A Look at Social Media during the COVID-19 Quarantine

A version of this article was included in Issue 001 (May 15, 2020) of the Idea Exchange Quaranzine.

It’s been almost two months since Premier Ford declared Ontario to be in a state of emergency. Our lives have been turned upside down, and many people are turning to social media to connect (and commiserate). Each of our experiences is unique, and taking a look at what people are posting and sharing on social media is a great way to peek into their perspective.

Initially, our feeds were filled with odd phenomena such as toilet paper panic buying and the stockpiling of canned foods. We saw photo after photo of empty shelves, endless line-ups, and carts filled with dried pasta and frozen vegetables. After a time, such reactions lessened, although it’s still impossible to get a bag of flour or packet of yeast at your local grocery store.

Some more fortunate individuals are not too downcast about the prospect of a forced home vacation. Their posts may include home exercise goals, reading lists, and resolutions to catch up on sleep. Parents who are enjoying more time with young children are posting charming family vignettes with puzzles, crafts, and board games.

There is a prevailing pressure to be productive during this time at home. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in quarantine!” they say. And we do see posts from people who appear to be making the most of this time by writing, composing, learning a new skill, or baking fresh-baked sourdough bread. Beautiful art is everywhere, thanks to a burst of creativity and inspiration that many are experiencing during this quiet time at home.

Thanks, Jeremy.

Of course, the disruption to daily routines has had a negative effect on many people. Social media posts highlight the financial struggles many are experiencing due to layoffs across the country. Over half of respondents in a recent poll said their mental health has worsened during quarantine. Hashtags such as #StayStrong and #StayPositive are circulating as we try to support each other from a distance. We have lost all sense of time, resulting in a number of memes including the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey who wonders what a weekend is.

Maggie Smith as the Dowager in Downton Abbey

One encouraging social media trend to come out of this quarantine is the increased support for local businesses. The hashtags #buylocal and #supportlocalbusinesses have become more popular as we avoid conventional grocery stores, instead opting for grocery delivery or curbside pickup. This author hopes this increased support for local businesses will continue post-quarantine.

Despite the negative impacts of COVID-19, social media continues to be a place of humour and joy for many. Some fun memes have included The Last Supper reimagined as a Zoom call; Ina Garten enjoying an oversized cocktail that involved an entire bottle of vodka; and scenes from The Office, Groundhog Day, and Animal Crossing. Tik Tok has exploded with comedy skits and dance video trends. Hashtags such as #Covember (post-quarantine facial hair – think “Movember”) have become extremely popular. We’ve even developed entirely new words such as “quarantini” (a quarantine martini) and “drivecation” (a vacation in your driveway).

The Last Supper reimagined as a Zoom call.
Ina Garten enjoys an oversized “quarantini”.

In the years to come, we may look back on some of these social media trends with astonishment or a shake of the head. It’ll certainly be an interesting snapshot for historians and analysts. But no matter how long this quarantine lasts, social media will always be a place for us to connect, complain, and comfort each other.

Social Listening: The Most Important Thing You Should be Doing Right Now

Reading time: 5 minutes

If you’re not an essential service, chances are that you’ve had to close or decrease your business for the last two months. To ensure you’ll hit the ground running once quarantine is lifted, you should be social listening.

“Social listening is the monitoring of your brand’s social media channels for any customer feedback and direct mentions of your brand or discussions regarding specific keywords, topics, competitors, or industries, followed by an analysis to gain insights and act on those opportunities.”

Hubspot

I would expand Hubspot’s definition of social listening to include scanning the wider social media landscape outside of your own channels.

Your Customers are Changing.

According to a 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes an average of 66 days for a group of people to form a new habit in their life. As of this blog, it has been 57 days since the Ontario state of emergency was declared on March 17, and it will be in effect until at least June 2.

This means you need to completely re-examine your understanding of your customers’ product preferences, spending patterns, and moods.

People make purchases based on their values, priorities, and sense of identity. A big change in society like a pandemic is certainly going to change how we feel about our own sense of security. For example, I believe there will be a shift toward more long-lasting, higher-end products, now that we’ve had to do without repair or replacement services. I also believe there may be a desire for beauty over cost-saving, thanks to days and weeks spent staring at our interior decorating choices.

“The CDC and World Health Organizations are stressing the importance of proper handwashing and doing it often. This is bound to influence people to live healthier lives, which is a win for retailers selling healthier foods and sustainable products. It will move consumers to evaluate things from a different perspective.”

Michael Barbera, Chief Behaviour Officer at Clicksuation Labs via Forbes

Following social media will help inform your future product offerings. Image-based platforms like Instagram and Pinterest will show you what consumers are looking to buy once the pandemic is over. Tracking relevant hashtags will let you peek into consumer conversations – are they experiencing frustrations with certain types of products or services? What are they turning to right now?

Following online conversations will keep your content relevant. Customers are being bombarded with COVID-19 announcements from every business they’ve ever subscribed to. Don’t be yet another generic email in their inbox. Take those frustrations that you’re seeing on Twitter or Reddit and provide solutions.

My optometrist recently emailed me with methods to reduce eye strain from increased screen exposure. They have examined their audience's new daily routines and recognized an issue that needed to be solved. This is exactly the kind of content I want to see - topical, useful, and relevant to their core service. 

Listening to your customers can provide opportunities. By following your followers, you may come across a non-profit that is supporting people in your industry, or influencers who might be open to a collaboration. It’s a great time to build partnerships and genuine relationships.

