandemic.
Sarah: Create your own small reality where things are still safe and smart and forward moving. Do not fall into the trap of we’re stuck here, right. We’re just going to be stuck here until they let us out. And then that all that does is create this horrible feeling.That there are ways that you can keep moving through this and be creative and create positivity, even as a business.
Paul: That’s Sarah Williams, founder of 816 New York, a strategy and creative agency who helps small businesses and nonprofits find their voice and get their message out into the world. A lot of them struggle with their feelings about marketing, and Sarah helps them with that, in a way that doesn’t sound forced or harsh or disingenuous. One of Sarah’s customers is Red Lentil Restaurant in Boston, which had already gone through another crisis with the Boston Marathon bombing. When the quarantine went into effect, they wanted to stay open to serve their community. That meant pivoting quickly to promote their takeout and delivery—involving promotion through Instagram stories, rewarding customer loyalty and connecting with other, bigger movements. They basically had permission to throw the kitchen sink at their marketing… and Sarah’s strategy has helped them to remain open.
Sarah: I worked with this guy for 10 years. And we know each other really well he's a dear friend by now. And so I said, "Okay, give me two hours." And I started to put together some plans, what could we do? What kinds of promotions could we roll out? Again, he's been really active in the community, so he already had a good framework. He's popular, the restaurant's popular. So it's just a matter of building on the reputation. If you're trying to do this right now, build a reputation right now, then it's not going to work. You have to be working on this all the time, so that when something like this happens.But nothing has been as effective as just showing love back to the audience. Showing love back to the loyal customers who are still coming in, week after week and picking up their food and who still showed love on their Instagram accounts and Facebook. And this guy who had 144,000 Instagram followers, and he said, "Hey, can we do a contest for you guys totally free, we'll just feature one of your dishes, and we'll give out gift cards." It cost the restaurant like $200 in gift cards. We did that and picked up a huge number of orders. He called me a couple weeks ago, And he said, "All my staff are still working. All my bills are paid." It was hugely emotional and I'm getting teared up just thinking about it. He didn't have any words. I don't even have any words to describe so much for a communications person. It was this beautiful moment and he was, "We are slammed with orders and my staff is happy. Everybody is working really hard." That made it all worth it. All the hours and the creative flurry.
Paul: Nice. So then what does a typical day for you look like with work? What are the things or the tasks that you do on a daily or semi-ish daily basis?
Sarah: Right now it's a lot of COVID stuff. And a lot of the new projects that are coming in are COVID related, which is really interesting because it's forcing people to bring things to my desk that I haven't even thought about or to apply my skills, to helping them to survive this crisis. But, yesterday, for instance, I did present homepage concepts for a nonprofit web design that I'm building, we're doing a membership based site. Then after that it was coding up a HTML email, doing browser and device testing for that. And then having a consultation with a possible new client who is having to move what would be an in person event in Chicago that was an annual thing to a virtual environment. And they need help with branding that and launching it and advertising, how you market something they're completely unfamiliar with, like virtual events.
Paul: What's it been like in the client services world for you since this started?
Sarah: Well, I hesitate to say this, because I actually feel guilty about it, but my business has been tremendous since the start. All of a sudden, everybody has either one or two options, right, they can either go into fear mode and fold up, or they can start expressing opinions, expressing who they are, communicating even more strongly. I made it a little bit of a push to my clients to say, "Don't give up. This is what I'm here for. I'm not just a social media person or an email marketing person. It's like on your board. And so now more than ever, you need to feel loyalty, show people that you're still in business, give people a feeling of normalcy and regularity and all of those things that they are missing because everything feels completely out of control." And because the messaging from the top is so confusing, and fear based. I think we're serving a really critical role for the people who identify, again, that marketing which was the one of the worst reputations, as an industry as well, it should. There's a lot of shady people out there doing bad things. It's been really inspiring to see all these little tiny businesses really, I don't know, jump into this. I think that it's something that the media and that... what you're doing right now is really important because I don't think that people are really paying attention to how hard small businesses like mine and all my clients are working to stay alive. I think that they're really inspiring stories, and they're really... it's totally different than the chaos and carnage that you get when you open Twitter.
