How to Make Better Decisions During a Pandemic

Back in January, I wrote an outline for what was meant to have been my presentation at MKGO. By early March, I had a fully formed idea and was about to start my slides for the event. Then it happened and the world changed for all of us. 

A lot happened during the weeks that followed but eventually, things started to settle and I had time to think about what had happened and more importantly what the future may hold. I started to sketch out some thoughts and ideas when it occurred to me that my presentation for MKGO was oddly relevant right now. 

The key theme was to help the audience make better decisions when it comes to their digital activity. One of the core points, which I’ll explain more shortly, was that if you have a great team around you, you have an infinitely better chance of long-term success in your efforts.

The word unprecedented has been used more times than any of us care to remember, we have an ever-changing landscape of information and there are many unknowns right now about the future.

This means that decision making and figuring out what to do with your digital marketing strategy is harder than ever. 

I can’t claim to be able to give you all of the answers, but I will help you by providing some thoughts, processes and case studies to help you make better decisions regarding your digital marketing strategy.

Some context: my job at Aira

My job basically comes down to two things:

  • Make decisions about Aira
  • Help clients make decisions about their businesses

Any client who I’ve kicked off a project with will know that my role in a project is partly to get out of the way and let my team do what they do best, removing blockers for them along the way and supporting them where I can.

Over the years, my role on client projects has changed a lot and more recently, I’ve found that clients use me as a sounding board for decisions that they need to make. Some of these are relatively small, day-to-day things where they may just need validation from someone outside of their business. Others are bigger, strategic decisions that could hugely affect the direction of their business. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Should we keep rolling out technical SEO changes now, or wait until we re-platform?
  • Should we invest in link building?
  • Should we hire an in-house copywriter or outsource?
  • Should we formally integrate the sales and marketing teams?
  • Should we double our paid media spend?
  • Should we pivot our strategy toward a new market?

One of my favourite clients often follows their question with another which is:

“What would you do if it were your money?”

I love this way of framing the question. But where do you start? 

In the pre-COVID-19 world, it was a moving scale of risk vs. opportunity. 

In today's world, this scale is heavily tilted toward risk. Many businesses just need to survive right now, which means it’s about getting through all of this in one piece. 

We need trusted methodologies which reduce risk as much as possible. To set the tone for my thinking here, I’m going to tweak one of my favourite, strategy related quotes to illustrate the approach that I feel we should all be taking:

Effective decision making is about placing bets and making hard choices. The objective is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success.”

We need to accept that there is always an element of risk in any decision. Aversion to risk can change over time and indeed, change by person. We need to keep this in mind 

We’re going to explore a bunch of different ways to make decisions and the pros and cons of each one. We’ll pay particular attention to the state of the world right now and the effect that a global pandemic has on our ability to make good decisions.

Strategy-led decision making

Strategy isn’t a day-to-day activity. Decision making is. Yet, we spend a lot of time obsessing over strategy and don’t think as much about tactical decision making processes, frameworks or mental models. 

My take is that whilst strategy and objectives are clearly important to a business, they don’t always help you make decisions. They give you a small bit of validation that an idea is worth pursuing, but they don’t tell you whether to actually do something or not. Decision making is more nuanced than this and you simply can’t say yes to everything at once because it fits your strategy or helps with an objective. 

The truth is that we may spend hours, days, weeks or even months coming up with a strategy for our business. In our old lives, this may have been via a management team off-site at a lovely remote location or if you’re like my co-founder and me, the local pub. Either way, you end the intensive process with a strong plan which you fully intend to execute.

Then the reality of everyday business takes hold and scuppers your grand plans, then day-to-day decision making takes over

And of course, change happens, as we all know too well right now. Strategy can be broken by change. 

Bringing this back to the global pandemic that we all find ourselves in, the strategy and objectives of many companies has shifted massively either positively or negatively. For some, their objective right now is survival. That’s it. 

Let’s look at some concrete examples of when using your strategy and objectives may not help as much as we think when it comes to making decisions. 

You can follow a pretty simple flow chart here:

Simple, right? Well, kinda.

If something clearly doesn’t fit within your strategy and objectives, then not doing something is pretty straightforward. There may be times when you do this and realise that your strategy or objectives need adjusting, but generally speaking, this is easy to decide. 

On the other hand, if the answer to the question is yes, just doing it isn’t quite as straightforward. The key reason is because there is a finite amount of time, budget and resources available in any organisation, whether that be budget, time or both. Additionally, the wonderful thing about digital marketing is that there are a myriad of ways to drive traffic and conversions to your business which means that many ideas you come up with could fit into the “yes” pile above. 

Classic SEO style, there are also elements of “it depends” and multiple known and unknown caveats that may apply. Let’s go through some examples.

Should we implement AMP? 

This fits within our objective to generate more organic search traffic. It will lead to faster loading pages, better user experience on those pages and preferential treatment from Google. It’s a win win.

But - what about when Google changes the rules on how AMP results appear in their results? Is the effort required to implement AMP worth the risk?

Should we add more content to our product and category pages to help Google understand and hopefully rank the page better? 

This fits within our objective to generate more organic search traffic because adding more great content to a page can help improve organic rankings and traffic.

But - what about conversion? Could adding more content to a page, even if it’s great content, hurt conversions? What if we add video and images, these are great for user experience right? But what if that slows the page down across our thousands of pages?

