George F. White: 5 questions on marketing during a global crisis

Continuing the series '5 questions on marketing during a global crisis', David Wilson, communications leader at George F. White (pictured) shares his insights into communicating throughout the Coronavirus and how they are adapting their plans for the year ahead.

George F. White, chartered surveyors and property consultants, deal in residential and commercial property and professional services for agricultural, commercial and residential sectors. Servicing the North East from Alnwick in Northumberland to Bedale in North Yorkshire, they're very much "open for business and focused on the future".

Do you feel marketing is more or less important as businesses adjust to Coronavirus challenges?

Definitely more important. The need to engage with existing and potential customers could, for some, be the difference between being in business or not.

Have any aspects of your marketing plan had to change dramatically as a result of Coronavirus, and how have you adjusted?

A large portion of our annual strategy was to engage with our customers at regional events such as the Great Yorkshire Show, or via seminars and networking activities that we host ourselves. With the vast majority of summer events already cancelled and the picture unclear for the remainder of 2020, we've had to focus more on digital approaches.

We've consciously increased our social media output - some of that driven from myself but also from the 'fee-earning' teams who recognised that, for a period, traditional channels were closed.

I'm sure that face-to-face activities will resume before the year is out but in what form and in what numbers is difficult to tell. We will certainly be keeping a close eye on this as we look at our plans for 2021.

It would also be easy to focus only on how we communicate with external contacts during this time. But our business spans four counties, and with only a few of our team occupying some of our offices to perform tasks they're unable to do from home, we've had to ensure that we engage with our internal team effectively too.

Overall, like many businesses, the pandemic has forced us to think and act differently in many ways. We will look to take the positives from that and explore how we might approach marketing and communication differently over the next few years in terms of both budgets and activities.

Is there anything you're doing now to stay in touch with customers that you weren't doing before the pandemic?

Our contacts span various sectors and come to us for a wide range of services, and we focus on valued, meaningful communication over just communicating for the sake of it.

We haven't made any drastic or significant changes to our marketing, but we have certainly taken initial steps to adopt a more direct approach to communications, including email and direct mail and this will come to fruition in the coming weeks and months.

We are also putting new processes in place to improve our use of contact data. Learning how it can be better stored, grouped, and utilised to provide improved customer communication.

I think September/October will be a crucial period to judge how the world is operating. For many businesses, it could be the time to begin looking ahead at the next three to nine months and beyond, rather than the more short term focus many of us have had to adopt over the last four months.

What kind of engagement are you seeing with the marketing/comms approach you're now taking and what methods are working well for you?

At the moment, as the various sectors of the economy see restrictions relaxed at different times, I think we are now witnessing the predicted rebound, proven in an uplift in customer engagement.

What will be interesting is how long the rebound lasts and what comes after. That is what most businesses will be trying to gauge, adjusting their strategy so that it can flex around the potential variants that we may well experience.

In a more general sense, what impact do you think the Coronavirus could have on the future of marketing and the way businesses communicate with customers?

While much has been made of the rapid shift towards tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, I suspect that as the lockdown restrictions are eased and assuming no significant new waves of the virus, there will be a rollback to practices pre-lockdown.

The pandemic has forced many to adopt new ways of working and break down barriers to using technology because the need was greater than the resistance to change - and some of those changes we will likely retain. For others, it will be the wake-up call that they needed to adopt more flexible business practices to protect against future business interruption in whatever form that may be.

Businesses will no doubt have seen some efficiencies and benefits of home working with less reliance on expensive to run centralised office space. I think there will be a planned shift to allow more home working where possible, but not a complete change from office-based working.

I also think that any crisis brings to the surface previously unforeseen issues that good businesses will not brush under the carpet but look to address, ensuring they introduce measures that will provide a better experience for customers and better results for the business.

A good marketer is already someone who has a flexible approach to life, and the pandemic has certainly put that to the test.

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