3 Keys to Adapting Your Marketing Plan to Reach Customers During Covid-19

Chief Executive Officer

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“This is a really challenging time for marketers,” says Craig Coleman, a Partner of CEO Coaching International. “Customer behavior has changed so much in such a short period of time during this pandemic. Consumer habits, routines, and priorities have changed dramatically, and the same is true for businesses. Millions of business professionals are working from home. There has been a mass cancellation of industry events and industry conferences. Spending is way down. GDP declined by over 30% in the second quarter, which is just astonishing.”

Craig Coleman: Consumer habits, routines, and priorities, have changed dramatically, and the same is true for businesses.

All of these factors have trickled down into how businesses are and aren’t marketing. Digital marketing buys are starting to flatten, and it’s likely this will be the first year in a decade when digital spending hasn’t grown by double digits.

CEOs who are making those cuts to their advertising budgets probably see a lifeline that will get them through the next couple months. I just see businesses pinching pennies for today when they should be investing aggressively in the future.

Craig recently hosted a webinar with a group of marketing experts to discuss how businesses should complete their online pivots and start engaging their customers where they are right now. Joining Craig were:

  • Erik Huberman, CEO of Hawke Media, a digital agency that functions as a full-service outsourced CMO for its clients.
  • Bruce Clay, CEO of Bruce Clay, Inc., a SEO firm that’s been growing businesses along with the internet since 1996
  • Mike Morris, a coach at CEO Coaching International and an expert in high-volume customer acquisition and lead generation. Mike was formerly the Head of Customer Acquisition at Grasshopper.
  • Jaime Cohen Szulc, a coach at CEO Coaching International. Jaime is a former C-level executive at Goodyear, Kodak, and Levi Strauss who’s led many successful marketing and brand transformations during his career.

1. Adapt your marketing to fit your new market.

Bruce Clay believes that struggling businesses should appreciate both the challenges and the potential opportunities in sticking to their marketing budgets. He says, “One of the reasons I think we’re seeing smaller spends is if I am faced with, ‘Am I open another day or do I spend the money on marketing?’ many times marketing is the first to take the hit. So, one of the things that we’ve seen is that in many of the ad areas, the return on investment has gone up but the spend has gone down, because you have fewer competitors.”

Bruce Clay: If you’re fishing there’s two things you need. You need to use the bait that the fish are eating, and then you need to fish where the fish are.

There’s also an opportunity to wear your company’s values on your sleeve as a way to promote your brand and attract customers to it. “In the past I think corporate responsibility was very different than brand engagement and brand effort,” says Jaime Szulc. “These days it’s all about ongoing purposeful brand engagement. In the U.S., 60% of people think brands are already responding appropriately to COVID. So, it is about that merge between corporate responsibility and brand engagement, number one.”

The importance of using your brand to tell a compelling story to your customer base is one trend that the pandemic and social justice movements have really accelerated. But perhaps even more important is the need for your business to be nimble, adaptable, and decentralized, especially if you were still relying on brick-and-mortar retail.

Notes Erik Huberman, “Is anyone surprised that Hertz and JC Penney had to declare bankruptcy regardless of COVID? Staying up with the times and adapting to digital was something that was supposed to be happening already. COVID just accelerated it. So, you’re seeing companies like Walmart, Target, and Amazon who all had a digital strategy, or were native digital, are crushing it. If you’re a company that’s leaning into digital marketing right now, and finding ways to adapt and attack at it, you’re actually seeing the benefits. Our average client has more than doubled their revenue in the past three months. It is an insane opportunity if you can find an avenue to pivot your business.”

2. Lead your customer’s online journey.

“At its core level marketing is always about talking to the customer where they are,” says Mike Morris. “I think one of the biggest changes that we’ve seen during COVID is that where customers are has changed. So, you need to understand where your core customer is, where they want to engage with you, and optimize for that. When you’re dealing with high volume customers, high volume lead gen, it all comes down to understanding those channels intimately, what your costs are, what’s effective and what isn’t, because tried and true channels may not work very well right now and vice versa.”

Mike Morris: When you’re dealing with high volume customers, high volume lead gen, it all comes down to understanding those channels intimately.

So where are your customers? They’re online. Even those that are starting to tip-toe back into stores have become used to certain safety procedures and conveniences, like ordering ahead online for curbside pickup. Potential new customers who are staying home won’t be strolling past your storefront anytime soon — unless that storefront is reaching them via an eye-catching social media campaign or an informative newsletter.

“Because we’re digital now, because there isn’t foot traffic, because everyone’s locked at home, you can’t cut marketing to hang on for dear life,” says Erik Huberman. “That is where you’re getting your customers. It’s a much more direct part of the customer acquisition journey these days than it was 15, 20, 30 years ago, because you could retain business through foot traffic, through other means without doing marketing. Your customer’s context has changed. Where they are has changed. You have to be spending on marketing to keep reaching them. Shutting off marketing is just cutting off your own oxygen.”

Bruce Clay says, “If you’re fishing there’s two things you need. You need to use the bait that the fish are eating, and then you need to fish where the fish are. The way I approach marketing is I try to figure out where the fish are, and then I try to figure out what is really attracting them, and what is it they’re after. What solves their problem? Then, you provide that.”