Your Competitors are Adapting.

While you’re doing your daily social listening, don’t forget to check out what your competition is saying and selling. If they have caught wind of a new trend or are planning a new product line, you’ll probably see hints of it in their social media.

The most obvious change that many businesses are taking advantage of is an increase in online spending. According to a survey of over 1,500 people on March 20, 24% of Canadians planned to increase their online spending during the coronavirus. After this is all over, many of those people will likely continue their newly formed habit of online spending, thanks to simple convenience. They’ll be expecting easy-to-navigate e-commerce sites, free shipping, and smart tools such as recommendation algorithms. Now might be the perfect time to start building your online shop.

I’ve seen many local businesses partner with each other and local charities during COVID-19. For example, Pressed For Time Panini has used Instagram to participate in collaborative giveaways and the Guelph Box subscription service. You never know where ideas will come from.

Some great tools for social listening are Hubspot, Hootsuite, or Tweetdeck.

Community-based Social Media Boosts Local Businesses during COVID-19

Read time: 2 minutes

Having a social media strategy is essential for businesses, especially small or local ones. Social media business pages are cheaper than radio or newspapers advertisements, and don’t require much infrastructure to run. Most importantly, social media provide the opportunity to create direct relationships and a sense of community with their customers, building brand loyalty and resiliency. This is proving extremely helpful for many local businesses whose existences are being threatened by COVID-19.

Many local business owners are especially great at taking a community approach to social media. Owners will answer every comment personally, take suggestions and concerns seriously, and participate in community events or markets. Customers come to care not just about the product or service, but about the owners and staff themselves, who just might be their neighbours. So when a crisis like COVID-19 forces owners to shutter their doors unexpectedly, the customers don’t disappear – in fact, they’re eager to help out as much as they can.

Every day, when I check my social media feeds, I see local businesses reaching out for support, and customers responding by writing encouraging comments, making purchases, and sharing posts with their friends. I even see local businesses sharing posts from other businesses – a true “We’re all in this together” mentality. This, in my opinion, demonstrates the best of what social media can do – rally a community together around a common cause.

I reached out to Jules Van Bergen and Dee Hernandez, the owners of Pressed for Time Paninis in Guelph (one of my favourite local restaurants), for their perspective. I’m a long-time follower of their Instagram account, and have seen first-hand how they’ve used it to stay close to their customers.

Q: Why did you originally decide to take such a personal approach to your social media accounts?

A: We have said from the beginning “we are our brand”. We wanted it to feel like we were cooking for you in our home kitchen surrounded by our plants and favorite cookbooks. We love that our guests know who’s preparing their food and coming up with all those puns! The Guelph community is extremely important to us, they are loyal and they care about supporting small business and community and that’s the reason we chose to start this journey exactly where we are. When you give a large company a sale, you don’t get a “little song and dance”. We want our followers to see investment in ourselves and our business when you look through our social media accounts. Our custom made t-shirts “paninis pay my bills” is the genuine truth, it’s just the two of us with no staff and that shines through, now more than ever. 

Like many restaurants, Pressed for Time Paninis has recently adapted to offer produce baskets and prepared meals, which has been well-received by customers. I was curious to learn how Jules and Dee are leveraging their social media community during COVID-19.

Q: How have you used social media to change the way you’re conducting business during COVID-19?

A: We have used social media to share information on our store hours, menus and notifying our followers of any new or changed procedures in this strange time we find ourselves in. We are posting about our prepared meals, produce baskets, gift cards/videos on how to buy them. We also started using Instagram as a store, a few days ago we added a button on our Instagram profile page where people can purchase gift cards, this shop feature was just released. We also have been using it as a communication tool to keep in touch with fellow business owners and our well missed guests of the Panini Palace! This communication led us to collaborate with local businesses for giveaways and participate in the Guelph Box subscription service, which allowed us to sell and distribute 225 bottles of our hot sauce to the community.

Sharing posts and showcasing profiles of local businesses has helped boost our business, along with the other activities mentioned. The number of weekly profile visits has just more than doubled in the last month, we’ve gained approximately 200 followers, and our story mentions have increased around 50%.

Jules and Dee say that 80% of their current customer base previously existed before COVID-19, which is a clear example of the loyalty their customers feel toward their business. It isn’t the social media platforms themselves that have created that loyalty, but Jules and Dee’s brand and personalities, authentically reflected in their online presence.

“While we still feel the uncertainty of the world right now, we don’t feel we would have to permanently close if we didn’t have a social media community. We attribute this due to the loyal local community support we have surrounding our business, and this amazing downtown neighborhood we are lucky to be a part of.  There are other tools we can and have been using to help get the information out there – for example: our website and monthly newsletters, advertising through Guelph today and 3rd party delivery services such as Skip the dishes and Uber Eats, selling our products at other local businesses, as well as distributing updated menus to neighborhoods.”

Based on this testimony, and what I’m seeing on my own feeds, I conclude that while social media communities may not be the only thing holding up local businesses right now, they are certainly providing a boost during this time of crisis. It’s a pretty compelling argument to inject authenticity and personality into your social media accounts.

On that note, if you’re a small business owner and need some help communicating with your customers during this time, I have capacity for some pro bono work such as press releases or email statements. Please reach out to me.

For information on how to support local businesses, check out the following resources:
Coronavirus is hurting small businesses. Here’s how to help. (Global News)
Guelph Coronavirus Community Response, a Community-sourced page for people needing and offering help.