Bkw_small_headshot by Brian K. Walker

If you are like me, you are following the developments with the H1N1 flu closely. Many businesses are seeing a spike in demand for products to help prevent spread of the virus, such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers and face masks – or to treat the pandemic should it be contracted, such as inventory of Tamiflu. Thankfully the severity of the flu appears to be far less than originally feared, though certainly that may change.

But these are certainly not the only large and emerging events that a business must react to. The Web channel offers a unique opportunity to react to emerging events both within the eCommerce channel and in reaching loyal customers. Hopefully there are few situations like the swine-flu – or other natural or man-made disasters – in the future. But by planning and preparing your business may be in a position to help those affected, drive a positive from a negative, and quite possibly experience some strong business as well.

Being prepared for the worst can make you even more responsive for great times, too — for those profit-making opportunities that pop-up and which depend on quick follow-up and responsiveness.

So what can a business do to prepare for these events? Here are a few things to focus on:

  • Resources. Have a team with the right skills and system permissions in place. For example this team may be comprised of a merchant, a copywriter, a marketer, a PR person, and a developer or two — all identified as a rapid-reaction team. Assignment to this team may need to be done on a rotating basis, especially during the holidays. Be sure to have critical resources at your technology vendors and marketing and PR agencies identified too, as well as know-how to reach them at their lake cabin.
  • Process. Have a process in place — with clear decision-making and leadership — to react to events, approve plans, content, code, and so on. Have a means of communication with contact information sorted out up-front. Maybe this requires pagers, but more likely will comprise cell numbers, IM, texting, home numbers, and — today — Facebook and Twitter.
  • Microsites. Be ready to launch and deploy a microsite quickly. A microsite will serve as a set of pages and products if microsites present a challenge with your current platform, prepare by developing a site with default content with a sample catalog and have your team prepared to modify it. Branding and overall user experiences should be very consistent.
  • Landing pages. A cousin to the microsite, but possibly much easier and faster to deploy, a landing page with links to content, categories, and products may meet the needs of your audience. This may be a useful tactic in concert with the microsite to drive traffic between the sites as well.
  • Content locations. Have content locations on the site ready to deploy. For example, a thin banner across the top of your pages (right under the global navigation) may be a great slot to use to direct site traffic. Do not overemphasize the homepage, as much of your traffic may never see it. Be sure you have content slots on category and product pages as well.
  • Category management. Be sure your team knows the tools well enough to define new categories on the site and react quickly. Category naming may prove very important to customers finding the products.
  • On-site search. Tagging, metatags, URL-redirects, binning, and content indexing will be critical to helping customers find the products quickly. A strong on-site search tool is key.
  • SEO/SEM. Search engines are a key conduit for audience traffic. Being able to react to the terms and capitalize on the search traffic will be important.
  • Marketing. Have a plan in place to review existing marketing plans and efforts, with the ability to react. This can save face, as a key promotion to an area hit by disaster or in the news could be embarrassing. (I will not provide a gruesome example, there are many.) At the same time, have the resources, skills, and authority in place to react to the event proactively through email, display, search marketing, and social media. A well-timed tweet on a timely and needed product may help.
  • Establish key relationships upfront. Other key to planning ahead for situations like 9/11, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina is by having relationships with qualified organizations, charities and service organizations established ahead of time. In some cases you may wish to prepare for a donation to be made through your site. Another means of support may be to link to other companies who have the products in-stock if you happen to run out, or offer free shipping for critical supplies. By having the processes we identified above in place, you may be better able to react to these opportunities in a quick and controlled manner.

I think it goes without saying that another key to reacting to these situations is to be charitable. This will pay long-term benefits in terms of consumer brand loyalty, employee morale, recruiting, and overall PR — and it also goes without saying that it’s the right thing to do.

Now, I do not want to be all doom-and-gloom, so I want to end on a positive note. These same tactics can be used to in context of a positive event too. For example, we have had clients who have had a product featured on Oprah, and the resulting traffic and sales opportunities are like an earthquake — but a positive one. Your team may only have hours or a day to react to the news that Oprah is featuring a product or destination, or the NBC Nightly News is featuring a story on a key product or category. These positive events may leverage much the same processes as above, and be good rehearsals as well for similar events down the road.

Bottom line, days and weeks are not sufficient when dealing with these events. By planning ahead, you and your team will know how to react swiftly and effectively.

Thanks, Brian

(If you have other ideas or examples I missed, please comment below.)