Thousands of stores and offices are beginning to reopen or planning for a reopening soon, many with restrictions or modified offerings. Learn how to communicate with customers in local search channels so they're informed and know what to expect.
The Great Reopening Has Begun
If I had to name the moment we currently occupy in our new pandemic era, I might call it the Time of the Great Reopening. Businesses in essential categories such as healthcare and grocery stores have been open all along, but many, many others -- the vast majority of U.S. brick and mortar retailers and service providers -- have had to close, and have been trying to hold things together until it's been deemed safe for a gradual reopening to begin.
And that reopening has undoubtedly now begun. The New York Times reports that a large number of states are either partially reopening now or planning to do so soon.
Image courtesy The New York Times
As businesses that have been closed work towards reopening, they will generally be required to do so with modified services. As the Times puts it, “Businesses are almost universally reopening under restrictions, such as operating at a lower capacity, requiring workers and customers to wear masks, and enforcing social distancing.”
Among the multi-location brands whose reopening plans have begun to take shape, Macy’s stands out for having unveiled a clear and detailed roadmap for the reopening of its 775 stores over the next 6 to 8 weeks. The department store chain will go back into business with changes including “no touch” beauty consultations, limited fitting room availability, and mandatory cloth masks for employees. Macy’s only expects to generate about 15 to 20 percent of its typical sales revenue at first, but given that the chain has been closed to the public since March 18, a successful, if gradual, return to normal is critically important.
Reopening Your Stores in Local Search Channels
Macy’s modified offerings are likely to be typical for department stores, clothing stores, and similar retailers that have been closed to the public for the last few weeks. Many service providers, from massage therapists to financial planners, will have a completely different set of modified practices. But regardless of the industry, local search channels must be an area of focus as businesses plan to reopen.
Consumers use local search channels like Google My Business, Yelp, Apple Maps, and Facebook as a primary means of finding accurate, up to date information about local businesses. They also turn to the business website as a supportive resource when additional detail is needed. All of these touchpoints need to be coordinated to provide accurate messaging, so that consumers know what to expect when they visit your newly reopened locations.
As a reminder, here is Brandify’s chart of the local search channels that matter the most to today’s consumers, as well as the points of interaction between primary and secondary channels. All primary channels should be actively managed in order to properly align messaging across all the places consumers seek information.
Brandify’s Top Local Channels Chart
Removing Temporary Closure Flags
If you’ve used the new, or newly modified, features in Google My Business and elsewhere to mark your business temporarily closed, you’ll want to remove that flag on the day you officially reopen.
It may be helpful to mention that Google and Yelp have both issued guidelines as to when the temporarily closed flag should be used, emphasizing that if you are open for any services at all -- including delivery, curbside pickup, and so on that may not involve customers entering the store but are still offered from the store location -- then you should not use the temporarily closed flag. The flag should only be in place if you are offering no services at that location.
When it’s time to remove the flag, doing so should be straightforward. The following sites all offer a means of enabling and disabling temporary closure in their dashboards or via feed or API connection: Google My Business, Yelp, Apple Maps, Bing, Foursquare, Facebook, Trip Advisor, and Infogroup.
Setting Appropriate Attributes
This is, for the most part, a Google-specific recommendation. Google My Business has added several new attributes to business profiles to help communicate special circumstances related to COVID-19, and has made these and other attributes more prominent so that consumers can easily spot them. A local pack result for restaurants in Anaheim shows several typical examples.
As you can see, restaurants can prominently display whether or not they are open for dine-in and whether they offer takeout or delivery, with a special attribute indicating that no-contact delivery is available. As restaurants reopen, they’ll want to be sure to switch the dine-in attribute from "no" to "yes" so that it will display properly in search results. Retail stores have similar options for indicating the availability of in-store pickup, curbside pickup, and delivery.
We can expect that Google will release new attributes to accommodate the changing situation and signal any especially important changes. Some other sites and aggregators also offer a few options for indicating special services. Facebook, for instance, has a feature that lets businesses indicate they are open but only for pickup or delivery. Neustar Localeze and Infogroup have both released similar features.
