Marketing in the age of COVID-19 is difficult. It’s a balancing act of understanding your business, your customers, your digital audience, the global landscape, and the emotions and habits that are dominating our lives.
Added to those challenges is the fact that not every company is experiencing the same effects from COVID-19. Some brands are finding that demand has skyrocketed, making it difficult to keep up with limited internal resources. Others are finding that marketing plans from six months ago are entirely irrelevant, so they’re starting from scratch. And these scenarios go on and on—there are too many potential brand challenges to even begin to scratch the surface.
As a video production company, we’re acutely aware of the ways this crisis has affected marketing strategies, production plans, and day-to-day operations for many of our customers, but we wanted to learn more. We wanted to hear firsthand about the challenges, opportunities, and solutions that marketers—across all industries, locations, and company sizes—are facing.
To that end, we developed a 12-question survey that we distributed to our Lemonlight audience. We received over 300 thoughtful responses, which led to a host of interesting, insightful, and sometimes even counterintuitive takeaways. We wanted to share those takeaways in the hopes that we can all benefit from collective marketing wisdom and an understanding of what our peers are facing.
First, some background about our data set. Demographic questions provided insight into who respondents represent. We found that 70% of respondents work in organizations with 50 or fewer people, 14% between 51-250 people, and 16% over 250 people. This helps set the stage for the interpretation of later data points—the majority of businesses represented here are comparatively small.
We also asked specifically about the size of the organization’s marketing team, and again, we found that responses skewed toward the smaller end of the spectrum. Our largest segment was the 66% of respondents who have marketing teams with five people or fewer. Each increase in the marketing team size had fewer respondents than the one that came before it, concluding in 4% of respondents with a marketing team containing 51 people or more.
The industries represented follow no clear pattern. Virtually every industry is covered by the responses. Some examples include manufacturing, real estate, higher education, nonprofit, retail, healthcare, and video production.
We have a few takeaways from this initial background information. Firstly, as we mentioned already, the organizations and marketing teams represented here are on the smaller side. This often means that teams are agile and multitalented, with few highly specialized roles.
A potential benefit here is that small teams can often act quicker than larger teams and organizations. Completely restructuring a marketing strategy for a large company may take weeks of brainstorming, internal review, and oversight, but a small company may be able to turn around the same content in a matter of days. In a rapidly-unfolding situation like COVID-19, that efficiency is critical.
Secondly, the variety in the industries represented by our data set lends an element of diversity to the responses. Industries are not experiencing COVID-19 equally. Some, like retail, travel, or hospitality are being hit especially hard. Others, like healthcare, health and fitness, and grocery are seeing unprecedented spikes in demand. Because this survey captured a variety of industries, we should expect to see some of these variations in marketing experience reflected throughout the rest of the responses.
One question that drove the intention of this survey was, “What challenges are marketers struggling with most right now?” So we asked, and the answers did not disappoint.
See the chart below for the full collection of responses to this question.
Note that respondents could choose as many answer options as they felt were applicable, so the correct way to interpret this data is “X% of respondents chose Y answer choice.”
For example, 41.7% of respondents reported paused marketing budgets, which means that 58.3% did not. We cannot say that 41.7% of responses went to this choice, just that 41.7% of respondents felt that the statement was applicable. Those same respondents could then be accounted for in other responses as well, which is why the answer choices don’t add up to 100%.
Paused Marketing Budgets
As expected, every answer choice we offered for this question was covered; there is no universal experience of COVID-19. However, 42% of respondents chose the option “We have temporarily or permanently paused our marketing budget.” This was the highest percentage received by any of the answer choices.
We found this to be especially interesting given the time-tested advice that demands increased marketing efforts during economic downturns. In study after study throughout modern history, it’s been proven that companies that continue to invest in marketing efforts throughout periods of economic uncertainty recover more quickly and with larger gains in market share than competitors who cut back on marketing spend.
The gist of the logic at play here is that when other companies withdraw their marketing efforts, companies that continue to market themselves are able to command the conversation at a lower cost. Advertising gets cheaper with fewer players involved, and the ads that are shown stay top-of-mind for consumers because there are fewer competing ads to distract them.
Despite this well-known, commonly cited advice, many brand executives have a hard time prioritizing marketing. It can feel like an easy cost to cut for those who aren’t familiar with marketing’s lasting benefits and long-term revenue generation effects. So, while the results of our survey defy Get Your Brand Through a Downturn 101, they aren’t all that surprising.
To those companies who have paused marketing, though, we say this: Read up on the impact of marketing during times of economic uncertainty (we have an article all about that here). Then, consider whether it’s possible to cut other costs or to maintain a fraction of your normal marketing budget for a few crucial efforts. What might feel like a cost-saving measure now could hurt your brand when you’ve lost your position in the minds of consumers down the line.