Paul: What are I guess the fears and anxieties that the types of people that you work with tended to have around marketing before the last few months, just in quote unquote normal circumstances whatever that actually was.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, 90% of my business is referral, I’m fortunate that way. But the people that are referred to me are usually referred because they've had a conversation with somebody, and they've been working with an organization, a marketing team, whatever they're calling themselves a social media manager, who seems to be giving them all the numbers and the reports and all these things that made it feel like they were working, made it feel like the budget that they had for the service was worth it. But then they weren't generating any sales. But it's really important to me that I give a substantial understanding to the client of what we're doing. And that they understand that if something's not working, if they're not seeing the results from a business standpoint, then I'm not doing my job. And then I need to pivot so that I'm doing a better job. There's a lot of marketing agency who just don't care. It's about volume and about monthly revenue. And it's a really hard problem to scale for a company like mine that tries to be more reputation based and less about vanity metrics. So, yeah, I think it was mostly like, they just didn't trust marketers. And they had good reason to, because like I said, there's a lot of people doing shady things out there and charging a lot of money for that. I spend the first three or four sessions with a new client just getting to know each other personally, what's going on in your life professionally? And where do you want the business to be? Let's talk about business goals, not just how many social media posts do you want to put out this month? I think it's mostly about correcting the errors of my predecessors when I take on a new client.
Paul: So how do you get people who may have, I guess, a distaste about how they think marketing is supposed to work. How do you make it then fun and interesting for them? How do you get them to love marketing again, or love marketing for the first time?
Sarah: Oh, no, that would create a whole bunch of delusion, right? No one can really love marketing. We don't even try to get to that point, I use a good amount of humor with my clients, and that's sarcastic, whatever. I'm very frank with them and say things like, "I don't expect you to care about this, don't worry, I'm caring about it, but this is where we're headed." And just try to keep it on a level where I just keep them engaged. Because most of the time, especially I work with a lot of engineers and guys in clean energy and those kinds of things. They don't want to hear about marketing, it's the last thing that they will ever want to hear about. All they want to know is that I'm doing a job and it's showing a result. Frankly, that's all they should care about. I'm speaking to them on a level where they don't feel inadequate, where they don't feel like they have to learn about marketing. They don't, just like I don't have to learn how to be an engineer in order to represent them in a marketing standpoint. If everybody respects each other roles, then I think there can be really interesting symbiosis there. And then it's just about being delightful humans.
Paul: What's that landscape looking like right now in terms of how marketing has changed based on people dealing with what's going on in the world? Or has it I guess?
Sarah: I think some industries are having to be obviously incredibly creative and flexible, and take risks and face the crisis head on, like retailers and restaurants and those kinds of businesses. Whereas, if you move into the industrial sector, for the most part depending they don't seem to be all that affected by it. It's just a matter of messaging out, we're still working if they're doing something in the community, showing that they have a heart through this, that they're not completely checked out from it. If the business is staying open or trying to operate on any level and it's with a storefront then it really is all hands on deck. I enjoy that. I didn't realize I had an affinity for it, but it's really a creative challenge for me, and really exciting for me, and it keeps me feeling like I'm doing my small part to make a difference, right. I'm not in a hospital. I'm not feeding people in a shelter or anything like that. But this is me trying to keep the economy going in my small way, and keep these people feeding their staff, feeding their families. I think in terms of marketing, you really have to open up your mind to what else can we do? What more can we do? And then you really have to pay attention to the responsiveness of the audience, of the fans, or followers or the customers, whatever. Then be very agile and pivot immediately, like if something works, double down on it and maybe do it again two weeks from then. If something doesn't work, okay, pivot.I think that people are really responsive to any kind of positivity and unity and those kinds of messages right now. And that's the position that I tried to push my clients that are out there trying to be actively still open.
