By Eric Dickmann

March 27, 2020

Crisis Marketing

The sky is falling! Watching the news every day makes it seem that way. There is no shortage of bad news for us individually, for our businesses, and the economy. The pandemic of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has presented government and business leaders with an unprecedented challenge of saving lives and the economy at the same time. It's not an easy task, and history will judge how successful they were, but for small and midsize companies, the realities of these changes are significant. For many, it pushes their viability to the brink, and every day becomes a fight for survival. As business owners, executives, and marketing professionals try to navigate these rough waters; there are some practical considerations of how to rework strategic business plans and deal with crisis marketing.

Man putting on store opening soon sign

Marketing Should Lead Your Recovery

Marketing is the engine that drives growth and in times of crisis, is the way you communicate what you stand for in the marketplace. How you do business in a crisis demonstrates your company’s values and can have a significant impact on how current and potential customers view your brand. It’s an opportunity to lead by example and show empathy for customers and communities. This isn’t the time to layoff your marketing department but rather shift focus. It's a time to build brand value, re-evaluate marketing plans, and plan for the future. Just like the stock market, when it's down, you want to get ready to buy. If you wait until it rises, you've already missed out on the gains. The same is true with marketing. Get your plans in place now for the recovery so that as the economy ramps back up, you can be ready to take advantage of new demand.

Stopping Advertising
1. Analyze Your Data

To be ready to restart your marketing efforts, you should first identify current problem areas. Are you using an analytical tool to identify areas of your strategy that isn't working? Google Analytics is a powerful tool to help determine which marketing channels are bringing in the bulk of your traffic and which aren't producing results. If you’re sending out email, how long has it been since you’ve scrubbed your list? If contacts aren’t opening your messages and haven’t engaged with you, it might be time to drop them off the list. Hubspot uses the term unengaged contacts mainly with emails you send that repeatedly remain unopened by your contacts. A contact will be categorized as unengaged if they meet one of the following criteria: 

  • Never opened a marketing email from you and hasn't opened the last 11 emails
  • Previously opened a marketing email from you but haven't opened the last 16 emails

This is an excellent metric to follow, no matter what platform you use. I know I receive postal mail for the prior owners of my house, and I've lived here for over 12 years! Talk about wasted marketing dollars. Many businesses waste money on cheap but outdated marketing lists or are afraid to cleanse their list for fear of giving up on a potential customer. In reality, your marketing will be far more effective if you focus your efforts on prospects that are willing to engage.

2. Adjust Your Budget Priorities

As businesses seek to preserve cash by cutting expenses, marketing is often one of the first areas to see budget cutbacks. Spending money on advertising campaigns, content creation, trade shows, etc. can easily be viewed as discretionary expenses that can be pushed off or eliminated as part of cost-saving measures. And in some cases, this is a warranted approach to dealing with a crisis. When this pandemic hit the world economy, travel was stopped, and many businesses were forced to close or drastically scale back operations. That's not exactly the best time to be running promotional campaigns for many products and services or planning events and trade shows. In times of crisis, it makes sense to pull back in areas where appropriate.

The graph below shows what companies had viewed as their top priorities going into the year. Looking at the state of your business, would you rank them the same now? What matter most to your company and how can you adjust your marketing plans accordingly? Obviously, sales will be important to everyone as they seek to make up lost revenue but it's important to remember that with most businesses in the same predicament, who will have money to spend and on what? Seeking out those opportunities will be an important exercise as you ramp up your marketing campaigns. There's not much sense in wasting money promoting products and services the market hasn't recovered enough to buy. 

Marketing Priorities
3. Focus on Top Customers

In business, we often rely on Pareto's principle, which is the 80/20 rule. That means about 80 percent of customers account for 20 percent of sales, while 20 percent account for 80 percent of sales. To maximize your efforts, its best to focus on the most lucrative 20 percent. Rather than trying to please everyone, work to build lasting relationships with your best customers. For example, sending out periodic newsletters helps keep those customers updated on your latest products and services. You could also periodically email them and offer them specific promotions as a way to thank them for their business. While you shouldn't neglect the other 80 percent, concentrate on keeping your best customers informed and happy.

4. Think Differently About How You Market

It's easy for business owners to get complacent and stuck in outdated modes of thinking. Unfortunately, what worked yesterday won't necessarily work tomorrow, and old techniques can hurt your overall marketing strategy once they become ineffective. It's also easy to jump on the bandwagon and use tactics that are low friction but don't produce results. Google Adwords, Facebook Ads, and other online promotions may be easy to setup but disguise the complexity of using them effectively. It's easy to quickly burn through marketing budgets without getting a positive ROI if you're not careful. The same holds for older forms of promotion. While it may have worked in the past to send out a postcard mailer, coupon, or have a Yellow Pages ad, those are most likely not going to work in today's digital-centric world. If you don't know what's working and what's not, that in itself is a problem, and you should think about what tools are needed to track the effectiveness of your campaigns better.

