dog on a desk
PHOTO: Andy Orin

It's been a month since I wrote "Marketing in a Crisis." At the time, the coronavirus was starting to worry me but I thought if I just wrote about that, it might seem too reactionary. Instead, I wrote a general article on crisis marketing and covered the virus as an example of events out of a company's control. 

What a difference four weeks makes!

My house today looks likes NASA mission control, with monitors scattered across every flat surface in site. I’m in week four of working from my home in Rhode Island, and we have two of our five adult children isolating with us as well. As an introvert, I’m quite happy to work from home and am grateful that I have a job that allows me to do that, and space to accommodate us all. Not to mention my youngest daughter likes her world very ordered and has been cleaning out all the closets, the pantry, and makes the kitchen sparkle every morning. So, no complaints from me (and no, you can’t borrow my daughter).

I’ve written many times that marketing is a challenging profession because of the continually increasing responsibilities, scale of micro-targeting, and the rapid evolution of technology. The coronavirus has added more challenges to the list:

  1. Communications Strategy. We all need to think about how and what we communicate to our constituent audiences in a time of crisis.
  2. Spend Less. With the economic climate in flux, companies are asking their teams to freeze spending and look for areas where cuts can be made.
  3. Digital. Digital. Digital. As marketers look to reduce expenditures, they must also address shifting budgetary allocation, eliminating offline programs for the time being and going all in on digital. This impacts people, programs and technology.

Communications Strategy

We’ve all had to adjust our messaging to reflect and acknowledge the impact this crisis is having on our employees, customers and prospects. This is not a “one and done” exercise: we’ll have to continue to adjust rapidly as the environment changes. Though the messaging for each company will be different, there are a few overarching guidelines.

  1. Be authentic and communicate like human beings — lose the marketing jargon. Authenticity will get you 80% of the way there. Most everyone is appreciative of communications that are direct in nature. Stop with the “Are you OK?” messaging — it isn’t authentic, it's cluttering my inbox and really annoys me. One of the positive things of our current situation is that in B2B environments our phone and zoom communications have become more personal. Customers and prospects are seeing into our homes and seeing us without our hair and makeup done. We now start our calls by asking about each other’s experience. My dev team is in India and we’ve had some really interesting discussions about how we are each affected by the shutdowns and what we are doing in isolation. I have a customer whose hobby is outdoor photography. We’ve been exchanging pictures from our daily walks. We are regaining the personal connections and relationships that existed in the “old days” of face to face selling that are hard to establish in an automated world. This is a good thing and I hope this becomes a key takeaway and we move to a new normal, whatever that is.
  2. Communicate how the virus is affecting your company and what you are doing about it. I appreciate reading those statements on brand websites. I want to know that the brands I love are taking care of their employees and am happy to suspend ordering or wait for delivery. BTW I’m hoping that the statements I read match reality. If you put a statement out and don’t practice what you are saying, there will be a reckoning where companies will be called out for how they handled this crisis for their employees.
  3. Assess current messaging and programs for relevance and make adjustments. In the early days of the virus, there was a lot of chatter about tone deaf companies continuing to promote their cruises, travel specials, restaurants, and events. I didn’t jump on that bandwagon then, I was prepared to be understanding that it takes time to adjust email and marketing flows. But by now, core messaging should have evolved. Some companies are doing a great job with their advertising. 
  4. If your prospects aren’t buying, stop trying to sell them. Focus on customer engagement and finding ways to deliver value that doesn’t require a purchase. I really like the State Farm Good Neighbor Relief program. It’s a perfect example of acknowledging the crisis and finding a way to help out.

Related Article: Why Marketing in the Current Climate Requires Empathy and Deep Content Analysis

Spend Less

Economic uncertainty always brings a fear of the unknown and that generally leads to a freeze on spending. Marketing is generally one of the first departments asked to reduce expenses. Successfully accomplishing this requires you first have a good handle on where money is being spent. I’m constantly amazed at how many companies don’t know exactly where dollars are going. In anticipation of having to reduce expenses, now’s the time to:

  1. Take stock of programs that are on auto-pilot, and eliminate any that aren’t providing the ROI you need. If you are not measuring the success of each program, now’s the time to start.
  2. Catalog all of your technology (paid, unpaid, acquired and internally developed). See if there is an opportunity to eliminate anything due to redundant functionality. Assess the performance of each piece of technology. Is it delivering what you need? Are you fully utilizing the capabilities of every platform? Based on industry studies –— I’ll take an educated guess and say the answer is "no."  If not, why not?
  3. Assess the skills of your team: do you have all the marketing and technology skills you need? Where are the gaps. With everyone working at home now’s the time to assign online training to your team where needed. 

Armed with this information you have the information to a) communicate where you are to the rest of the executive team and b) make recommendations about moving forward and demonstrating the impact of cuts in key areas. Without this you are just shooting blind.

Related Article: What Are the Bare Necessities of a Remote Marketing Team?

Digital. Digital. Digital

For most companies, the current environment is requiring a reallocation of marketing efforts, at least temporarily, of offline programs to digital (events, direct mail, billboard advertising). I’m seeing a lot of grandiose statements about the need to finally enact digital transformation, but seriously, what does that actually mean?

Forget the grandiose, focus on what is in front of you. If you are woefully behind in digital marketing, then by all means start working on a plan to get you where you need to be. But for most of us this is a time for blocking and tackling and finding new ways to communicate. As you look to reallocate dollars to digital programs, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE avoid the temptation to do the following:

  1. Double the amount of emails you send. We’re all being bombarded and quite honestly, I think most of us are a bit more grouchy than usual so we just find this irritating. Focus on the quality of the emails that you are sending and give some thought as to whether they are actually going to be valuable to the audience you are targeting. We’re in the midst of redoing all of our email flows to eliminate any that are just promotional. While I’m on the topic of emails, it would be great if everyone would bring authenticity to the subject line. I know, I know. There are all sorts of proven tricks to drive open rates, for example: Starting with Oops as if you’ve made a mistake or starting with RE: to make it look like someone is responding to an email that you sent. Is it possible to suspend the games at least for the time being? How I would love to scroll through email and read subject lines that let me easily evaluate whether I needed to read the email or not. I even for a minute dreamed of an email convention such as starting a subject line with RS (Real Stuff) where email authors could flag an email as meaningful and worthwhile to read e.g. “RS: How to Sign Up for a Free XYZ Account.” Sadly, I quickly realized it would instantly be hijacked by spammers. All I can do is plead for sanity to prevail.
  2. Do not create video drivel. If you have something meaningful to share by video, then by all means create a video. But make it short. Do not create video as a replacement for other communications.
  3. In the same vein, do not launch a podcast series or a LinkedIn Live program unless you have something that is definitely of interest to your audience.  Remember the days when we all thought we needed a blog — how did that turn out? I’ll tell you, it became pretty clear pretty fast that blogs were suitable to industries that leant themselves to education and industry commentary and not for others.

One of the things every B2B company should be doing during this work from home period is making sure the basics are done. That means:

  1. Updating your website.
  2. Continuing with your blog and podcast if you have an audience.
  3. Working on tutorials for your product.
  4. Making sure that your product profiles are up to date on all the directory sites that are relevant for your industry.

And with that, I’m off to see if I can convince my youngest daughter to make me lunch!