The New Agile Marketing: Navigating COVID-19

agile marketers planning

All Hands on Deck

On Monday, March 16, 2020, the entire Noble Studios team stayed home. We hopped on our computers in makeshift home offices, and we went about our usual practice of implementing agile marketing for our clients.

Coronavirus quickly spread across the country at that moment, and there was a looming sense that society and the economy were headed for the worst catastrophe in our history.

Governments moved quickly to encourage citizens to shelter in place and “flatten the curve” to minimize the healthcare system’s impact. Businesses followed suit to protect local communities, employees, customers and visitors, and coronavirus’s impact on business varied by industry.

Healthcare boomed, and the travel industry froze. Food vendors and cleaning product companies struggled to keep up with unprecedented demand. E-commerce performed well overall, as consumers spent 10-30% more time online. Many small businesses temporarily closed without the usual foot traffic.

For companies most affected by the coronavirus, the impact hit fast and hard. Many of Noble Studio’s clients sprang into action, working with us to form recovery plans. We are experienced agile marketers, but the strategic recovery planning we did for clients goes beyond “agile.” We shifted strategies fast and did so without knowing what was going to happen in the next hour, nevermind the next day or week.

We kept our heads up and looked for ways to make sense of the disorder in the marketplace. We saw our clients that were at the forefront of recovery planning and shaping marketing initiatives based on a React, Rebound and Recovery phased approach.

Noble Studios came to embrace and tailor this approach across all clients and all verticals. Our agile marketing methods of creative digital performance marketing are inclined to responding quickly to marketplace changes, producing campaigns rapidly that can be tested and optimized in real-time and then leveraging ones that succeeded.

In this series of three articles, we will focus on each aspect of our agile marketing approach to navigating the coronavirus global pandemic. We will share insights from our experiences, how we see the world today and what we believe will happen in the moving forward.

To Market, or Not to Market In The Age of Coronavirus?

“Only 2% of US consumers think brands should pause all advertising whereas 49% want ads to make them feel informed and 37% want ads to make them feel warm/happy.”

– Based on a consumer survey conducted by Unruly that surveyed a total of 2,556 consumers globally in late March 2020.

During this moment, businesses needed to keep messaging to their audiences. In fact, many consumers were still buying. And more importantly, there was a sense that this moment would pass quickly and new opportunities would come.

In mid-March, we began to embrace this three-phased approach that would make sense of what we were seeing in consumer behavior for our clients and for our internal team. A three-phased approach allowed us to isolate a digital marketing strategy with a process built around a beginning, middle and end.

The three phases to marketing as we saw it during this coronavirus global pandemic are:

  • React Phase: As things shut down, monitor rapidly changing consumer behavior to make shifts in business operations, marketing executions and communication strategy.
  • Rebound: As things are to open back up, adjust operations and communication planning strategies to an elastic marketplace without precedent.
  • Recovery: Optimize operations and communications when we are in a stabilizing market.

Noble’s goal was to create a platform for making sure client marketing efforts and messaging were appropriately positioned in the middle of each phase, and as the eventual recovery unfolds.

When building marketing strategies under crisis and uncertainty, flexibility is key. An agile marketing strategy means that you can shift on a dime at any time. Digital advertising can be paused or accelerated and SEO work increased or changed entirely. Content marketing and web site delivery dates were sped up, slowed down or paused altogether.

These were all considerations we were willing to explore as we look at each phase of our marketing approach, whether that was the React, Rebound, or eventually the Recovery phase. Read on for details on the React Phase and how we strategized during this phase, and continue to strategize.

The React Phase: Pivoting in Crisis Mode

Depending on how your business was affected by COVID-19, marketing efforts were either ramped up or came to a complete halt. Once the pandemic hit, we as digital marketers had to evaluate every aspect of our current digital marketing strategies. Agile marketing was the key to making communications work in this unstable climate.

This React Phase was really focused on making sense of consumer behavior overnight as government instructions to “stay home” were put into place.

The React Phase was defined by three specific consumer characteristics:

  • Fear, panic and insecurity.
  • A decrease in the purchase of non-essential goods and services.
  • Restrictions in movement – aka, “Stay at home.”

The React Phase is where we really had to be agile marketers and pivot strategies depending on how consumer behavior shifted.

As a result, we saw a direct impact on marketing efforts:

  • Short-term and long-term strategies needed to be reviewed.
  • Changing consumer behavior forced a reevaluation of marketing channels.
  • Advertising budgets were amended based on operational performance.
  • Messaging was reviewed to be in step with the changing consumer sentiment.