5. Be Consistent In Your Outreach

It's essential to be consistent in your outreach and your messaging. Don't give up because you don't see an immediate response from potential customers. It takes time to see results, so plan your strategy to deliver consistent messages all year long. Establish a presence on social media sites, be consistent in posting content, create an editorial calendar and schedule posts regularly, post quality content, and visually appealing content. And don't forget to interact with your social media audience regularly. Build a list of email subscribers, encourage people to opt-in to a newsletter, and publish useful information and valuable promotions.

Successful marketing is not only about driving as many new sales as possible, but instead developing and nurturing long-term relationships based on trust that earn you brand preference, repeat business, and brand ambassadors. That's one of the reasons social media marketing is so powerful. You should strive to make your marketing efforts as personal as possible and to engage as often and as quickly as your customers want and deserve. Show customers and prospects that you genuinely care, and your marketing will be exponentially more successful.

Make Use of the Downtime

Most experts believe that once this pandemic is under control, the economy will come roaring back. It might not happen overnight and will almost certainly come back faster for some segments of the economy than others, but a recovery will happen. While some businesses might not make it, for many others, it will be a tremendous opportunity to satisfy pent-up demand. The key is to be ready!

For marketing, this downturn provides an opportunity to prepare for that recovery. It's a time to evaluate your automation systems, your data, and your plans to see where there might be opportunities for improvement. Are you using a marketing automation platform like HubSpot as a repository for your contact data and a hub for executing marketing programs? Have you scrubbed your data, segmented your customers, and built lists you can use once you are ready to launch new campaigns? Have you looked at your strategic plan to see how it needs to be reworked to factor in new economic realities?


Don’t Be Tone-Deaf

I’ve been watching the news more regularly and paid close attention to how companies are marketing during this crisis. I’ve been struck by the tone-deaf nature of many of the ads. While I understand that some of these advertising slots were purchased weeks beforehand and the ads themselves produced months in advance, many seem entirely out of place given the economic conditions. For example, I saw an advertisement for Audi where a group of women, fresh off a day on the ski slopes jump into their SUV, down the twisty snow-covered road for some apres ski action in the village below. First, ski slopes are closed, and second, car sales have fallen off a cliff as people are unsure of their finances and are forced to stay home. The ad is disconnected from reality, and instead of making you want to buy an Audi, it makes you wonder why they don't understand what's going on.

Contrast that to an ad from Cadillac. In this add, they acknowledge the current situation. They offer some free OnStar services, a deferred payment option on financed cars, and finally, if you need a car, they provide a way to purchase it online and have it delivered. I'm not a Cadillac driver, but I took notice of how this ad acknowledged the realities of the current situation and demonstrated a real understanding of the kinds of issues on people’s minds. Wondering how to pay your loan is a much more pressing concern that what you’re going to be drinking on your next apres-ski night. Excellent job, Cadillac!

Empathize First, Sell Later

The beauty of that Cadillac ad was it showed understanding and empathy. By doing so, it creates goodwill with customers and a favorable view of the brand. There are many opportunities for you to do this with your brand, as well. Acknowledge what's happening in the world along with the business and personal struggles of your customers. If possible, offer assistance. Whether it's merely sharing information and pointing people to online resources or doing something more tangible like deferring payments or offering free/discounted goods and services, you have an opportunity to build goodwill. It’s a great time to demonstrate flexibility. Of course, your business needs money too, and you can't put yourself out of business attempting to help others, but if you have the means to show real empathy in your dealings, you could cement customer loyalty for years to come. Pushing too hard by being overly aggressive to make up for lost time risks alienating potential buyers. Look for ways to sell smaller, more digestible products and services that struggling companies can afford, while keeping those relationships healthy. As they become more financially stable, they should be more willing to do business with a partner they view as trusted because you understood their situation and helped them during tough times. Be patient.

Be Open and Honest

Finally, as part of this approach to crisis marketing, be open and honest about your situation. Share stories about impacts on your company and employees, Speak candidly about what you've done to get through the crisis. Take about your people and how people have struggled and overcome adversities. Be realistic about what you can do and can't do. If things are so strained that you literally can't cut customers a break, tell them. Especially in a situation like this where everyone has been impacted in some way, being honest will help you build trust and credibility. It won't be business as usual for anyone early on, and so there's no sense pretending everything is back to normal. Be real.

Additional Resources:

Restarting Your Business in an Economic Downturn

Marketing in an Economic Downturn

Resources - Restart Your Business

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Eric Dickmann

About the author

Eric Dickmann is the Founder / CMO of The Five Echelon Group, host of the weekly podcast "The Virtual CMO" and YouTube series "Work-Life" and a fractional CMO for a variety of small and midsize companies. An executive leader with over 30 years of experience in marketing, product development, and digital transformation, he has worked with large, global companies and small startups to develop and execute marketing strategies to bring innovative products to the market.

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