Indicating Modified Hours
Many grocery stores and big box retailers who have remained open throughout the pandemic have opted to reduce their hours of operation. Should hours go back to normal, it’s important to update the hours of operation displayed in all local search channels.
So too, the need for special hours has been highlighted in recent weeks, from safe shopping hours at grocery stores for seniors and people with disabilities, to special drive-through hours that may differ from the hours a store or bank lobby is open. It’s expected that Google will soon release a method for managing these “secondary hours” and displaying them clearly to the public.
Displaying Special Messaging
There are numerous circumstances that won’t be easily captured by available features in local search profiles. Luckily, most local channels offer some type of special messaging field or feature that allows the business to describe safety procedures, explain modified services, and otherwise communicate with customers about what to expect when coming to the store. The following table captures the method on each channel for communicating special circumstances.
Google My Business
Posts, including the new COVID-19 post type, are the best way to communicate special circumstances. Merchant descriptions can also be used to highlight longer-term changes.
Bing Places has a new special announcement field designed to let businesses display a custom message of their choosing.
In March, Yelp added a default message to all business profiles indicating that hours and services may differ due to COVID-19. Businesses can customize this message.
A pinned post on each location’s page is the best way to communicate special circumstances with your Facebook followers.
Profiles on Foursquare have a prominent description field that is being used already by many businesses to communicate modified offerings.
In April, Neustar Localeze added a special message field to its business profiles.
Infogroup also added a special announcement field to its profiles in April.
Consistency with Owned Channels
Just as all local search profiles should properly display your offerings as you reopen, so too should your store locator and local landing pages reflect these updates. And of course, you have much more flexibility in messaging consumers on your own properties, so feel free to make your method of communication as prominent, clear, and customer-friendly as possible.
Note that locators can be a good tool to help consumers understand how offerings may differ across locations. For instance, if a retailer is offering same-day delivery at certain locations, a filter can be added to your store locator to make those locations easier for consumers to find.
It’s also worth noting that Schema.org has a new special announcement schema type that can be used to help search engines understand which section of your landing pages offers timely information related to the pandemic. At this point, Google says it is only indexing these announcements on healthcare and government sites, but the company encourages others to use the schema type as well so that they can best determine how to add support for additional sites. Bing is already indexing special announcements on all sites.
Providing Clarity and Reassurance
All of us are consumers, in addition to whatever our job roles might be. It's helpful to put yourself in the mind of the consumer when designing and executing your reopening campaigns. If you're like me, you'll want and expect as much clarity as possible from brands as to the precautions undertaken to ensure the safety of customers and employees, as well as the safety of products or the safe manner in which services will be performed.
Your website is an important place to communicate this information, since you have more leeway about the presentation of the message. But consider these additional ideas.
Reviews and Q&A
Google is progressively restoring reviews and Q&A to business profiles. On Yelp and other sites, reviews never went away. These methods of communication should be treated with great care and attention in the coming weeks and months. Consumers will use reviews to communicate their experience with your stores and offices. You'll want to listen to them, respond to them, and learn from them.
As a reminder, Google disabled new reviews and responses on March 20. At the same time, the company hid Q&A on all profiles. They did this to prioritize critical edits and to remove sources of potential misinformation in the early stages of the pandemic. In recent days, however, responses and some new reviews have been restored, and for at least some businesses, the Q&A section is now showing again. Google states that all disabled features will gradually come back to full functionality.
As consumers start writing reviews again on Google, and continue to do so on other sites like Yelp, Facebook, and Trip Advisor, business owners will want to pay particular attention to consumers who share their opinions about newly modified offerings in light of the pandemic. Aside from the need to communicate directly with these reviewers through review response, businesses should be alert to the possibility that feedback from reviewers can improve their near-term operations.
Though sometimes overlooked as a means of communication, photos can play a powerful role in establishing your brand's message and can even convey important information. Photos might be used in your online profiles and your website to show consumers what the experience inside your stores looks like. Cashier stations with plexiglass protection, signage that helps consumers maintain proper distance, and more can be more vividly shown in photos than perhaps any other way.