Pivoting and assessing became the main theme as all industries across the global economy became affected by quarantine protocols. For some industries, there were opportunities to engage and build relationships or to meet exceptional demand. Other industries were put on hold indefinitely. Some industries may not recover at all.

But one thing was for sure, whatever worked in February 2020 was no longer was relevant in March 2020.

Agile Marketing During COVID: Marketing Channels We Focused On

As COVID-19 became the new normal within the React Phase, it was important for brands to continue to show up for consumers. Shifting messaging to have an empathetic and inspiring tone built bonds with customers in an altered landscape.

Communicating this tone required brands to continue to engage in the digital marketing channels where they and their consumer base were already active. Remember, while people were instructed to stay home, they weren’t restricted from using their phones, laptops and tablets. Consumers shifted their digital consumption habits during COVID-19 – but they were engaging more than ever with brands willing to show up.

1. Social Media

Organic Social Media was an important part of this React Phase, and we saw more and more consumers looking to stay connected. Consumers who didn’t previously frequent social media now had plenty of time to stay connected and informed. Social media activity, like engagement and post frequency, increased to record levels in March 2020. Market research firm Nielsen reported a 50x increase in social media activity in India as the coronavirus initially hit that country. The coronavirus quarantine also drove downloads of TikTok up 27% in March 2020 versus the previous month.

Social media messaging that resonated was inspiring, inclusive and engaging. Examples of effective messaging included “We’re still here for you,” and being transparent about how your business has been impacted by coronavirus.

2. SEM

Companies affected by COVID-19 needed to continue to maintain a modest search engine marketing budget. Reducing the budget early, and when demand was slipping, preserved a larger budget to invest in the future phases (Rebound and Recovery) when demand would be on the rise. Maintaining a small budget for brand awareness campaigns protected the brand against competitors trying to go after branded keywords.

3. SEO

As consumer behavior shifted during this React Phase, so did demand on search engine optimization. Many companies leaned in on their organic rankings in place of paid campaigns. A challenge was that searching changed. How, what, when and where they searched was now done through the lens of COVID-19. Organizations that embraced SEO content planning with an eye on COVID-19 trends and behaviors gained an advantage.

4. Website Audit

Website audits were crucial to ensure website visitors had accurate and appropriate messaging relating to the business and operations. A few recommendations we gave included:

  • Ensuring COVID messaging was on the site that kept visitors up to date, including how the company and employees were handling the pandemic.
  • Establishing calls to action that were pertinent, sensitive and didn’t point to restricted information or activities.
  • Avoiding the use of overly aggressive or alarmist tones and visuals. For example, one travel client was encouraged to change the main website hero image from a bold red banner with the word “Alert” to a softer lifestyle-type image of their destination. Over the course of two weeks, time on site increased +7% and the bounce rate decreased by over +2%.

5. Email Marketing

Email Marketing saw exponential open rates across all industries over the course of March and April of 2020. While click-through rates decreased overall, brands shifted their focus to creating engaging content instead of CTA’s. Climbing open rates created an opportunity to engage users, personalize their content and capture additional information for later use.

This was also an excellent opportunity to conduct re-engagement campaigns. CRM tools are crucial to capture what pages consumers were visiting to build segments for later engagement. For example, by capturing these pages a consumer visited during the React Phase will lay the foundation for future phases when commerce stabilizes.

5 Lessons We Learned During the React Phase

We consider this React Phase came to a close in late-May. In early-June as “stay at home” orders were lifted, closed businesses began to conduct business again and travel restrictions were eased. As of now, we have moved into the Rebound Phase.

  1. Maintaining all marketing efforts, even if it was scaled back, was necessary for continuity.
  2. Reducing ad spend and shifting it towards the future.
  3. Selfless and empathetic messaging with tones of compassion and humanity was most effectively introduced too early than too late.
  4. Replacing acquisition-focused campaigns with awareness-focused ads helped nurture and engage consumers.
  5. Engaging existing customers and followers was very important to build lasting relationships. Coronavirus’s impact on businesses forced most to stop pursuing new customers and instead focus on reengaging with current and past customers.

The React Phase, the first phase, created a focus on brand awareness and how businesses could “be there” for their customers. Messaging was tailored to be empathetic for consumers in a literal panic. Digital marketing channels became even more important as media consumption habits changed and created new opportunities.

Were you agile enough in the React phase? How did you stabilize or grow revenue?

Stay tuned for our take on how to succeed in the Rebound Phase.