Every recession has three stages: the initial drop, the slow climb out of it, and the growth that follows. The impact of a recession will depend on the depth of the drop and how long it takes to resurface. Right now, we’re in freefall. There’s nothing exhilarating about that. It’s frightening, and there’s an unprecedented emotional weight associated with it as we empathize with the staggering number of people directly impacted by COVID-19.
As marketers and business leaders, we can’t allow ourselves to become paralyzed by the shock of this global crisis. The actions we take now will give us the foundation to survive and even thrive as the economy stabilizes.
You have a lot to sort out when it comes to external and internal communication around this crisis — how you work with your employees and community, and how you speak to your customer base. Let’s focus specifically on digital marketing for now.
In 2008 and 2009, digital marketers faced their first recession. Consumer confidence hit an all-time low, prompting marketing responses that ranged from panicked cuts in all digital marketing budgets to increased digital advertising spends. As we face a growing economic crisis once more, we must look back at how the previous recession played out. At the same time, we must keep in mind that we’re in thoroughly uncharted territory. This is more than a drop in consumer confidence — we’re facing a global health crisis and looking for hope and guidance.
Here are some steps you can take now to use digital marketing to mitigate a downward economic turn.
Don’t hit the brakes and cut marketing spending
As tempting as it might be to conserve resources by cutting spending dramatically, this will only create a bigger hole for you to climb out of. You’ll save in the short-term but you’ll lose in the long run. Post-recession, when your competitors haven’t experienced as much of a dip because they stayed the course, you’ll have to spend more to get back to where you were.
Why keep spending on digital advertising?
- In 2009, ad spending dropped 9 percent. You could actually be better positioned if the overall volume of advertising in your industry drops. This is an opportunity to stand out and even a chance to launch a new product and service with less white noise to compete with.
- It’s a buyer’s market for advertisers. You’ll see a lower CPM/CPC when bidding. Take advantage of the opportunity to launch targeted SEM, paid social, and programmatic campaigns at a more affordable rate.
- COVID-19 has disrupted our physical patterns and spending habits, but these changes are so fresh that new rhythms have not been established by most people. Historically this would make it difficult to target your digital advertising messages to your audience. But with the advent of addressable geofencing, and with much of the country staying at home for the time being (on devices), you can deliver digital advertisements straight to peoples’ devices in their homes.
- People might not be buying newspapers or driving by billboards, but they’re definitely online. Internet use has grown a stunning 70 percent with streaming up 12 percent. Tailor your campaigns to speak to this highly engaged audience — while being aware of and sensitive to the reason why they’re online so much.
All this being said, you shouldn’t keep on keeping on with what you were doing before. The campaigns you developed two months ago are likely irrelevant now. Put that advertising money behind campaigns that speak to your audience with sensitivity.
Of course, if you are not able to remain in operation, you’ll need to rethink advertising. While it could make sense to maintain a level of brand awareness, it would not be appropriate to advertise services that are temporarily unavailable.
Better yet, develop products and services that people truly need right now — even if that requires a serious pivot.
People will remember who helped them.
Market like a good citizen of the world
This is the time to consider your core values as an organization and as a leader. This isn’t the time to wonder how you can profit off a crisis. Do you have what it takes to weather that crisis with integrity? People will remember who helped them. They’ll also remember who preyed on fear and insecurity to get ahead. In short: Don’t be a ghoul — be a helper.
What does that look like?
- Revisit your buyer personas. How have their pain points changed? How might they continue to change as the economy falters? What do they value? How do they seek solace during this time? Has this crisis introduced your brand to a new audience?
- Monitor consumer behavior. Using a baseline framework, sort out how your audience segments respond to an economic downturn. Tailor this framework to your specific industry to determine how behavior has and will continue to change depending on whether your offering is essential, a treat, postponable, or expendable. Leverage this information to develop messaging and campaigns that will resonate with your audience accordingly.
- Market through the lens of trauma. People are experiencing varying levels of trauma as a result of COVID-19 and the economic crisis growing in the fallout. People will be looking for solutions and things that make them feel happier, safer, and more secure. Marketing is, by nature, a form of manipulation. Recognize that and don’t be exploitative.
