First and foremost, we hope you are keeping healthy, washing your hands frequently, and social distancing. This is a difficult and isolating time in many ways (personal, social, professional) and we hope to make it a little bit easier with a few tips for your marketing strategy. Our team is working with a variety of clients across several industries, many of which have been impacted by social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Here's what we've learned:
Consumer Behavior Changes
First, good news. If you are a retailer (online or with storefronts) that sells health products, paper products, or food, you are most likely seeing an increase in consumer purchases of those products. Many other online retailers are seeing increases in purchases of all types of products as people are bored and spending a lot of time online. Amazon is hiring more workers at their warehouses and no longer promising quick shipping due to high demand.
Unfortunately, some retailers are also seeing disruptions in their supply chain since the manufacturing and distribution centers are closed down or understaffed to keep workers healthy. The meat & egg supply chains are also disrupted with the closure of meat processing plants due to outbreaks.
Now, the not-so-good news. The stock market is tumbling and may even be heading into a recession. In many areas, governments are recommending or requiring that people do not leave their houses or congregate in large numbers. This means that conferences, concerts, events, theatres, churches, and attractions are being canceled both in the U.S. and internationally. Associations that rely on national or international conferences to make money are delaying or canceling events.
Businesses are sending employees to work from home whenever possible or furloughing employees when not. Schools are putting their classes online and sending students home. Finally, people are being asked to stay home and socially distance themselves from one another.
Restaurants are open only for takeout and delivery in many places, too. Other brick-and-mortar stores and offices are closed unless they are designated “essential”. Many businesses are closed for an unknown amount of time.
And, even if your industry is not directly influenced by the outbreak, consumers, in general, are uncertain about the future and unlikely to commit to anything that involves travel or leaving the house in the next few months. They are canceling future plans and asking for refunds on travel purchases like airline tickets, cruises, and event tickets. The outbreak could have a long-reaching impact on many businesses for the rest of the year. It could even end up causing companies to go out of business or go bankrupt.
On the marketing front, agencies and marketing departments are seeing the impacts in both national and international campaigns. Search volume is not following normal seasonality patterns, rising in some industries like health, news, consumer goods, and at-home entertainment, and decreasing in other industries like business products/services, travel, and events. With our PSM education clients, we are also seeing a decrease in search volume around in-person education plans and applications. People seem to be uncertain about the future at this time.
First, good news: (for advertisers, not Google and Facebook), many businesses are decreasing their advertising spend or not advertising altogether, especially if they are in industries that are hard-hit by the outbreak, like travel and events.
This means that many advertisers are seeing their costs-per-click decrease on Facebook, Google, and Microsoft ads. This could allow them to reach a larger audience at a similar or lower budget than before. And, since folks are being encouraged to stay home and also work at home, consumers are spending more time on the internet than ever. There is a large advertising opportunity for companies that are able to be flexible and pivot with the trends that they are seeing in their industry.
While consumers may be spending more time online and seeing more online ads, they are hesitant to make decisions about the future. If your product or service requires commitment or future planning, you can expect your conversion rate to be lower than normal during this period.
This can also be an opportunity to increase your brand awareness and engage with consumers before purchase. And then, after the outbreak lessens and restrictions are lifted, you can remarket to that audience and get the purchases.
How can marketers adapt to these changes in behavior and marketing strategy?
In some verticals, it may make sense to decrease or even pause advertising for now. For example, for event marketers, if you don’t know when your next event will take place, it may make sense to wait.
For verticals that may feel the effects of caution for a longer time, like cruise ships, it may make sense to hold on advertising for now. But for many businesses, there are advertising opportunities now to connect with new customers that are at home and spending more time online.
While conversion rate may be lower in your industry right now, you can focus your spend on the awareness and consideration portions of the sales funnel. Later, when consumers are ready to purchase again, they will be familiar with your brand and a part of your remarketing audiences.
You should consider creating a conversion that is easier than a purchase to gain people’s information for use in later email marketing. For example, an association that had to postpone its national conference can consider a Facebook Lead Generation campaign using the same target audience as their registration ads but instead collecting emails so they can send updates when registration re-opens.
Or a school can collect potential student information in a contact form and start an email drip communicating with them while programs are paused. Then they will be able to send an email when travel restrictions are lifted and classes resume.
While CPCs are lower, you may want to spend more budget on non-brand searches for your products. Social media, display, and YouTube campaigns have low costs per click and are a good way to show your ads to many viewers at a cheap budget. This is an opportunity to get creative and really engage your audience with great content and eye-catching visuals!
Finally, you'll want to make sure that you are closely watching your data and following trends that you are seeing in your accounts and audiences. Every industry, vertical, and brand will have unique challenges and opportunities.
If you have a business that advertises in different cities, states, regions, and countries, each location could have different trends and timelines, depending on the severity of the lockdown and when it occurs there. Marketers should be pulling location reports at least weekly at this point to make sure that they are optimizing budget to different locations and staying on top of trends. Decision-makers in businesses need to be flexible and able to quickly adapt, make decisions, and shift budget and priorities as consumer confidence changes.
