Marketing in Times of Uncertainty – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Our work as marketers has transformed drastically in the space of a month. Today, we’re grateful to welcome our good friend Rand to talk about a topic that’s been on the forefront of our minds lately: how to do our jobs empathetically and effectively through one of the most difficult trials in modern memory.

We hope you’ve got a cozy seat in your home office, a hot mug of coffee from your own kitchen Keurig, and your cat in your lap as you join us for this week’s episode of Whiteboard Friday.

Video Transcription

Howdy, folks. I’m Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and co-founder of Sparktoro. And I’m here today with a very special edition of Whiteboard Friday. 

I think that now is the right time to talk about marketing in uncertain epochs like the one we’re living through. We obviously have a global crisis. It’s very serious. But most of you watch Whiteboard Friday. Know that here at Moz, right, they’re trying to help. They want to help people through this crisis. And that means doing marketing. And I don’t think that now is the right time for us to stop our marketing activities. In fact, I think it’s time to probably crunch down and do some hard work. 

So let’s talk about what’s going on. And then I’ll give some tactics that I hope will be helpful to you and your teams, your clients, your bosses, everyone at your organizations as we’re going through this together. 

The business world is experiencing widespread repercussions

First off, we are in this cycle of trying to prevent massive amounts of death, which is absolutely the right thing to do. But because of that, I think a lot of us in the business world, in the marketing world, are experiencing pain, particularly in certain industries. In some industries obviously demand is spiking, it’s skyrocketing for, you know, coronavirus-related reasons. And in other cases, demand is down. That’s because we sort of have this inability to go out.

We can’t go to bars and restaurants and movies and bowling alleys and go do all the things we would normally do. So we don’t need fancy clothes to go do it and we don’t need haircuts — this is probably the last Whiteboard Friday I would want to record before needing a cut. And all of that spending, right, that consumer spending affects business-to-business spending as well

Lower spending → cost-cutting → lower investment/layoffs → environment of fear…

It leads to cost cutting by businesses because they know there’s not as much demand. It leads to lower investment and oftentimes layoffs as we saw in the United States, where nearly 10 million workers are are out of work, according to the latest stats from the federal government. And that builds this environment of fear, right. None of us have faced anything like this. This is much bigger and worse, at least this spike of it is, than the Great Recession of 2008. And, of course, all of these things contribute to lower spending across the board. 

However, what’s interesting about this moment in time is that it is a compressed moment. Right. It’s not a long-term fear of of what will happen. I think there’s fears about whether the recession will take a long time to recover from. But we know that eventually, sometime between 3 and 18 months from now, spending will resume and there will be this new normal. I think of now as a time when marketing needs to change its tone and attitude.

Businesses need to change their tone and attitude and in three ways. And that’s what I want to talk through. 

Three crucial points

1. Cut with a scalpel, not with a chainsaw

First off, as you are looking to save money and if you’re an agency, if you’re a consultant, your clients are almost certainly saying, “Hey, where can we pull back and still get returns on investment?” And I think one of the important points is not to cut with a chainsaw. Right. Not to take a big whack to, “Oh, let’s just look at all of our Google and Facebook ad spending and cut it out entirely.” Or “Let’s look at all of our content marketing investments and drop them completely.” That’s not probably not the right way to go. 

Instead, we should be looking to cut with a scalpel, and that means examining each channel and the individual contributors inside channels as individuals and looking at whether they are ROI-positive. I would urge against looking at a say, one-week, two-week, three-week trend. The last three weeks spending is very frozen and I believe that it will open up more again. I think most economists agree. You can see that’s why the the public stock markets have not crashed nearly as hard. We’ve had some bouncing around.

And I think that’s because people know that we will get to this point where people are ordering online. They are using businesses online. They are getting deliveries. They are doing activities through the Internet over the course of however long we’re quarantined or there is fear about going out and then it will return to a new normal. 

And so because of that, you should probably be looking something like six to twelve weeks in the past and trying to sort out, OK, where are the trends, where are their lifelines and opportunities and points of light? And let’s look at those ROI-positive channels and not cut them too soon. 

Likewise, you can look inside a channel. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend Seer Interactive’s guide to cutting with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, and they look at how you can analyze your Google Ads accounts to find keywords that are probably still sending you valuable traffic that you should not pull back on. I would also caution — I’ve talked to a bunch of folks recently who’s seen Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and YouTube and Google ad inventory at historically low prices. So if you have ROI-positive channels right now or your clients do, now is an awesome time to be to potentially be putting some dollars into that. 