Paul: Yeah, that makes sense , watching TV right now, it seems like every single commercial is the same where it's big business that never cared about us anyways. And there's some light piano music and it's like, "We're here for you. We're all in this together." It seems like some people are doing a poor job at marketing right now. Can you talk to that? How are people marketing poorly right now and what can they do to turn that around?
Sarah: That's interesting. In fact, there was a tweet that went out and I can't remember who it was. But they said something like, "Please go out, buy a Toyota." And now it's like, "We're all suffering really hard. Please go out and buy a Toyota." I think that again you see the difference between what a small business can accomplish so much better than a big business. They just don't have the agility. They really don't. And it's almost like you get the sense that they're just waiting it out. There are smaller businesses that are doing that, too. Budweisers or something came out and said, "We gave a million dollars to the bartenders, tip fund." Or whatever it was. A million dollars, right, that's nothing. A million dollars for a company. And it's not like alcohol businesses are being affected, people are still drinking now more than ever. I think that where people are messing up, are not being effective in terms of marketing, is by not acknowledging that this is going on and that we're all feeling something, it's not just about money. It's not just about the economy. It's only a little bit political. This is about how people are feeling and how they're feeling scared and completely feeling like their whole reality has been disrupted. I think that the commercial landscape has an obligation to provide some amount of stability for that. Not just for their customers, but for their staff. Everybody realizes that this isn't the end of the world. This is a new normal, and if you can show that as a business you're shifting to address that and not pretending like it's going to go away in two months and we'll just going to go back to buying Toyotas and drinking Budweiser, then you're in good shape, right. ----
Paul: I think that it is, as much as it's a crappy situation right now, it does seem like it's a time that smaller businesses that have cared about the communities that they're in, and the customers that they serve, they're, I guess, maybe better able to communicate effectively that they do care, because they actually do instead of a company being like, "We're here for you, buy Toyota."
Sarah: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: I think we can read intentions a lot better than we think we can.
Sarah: There's something mildly insulting, where some of these big companies don't realize how savvy consumers have become, and how vulnerable and sensitive they are to messaging. And you know that now customers have this huge opportunity through Twitter and Instagram and Facebook to have an opinion about what the advertiser or the corporation is doing. I still think there's a whole segment of corporations, certainly in the United States who, I don't know, they don't give consumers enough credit. What they end up doing is just the bare minimum. Which I think again, small businesses have made their guts where they prove their value to a community because they may not have the resources to donate a million dollars. But they're out there actually doing good in the community.
Sarah: The governments can't really save small business, right. This is about consumers and customers and businesses helping businesses. If you're looking to the PPP program, or you're looking to some bank for God's sake. You really have to always be in a position where you don't need a bailout. And that's easier said than done. But yeah, there's no amount of anemic messaging that you can put out now that will help you. You really need to focus on what's happening.
Paul: I guess quite a few small businesses aren't getting aid from the government or it's not working or they're not getting it fast enough. What are you seeing with the businesses that aren't getting that? How are they able to succeed or stay afloat in spite of not getting any kind of help from the government right now?
Sarah: The blog posts that I put out on our website that do the best, and have done the best are the ones that really have actionable things that you could be doing right now to solve a problem and so, yeah. The businesses that are every single week doing something for the community or for their customers, and I'm not talking about discounts, I'm not talking about coupons. I haven't done any discounts or coupons, none of my clients are doing them. I don't think that's effective. And I don't think it's a long term strategy. We don't know how long this is going on. It's really about messaging, and thanking your customers over and over again for their support, featuring them on Instagram, sharing their experience with your location, your restaurant, whatever it is. It's really still about agility about being active. And then if you get the PPP money, God bless you. But how long does that last? It's like the $1,200 checks, how long does that last?
Paul: While you might not have an answer for that, but as we've been talking, I've been getting more and more curious. It seems like you are able to take in a crisis and still put out really good and thoughtful work. Why do you think that it is? Because I don't think everybody has that ability.