The restaurant industry is a perfect example. During lockdown, restaurants had to replace their traditional dine-in models with online ordering and carryout to give customers what they wanted: take-home meals beyond fast food. On a recent podcast, one of our entrepreneur coaching clients, Chris Gannon, explained how his Bolay restaurant group made a fast, effective pivot by investing in an upgraded online ordering system. They reinforced this pivot by doubling down on their commitment to their community, providing meals to hospitals and unemployed food industry workers. They reached their customers where they were while staying true to their authentic values.

Hopefully, at this stage of the pandemic, you don’t need more convincing that your company needs to improve its online outreach. But if you’re still stalling on some key initiatives, stop waiting. Not every bullet you fire during your online pivot is going to hit its target. You’re going to have to take a few shots to figure out where your best growth opportunities are. And you’re going to need top-notch people helping you figure out where to aim next.

Jaime Cohen Szulc: Ideas and technology are basically commodities today. So, how do you use your own employees, your own customers, to come up with ideas, test really fast, and make that work, but make it really consistent with your value proposition?

Jaime Szulc says, “Ideas and technology are basically commodities today. So, how do you use your own employees, your own customers, to come up with ideas, test really fast, and make that work, but make it really consistent with your value proposition? The most successful companies, they use their existing stakeholders, or employees, or partners, as sources of ideas on how to best link your value proposition to the current needs of consumers.”

3. Communicate authentically.

Let’s flip the marketing question around for a second and think about the customer’s perspective. If your personal inbox is anything like mine, you’ve been flooded recently with emails and social media posts from every company you’ve ever bought something from advertising their commitment to helping communities, justice, equality, etc. What was the difference between the messages you clicked on and the ones you didn’t? What separated the companies you may have, say, purchased a face mask from and those ads you sent straight to spam?

My guess is that the authenticity you perceived or didn’t perceive in these campaigns made a BIG difference. Every company’s trying to show that they’re one of the good guys these days. Customers are smarter than ever about weeding out the fakes.

“Half of those messages are from people, I can’t even imagine who they are, or it’s been 15 years since I was on that newsletter,” says Bruce Clay. “All of a sudden they’re sending me things saying, ‘We really care about you.’ They haven’t talked to me in 15 years but they really care about me? I think that a lot of people are swinging to digital and doing emails and doing different kinds of things that really have no strategy at all, that don’t have any legitimacy in what they’re saying, and they’re just looking at it as, ‘I have a mailing list, I’m just going to flood it.’”

Erik Huberman: Staying up with the times and adapting to digital was something that was supposed to be happening already. COVID just accelerated it.

Adds Erik Huberman, “You’re not going to be a thought leader in epidemiology if you’re selling bikinis, but you can help customers find ways to have fun while they can’t go to the beach. In April we had a lingerie company and two swimwear lines have their best months on record when nobody could go to the beach anywhere in the country. Part of it was because their messaging was, ‘The beach is still going to be there. In the meantime, while you’re hanging out at home, this is fun retail therapy. Take care of yourself.’ That simple message hit so hard because they understood the context of what their people were experiencing.”

If your next digital marketing campaign implies you’re going to cure COVID or spread equality across the world, be prepared for pushback. Yes, your company needs to have values and a message, but they have to be realistic and authentic. Ask yourself, in these trying times, how can my product or service make life a little easier for my customers? And how can my business keep supporting the people who are counting on it?

Looking at new data in the last few months, there’s a trend away from purchasing simply based on pricing and branding, notes Jaime Szulc. Instead, “People are saying, ‘I want to buy my products from smaller companies. I want to buy products from those companies that are treating their employees well.’ When companies say, ‘Yeah, we’re paying our people during these difficult times,’ and then their own employees are saying, ‘No, no, no, this is not true. You’re not only not paying us but you’re closing the stores and you’re not communicating with us,’ there’s a huge backlash. You have to adapt your message, but if you’re not true to what you’re doing, you’re done. Be very, very careful about being honest, being transparent. Empathy and compassion have to be present, but it has to be from the heart of the brand, and the heart and the soul of the people who work for the company.”

In Part II, Craig and his panel dig into the nuts and bolts of refining your SEO strategy and other tools that will help you make BIG happen online.

About Mark Moses

Mark Moses is the Founding Partner of CEO Coaching International and the Amazon Bestselling author of Make Big Happen. Mark has won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Blue Chip Enterprise award for overcoming adversity. His last company ranked #1 Fastest-Growing Company in Los Angeles as well as #10 on the Inc. 500 of fastest growing private companies in the U.S. He has completed 12 full distance Ironman Triathlons including the Hawaii Ironman World Championship 5 times.

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with the world’s top entrepreneurs, CEOs, and companies to dramatically grow their business, develop their people, and elevate their overall performance. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 600 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 40 countries. Every coach at CEO Coaching International is a former CEO or President that has made big happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $1 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight and nine figure exits. CEOs and entrepreneurs working with CEO Coaching International for three years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 59% during their time as a client, more than five times the national average. For more information, please visit: https://www.ceocoachinginternational.com

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