Marketing during COVID-19: Here’s what top ecommerce experts predict for 2022 and beyond

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​​The past two years have created global shifts in how customers and brands interact. Ecommerce adoption was already on an upward trajectory before the pandemic—but the crisis accelerated digital adoption, making online shopping the new norm. According to a summer 2021 report by McKinsey, ecommerce sales remain about 35% higher than before COVID-19 hit.1

The relentless growth in ecommerce led to a surge in competition for digital advertising, with customer expectations rising to match. And with the latest data privacy changes, marketers are left with an entirely new landscape to navigate in their quest to gain and retain customers.

We talked with seven ecommerce experts about these changes and how they’re affecting brands in 2022 and beyond.

Paid advertising is becoming more costly and less efficient

Increased competition for digital advertising continues to drive up paid acquisition costs. On top of that, the latest data privacy changes have forced marketers to say goodbye to third-party data, making it harder to prove the ROI of paid ads.

“iOS changes could not have come at a worse time,” Diarmuid McSweeney, CMO at Gym+Coffee, explains  “And with all of the bigger brands returning with big advertising budgets—it has never been more challenging in digital advertising for small direct-to-consumer brands.”

Peter Morrell, a growth marketer at WizardPins, agrees. Morrell predicts that the combination of competition and data privacy changes “will lead savvy companies to find new and innovative ways to grow.”

Brands need to get creative in order to grow their customer base.

Invest in brand and publisher partnerships

“I think the best way to keep up momentum is to partner with ambassadors and brands that are doing well,” Martin Roy, President at Gorila Fitness, says. “It’s our best bet to try to limit the impact of that increase in paid ads.”

Align with brands or publishers on relevant demographic and psychographic information to get your name in front of audiences that might be interested in your brand.

Partnering with podcasts is often cheaper than digital ads, and some podcasters are open to affiliate commissions instead of flat-fee advertising.

Expand your affiliate program with the right blogs, review sites, or YouTube channels. These can be key to customers’ shopping experiences when they can’t see or test your product in person.

Consider partnering with other brands to put samples or postcards in their packages. Or, collaborate on a giveaway to build your subscriber list.

Use word-of-mouth channels to feed the top of the funnel

Referrals still matter—but for many brands, they remain an underutilized channel. According to Nielsen, 83% of people trust the recommendations of friends and family.2 When electronics retailer Nomad Goods implemented a post-purchase survey to find out how customers were discovering their brand, they found that 12% of customers came from friends and family—even without a formal affiliate program in place.

In a post third-party data world, you need to learn how to leverage your current customers as brand advocates to feed the top of the funnel.

“Create a referral program and thoughtfully grow your base of advocates,” recommends Matt Roche, CEO at Extole. “Brands that will win will be obsessed with customer base engagement and seek to replace performance media with community-driven marketing.”

Three brands that do this well:

  • Apparel brand MeUndies sends fans products and asks them to post photos on Instagram, tagging the brand. Not only do they reach their fans on social media, but they also develop user-generated content (UGC) that they can then use in their marketing campaigns.
  • Men’s grooming brand Harry’s grew their subscriber list to 100k in one week with a referral campaign before their launch. For every potential customer referred to the list, the subscriber increased their chances of winning a prize.
  • Darn Good Yarn offers 500 points through its loyalty program to incentivize customers to leave a review. Reviewers reap the benefits while the brand gets an authentic recommendation from a real person on its site for potential customers.

Chances are, word-of-mouth and referrals are already happening for your brand. Look for opportunities to encourage more of this behavior.

The key to profitability: retaining hard-earned customers

One popular tactic for retaining more customers: loyalty programs.

“Loyalty and referral programs are definitely something we’ll have to review, because the main focus for us right now is to keep the hard-earned customer with us,” Roy says

And Roche agrees.

“Marketers who do not know their customers—or their customer’s friends—will not be able to mobilize them in creative and authentic ways, and will no longer be able to compete.”

Analyze purchase behavior to figure out the habits of your highest value customers. Incentivize those high-value customers to continue their behavior with loyalty programs that will increase customer retention.

Consider redeemable points, cash back or store credit programs, and VIP benefits. These can include exclusive discounts, free products, and early access to launches.

Ready to improve your retention strategy? Check out these seven customer loyalty programs to keep your customers coming back.

Create a sense of community online with customers through meaningful experiences

When the pandemic started, brands that had in-person events moved online. Now, brands are building communities both in person and online to build loyal followings.

Sustainable home goods brand etee has long seen the value of building an online community. Members of the Plastic-Free Club, etee’s VIP subscription program, are invited to join an exclusive Facebook group where they can share sustainable living tips with one another. The company also shares behind-the-scenes updates and recruits members for product testing and feedback.

Before the pandemic, Gym+Coffee connected with customers through events at their retail stores. But during the crisis, they set up an online hub on Facebook with challenges and used their ambassadors on Instagram Live to engage their customers. 

“We had to find ways to create those meaningful connections online,” says Digital Marketing Manager Alison Sheehy.

Meanwhile, athleticwear brand Outdoor Voices hosted online workout classes and held five-minute “movement breaks” on Instagram, giving fans a way to engage with the brand and do some self-care during a global period of stress.

If you’re just starting to build your brand’s community, take advantage of the platforms that your customers are already on, like social media channels. Provide the structure for meaningful connections and engagement through things like challenges, behind-the-scenes content, and community support.

Adjust your messaging to avoid cultural carelessness

Brands that serve multiple countries need to keep that in mind when communicating with customers. Otherwise, the brand could come across as insensitive.

For example, if you have customers in a country that’s on lockdown and you send them a marketing message about “getting back out there,” it could feel out-of-touch. Experts agree that brands need to be sensitive to what’s happening in their customers’ locations. 

Segment your audience by location and be aware of what’s going on in the countries where your customers are located,” Tina Donati, Senior Marketing Manager at Fuel Made, recommends. “Adjust your messaging as needed.”

Be nimble and adapt to evolving local restrictions

The pandemic isn’t over yet. Brands need to be flexible as local policy changes may affect the entire supply chain from factories to fulfillment to shop floors.

“Government policies have been erratic at times,” Shivraj Bassi, Founder & CEO at Innermost, says. “And new challenges could lead to increased uncertainty over spend and focus. It’s going to be important to be nimble.”

The economy is starting to recover, and more consumers are experiencing financial security. But brands still need to be agile and keep a large cash buffer to account for anything unexpected. Stay alert and adapt your marketing campaigns to the climate, shipping delays, and out-of-stock products. And smart brands will continue to be transparent with its customers.

“Be ready to communicate about what’s going on behind-the-scenes,” Donati suggests. “When you offer clear communication with your customers, it will help ease their frustrations—and it’ll help build your brand’s credibility.”

Don’t get left behind

With more people shopping online, a large shift toward consumer privacy, supply chain disruptions, and a global pandemic, brands can’t refer to the same old playbook.

The bottom line: Experiment strategically to find out what works. Test partnerships and optimize your referral program to feed the top of the funnel. Use loyalty programs and community-building to keep customers coming back. And stay on top of the global situation to avoid supply chain disruptions and other issues.

Interested in more ecommerce predictions? Find out why experts believe seamless personalization will be key in 2022.



1 “US consumer sentiment and behaviors during the coronavirus crisis.”

2 “Recommendations From Friends Remain Most Credible Form of Advertising Among Consumers; Branded Websites Are the Second-Highest-Rated Form.”

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