2. Invest now for the second & third waves in the future

Second thing, I would invest now for the second and third waves. I think that’s a really smart way to go. You can look at Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg and a bunch of folks have written about investing during times of recession, times of fear, and seeing how. Basically when we when we go through wave one, which I think will be still another two to six weeks, of sort of nothing but virus-related news, nothing but COVID-19, and get to a point where we’re transitioning to this life online. It’s becoming our new every day. And then getting to a post-crisis new normal, you know, after we have robust testing and quarantining has hopefully worked out well. The hospital systems aren’t overwhelmed and maybe a vaccine as is near development or done.

When those things start to come, we will want to have now messaging and content and keyword demands serving. Right. And ads and webinars. Anything that is in our marketing inventory that can be helpful to people, not just during this time, but over the course of these, because if we make these investments now, we will be better set up than our competitors who are pulling back to execute on this. And that is what that research shows, right, that essentially folks who invest in marketing, in sales during a recession tend to outperform and more quickly outperform their competition as markets resume. You don’t even have to wait for them to get good — just as they start to pick up. 

3. Read the room

The third and possibly most important thing right now is, I think, to read the room. People are paying attention online like never before. And if you’re doing web marketing, they’re paying attention to your work. To our work. That means we need to be more empathetic than we have been historically, right? They are. Our audiences are not thinking about the same things they were weeks ago. They’re in a very new mindset. It doesn’t matter if they’re business-to-business or business-to-consumer. You are dealing with everyone on the planet basically obsessed with the conditions that we’re all in right now. That means assuming that everyone is thinking about this.



I really think the best type of content you create, the best type of marketing you can create right now across any channel, any platform is stuff that helps first. Helps other people. It could be in big ways. It could be in small ways. 

The Getty Museum, I don’t know if you saw Avinash Kaushik’s great post about the Getty Museum. They did this fun thing where they took pictures from their museum, famous paintings and they put them online and said, “Hey, go around your home and try and recreate these and we’ll post them.” Is it helping health care workers get masks? No. But is it helping people at home with their kids, with their families, with their loved ones have a little fun, take their mind off the crisis, engage with art in a way that maybe they can’t because they can’t go to museums right now? Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s fine. It’s okay to help in little ways, too, but help first. 

I also think it’s okay to talk about content or subjects that are not necessarily related to the virus. Look, web marketing right now is not directly related to the coronavirus. It’s not even directly related to some of the follow-on effects of that. But I’m hoping that it’s helpful. And I’m hoping that we can talk about it in empathetic and thoughtful ways. We’d just have to have to read the room. 

It is okay to recognize that this crisis is affecting your customers and to talk about things that aren’t directly related but are still useful to them. 

And if you can, I would try not to ignore this, right? Not not to create things that are completely unrelated, that feel like, “Gosh, this could have been launched at any time in the last six months, sort of feels tone deaf.” I think everything that we do is viewed through the lens of what’s happening right now. And certainly I have that experience as I go through online content. 

Do not dismiss the scenario. I think that that history will reflect very poorly. History is moving so fast right now that it is already reflecting poorly on people who are doing this. 

Don’t exploit the crisis in a shameless way. I’ve seen a few marketing companies and agencies. I won’t point them out because I don’t think shaming is the right thing to do right now, but show how you’re helping. Don’t exploit by saying “It’s coronavirus times. We have a sale.” All right? Say, “Oh, we are offering a discount on our products because we know that money is tight right now and we are helping this crisis by donating 10 percent of whatever.” Or, “We are helping by offering you something that you can do at home with your family or something that will help you with remote work or something that will help you through whatever you’re going through,” whatever your customers are going through. 

Don’t keep your tone and tactics the same right now. Oh, yes, I think that’s kind of madness as well. I would urge you, as you’re creating all this potentially good stuff, new stuff, stuff that plans for the future and that speaks to right now, go ahead and audit your marketing. Look at the e-mail newsletters you’re sending out. Look at the sequential emails that are in your site onboarding cycles. Look at the overlay messaging, look at your home page, look at your About page

Make sure that you’re either not ignoring the crisis or speaking effectively to it. Right. I don’t think every page on a website needs to change right now. I don’t think every marketing message has to change. But I think that in many cases it’s the right thing to do to conduct an audit and to make sure that you are not being insensitive or perceived as insincere. 

All right, everyone, I hope that you are staying safe, that you’re staying at home, that you’re washing your hands. And I promise you, together, we’re going to get through this.

Thanks. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *