Copywriting, psychology

COVID-19: Sink or swim for businesses

Quarantine, pandemic, self-isolation, COVID-19, “wash your hands”, “stay home”, x new cases, rising death toll…

Hearing these words doesn’t exactly encourage spending money. These words suggest saving money in case something terrible happens.

You may be tired of hearing about the virus by now, but now is exactly the time you need to pay extra close attention. People need high quality products and services more than ever. In a market desperate for stability, poor quality products and services will be eradicated. Businesses that rise to the occasion will fare better than businesses that close up shop just when customers need them. No business, no matter how big or small, is immune to this (pun intended). Even medical providers need to step up their game. Practices that provide telemedicine and high quality medical advice remotely (online, via phone) will thrive in this market. Likewise, nonmedical businesses need to step up and cater to customers’ other needs (at a distance).

How not to operate your business during a pandemic

As of March 18, 2020, it appears as though some businesses may go under as a result of the novel coronavirus and its impact on our economy. To make sure your business survives this crash in the market, don’t do theses two things things:

  1. Refuse to adapt to the changing times. Yes, persistence is key. But being stubborn about changing your practices or delivery methods to meet new demands demonstrates rigidity, not persistence. Customers won’t appreciate your refusal to keep up with the times, and your business will suffer. Unfortunately, companies that cannot change their practices due to the nature of the business will likely take a hit regardless of what they do to adapt. Acknowledging and addressing their customers’ fears will help them recover when the economy bounces back.

  2. Refuse to acknowledge the situation. Businesses that act like everything is fine and dandy will appear insensitive. People are scared, and they need to feel seen and heard in a time like this. Acknowledging fears and concerns is paramount to maintaining healthy relationships, so practice this with customers to keep them coming back.

Questions to ask yourself as a business owner

Business owners need to think critically about customers’ evolving needs. And they need to work to meet those needs. Meet those needs by asking yourself:

  1. How can I help alleviate pain right now? Are there certain populations acutely affected that could especially benefit from my business? How can I adjust my marketing tactics to reach them?

  2. Am I offering products and services that can help people who are affected? And if not, why not?

  3. What are my audiences’ fears? Are their concerns mainly health-related or are they more about the economic downturn?

  4. How can you help quell your potential customers’ fears? Can you offer a discount in financial planning services? Can you offer delivery of goods for people quarantined? Can you post words of encouragement or positivity on social media?

The coronavirus pandemic imposes a defining moment for businesses of all kinds. Now is the time to evaluate whether your products or services are truly helping people.

The answers to these questions could determine whether you will sink or swim during a crash in the stock market, so answer them earnestly.

How to offer genuine help

I cannot overemphasize customers’ need for authentic help from businesses. I write about uncertainty from a psychological standpoint in my article here, and it really helps explain why people are panicking. Click to find out exactly how much influence uncertainty has over us (spoiler: it’s a LOT).

So, now you know what you shouldn’t do. Here’s what you should do to survive this particular economic downturn:

  1. Offer online content. If you have a service you can offer online, do it. For example, instead of throwing your hands up and canceling everything, offer online classes via Skype or Zoom.

  2. Offer delivery. You may have products that people don’t want to buy right now because they have to travel to get to them. If you have the means, consider offering delivery. For example, you may want to offer a care package with your products that you deliver to people. This would be a great gift, as a way for people to show other people they care, even if they can’t do it in person right now.

  3. Share, share share. At a time when people are cooped up inside, you know Facebook and Instagram are doing well. Now is a fantastic opportunity to build your brand and share your insights about the pandemic on social media. Share whatever it is your business is doing to help others. Share plans for the future. Share bits of positivity. Share, then share some more.

  4. Address your audience’s uncertainty. Lots of people are anxious about Coronavirus and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Let your audience know that you understand their fear. Commiserate. Ask how you can help. People like to be heard, so hear ’em out!

If you do these things, you’ll have a much better shot at staying afloat during the coronavirus.

If you can help in any way, do it. Be sensitive to the needs and fears of your customers. This is an opportunity to foster nurturing relationships with your potential customers, so do it!

What is your business doing to stay afloat during these times? Share in the comments below!


COVID-19: A Social Experiment

Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). Schools are being shut down, travel bans are being enforced, and people are stockpiling toilet paper and face masks in preparation for the pandemic. 

This panic seems warranted given the media’s news coverage. Headlines use language like “brace for infection”, “cancel everything”, “risk for disaster”, and “dangerous”. These words instill fear into the hearts of readers. 

Media coverage of COVID-19 has created a perfect scenario for a huge social experiment. In this anxious time, we can explore the fear of the unknown on a global scale. The media has used words that amplify the fear of the unknown, and this could be the driving force behind exploding sales in toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and other essentials. During this strange social experiment-type situation, we need to ask whether our fear is due to the danger of the virus or the fear of the unknown perpetuated by the media. 

Fear of the unknown

Anything new can be scary just because its implications are unknown. If you see a snake on your doorstep, you’d be afraid because you might be bitten, and you might die from the bite. You’d be fearful about the outcome, maybe just because it’s unknown. 

The great thing about psychology is that we can put ideas like “fear of the unknown” to the test. We can see how afraid people are of things vs. how likely those things are to actually happen. Psychologist Nicholas Carleton has posited that fear of the unknown is possibly the fundamental fear (2016). 

