December 3, 2020

Strategies For Marketers In Times Of Uncertainty And Downturn

Julia Stead is the CMO of Allocadia, a marketing performance management platform that helps maximize marketing’s impact on businesses.

The global pandemic has caused instability on almost every level. The good news is that marketers have the ability to maintain or even strengthen competitive advantages in times of crisis. And the importance of doing so can’t be overstated, as the consequences of being reactive can be catastrophic to a company’s marketing organization and the overall business.

To stay ahead of the curve, I’ve found that three steps are paramount: strategic planning, executing effective messaging and scenario planning and continuing to invest in marketing.

Focus On Strategic Planning

For the first months of the pandemic, many marketers felt stuck and chose a “wait and see” approach to assess how disruptive it would be. However, the passing months have only brought greater consensus that there will be no smooth return — or return at all — to our old ways of life. We now recognize that success will come from pivoting quickly, balancing short- versus long-term strategies and taking a hyperagile approach to planning and budgeting.

One example of this is the cancellation of in-person events due to Covid-19. This reality was devastating for many companies, as in-person events are huge sources of generating leads, revenue and sales. However, many forward-looking companies recognized that in-person events are costly and that the money saved with their cancellation could be reallocated. They also divested from product lines that didn’t fit current buyer demands and pivoted to fund new product offerings and digital experiences that meet the current needs.

The way I see it, marketers who still think of Covid-19 as a temporary crisis are doing themselves a grave disservice. This mindset limits creativity in developing innovative solutions and keeps one in a reactive, rather than proactive, position. Instead, marketing leaders must keep their teams focused and aligned on short-term strategic priorities to help drive urgent business outcomes, while also keeping an eye to the future to evaluate different recovery/growth strategies.

Execute Effective Messaging And Scenario Planning

Once organizations have a clear and forward-thinking strategic vision, the next critical step is planning how to message, test and execute this vision.

Messaging is crucial in reflecting the strategic vision that has been established and communicating the relevance of your products to current buyer needs. It’s an easy time to be perceived as insincere and opportunistic, so delivering real value through actions — not rhetoric — is integral to the credibility of your messaging. I believe this holds particularly true for the racial justice movement, as there was popular sentiment for companies that exhibited their values through actions such as giving back to businesses impacted by looting and donating to community cleanups. However, sentiment can vary greatly based on different demographics.

Effective scenario planning and testing are critical to predicting how your messaging will land with diverse stakeholders. Another reality of today is that, even when the messaging is ready, more testing is needed to identify the best places to spend digital dollars based on ever-changing consumer demands. This may include evaluating different recovery/growth strategies and developing potential investment and return scenarios based on current trends and what they portend for the future.

Continue To Prove The Value Of Marketing And Invest In It

In general, marketing departments have seen significant budget reductions due to the pandemic, and have increasingly found themselves having to justify their necessity. Marketers can remind leaders of their worth by aligning with leadership’s objectives and demonstrating how marketing advances them. It’s also critically important to continually check in to make sure strategies stay aligned and the marketing team doesn’t go back to what’s normal or comfortable.

The “protect your base” mentality of prioritizing customers to drive engagement and retention often provides the best short-term return on investment (ROI), especially in this environment. If this is where marketing dollars are shifting, then marketing targets should be focused in this area as well, instead of on traditional key performance indicators (KPIs) such as pipeline and new customer acquisition.

Marketers should also never be afraid to ask questions to clarify goals. By elucidating goals, you can align with the CEO and other leaders on how much risk you are willing to take on. In doing so, it’s also important to advocate for yourself and your team, as every marketer is being asked to do more with less, but there’s a limit to how much is possible.

You can’t set realistic goals without evaluating budget restrictions and agreeing to ROI expectations. When one does initiate a conversation about goals, it is imperative to come to these conversations in a proactive manner and with a data-driven approach. Illustrating ways to measure ROI and providing data to prove marketing’s impact on the business is necessary in order to have a transparent and realistic conversation about expectations.

An important consideration for any current data-driven approach is to be flexible and agile in your decision-making. This is why I believe marketing teams should be operating in a three- to six-month operating cycle, rather than a year-long operating cycle. The former approach provides marketing leaders with time to think about different contingencies and when to reinvest in a market that has been closed off or minimized due to Covid-19 or a different reason.

Marketers can present a safe plan and a high-risk/high-reward plan based on current trends. They should be able to quickly adjust these plans or their implementation as needed if, for example, there are changes in the market or a pickup in sales. Normalizing the idea of, “These are our plans today, and there is a good chance that in six months, they will look completely different,” teaches adaptability, flexibility and agility to marketing team members.

Ultimately, remaining agile with managing budgets and crafting messaging is at a premium these days. Marketers can become invaluable partners to enterprise leaders by being forward-thinking, using messaging to meet their customers’ needs and aligning with organizational objectives.


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