When the stay-at-home orders ease and purchase behavior starts to increase again, businesses and marketers should be prepared for a surge in conversions and search volume. After staying at home, people may be eager to travel and attend events. Consider having an extra budget saved for that time.
It may not happen at the same time for each location but may be more spread out. Be ready with remarketing campaigns to reconnect with the people that visited your business before and during the outbreak. Remind them about your brand and product and urge them to visit again and make that purchase. It may be a great time to have a special promotion. If you had to postpone an event, offer your early registration pricing at that time. Get those consumers excited at the chance to purchase with you.
In the meantime, here are some things we've noticed:
After search volume and conversion rates decreased sharply in the U.S. and certain areas internationally (Italy, France, Spain, China, South Korea) in mid-March, it started to slowly increase the last two weeks of March and into early April.
Google Display and video (YouTube) ads are doing exceptionally well in performance during the pandemic. Our current clients have seen click-through rates increase on the same ads and conversion rate increase while costs per click have decreased by more than 50%.
The clients of ours that have been most successful during the COVID-19 pandemic have been flexible and made changes to their business offerings and ad messaging.
Here are some highlights:
An education client of ours is now offering online courses worldwide for the first time.
An association client is not advertising for memberships currently and has made much of their online continuing education free to the public. They are spending their advertising budget to spread the word about their free courses and industry updates on the pandemic.
Event advertisers and businesses that rely on trade shows for B2B marketing are starting to get into digital marketing for virtual events
Ad platform representatives are recommending that our clients keep advertising but to do so in a way that's sensitive and responsive to the pandemic. Advertising should convey a sense of security and optimism, and even some normalcy in areas that have not changed.
Advertising messages related to COVID-19 are welcome but so is an escape from reality. Be careful that you don’t appear to be insensitive or taking advantage of the current environment. Don’t use words like “contagious, infectious, viral, gather, event, spread, killer deal”. Produce content that helps people feel joy and comfort and also keeps people educated and in the know.
Major ad platforms are stepping in with programs to help out small businesses who are struggling during this time. Facebook is offering cash grants and ad credits to small businesses and will start accepting applications soon. Similarly, Google Ads is offering ad credits to small businesses that are already customers--no application needed.
Both platforms have excellent resource centers for businesses that are struggling and advice on trends that they are seeing on their platforms (Google, Facebook). There have also been some changes to the marketing platforms themselves. All are warning of longer waits for ad approvals and support due to staffing shortages.
Facebook stopped allowing advertisers to optimize for store visits to keep people healthy. Google is making sure that businesses know to update their Google My Business account information like store hours to make sure customers stay informed.
In March, search volume and conversion rates decreased sharply in the US and hard-hit international regions. By April, performance and search volume were stabilizing and, even, slowly increasing. In May, advertisers were noticing that conversion rates were returning to pre-COVID levels and costs per click were increasing on ad platforms, signaling that companies that had paused or reduced advertising in March & April were returning to Google and Facebook.
Google Display & Video (YouTube) ads, which performed exceptionally well during the pandemic, continue to perform better than normal, and costs are still low on these ad types, which are less affected by competition.
Many US states and international countries started relaxing stay-at-home orders in early May and are moving through a phased re-opening quickly. Businesses are ramping up to get ready to serve customers again---although with new restrictions and responsibilities. There is still an air of uncertainty but also a mood of hope and expectation of a more “normal” life soon, both in the business and personal life.
Each industry is going to rebound differently due to how early restrictions are lifted for their type of business and how strongly their industry was affected by layoffs, business closures, and centers that are not ready to open yet. This is where the data in each account is essential for directing strategy. Just as you did at the start of the pandemic in March, you want to watch for changes on a daily and weekly basis and adjust your ad spend, targeting, and ad messaging appropriately.
This is the time to have a plan in place for increasing spend and taking advantage of business opportunities. Here are some questions to consider:
- Is there a new audience that you should be targeting?
- Should you change your ad messaging? If you changed it to be more sensitive to the pandemic, this may be the time to slowly shift back to highlighting the benefits of your product.
- Are you doing things like helping businesses or people get back to work or anything else you should be speaking about?
- Maybe you need to do an awareness campaign to let your customers know that you are open again?
As search volume increases, this is a perfect time to increase the advertising budget that you saved during the outbreak and possibly even use a promotion or sale to attract new customers. At the same time, you want to be safe and cautious, as it is possible that a new rise in cases could cause new restrictions. People may also be hesitant to rush out to stores and businesses immediately after opening.
The best thing to do now is to review your current ad performance, targeting, and messaging and plan for reasonable expectations in your industry. Come up with new ads and messaging with the right tone and be ready to pivot quickly with changing trends. Watch your data and what your competitors are doing to find the right time to implement your plan.
This is an uncertain time for consumers, businesses, and marketers. But, with uncertainty, also comes opportunities that can be found by taking a deep dive into your data and finding what is working and what is not working in your vertical.
With the help of an agency, you can develop a detailed, flexible strategy for as circumstances change. If you're looking for a team to help you with this, contact us. We're the experts.