The world is different now, and it hasn't been a day or two since it has changed. It's been well over two months since airlines filled your social timelines with ads, since anyone has been on a shopping spree, since any of this even mattered, and since the majority of people thought about anything but staying safe. 

Global news revolves around the COVID-19 pandemic and the alarming numbers of new discovered cases infected with the novel coronavirus. For once, the true heroes the world usually paid less attention to wore scrubs and positioned themselves at the frontline of the battle. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the popular online faces that often stole the limelight for reasons such as having a pretty face and thousands of online followers were left with little attention (and budget). 

Influencers, the favored marketing resource of the last decade, are battling their own virtual virus. They aren't alone in this. Diverse businesses have been affected and left to struggle, with little to no financial help to rescue them. 

Marketing budgets are the first to get cut or squeezed as many companies pivot strategies to attempt survival. To many, social media budgets became the first to fall with decisions made to immediately halt any spending on boosting or promoting posts. To others, shifting usual operations to manufacture PPE kits for healthcare professionals felt like a natural switch. 

Businesses now face many tough decisions including where to invest their money. Influencers might have been the smartest bet a few months back when it comes to online visibility and presence, considering the influencer industry is expected to be worth $9.7 billion in 2020, a significant increase from 2019's $6.5 billion. But a new way of life has imposed itself on us, meaning old methods - though relatively news if speaking of influencers - need to evolve. 

For one entrepreneur, influencers remain a valuable asset to any marketing plan, though switching attention to customers and their relationship with the brand is growing in importance.  

Stephen George, Surkus, CEO
Stephen George, CEO and founder of Surkus. (Supplied)

"Having an influence over your network is always going to be valuable. It's how you leverage that influence over individuals that matters," Stephen GeorgeCEO and Founder of Surkus, told StepFeed. The polarity between peer-to-peer (P2P) marketing and influencer marketing, as he believes, is "the authenticity of the content someone shares with their network."

"In order to achieve growth through P2P marketing, brands must create meaningful connections with consumers which leads to an increase in loyal customers and more overall brand affinity. The best people to influence and promote your brand right now are your actual customers. Focus on them and it will lead to higher profitability in the long-term," George further explained.

Chicago-born and LA-based, the entrepreneur knows a thing or two when it comes to marketing as he's the CEO and Founder of Surkus, a platform that connects businesses of all sizes with their ideal customers for custom activations. Through Surkus, businesses can source authentic feedback on products, amplify their brand on social media, and drive in-store foot traffic.

Amid a pandemic in an age of technology, the majority of businesses cut marketing budgets first, then salaries and jobs. Though according to George, marketing should never stop, instead it must evolve to meet the changing needs of consumers and businesses. 

"You have to stay visible, continue to engage, and invest, but you must do it in a smart way. Consider what consumers are looking for and what this crisis means to them in particular. Is it a health crisis or is it financial? Being sensitive to the mood whilst continuing to communicate and connect will help to build lasting brand loyalty," George suggested. 

Surkus, app
Surkus app. (Supplied)

Besides deciding on who to leverage for a successful online marketing plan, businesses are also seeking to shift their operations to fit local demand.

"A great example is The Dubai Mall, the world's largest physical shopping center, that has managed to pivot to online shopping via noon.com in just a few weeks, tapping into noon's already rich eCommerce customer base. Supermarkets like Spinneys now offer grocery deliveries via aggregate platforms. The speed and efficiency of adaptation in the region is extremely positive," George said. 

According to him, the Arab region is well on its way for better executed P2P marketing plans. 

"Apple has been using a form of advocacy marketing for a while now. The huge billboards we see on Sheikh Zayed Road displaying images taken on iPhones by real people - this is peer-to-peer marketing," he explained.

"It's even more powerful when localized, which is what is happening in the region. We will continue to see many more brands and businesses leveraging the power of their customers to amplify their brand. Nothing is more relatable to a potential customer than an existing customer," he continued.  

Another trend he'd like to see in the region is one run by non-other than Google. 

"Google's announcement that it will enable retailers to sell via their platform without fees is an exciting move for SMEs that want to sell online but don't have the infrastructure to do it themselves. We have yet to see how successful the rollout is but if it expands to the Middle East, it would provide a new and exciting way for businesses to reach consumers via a powerful outlet. Not to mention, a large competitor driving the local eCommerce market forward," he said.

The region's many businesses, startups, and large enterprises must adapt to today's world, even if it means compromising and trying new methods. The end result to keep in mind is profitability with positive impact. The latter presents itself once customers are satisfied.

As people are staying in more, they're also reassessing their priorities while taking note of how leaders and company owners are addressing the pandemic. When a powerful figure proves humanity comes first, crowds will cheer them on. If brands do the same, consumers will connect with them on an emotional level, which will help drive brand awareness and support with both existing and new customers. 

"Stay visible. It might feel like the right time to cut marketing budgets and hunker down, but going quiet is a mistake. Consumers are active and they want to engage, albeit from the safety of their homes," George advised business owners. 

He concluded, "Typically a person is exposed to an average of 5,000 brand advertisements a day, now that number has dropped significantly, giving brands a greater opportunity than ever to get in front of consumers. Keep communicating, just refine the messaging and content to suit your target audience. Individuals want to know that a brand understands the current environment. If you can pivot your offering to digital, do it."