By Liam Patton, director at digital marketing agency Mayfly.

The Government’s latest ‘Stay Alert’ coronavirus slogan has received a mixed response in the press and on social media. It’s led to countless memes and seen the Prime Minister jumping to its defence to explain exactly how it works.

Whether or not the sentiment of this new messaging proves an effective next step in the fight against COVID-19 remains to be seen. However, the core premise of being alert is something that businesses should embrace to keep their marketing relevant during times of uncertainty.

By staying alert, companies can avoid defaulting to the seemingly safer strategy of switching off their marketing during a crisis. Many businesses will opt for this route to avoid their marketing appearing out of touch and inappropriate. They want to reduce the risk of sending out the wrong message at the wrong time, which can quickly damage brand reputations and alienate target audiences.

Companies can effectively manage this risk with four simple steps to keep their marketing engaging. This will prove particularly valuable as people look to move forward and markets become more active and competitive.

1) Stay informed

For marketing to be effective during a crisis, it needs to evolve with the public’s mood. Companies can easily get a steer on public sentiment using a whole host of free tools. The likes of Google Trends and searching hashtags and what’s trending on social media platforms can be used to determine how people are reacting to the crisis. It will show what they are embracing and alert companies to what people are shunning and what information and support they are looking for.

Companies can use this knowledge to influence the messages, content and timing of their marketing. They can then ensure they’re selling at the right time. For example, early on in lockdown, people wanted equipment and furniture for home schooling and working. As people adapted to lockdown, they then began looking at ways to spend their new-found at-home time and their focus shifted towards hobbies and interests. This created marketing opportunities, which companies could respond to in a timely and appropriate manner.

2) Stay competitive

The business disruption and economic slowdown caused by the pandemic is likely to increase market competition. In the short-term, as lockdown changes, we can expect to see companies marketing more aggressively to address dips in revenue over the past couple of months. In the medium to long-term, it’s likely we’ll see a trend of marketing campaigns aiming to rebuild and reinforce brand loyalty – companies will want to strengthen their resilience in the face of any future crises.

Businesses need to remain alert to how this competition will impact their marketing and adapt accordingly. For example, will the costs of digital marketing rise as bids on PPC increase? Will companies invest more in personalised, targeted marketing via social media platforms? Companies should adapt more agile marketing campaigns, which include the options and flexibility to quickly change channels, content format and messages. This will help them continue to create cut through in busy, crowded spaces, while carefully managing costs.

3) Stay audience focused

Many companies have had to innovate and pivot to survive the business disruption caused by COVID-19. In such cases, it’s natural to want to rush and share new changes with customers. The instinct is there to let people know you’re still open for business, which often leads to marketing that is very company-first, when it should be appealing to the wants and needs of the audience.

Businesses should remember to remain alert to what their customers want and more than ever, avoid second-guessing their opinions and demands. This becomes even more high-risk in times of uncertainty. Social media provides companies with a very cost-effective tool to stay in touch with what their target market wants. Whether it’s Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram, they can directly engage with audiences to canvas opinion and actively seek their feedback, while they can also search out trends to determine what is proving popular. By doing this, they’ll uncover insights that can be used to keep marketing audience-first.

4) Stay true to your values

During the pandemic, we’ve seen some amazing fundraising activities and acts of kindness. We’ve also seen people champion the NHS and key workers, celebrating their heroic efforts. The sharing of gratitude and the willingness to help others is seen during many crises and with it they’ll often be a natural tendency amongst companies to get involved. Many businesses will do so with good intentions, but there’s a risk this will be viewed with cynicism and as an act of ‘cashing in’.

To avoid this, companies should first ask themselves how can they naturally help? By taking action that fits with what they do and stand for as a business, their gesture is more likely to be received for exactly what it is, as opposed to being seen as a marketing ploy. For example, clothing brands which have used their equipment and materials to make scrubs for the NHS makes sense from a practical and public point of view.

If there’s no natural fit for the company in terms of providing support, they may decide to make a financial donation to those affected by the crisis. In this particular instance, it’s more advisable to take a subtle approach to how this is communicated. This could involve adding a short update to any relevant pages about community and charity work on their website and adding a note in any internal communications. This can help promote natural advocacy.