Overview

Even though things are turbulent, there is a strong case for staying the course with digital marketing — especially paid media. We all just need to take a step back and think about what we’re doing with our ad spend, and what it’s doing for our customers during these times. 

 

The Situation

The original title for this article was, “SEM In A Recession,” but I changed that. It was misleading; it implied there was a clear direction out of our current situation. There’s not, so I decided to call the article “Our Collective KPIs: Survival & Stability.” 

In 2008 the Harvard Business Review released a guide to marketing in an economic recession. It outlined an approach which focused on adapting to lower consumer spending power, building communities with hope, and prioritizing your values as a business. It said to take advantage of lower marketing costs by maintaining your spend and focusing on long-term returns. It predicted that value brands and low cost alternatives “…such as JetBlue and Wal-Mart” would do well.

As of writing, JetBlue’s share value is down 55% from last month.

Wal-Mart is thriving.

While some things carry over, the traditional laws of working through an economic recession are out the window now, because this is a recession unlike anything we’ve seen before. And its impacts on our collective psyche will be wide-reaching and lasting. 

This is not runaway prices & stagnant growth like we saw in the 1980s. This is not a spiraling reaction to a financial crisis. It’s not the result of shady lending. And it’s not a bubble. By nature, the current economic slowdown is deflationary: plummeting demand and production caused by an international economic shut down intended to slow a pandemic virus.

 “The reason people are not spending, and are not going to get their hair cuts, and are not going to fly on airplanes isn’t because they don’t have the money… it’s because of their fear of the health system,”  said Austan Goolsbee, the former economic advisor to President Obama.

Which is to say, businesses weren’t defaulting on loans or taking on millions in risky debt. Many of the now-shuttered businesses were solid and stable. And their owners want to be open; they want packed restaurants and full stores. But that’s not an option. Now, businesses face the problem of figuring out how to stay afloat and how to balance sales and marketing during this new era.

Yes, skyrocketing unemployment and mass closures are likely to transform our current situation into a full-blown economic recession. In which case, the general themes of this article and the Harvard Business Review piece still hold. But for the time being, we’ve got people dying and a virus spreading. We’re looking down the barrel of a viral recession, and staying afloat in the long term means following the back-asswards laws of virus economics. 

 

Our Changing Roles

“The number one rule of virus economics is that you have to stop the virus before you can do anything about economics,” Goolsbee says. 

What we are experiencing right now is paramount to an “artificial coma of the entire economic system,” according to an article by German Economist, Peter Bofinger. We’ve pressed pause on the global economy to slow the spread, and if we want to get things going again, our focus should be keeping people safe and in-place. 

Bofinger continues, “Economic policy is therefore faced with the task of artificially feeding and ventilating the ‘patient’ as comprehensively as possible during this phase, so that it suffers the least possible long-term damage.”

For government officials and economists, that means providing for the newly unemployed. It means keeping the lights on, keeping food on the table, helping small businesses, and, most importantly, keeping people out of the hospital and in their homes. 

For businesses, however, we are both the patient and the doctor. We feed and ventilate ourselves, our employees, and our customers. And the questions are: if you’re trying to navigate everything, what can you do to help minimize that long-term damage? Is there a place for marketing? And how do you do it well, without overstepping?

In our minds, there is. Those 2008 recommendations will continue to be a great north star, and good marketing will still be good marketing. The thinking and strategy simply need to shift to account for the new, socially distant normal.

That shift is simple. It’s something we all know, and it’s something many of us are already trying to do: focus on your customer’s needs and meet them where they are. Which, for many, is on their computers at home.

Another backasswards law of viral economics for businesses is therefore to ditch the old “inspire action” adage. For the foreseeable future, marketing should do its damnedest to inspire inaction. Because there’s nothing to “just do,” and the WHO would like to have a strong word with anyone who shares a Coke

Brands should make it easy to engage with their message and their products from a customer’s home. Which means that businesses should take advantage of increasing digital opportunities across paid search and paid social.

People have more time on their hands these days. Average screen time is up, and a lot of that is from desktops. People have more time to search and browse and stream. That means they have more time for deeper rabbit holes: rabbit holes they previously ended after a click or two on Google. 

As a result, online shopping across channels has spiked almost 25%, and home delivery search terms have seen unprecedented volume. Conferencing software and other work-from-home software terms gained traction. A whole range of social media platforms saw higher usage.

Advertising costs are also changing. Average CPCs fell across Google search and display. And Facebook saw similar downward cost trends.

 

The New KPIs

The opportunity here is two-sided. Businesses have the chance to help a larger group of people and to double-down on their core customers and niches. People are looking for ways to adapt to quarantine and this new way of working. To do that, they’re exploring new channels and asking new questions. Following the trend lines, businesses also have the chance to provide resources and answers across a new, wider audience at a lower cost.

We’re all looking for reliable information and reliable services. We all want some semblance of normal, and if businesses can address those core wants above everything else, they can lay the long-term framework for engaging a new set of customers.

So if you’re a business with authority or expertise in your industry, think of the biggest concerns your customers have. Address them as best as you can with content, and spread that information.

Sponsor and boost posts for tailored content across social media sites like Pinterest, Next Door, Twitter, and LinkedIN. Follow the hundreds of companies that offer specialized discounts and deals and advertise those to the people that need them. Test into resource-focused content pages for your search campaigns. Create re-marketing lists for users who viewed your COVID content, and see if they’d be good customers on the other end of this. 

Above all, trim your sales messaging and be a resource for people.

This isn’t just for the customers’ sake. Yes, people hate being asked to buy things when they’re strapped for cash. It’s annoying, and it feels inconsiderate. But our collective KPI right now isn’t sales or revenue or return. While paid media will continue to be some of the most profitable and widest-reaching channels for many brands, for the bulk of us, the top priority should be the health and wellness of ourselves and everyone around us.

Remember the first rule we talked about: stop the virus, then start the economy. The same concept applies to businesses now. Focus your spend on helping people navigate the situation. Spread valuable and accurate information to new audiences of engaged and curious users. Then on the other end of this, rev the sales up to a higher gear with new markets and new consumers.

Because this is unprecedented, but it’s here — and it could be here longer than we think. Like it or not, the world has changed, and the traditional laws of working and marketing have changed with it. 

So pivot. There are a wealth of new opportunities for businesses across search and social. And in this anxious, new world, people are eager for content and information. Good marketing is still good marketing, especially when it addresses and alleviates some of our increasingly major concerns. After all, we’re here to help our customers however we can. So let’s go ahead and just do it (online).