Digital Marketing Strategies in an Economic Downturn

Charles Brodeur


April 8, 2020 – 7 min read

This period of uncertainty isn’t going to last forever. But while it’s here, business owners and marketers need to protect their businesses, plan for the future, and explore new opportunities to serve their customers.

If you are in charge of your business’ marketing, you need to answer these two questions in an economic downturn:

  1. What do our current customers or clients need from us right now, and how can we deliver?
  2. What changes to our current marketing strategy & messaging are necessary to keep the business alive? 

Your business needs to stay informed on customers’ changing preferences and make decisions in a timely manner. Everything is changing so fast, but with data and direction you can make informed decisions. First, evaluate what parts of the business should be reigned in and then prioritize marketing programs that support changing customer preferences. 

Here are some overall consumer statistics that you probably could have guessed:

Global Consumer Behavior in the Age of COVID-19

Up to 70% are delaying major purchases until the outbreak decreases or ends, but:

95% of global consumers say they are spending more time at home consuming media

67% are watching more news coverage

51% are watching more streaming platforms like Netflix

45% are spending more time on social media

35% are listening to more streaming services

Source: Coronavirus research hub: the latest on global consumer impact  

Businesses that are able to balance timeliness with effective marketing campaigns will have a faster recovery time and better customer relationships over the next few years. 

We’ve compiled this to-do list to help businesses understand existing customer data to positively impact bottom lines now and lay the framework for a quicker road to recovery.

1. Check the Data First

Get a snapshot of where we are today and what’s trending. It’s best to have this for all marketing campaigns on all marketing channels & platforms:

  1. Google Analytics is a good place to start to see trends in your website audience, behaviour changes of your customers online, and conversion trends to see what action, if any, your visitors are completing on your website. Take a snapshot of the last 13 months to compare month over month and year over year changes. Use your 13-month rolling view to see trends going forward.
  2. List all the marketing platforms that you have been spending time and/or money on. This may include Google AdsFacebook for BusinessYouTube Advertising, email marketing platforms, marketing automation platforms, search engine consolesMicrosoft AdvertisingLinkedIn Ads, etc. We recommend pausing or reducing all paid campaigns until a review of the ad spend, creative messaging, and targeting has been completed.
  3. Review and audit all ad creative, images, and ad copy that are currently running. Pause any content that is insensitive, exploitive, or generally out of touch with the current situation.
  4. Create an organizational chart for each function in the marketing department and assign a single person accountable for each. This exercise is especially important for businesses that have furloughed or laid off members of the marketing team. You will get a quick snapshot of which function is actively being managed and where the holes are in your team.

Then, put together a plan to leverage your existing team. Build a reporting framework with the data they need to positively impact the business now and to lay the framework going forward.

2. Make Data-Driven Budget Changes

How are you using the marketing data to help make smart changes to your budgets?

Common reactions we have seen to the economic downturn is to start cutting budgets across the board by a certain percentage or stop advertising altogether. Marketers are being asked to cut the budget in order to protect the business from potential cash flow issues. I get it. Smart move. But where do we go from here?

In a recent example with one of our clients, the business asked to cut their spend by 50% across the board, and while the change would give a sense of comfort in terms of freeing up funds, the lack of data to back up the decision made it hard to understand if 50% was the right amount. We recommended pausing the advertising until we had time to review the existing campaigns and to prepare the strategy moving forward.

Using a structured framework for making advertising budget decisions is more important now than ever before. Combine a retrospective view of the last 13 months of data with an increased weighting on recent performance to build a spend analysis and make decisions around budgets that will help guide your business into the next phase.

A framework of short-term, data-driven decisions will have a long-term impact on your business.

3. Set Up Daily & Weekly Reporting

How is your website being affected by the downturn? Has the traffic completely stopped or are there some interesting changes to explore? How does today compare YOY, Month over Month, Week over Week, etc.? 

We typically look at weekly and monthly trends, but how often do we need to look at the data now? 

Many businesses are looking for an up-to-the-minute way to assess the impact of the downt on their business and to help inform stakeholders with a mechanism to report back. These insights empower stakeholders with speed and understanding so they can make quick, data-driven decisions. Speed to insight is of the essence. One simple but powerful way to inform critical business decisions is to create a daily and weekly dashboard that alerts stakeholders to critical issues and trends online.

We use a service called Google Data Studio to create daily and weekly performance dashboards and set up automatic email alerts every Monday and Thursday morning. During the downturn we are suggesting that twice a week is enough for most businesses. Mondays we get to see what happened over the weekend and plan to make necessary changes for the rest of the week. Thursdays we see what changes are making an impact to our website conversions.

We like to track the following data on our dashboards:

  • Campaign performance:  Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to Key Business Objectives (KBOs)
  • Platform performance:  Ad Spend, Goal Completions, Cost Per Acquisition (CPA), Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) 
  • Audience information: Traffic data for target market, users, and existing clients
  • Trends:  What’s up? What’s down?

