Marketing advice

How marketers should rethink their customer engagement strategy to succeed in a COVID-19 world

  • EFUJK1UC8-WH58DHZNC-42d5b3daa02c-512.jpeg
    Ben Blackmer
  • Jun 02, 2020

There are three stages to how marketeres can approach their customer engagement strategy: respond, adapt, thrive

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COVID-19 has, and will continue to, dramatically change the business landscape across the world. Marketers tasked with effectively engaging consumers face unique challenges—and opportunities—as they navigate this new and rapidly changing landscape.

Today, companies are evaluating what must change about their customer engagement strategy to survive and succeed in a world with COVID-19.

One thing is already clear: digital engagement will accelerate to be the primary way that businesses interact with customers. Now is the time to look at your company’s 2-5 year marketing plan and see what you can pull forward from the future to now. 

While everyone has their own version of the COVID-19 response curve, there are three distinct stages that relate specifically to how a marketer should think about their customer engagement strategy:

  1. Respond
  2. Adapt
  3. Thrive

“Things won’t change as much as they will accelerate. While other crises reshaped the future, COVID-19 is just making the future happen faster.”

Stage 1: Respond

Stage 1 began when COVID-19 demanded society change how it operates, and the main focus for marketers was solving an immediate, pressing problem: telling their customers what to expect from them in a rapidly changing environment. The key here was, and remains, ongoing and relevant communication in the channels customers expect and prefer.

At the most basic level, organizations need to tell their customers and constituents about how they’re responding to COVID-19:

  • Is the business still open?

  • What support options are available?

  • For those with a physical location, is it open, and if so, under what restrictions, if any?

  • Are there new hours?

  • What should customers expect when visiting?

  • Is online ordering and self-service available?

Every business suddenly had to become an e-commerce company, and engage customers on a digital plane. That means better understanding a customer’s preferences for communication: to learn more, Twilio asked a sample of US consumers what their experience has been, and their preferences.

Customers prefer email and SMS for receiving messages, with just 12 percent of consumers preferring a company’s mobile app for receiving communications. To quickly update your customers on your status, consider creating a one-to-many email program that’s proven to reach your customers.

Stage 2: Adapt

Organizations in Stage 2 have moved past the reactive nature of Stage 1 and are reorienting to the medium- and long-term realities of COVID-19.

At this stage, marketers have a unique opportunity to ask themselves three questions (care of Rishad Tobaccowala) to guide themselves to exiting this stage stronger than before:

  • What will my customer/consumer be like?

  • How will the behavior and expectations of my customer/consumer be different?

  • What will they be doing more and doing less?

  • How can I get my company to learn from and accept the new reality?

  • How can we leverage fresh sheet thinking?

  • How would we re-start if we had a fresh sheet of paper?

With those questions in mind, marketers need to consider how COVID-19 changes the way they approach common marketing use cases like the following:

  • Lead generation and conversion

  • Promotions

  • Loyalty

Lead generation and conversion

COVID-19 has already dramatically changed how companies generate and convert leads. Instead of relying on established pipeline generation plans for 2020, marketers have had to revamp their strategies to acknowledge and adapt to closed avenues and potential new ones.

We have seen two large changes so far: live conferences transitioning to virtual conferences, and changes to content development and release.

Virtual conferences
As companies have had to transition in-person conferences into virtual experiences, like Twilio announced for SIGNAL 2020, marketers have to find alternative avenues to generate and convert leads.

For example, Dell combined the desire for a conference experience with the explosive growth of podcasts to create the Small Business Podference, and it’s a great example of turning a negative into a positive.

Without the time restraint of an in-person conference and knowing COVID-19 has thrown everyone’s normal schedules into disarray, creating conference-level content through podcasts enables small business owners to consume the content on their schedule but within the context of a themed conference.

In addition, Apple hosts its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC or “dub dub” for the insiders) every year in June, where they announce new software features for their platforms. It’s such a popular event that it requires Apple to hold a lottery for tickets, and generally fewer than 10 percent are able to attend in-person. For this year’s event, Apple is flipping the exclusivity model and will use an entirely online format to enable anyone to participate in their content.

Learn more about how retailers are adapting their business continuity plans to suit changes to rapidly changing consumer preferences and spending patterns.

People are interested in and actively looking for COVID-19 information, whether that’s from news sources or businesses.

In challenging periods like this one, there is an opportunity to renew or establish your business as a trusted partner in people’s lives. Think about how you can help and support your customers, or how you can enable them to help you.

For example, streaming services like Netflix or Disney+ have changed their release schedules for movies and shows to reflect the reality that people need more distractions, and they need it now. See more examples of how businesses across every industry are adapting to the new and evolving realities we’re all facing.


Marketers still have to market, even in challenging times like now with COVID-19. In fact, it is in difficult situations like these where marketers can excel by pivoting and changing the marketing message or target to acknowledge the current situation.

Special offers
Consumer habits are changing, changing quickly, and likely changing permanently. Consumers are looking to meet new needs created by COVID-19 and shelter-in-place rules, and they can be receptive to special offers to engage with your company.

For example, local gyms and specialty fitness centers have started to put classes online as a way to engage new customers and demo their classes. Or, we have seen manufacturers add masks to their line-up or include donations to front-line or health-care workers as part of a purchase.


Now is a great time for marketers to engage with past customers. Don’t forget that these are people who have already established a relationship with you, and you’ve already done the work and spent the resources to convert them once. Converting them another time should be easier and more profitable for your business.

Reward programs
Do you have a reward or loyalty program to entice your customers for a repeat purchase? If not, now could be a good time to start one. Customers enrolled in a reward program are generally more willing to receive additional messages from you because the content is desirable.

If you already have one, consider setting up a nurture series of emails or messages to remind customers of their status and tell them what they need to do to reach the next level. Mack Weldon, a direct-to-consumer men’s clothing retailer, has a strategic loyalty program that increases a discount for purchase based on how much a customer has spent in the past year. For example, if a customer spends $100, they reach Level 1 and get 10 percent off future purchases. If a customer spends $200, they reach level 2 and get 20 percent off future purchases. It is highly incentivizing.

Product updates
When you release a new product or feature, your customers want to know about it, particularly if it is COVID-19 related. Make sure they hear the news through email, messaging, or on your website.

Stage 3: Thrive

Beyond the dramatic changes in stages 1 and 2, we anticipate marketers and businesses in general will need to transform the way they engage with their customers to thrive in Stage 3. COVID-19 will force an accelerating evolution towards using digital tools to maintain a sense of personal connection between customers and companies, and successful marketers will build entirely new methods to engage with and serve their customers.

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Ben Blackmer

As a Senior Product Marketing Manager at Twilio, Ben focuses on competitive analysis and how Twilio can help companies improve their customer engagement. Outside of Twilio, he loves to spend time playing jazz piano, curling, and learning how to garden.