Irrelevant Pre-Planned Content
Our second most common answer to this question, with 36% of respondents total, was, “Our pre-planned marketing efforts are no longer relevant (events, unusable content) and we need to pivot.” This can happen especially with content marketing efforts. Because content like blog articles, social media posts, and online videos can be prepared in advance, many teams will strategize and create content weeks or months before they plan to publish.
This is usually a great strategy because it allows for long-term planning and frees up time down the line to make timely content as needed. The problem arises when there are big shifts in consumer behavior or digital consumption between the moment when the content is created and its scheduled publication date. COVID-19 is a textbook example of this concept, and that’s what our 36% of respondents are experiencing right now. They had prepared marketing assets in advance that they can no longer publish as planned.
Interestingly, many of the people who selected this option also selected the previous option indicating that they’ve paused their marketing budgets. This combination may mean that brands have cut all future marketing spend indefinitely, but are trying to salvage bits and pieces of pre-existing strategies to fill in the gaps in the meantime.
If that’s the case, we wrote this article and this article about how to assess your existing content marketing strategy and repurpose where you can. It’s important to revisit this pre-planned content to examine whether it will be relevant and respectful in today’s climate, but not all pre-planned content is useless.
Some content, for example, can likely be published as-is, potentially with slight modifications to the introduction or conclusion sections. Other content may serve a purpose if it’s reworked slightly to account for today’s marketing limitations. Still other content may just need a new distribution strategy. Taking the time to think critically about pre-planned content and examine the ways in which it might be repurposed is useful, especially for teams that have cut marketing spend and need this content to remain viable.
Business as Usual
Finally, a portion of respondents chose answers that reflect little setback from COVID-19. A modest 11% of respondents reported that they haven’t seen an impact from COVID-19, so they’re continuing with their usual strategy. On the more positive side, 9% of respondents shared that their demand is outpacing internal resources, likely due to a surge in COVID-19-related purchases.
Some of the industries representing these responses include architecture, advertising, and grocery. The advertising industry responses here are especially interesting, as advertising was also heavily represented in the more negative responses like paused marketing budgets.
This may be a reflection of the variety of industries represented by advertising clientele; some advertising companies may have clients that are being hit hard economically, potentially leading to cut advertising spending, while others may have clients that are investing more than usual due to increased demand. Thus, the same industry diversity that applies to all of our survey respondents may also be present within advertising clientele specifically.
The other choices included here relate to not knowing which specific marketing costs to cut and which to prioritize, problems with lack of audience engagement, and challenges with working with team members remotely. An “other” option was also included, with write-in responses including things like, “Vendor delays are a source of stress” and, “Our growth has accelerated due to COVID-19, but available investors have reduced.” These responses point to the range of experiences companies are having right now.
Our next insights came from this question: “What [marketing] areas are you continuing to invest in during this time?” Again, respondents could choose as many answer choices as they felt were applicable. Social media marketing and content marketing led the pack, with over half of respondents sharing that they’re continuing to prioritize each of those areas.
Digital advertising, SEO, and virtual event marketing followed with roughly 30% of respondents each. Influencer marketing and TV marketing fell toward the bottom with 13% and 7%, respectively, and OOH (out-of-home) advertising was (predictably) last with <1%. Only one person selected OOH, which makes sense given that OOH advertising falls flat when the majority of consumers are under stay-at-home orders.
The trend to note from this question is that digital spaces are dominating. All of the top four answer choices reflect marketing efforts in digital channels, where many consumers have been spending extra time in recent weeks. Investing in these digital channels will be critical for brands to stay the course over the coming months.
Another interesting insight here is that many respondents marked some combination of content marketing, social media marketing, and SEO. Most people who marked one of these answer choices also marked one or both of the others.
This makes sense as all of these tactics supplement each other. Good content supports social media and SEO efforts. Social media posts can promote good content, leading to better SEO. And successful SEO strategies can boost the impact of good content and social posts. If nothing else, consider how you can use these three tactics in conjunction to maintain your marketing presence during this time.
Marketing Questions and Advice
Next, we asked about both questions and advice marketers had regarding COVID-19 and the current business landscape. When it came to areas people wished they had more information about, several themes emerged from the responses.
One was the desire to understand how long this crisis will last and what we should expect in the coming months. This one makes sense given how unpredictable this virus is. It’s human nature to want to identify some kind of plan or prediction for the future that provides some structure for today’s choices, but these times are impossible to predict with any real accuracy.