Sarah: It's interesting how you grow as a professional, right? And it's crazy to me that I'm like, 41 years old, and I'm still learning who I am as a professional and who I could be. But I'm always the person that my friends, when stuff blows up, I've always been the person, and for my family too. I think in a lot of cases, I'm the person that people come to, because I'm very logical and I'm very rational. I think that's who I've always been, and it hasn't been tested so much, thank God, right, in a professional environment. But when something comes up that I automatically have to jump on, or it's a rush, or it's a this or it's a that, somehow it calms me and then I just get super focused. Somehow I'm able to build a plan from that and like, "Okay, this is what we're going to do. And I don't lose my cool, and that sounds really self absorbed. I don't know, there's something... it's exciting for me to have that focus, right.
Paul: Do you think anything's going to change in the future when this goes away, in terms of marketing and its effectiveness? Do you think there's going to be any lessons learned or any fundamental changes in the way that communication happens between businesses and consumers past all of this?
Sarah: I like to believe that it may happen just on a really microcosmic level, that it's going to be small and that if there's a network of small businesses, and small efforts and community based efforts, local efforts made, that's the foundation of what this country is. It became this corporate led Wall Street, Fed thing. But I like to believe that this country is more than that. And it's more about community and spirit and unity. If I think about us just going back to the way we were that would be unfortunate. I think there are great lessons being learned here. This is an opportunity if you see it as an opportunity. If you give in to fear and you close up, crab like then you're going to, unfortunately have a really hard road, I think as a small business owner. But if you see this as an opportunity to put a message out to your audience or to expand into a new area or to help the community. There's 100 different ways that you can pivot your mindset away from what the news and politicians and stuff are telling you is the reality. Create your own small reality where things are still safe and smart and forward moving. Do not fall into the trap of we're stuck here, right. We're just going to be stuck here until they let us out. And then that all that does is create this horrible feeling in everyone that we have no freedom and that we really were never free to begin with and all the other nonsense and narratives that are going on. That there are ways that you can keep moving through this and be creative and create positivity, even as a business
I love seeing people come together and I hate the fact that we have to go through these kinds of things for people to come together.
Paul: You might think that in a time of crisis, marketing should take a back seat. But it’s actually essential for the survival of small businesses and the people they employ. Sarah’s inspired that even when things are tough, her clients and other small businesses aren’t just falling into the trap of fear and contraction, but instead using this terrible time to have some freedom to reach their audiences in deeper and more expansive ways. Weathering this pandemic requires building trust, which feels like a form of real currency. Our social networks and connections to others hold real value. When trust is built the people in those networks do things for each other, such as buying products, sharing social media posts, and helping each other. This means connecting with your community, not just when you have something to sell. Sarah is an expert at helping her customers create trust. Perhaps this is why she’s been able to pivot so quickly during this crisis. Because she knows what elemental things in life matter the most. This has translated into her services which help her clients keep their lights on, their staff paid, and in some small measure, help the economy keep going. You can check out Sarah’s company, 8-16 New York at www.816nyc.com and check out her case study on Red Lentil restaurant on her blog, the article is called: “Restaurants & COVID-19: Crisis communications strategy for coronavirus”.
Call Paul is produced by Ruth Eddy and is a Mailchimp Original Podcast. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast platform, so you can hear more stories like this one from other small business owners. To learn more about my thoughts on business and living online, you can hop on my newsletter at sundaydispatches.com. If you’re a small business who’s adapting and becoming more resilient, we want to hear from you, so send us an email to email@example.com
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Matt, owner of Xocolatl Chocolate, discusses business during the pandemic.
Dave, owner of Wayward Distillery, discusses pandemic-driven tough decisions.
Dan and Hillary, owners of Kin Ship Goods, discuss community support.
Archel, owner of Bombchel, discusses working long distance.
Martin, co-founder of Cosmic Kids Yoga, talks viewership during the pandemic.
Peter, CEO of online grocer, SPUD, talks about changes during the pandemic.
Sarah, owner of small agency 816 New York, discusses marketing with integrity.
Tina, a creative force with many successful endeavors, discusses letting go.
Michelle, a race director, explains what it takes to plan and cancel a marathon.
Paul checks in with his first four guests to see how they’re doing.