Psychologists Kagan and Snidman (2004) explored fear in infants. They found that 4-month old infants did not appear to be afraid of snakes, perhaps because the fear response was not yet learned. This suggests that we are not inherently afraid of snakes. Kagan and Snidman (2004) did find, however, that 6-month old infants appeared to be afraid of unknown stimuli. This shows that unknown stimuli may be scary just because they’re unknown— not because they’re inherently scary.

Snakes vs. car crashes

Let’s examine a common fear: snakes. The WHO estimates that between 81,410 and 137,880 people die from snake bites per year globally. According to the WHO, about 20% of the more than 3,000 species of snakes are venomous. And 200+ are considered medically important. Moreover, while this number is ultimately unknown, it’s estimated that 5.4 million people per year are bitten by snakes. That means that of the ~5.4 million people bitten by snakes, only about 3% of people actually die from them. 

Another common fear is being hit by a drunk driver. The CDC estimates that 1.35 million deaths result in motor vehicle accidents around the world. So, an estimated 90% more deaths occur from motor vehicle crashes compared to snake bites.

Chapman University conducted a study in 2017 on people’s fears. Researchers asked questions about how afraid they were of certain stimuli. Results showed that 35.5% said they were afraid of being hit by a drunk driver. 23.6% said they were afraid of reptiles (including snakes).

There is no right or wrong fear, and drunk-driving only accounts for only a subset of car crashes. But there is a huge discrepancy between fear and actual incidence relating to car crashes and snakes. More people reported fear of being hit by a drunk driver compared to those who reported fear of reptiles, which makes sense given that more people die from car crashes compared to snakebites. But if we are 90% more likely to die in a car crash compared to a snake bite, why are we only about 12% more afraid of being hit by a drunk driver? 

Snakes are like the coronavirus: weird

Kagan and Snidman (2009) suggest that people are afraid of what they don’t know precisely because it is unfamiliar, and snakes are relatively unfamiliar to people. Snakes have scaly skin that is much different than humans’ or their furry pets’. They have no arms or legs, so they can’t walk; they slither. And if that’s not weird enough, they stick out their forked tongues and hiss while they do it.  So, maybe we’re afraid of snakes not because they are just so dangerous; maybe we’re just afraid of them because they’re weird. 

Snakes are strange like coronavirus is strange. In the abbreviation 2019-nCoV, the n is short for “novel”. Anything novel is fraught with uncertainty. In accordance with Carleton’s theory (2016), we see a lot of fear associated with this new, unknown coronavirus. So how much of our fear is due to our uncertainty? 

According to the WHO, there have been 125,048‬ confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection and 4,613 reported deaths as of March 12, 2020. That’s about a 3% fatality rate … the same fatality rate of snakebites. And that rate only includes confirmed cases; there is likely a higher number of COVID-19 cases that have not been confirmed, which would lower the fatality rate.

How being overly cautious can be a bad thing

I haven’t given any polls to assess fear of snakes vs. coronavirus, but I’d be willing to bet that people are much more afraid of coronavirus than they are of snakes right now, despite the similar fatality rate. It’s not a perfect comparison, because snake bites aren’t contagious like COVID-19, but the fatality rate remains approximately the same. 

I’m not saying snakes aren’t dangerous. I’m not saying coronavirus isn’t dangerous. I’m saying that people’s fear of snakes demonstrates the principle we are seeing right now in our response to coronavirus. If we are disproportionately fearful of snakes because they are weird and unfamiliar, we may also be overly afraid of coronavirus because it is novel and the outcomes are uncertain. At the time this article is written, we are arguably more familiar with snakes than we are with COVID-19, so it stands to reason we’re more afraid of coronavirus than we are of snakes. 

However, being too fearful of something is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Research suggests that stress can impair the immune response (Reiche, Nunes, & Morimoto, 2004). An impaired immune response is not what you want if you’re stressed about a viral infection. Paranoid people rushing to buy their own personal protective equipment (PPE) has left a shortage of masks for healthcare workers who work directly with people infected with COVID-19. I’m no doctor, but I would think that it’s extremely important for healthcare workers to stay healthy so they don’t spread the virus to immunocompromised patients.

The media advertises COVID-19 in a way that scares people. Walmart, Amazon, and Target’s online sales of toilet paper are exploding, maybe as a result of the media’s anxiety-provoking messaging that implies people need to quarantine themselves. And if that’s not enough, articles on the dwindling toilet paper supplies further add to our anxiety with lines like “we don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” This is a great example of how uncertainty perpetuates the cycle of fear.

I’m not suggesting that Fox or CNN is in cahoots with companies that sell toilet paper. I am suggesting that the media’s use of fear-based messaging has a huge impact on consumer behavior. Fear-based messaging gets the clicks, the views, the social media shares. But can get paranoid people buying face masks unnecessarily, leaving healthcare providers with limited supply. And that could be more dangerous for everyone.

Newswriters are just people like you and me, subject to the same fears of the unknown. So do your own research. Fact-check everything you can (including this article) during this giant “social experiment”.

What have you heard about the coronavirus? Leave your comments below!


Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (2009). The Long Shadow of Temperament. Harvard University Press.
Reiche, E. M., Nunes, S. O., & Morimoto, H. K. (2004). Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The Lancet Oncology, 5, 617-625.