creating virtual communities
Creating Virtual Communities: How Two Local Business Are Managing the Challenges of the COVID-19 Shutdown

While all businesses are struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown, small businesses are fighting extra hard for survival. A Goldman Sachs survey found that 51% of small business owners fear they may only be able to operate for up to three months in shutdown mode. With customer relationships and community engagement critical to the success of small businesses, how can they stay afloat without a physical presence or face-to-face interaction with their audience?

An Operational Shift

“The stress of having to close your physical location is profound,” said Emma Snyder, owner of The Ivy Bookshop in Mt. Washington. “We knew we had to make an operational shift. We also wanted to reassure our customers and let them know we are here for them.” To maintain relationships with their customers, Ivy turned to its digital channels. Staff sent their own book recommendations and pictures of themselves reading those books while in quarantine at home, so that customers would be able to see a familiar face. The store also sent individualized emails to the book clubs in the area that they have relationships with, to recommend books based on the club’s preferences so that clubs can still meet virtually.

And inspired by a class at Yale University where students write a short essay daily, Ivy has been posting writing prompts several times a week on their Facebook page, encouraging followers to send their writing to Ivy to build a community collection. “We liked the idea of everyone writing together as a cohesive activity,” said Snyder. “Bookstores are a cultural and educational center for the community. We are all sharing this experience, and we want people to stay connected.”

Events are another way Ivy brings its community together. Since it was forced to cancel its upcoming events, the store has been working with its programming partners, Enoch Pratt Free Library and WYPR radio, to plan virtual conversations with authors.

Ivy has also upgraded its systems for processing and fulfilling orders through its online store, which has seen sales increase tenfold over pre-shutdown levels. However, the process is not completely without the human touch: Snyder emphasized that customers can still call or email the store directly and ask for recommendations and will receive a response from one of the staff. The store has also created an additional website featuring book recommendations organized by category, including children’s books and activities.

New Ways to Stay Connected

“In this time where people can’t come together, we’re trying to brainstorm new ways of staying connected,” said Emma Dalton, marketing director of Rev Cycle Studio, a fitness center in McHenry Row offering cycling and barre classes. “We need to create a bigger connection and a strong sense of community with our tribe.”

Dalton explained that after Rev Cycle closed its studio several weeks ago, it decided to offer free content through Instagram, its most popular social media platform. Each day, staff instructors have been conducting multiple classes via Instagram Live. To facilitate home workouts, Rev rented out its stock of 80 bikes to customers. The studio also posted suggestions on how objects at home (water bottles, towels, etc) could substitute for gym equipment.

So far, feedback has been encouraging: Dalton has received an average of 100 messages per day from appreciative customers and noted that Rev’s online classes have attracted not just their regular customers but people from across the U.S. “At the end of the day, our customers are creatures of habit,” said Dalton. “They still want to sweat with us and are looking for new ways to challenge themselves.”

To keep customers challenged and engaged, Rev developed the Sweat for Seven Challenge for the week of April 6. Customers will receive an email newsletter each day around 5:30 a.m., highlighting that day’s scheduled classes, with an additional “lifestyle” challenge, such as decluttering an area of their home or reaching out to a friend they haven’t spoken to in a while. To promote community engagement, participants are asked to post a picture of their activity with specific hashtags and tag the studio for a chance to win prizes.

“We’re learning as we go,” said Dalton. “We recognize people have a lot to do at home so we want to keep it simple.”

Both Dalton and Snyder note that businesses need to balance promotional messaging with the need to be sensitive to their customers’ feelings and needs during this time. “We want our customers to stay happy and healthy while keeping Rev top of mind,” said Dalton. “We know things may be different when social distancing ends, and we want our customers to remember us and want to come back to us.”

“We still want to serve as a community and cultural space in our new reality,” said Snyder. “We want to project who we are and what we do in a way that feels authentic. Right now, there are a lot of ways that people are reading and processing and want to connect.”


For resources for marketers on navigating this challenging time, visit the American Marketing Association’s dedicated web page: