What digital marketing strategy or tactics should you pursue as a startup or small business in Africa in the era of COVID-19? As a Ghana-based digital strategist and freelancer, I have had conversations with fellow entrepreneurs and friends on this exact topic. Why? In the wake of COVID-19, digital has proven to be the alternative for many businesses, organisations, governments, professionals, entrepreneurs, and individuals in Africa and globally. If anything, COVID-19 has accelerated the trend towards digital in African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya – a trend I have highlighted to Circumspecte clients and readers in the past few years.
If you didn’t take digital or social media seriously before, now is the time to pay attention. Now is the time to explore how you can leverage digital skills and tools as a professional, freelancer or entrepreneur. To develop a digital marketing strategy for your startup, small business or organisation. The insights and guidelines I share in this article are provided primarily within the ongoing context of COVID-19 and its potential impacts on the future of business and work in Ghana and Africa. That said, many elements can be carried over into the post COVID-19 era. I hope this article helps orient you, your business and/or give you some tools to seek out the silver linings to the very dark cloud that has been thrust upon us.
Before we delve in, please know that it is totally okay if you decide to hit pause, slow down or take a break from business or work. Coping with the CoronaVirus situation takes a lot out of a person and focusing at this time can be hard. If you follow the #TeamNoSleep school of thought when it comes to entrepreneurship, you are probably burnt out anyway. Use (some of) this time to recharge your batteries and rest if you need to. My article on prioritising your wellbeing during COVID-19 uncertainty offers some suggestions and tips to try. Equally important – please prioritize the health and wellbeing of your team, employees and customers as you try out these strategies. No amount of business is worth putting a life at risk.
COVID-19 Potential Economic Impact: “Winners” & “Losers”
The extent of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on African countries is yet to be seen. That said, it is clear that Africa’s positive economic outlook for 2020 will not only be disrupted, but reversed. The World Bank projects Africa’s first recession in 25 years with negative growth figures for 2020 of between -2.1% and -5.1%; a steep decline from the region’s 2.4% growth in 2019. COVID-19’s cost to Africa has been estimated at between US$22 billion and US$ 88.3billion by the African Development Bank; this represents a contraction in the region’s GDP growth of between -0.7% and -2.8%. Even more optimistic figures from the Brookings Institute, which estimates a slowdown in Africa’s economic growth of between 1.5%-2.5%, sound the alarm on COVID-19’s impact on sectors like tourism and travel; financial and investment markets; and commodities and trade. With the general slow down in business, consumer spending, and investments, small businesses and startups, entrepreneurs, freelancers and informal sector workers are likely to feel the brunt of COVID-19’s impact.
All of this may sound overwhelming and discouraging, understandably so. That said, the real impact and what you do during this COVID-19 era largely depends on your business type, sector or the activity, products and services you offer. Why? With every scenario, there are (potential) “winners” and “losers”, including one as troubling as the CoronaVirus pandemic. Your unique context will determine a lot, as will the landscape, sector or ecosystem your business operates in. With this in mind, the first thing you need to do as a startup or small business is to understand what is going on in your sector or industry. How?
- Focus on the trends and projections to estimate where your business falls on the COVID ‘winner – loser’ spectrum. While more vulnerable than our counterparts in the West which may have more access to business support mechanisms, African startups and small businesses have the benefit of time since COVID-19 hit us a bit later. For instance, startups and businesses in the food industry have likely seen a spike in sales; one healthy food entrepreneur in Ghana I spoke with indicated exactly that ahead of partial lockdown in Greater Accra. Find yourself in logistics, technology or digital, entertainment (music, film, arts) as well as essential services like healthcare? You’re a potential winner. This is especially true if you have a digital marketing strategy, e-commerce option or reliable delivery service, all rooted in good customer service. In the travel or events industries? Your business is one of the most impacted as movement and travel restrictions affect you directly. But does that mean all is lost? Not necessarily. Taking time to assess the situation, plan ahead, and create a digital marketing strategy can help you retain customers, improve and sustain your small business in the interim. It could also give you an opportunity to innovate and prepare for the post-COVID-19 era where digital will still feature strongly.
- Follow business and economic analyses from credible sources: Some platforms to pay attention to for economic analyses and trends: the Economist, Oxford Business Group (country reports), African Development Bank (Twitter account), World Bank (for economic impact and analyses), World Economic Forum, as well as policy think tanks like the Brookings Institute. For business insights relevant to small businesses and startups in Africa, check out consulting and research firms like McKinsey, Dalberg, and Deloitte; business focused platforms like Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Business Insider, Politico and so on. For more nuanced and contextualised insights, look out for region or country specific analyses either online or from local experts in various fields. Part of a community of professionals and entrepreneurs? Draw on each other’s expertise and support each other.