This regular reporting on your online marketing gives insight to make adjustments and keep the stakeholders informed. It also allows you to free up time from building endless reports and helps you focus on strategic decision-making during this period.

4. Create a Campaign Tracking Framework

Did you know that you can track all your digital marketing campaigns in one platform?

Google Data Studio is an excellent, free business intelligence and data visualization tool that can connect to most marketing platforms and, when needed, it can connect to MS OfficeG-Suite, SQL Databases, DataLakes, etc. With a tool like this, you are no longer required to log in to multiple platforms and manually compile the necessary data to track your marketing campaigns. Having all your marketing data in one dashboard that automatically updates is now available for small and medium-sized businesses, and no longer restricted to enterprise-level organizations.

However, with that said, we need to normalize the campaign tracking data to get accurate results. When was the last time you updated your campaign tracking & tagging, if ever? The task of updating campaign tagging and the naming convention processes is critically important and not something you can afford to put on the back burner until the world is back on track again. Be sure to set up campaign tagging to support all marketing channels.

This is a fundamental aspect of a data-driven digital marketing program and is necessary for understanding performance from the platform to campaign, keyword to creative. Campaign tracking is the main tool to help us understand performance by channel, budget, and tactic.

This little, but important framework will let you know which platforms are driving traffic to your website, which campaigns are driving conversions, and the cost per acquisition for each.

5. Analyze Customer Segment Tracking

Which 20% of your customers drive 80% of your business? How is this changing with the economic downturn? How can your business be more helpful to these customers through the recession?

In a downturn, businesses must act quickly to take advantage of opportunities and build relationships with customers that will help accelerate the business recovery.

Getting Started:

  1. Look at your Google Analytics conversion reports and identify the highest converting audience segments. Look to identify the top 20% of users who are completing the vast majority of the website conversions.
  2. Detail the audience’s dimensions (geolocation, demographics, income, interests, etc) and build the audience segment to easily track in Google Analytics or Google Data Studio.
  3. Compare the top segments converting over the past 12 months vs the past 4 weeks. Identify changes and any new customer segments worth targeting with your digital advertising.
  4. Create an action plan to address audience targeting, marketing channels, and content strategy.

Being able to see the changes to your customer profiles in a month over month comparison sets the framework for your content strategy to become more effective today and in the months and years to come.

6. Update the Content Strategy

The content you’re publishing online needs to keep up with the changes that are happening.

And right now, changes are happening every day!

This is why we suggest at the very beginning of a major economic event to pause all ad spend and audit your published marketing content. You need to have a firm grasp of what is currently published and the consistency of the published messages. Consider implementing a messaging framework now if you haven’t in the past.

This can be a big job for some brands. There’s a lot of platforms, campaigns, ad creative, languages, etc. We use Overcast HQ, a Content as a Service platform, to manage all the digital content assets that the business has in inventory and can quickly identify all past and present published creative content.

Then, any new content published during an economic downturn must follow a few rules:

  • Acknowledge the current situation wherever possible, directly or subtly.
  • Be transparent and have empathy. We are all in this together!
  • Be careful of looking exploitive, even if that is not your intention.
  • Avoid any unintended messages that could be misinterpreted.
  • Create ads that convey positive messaging to the community.

Digital content assets need to be included in the Campaign Tracking Framework to manage the effectiveness of the content across marketing platforms. When the content is being tracked using the framework referenced earlier, we can see the performance of each creative asset across platforms in daily, weekly and monthly comparisons.

Here’s an example:

Just this week, we identified a drop in performance in one of our client’s websites. We knew the business wouldn’t want to wait for a turnaround or more data to confirm a trend so we paused the ad and prepared some new creative to replace it. Using a quick review & approval system we were able to get an update approved that same day, started testing the new creative, and worked to get performance back on track.

Key Takeaway Points

Many of your competitors will freeze and do nothing. Your job, at the very least, is to prepare for the future when the economy starts to bounce back. Even if you aren’t looking to attract new customers in the current environment, there are still things you can do to prepare for a better long-term recovery trajectory.

These are the activities to invest in now for long-term benefit:

  1. Check the Data First
  2. Make Data-Driven Budget Changes
  3. Set Up Daily & Weekly Reporting
  4. Create a Campaign Tracking Framework
  5. Analyze Customer Segment Tracking
  6. Update the Content Strategy

Leveraging data does not need to be overly complicated. Once you set up the framework, enable the tools to do their jobs, and review the data on a regular basis you’ll be in a position of power. Let’s regain control using proven frameworks, accurate data and effective marketing content to get through this transitional period and onto the next great opportunity.

The fact is there is a lot going on in the world right now, and with that, constant new information coming out. However, we’ve seen these methods to be time-tested and true, so if you want to keep this information on hand for the long-term, grab a copy here to save for later.

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