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None of us know what the next 12 months have in store in terms of social distancing, mask-wearing, or vaccines. Regardless of that, whatever you previously thought marketing was must now change.
Thirteen years ago, when we launched our agency, part of my time was spent convincing business owners of the importance of a marketing plan. At the time, many of them remained unconvinced. It wasn’t because they didn’t recognize its importance. They had decided it didn’t apply to themselves or their business.
Today, implementing marketing efforts as a systematic part of doing business is still – unfortunately – a rarity for the majority of smaller businesses. Go back a few years and the situation was worse.
Back in the day, many organizations built their success from the efforts of what I’ll call ‘entrepreneurial’ personality types. These people were born salespeople, even though their title could have been Support Representative, Product Manager, or even CEO.
What they had in common is their ability for networking, empathy, and negotiation. These enterprising individuals were the ones with their finger on the pulse of customer buying drivers. They’d spend long periods away from home visiting contacts, prospects, and customers.
Their mission was to schmooze, socialize, listen, and gather intelligence. During a conversation they’d explain how their firm’s product or service was ideally-suited to solving a customer problem.
In essence, they were leveraging their personal brand. They would inform, advise, educate, and even entertain.
They were marketing.
COVID-19 Has Changed All Of That
Today, the realities of COVID-19 have put a stop (temporary or otherwise) to much of these kinds of direct, face-to-face sales or marketing efforts.
Business travel is restricted, especially internationally. Conferences and seminars have gone virtual and, regardless of organizers spin, are a shadow of their former selves as a result. Towns, cities, and states close themselves down almost as quickly as they once opened themselves up. Businesses that haven’t already gone to the wall are trying to reinvent themselves as fast as their revenue model allows.
We’re all talking about the new normal when, in truth, none of us have a clue what ‘normal’ is, and what it means.
What seems clear as a result of the crisis is marketing has become more important than ever before.
Businesses Have Changed
It’s not just in the area of B2C where buyer expectations have evolved. Businesses have also had to adapt. Partly that’s due to a business model no longer sustainable in the current climate. But it also scales down to the micro level.
Take working from home as an example.
For years, we’ve known many organizations don’t need to have employees commuting to and from an office building 9am-5pm, five days a week. Much has been written about remote working increasing productivity and employee happiness, but few companies ever did anything about it.
Many businesses didn’t have any other option than to implement a WFH policy when governments mandated lockdown. After a few months to smooth out the bumps, what’s been the result? Everything we thought about working from home is true.
More and more businesses are moving to a permanent working-from-home employment model. Relishing their improved work-life balance, employees don’t want to go back to the way things were. People living in cities are moving to greener spaces out of town. If you only need to go into the office a couple of times a week, living in the country becomes a feasible option.
At the same time, commercial real estate rates in cities have fallen off a cliff. Not only have business owners realized that expensive trophy office has become a white elephant. They’ve realized that – regardless of where the office is located – they’re paying far too much rent.
The other side of the coin is the challenge to adapt workplace culture. Connections still need to be facilitated and actively nurtured. Of course the culture changes, but it still needs to exist in its own right.
Sales and Marketing Models Have Changed Too
If you can’t drive or fly to visit suspects, prospects, or customers, what do you do? You market to them.
For retailers, the explosion in e-commerce during COVID-19 has been the savior of the industry. A McKinsey report concluded that over the course of just eight weeks customers fast-forwarded their adoption of digital purchasing by five years. All those bricks-and-mortar store overly reliant upon footfall are falling over themselves to set up a digital presence. Not just to remain customer relevant, but to stay in business.
The fact consumers are moving to low-touch, online channels to get hold of products or services isn’t a shocker. What’s interesting are the huge numbers of first-time e-commerce customers. Again, this is nothing new – we’ve been saying online was going to be big for years. It’s just taken something like Covid to accelerate the process.
Even as business revenues fall, the majority of marketing budgets have either increased, or changed in their emphasis. Not because of forward-thinking business owners seeking to proactively invest in ‘better, more intuitive customers experiences.’ But because their firm will go to the wall if they don’t.
What does Marketing during and post-Covid look like? Obviously, that’s different for every business.
Perhaps there’s a need for a manufacturer to be less reliant on 2nd-tier sales channels and sell direct to consumer (DTC). However, to do this well means more than just throwing some money at developing an e-commerce portal. Branding, image, advertising, and social media outreach need careful consideration. Then there’s using data analytics to track buyer preferences and personalization. There’s also the commercial quandary of how to deal with resellers who now see you as competition.
Markets and localization
COVID-19 has given us a clear demonstration of the interconnectivity of countries, commerce, and supply chains. Depending on your business, now may be the time to diversify the dependence on a particular market segment, customer cohort, or even geographic presence. It may require a rethink on how you conduct business, internationalization, payment acceptance channels, operational agility, and support resources.
Sales and marketing collateral
Pre-coronavirus, we were seeing fantastic responses from print-based direct mail. But if your contact only comes to the office once a week, how likely are they to see – and react – to your offer? Are employees going to want to receive business mail at their home address? Marketers and business owners will need to rethink their contact points across an ever-widening list of channels. Things like videoconferencing, email, messaging/SMS, maybe even smart devices at home such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa.
COVID-19 Has Increased Marketing’s Importance
The structural changes resulting from Covid refocuses the concept of a coordinated marketing approach from being ‘nice-to-have’, to part of an organization’s survival arsenal.
A business shouldn’t have to rely on one person’s chutzpah to save the day. The cliché of someone slamming a Purchase Order on the table, delivering a sigh of relief from the CFO in the dying moments of month-end closing. Strategic objectives need to be considered over the longer term. Tactical execution must stop being a 3-month sprint which, when deemed a failure, results in someone getting fired.
All of us have been harping on for years about how brands need to rethink the ways they connect with customers. COVID-19 has lit a fire under all of us to get off our collective butts and get on with it.