Digital Marketing Guide for Small Businesses in Africa
As I have often highlighted in Circumspecte’s digital skills trainings and coaching sessions, Africa’s future is digital. There has been an accelerated trend towards digital for the past five years at least. Regardless of your industry, digital will be important – if not now, then post-COVID-19. Numerous people and organisations have moved online since COVID-19 hit, catalysing the trend towards digital in Ghana and other African countries. Hence, the second thing to consider in the context of COVID-19 as a small business or startup is whether you are ready to go digital – and how. Work in the digital sphere, already have a digital strategy or use digital tools? The odds are in your favour if you take strategic decisions.
Depending on your business type, sector outlook and where you currently are with digital, you can employ different digital marketing tactics for a digital strategy during and after COVID-19. That said, there are three key elements that all small businesses should consider: businesses that show they care by offering real value, engaging meaningfully and respectfully, and nurturing their community (online and offline) will make gains in the medium to long-term. It is not business as usual, hence now is the time to think outside the box, especially when it comes to customer relationships and digital marketing. Like it or not, digital is already here – are you ready to adapt and thrive with digital? For those who are ready to do so, here’s a general guide on what to consider for a digital marketing strategy during COVID-19.
African StartUp with Zero to Little Digital Presence: Learn about Digital
Maybe you’re a bit late to the digital sphere or you have not been sure which way to go. No worry. The important thing is that you are here. Now is the time to learn and begin sowing your digital seeds. Create and save social media or native site (blog or website) accounts with your brand name. Build digital skills within your team, especially if you operate solo. And no, you do not have to be in Information Technology or a super technical person to leverage digital tools. The good news is many digital tools and platforms have become more user-friendly. You do not need much to start besides some internet data, general knowledge on using the internet, curiosity and a willingness to try new things. There are numerous ‘free’ tools for starting a blog, working virtually and creating content. To start, check out Circumspecte’s free social media and digital marketing resources. The main investment for digital newbies is in learning and maximizing time and data. Use both wisely.
Small Business with Some Digital Presence: Create Content, Assess Digital Strategy
Have a digital strategy and/or substantial and active presence on social media platforms? Now is the time to get even more strategic. Take time to review your digital performance and determine what works or doesn’t work. How can you do this? Organise and/or build up your content stock, upgrade your team’s digital skills, examine and make sense of your account analytics, and reflect on how your business is currently engaging with community members. If your startup is on track with it’s digital goals, now is a great time to experiment. Besides more people spending time online while staying at home, the trend away from simply promoting or advertising to personalised content and storytelling will continue. Many are opting for Instagram Live sessions or Tiktok challenges, but you can also try starting a podcast, organising a Twitter event or launching a company blog. Have data connectivity issues and can’t do much online? Focus on documenting offline. Use a note-taking app that doesn’t require the internet to capture stories related to your business, customers, and offerings. Whatever you decide to do content-wise, focus on providing useful, positive and valuable content.
SME with Strong Digital Presence: Provide Value, Engage & Nurture Community
Congratulations, your brand is a digital rock star! Now, what are you going to do with it? Are your sales prospects strong in the short to medium-term, for instance as a small business offering essential services like food or health care? The key word here is empathy. Now is the time to show you care. Highlight some safety measures you’re putting in place to keep your customers safe, offer discounts, useful tidbits, and a great customer experience. Has business slowed down? That is not entirely bad. You have the opportunity to build trust, nurture your community and improve engagement. Get personal – check in with your customers or clients and/or pass on verified and vital COVID-19 prevention information on good hygiene and social distancing. The WHO website has some good tidbits that you can reshare or draw on to create infographics and other useful content.
Businesses and startups within this category can also focus on building digital skills and investing further in digital. Already have a content strategy? Get innovative with it, but remember to make jollof with the tomatoes you are handed. (Local) Context is everything. Beyond the online space, SMEs should explore avenues to create social impact offline and within communities. Why? Each of your employees and customers has a community. By giving back, supporting or nurturing local communities, you not only help combat COVID-19, but ultimately influence the continuity of your business and your relevance to those communities. For instance, personal care company Kaeme is prioritising its employees by allowing them to work remotely. That’s not all – the company remains committed to paying its staff for as long as possible; a decision taken with full transparency and involvement of employees, and is sharing skin care tips with its customers. File this one under corporate social responsibility; we are only as strong as our weakest link.
True, the COVID-19 situation has birthed some unprecedented challenges which will likely change the course of business, life and even culture in Ghana, Africa and the world. But again, a lot of that is yet to be determined, and we each have the opportunity to participate in defining what that future landscape will be, even if only digitally. So, come up for air once in a while and seek out those silver linings, because they do exist. Found this useful? Share with a small business owner or entrepreneur. Already re-strategising? Leave a comment to share how. Above all, stay home, stay safe and stay sane.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.