Keep a close eye on evolving consumer trends
You probably want to dial down the onslaught of (oftentimes bad) news, but you need to keep an eye on trends and data around the way people are spending money (or not spending money) in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While we can look for direction from how things played out in previous recessions, what we’re experiencing now has to be considered its own new and unique situation. Fortunately, data exists to show us everything from how often people are leaving the house to what they’re spending money on and what they’re avoiding spending on. Always remember that data shows just one part of a picture. For example, heat maps that showed that people traveled more in certain areas did not contextualize that those areas are rife with food deserts. People left the house for food — not out of a lack of social responsibility.
McKinsey & Company recommends that companies think and act across five horizons:
This approach should be reflected not only in how you respond to COVID-19 and economic woes as a business, but how you respond as you market what your business has to offer.
We’re all adapting at a rapid pace. In many ways, this is a large-scale social experiment. We must innovate to survive and save lives. Let this spirit of innovation and adaptation inform not only your marketing, but also your core product and service offerings. You may find that you can diversify your revenue streams or offer different pricing models as you continue building your brand in the hearts and minds of your customers.
Solidify sales and marketing alignment
With so many moving pieces at play, it’s never been as important to align your sales and marketing teams. Sales is on the front line. They’re hearing anxieties in real-time and witnessing a pipeline rapidly drying up. Marketing teams should be fact-finding with sales, getting insight into how potential clients are feeling and why they’re saying no. Sales should be working closely with marketing to develop new ways to speak to consumers about what they’re facing and where your organization fits into the bigger picture of surviving and thriving in a new paradigm.
Work together to take a content-based approach to meeting consumer needs and responding to real problems.
Try not to approach marketing like The Hunger Games
During this crisis, we’re at war between an innate desire to help others and an instinctive need to protect ourselves. This can get tense in surprising ways, as we have to gauge the very safety of previously normal activities like walking next to another human at the grocery store. We’re being subtly trained to see other people as a threat to our very survival. No matter how fleeting those feelings might be, they’re very real. And they can bleed over into how you make business and marketing decisions.
Try to avoid a scarcity mindset and a sense of life-and-death competition with others in your space. You’ll end up making decisions based on fear when you have an opportunity to make decisions and develop campaigns that have a foundation of positivity and hope. This is easier said than done, but something as simple as setting an intention to be positive can help.
Communicate to your teams that you’re making an effort to approach this with the spirit of innovation and hope. You’ll set a tone for creativity and curiosity — and you’ll find that ideas flow more freely. Hopefully, you’ll also find that what you come up with from a product and marketing perspective is more aligned with who you want to be than what you’d come up with if every decision you made was shaped by cutthroat survival.
Double down on content marketing now
Content marketing and search engine optimization are a long game. Take steps now to be in a better-than-ever position as the economy stabilizes and your consumer behavior returns to something closer to normal.
(Or a new normal.)
If this sounds a bit like a guessing game, you’re right. But marketing is always informed in part by looking at trends and making educated guesses. When creating evergreen content, don’t chase wild trends. Stick to the core of what your organization has always succeeded at and the value you provide to your customers. When you’re creating comprehensive guides, focus primarily on timeless problems and solutions that you offer.
That doesn’t mean avoiding COVID-19 specific content, but it does mean that at least part of your digital marketing strategy should have a long-term approach. Conduct a thorough content audit and keyword analysis to determine how to grow your search engine visibility.
Ask yourself these questions.
- What do you want to rank for a year from now?
- How do you want to be positioned as a thought leader when people are coming out of the fog of a recession?
- What have your core competencies always been?
- What has always made you different from your competitors?
People will be looking for help and solutions during and after an economic downturn. Using your keyword research to guide you, start working on content marketing assets like ebooks, guides, long-form blog posts, video series and email series that reflect the answers to these questions.
Great article, Maria.
I absolutely agree that this is the time to double down on digital marketing and invest. We all have the time to create amazing content right now and do all the stuff we never got to do all these months. Or years in some cases.
Being a helper is always the way to go! This is why my agency, Dragon Digital Marketing, offers free consultations right now.
Keep up the great work.