That said, many companies are finding it useful to start scenario-planning and creating several contingency plans for the variety of outcomes we may face for the rest of the year. Just going through this exercise can help to provide a semblance of control that can be useful in planning long-term marketing efforts.
Another theme that people wanted more information about was how to continue to market without alienating customers. People are wondering how to communicate with customers and continue to generate sales without coming across as opportunistic or manipulative. This can be a tough line to walk. One of our next questions, though, asked respondents for their best piece of marketing advice throughout COVID-19, and one common answer is relevant to this dilemma: meet your customers where they are.
Think like your audience. What are their concerns? What do they need more information about? How can you deliver value to them? If your marketing efforts follow the answers to those questions, you’re much more likely to be connecting with your audience in an authentic way—and less likely to come across as opportunistic.
Other advice was equally wise. People shared tips like, “Stay the course,” “Keep positive,” and, “Stay focused on the customer.” We’ll be sharing a more in-depth article highlighting more advice that came from this question, so look out for that in the coming days.
The next few questions focused on communication strategies. Two answers came out on top for a question about which forms of content are most useful during this time: short-form content (like blog posts or social posts) and video content. Each of these options was chosen by 56% of respondents (this question was also “check all that apply”). These were followed by 42% of respondents saying they’d like infographics, 39% saying they’d like downloadable templates/spreadsheets, and 22% saying they’d like long-form content like eBooks.
The main takeaway from this question is that these are the ways you should be communicating with your audiences. Unless your industry or audience is remarkably different from the average consumer, chances are, these responses apply to your brand as well. So, if you’ve been primarily pushing eBooks and reports, consider reprioritizing to make blog posts and video content your main objectives.
Having these two options as the top slots makes sense for a few reasons. Short-form content is useful right now because it’s informative but easily digestible. If audiences are looking for concise answers to questions they’re facing, a five-minute blog read is an easy solution. Blog-style content is also easily searchable and shareable, making it easier to reach a broader audience with a resource that doesn’t take hours upon hours to create.
Video content is useful for similar reasons. It’s also informative and easily digestible, but it has a few perks of its own. Firstly, video content is often entertaining. You may have heard the term “edutainment,” a portmanteau of “educational” and “entertainment.” Video content illustrates this term well because it offers a medium to convey complicated information in an exciting way. Viewers also get both visual and auditory cues, which can make key points clearer when they’re covered by both formats.
Finally, video is proving to be especially effective in this crisis specifically. Gartner research found that video would be a key differentiating factor between brands as the COVID-19 situation unfolds. Captive digital audiences, more screen time, and the shift from more traditional outlets to digital outlets have all made video an enticing option for consumers to engage with content.
When we moved into specific communication channels, there was one clear answer. Email won by a landslide, with 79% of respondents saying that’s how they’d like to be reached at this time. Webinars, social media, phone, and “other” each made up less than 8% of the responses. So, if you need to reach your customers in the near future, email seems to be your best bet.
Video Marketing Plans
Our last section of questions focused on video marketing. These findings are especially interesting given the communications insight, mentioned earlier, which found that our respondents want brands to use video to engage with them. It was virtually tied for the #1 preference for communication.
Despite that fact, 74% of respondents are not themselves prioritizing video marketing at this time. That 74% consists of people who had no video marketing plans to begin with, people who have postponed video marketing plans, and people who canceled video marketing plans indefinitely.
Many of these cancelations and postponements may be from respondents who aren’t aware of the many ways that video production can actually move forward during this time. Some people tend to assume that production has to be a crowded, social process, but that’s not always the case. We’ve identified several options for moving forward with production that are entirely possible under current health and safety guidelines, which may be useful for brands that want to give in to their audiences asking for video content.
Another group, 11.8% of respondents, is moving forward with video marketing as planned. Smaller groups of 3.5% each represent people whose video marketing plans increased and people who have moved video marketing plans in-house rather than working with an external company. Write-in responses shared thoughts like, “Simply not sure what approach to take at this time,” and, “Increased need to find the video partner that is the right fit.” Both of these examples indicate some uncertainty around how video production is supposed to work in the midst of stay-at-home orders.
There you have it! We hope that this survey has provided useful information for your team to unpack and apply to your own strategy. If that’s the case, please share these findings with anyone who might find them useful.
Because this situation is incomparable to anything any of us have faced before, we’ve found that there’s a lack of useful, actionable information to utilize. That’s what led us to create this survey in the first place.
Our goal is for these findings to help fill in those gaps, elevating the marketing efforts you’re able to continue at this time. If you have any questions about our findings or how to apply them to your business, feel free to contact us and we’re happy to help however we can.