Should we use Dynamic Search Ads as part of our paid search campaigns?

This fits within our objective of driving more revenue. These Ads are a great way to drive more relevant traffic and conversions, leading to a better ROI from paid search.

But - could this cannibalise organic traffic? Could we end up paying for traffic which we may have otherwise gotten for free? Therefore making paid search look great but making organic search look worse?

That’s just three examples and you can already see that things aren’t as straightforward as they may first appear.

Not to mention, only 30% of employees can articulate their company’s strategy. So you may be flying blind anyway if you’re trying to use this as a way to help with decision making. 

These are big challenges at the best of times. They are even bigger challenges in the current climate of uncertainty for many of us. 

Precedent-led decision making

I’ve been desperately trying to avoid using the word unprecedented, but there it is. Despite the fact that many of us have heard and used it more times than we’d care to remember, it’s true. 

One way that we can make better decisions is to look at what’s happened in the past either from our own experiences, other people’s experiences or data from previous events. Since the pandemic started, I’ve seen many, many comparisons to previous events in history including recessions, 9/11, The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, World War Two, even the economic slump of 1706 is being talked about in comparison.

Whether you agree with these comparisons or not, the pandemic has hit the world so hard and so quickly, that I find it very hard to find comparisons useful to the point of helping us to make better decisions. 

There is still so much we need to discover about the “new normal”.

 For example, there is little doubt that many countries are in recession, even if not formally confirmed yet. But using the UK as an example, this appears to be the case despite the fact that much of the economy is being propped up by the government. In particular, the job retention scheme a.k.a furlough. This is due to be reduced and then come to an end in October. 

For me, this is the point at which we will start to understand the real impact on the economy and be in a better position to compare to historical events. At the moment, we’re trying to make connections between now and the past but whilst the now is still heavily changing.

COVID-19 and the unfolding situation is new to all of us and we shouldn’t be afraid to say that we don’t know what will happen next. 

Of course, read about the similarities and get direction, but I think it’s too early to be drawing conclusions and relying on previous historic events to drive decision making today. 

Experience-led decision making

Leading on from above, none of us have ever experienced anything like this before. I was in my early twenties when the last recession hit and whilst I understood it, I wasn’t a business owner and didn’t really “experience” it. Other business owners who I’ve spoken to who did directly experience it have mostly said the same thing: it was nothing like what we’re seeing right now. 

Whilst we are unlikely to be able to lead on “similar” experience, we can lean on what we know from the past, the present and our view on the future and better inform our decisions.

Let’s break it down with a particular focus on the digital marketing world. 

The past - what can we learn from what’s already happened?

Above we’ve talked about the limitations of trying to learn from historical world events, so what can we learn from?

I’m going to use SEO as an example throughout this section to illustrate some points and show how you could structure your thinking here. Specifically, I’m going to focus on link building which some of you will know to be a big topic for me.

If we’re trying to decide whether to continue (or start to) invest in link building activities, then we need to look at the past through a few different lenses.

Internal - have we done it before? If so, what happened? Specifically:

  • Did it work well? If so, why?
  • Did it go wrong? If so, why?
  • How long did it take to see results?
  • What resources did we need to make link building effective?

External - what has happened in the industry which we can learn from? Specifically:

  • What tactics have come and gone and been “in fashion” in the SEO world, have some been overcooked or are in danger of being?
  • What tactics have proven to be risky or confirmed to be against Google guidelines which may pose a risk?
  • What are our competitors investing into? How long for and does it appear to be working?

Another way to use your experience is to think very carefully about what you know to be true right now and unlikely to change. We’ll go into more detail in this during another post, but to give you some direction now when it comes to digital marketing tactics, here is an overview.

SEO

Investing resources into fast, responsive, indexable pages is always going to be a strong investment because this is what users and search engines want both now and in the future.

Paid media

A slightly negative truism here, Google, Facebook et al are always going to want to make money from you! This means that paid media is always going to be a reliable source of traffic and if you take the time to get your targeting and funnel right, a good source of customers too.

Digital PR

Your business is always going to get value from having strong relationships with key journalists. This could be a combination of top-tier writers and ones who work for trade press or niche publications. Now or in the future, these relationships can benefit your business and investment into keeping them alive and growing them is a sound one. 

Content creation

Expertly written, unique content in a range of formats is always going to be valuable to your business and website. With the right content strategy behind it, a single piece of content can help with multiple KPIs and be used in multiple distribution channels, adding more value to your business.

Email marketing

Maintaining a clean, engaged email list in my opinion, one of the most undervalued digital marketing activities. Having a list of loyal customers who you can connect with immediately, on your own terms and without interference from anyone else, can drive business when you most need it. Investment into this right now is a true long term investment. 

Whilst not all approaches and channels are covered here, you can see how it’s quite straightforward to boil down most things to a small set of things which we can confidently invest into. 

One related side note here and a great, if extreme, example of the approach we’re talking about here is Amazon. 

Amazon have invested very, very heavily over the years into:

The idea being that who is not going to ever want these things from an online retailer? Because of this, they’re pretty safe bets to make and even though they are long-term investments, they’re unlikely to crash and burn.

The here and now - you can’t go out of business before the future gets here

This is important at the best of times, but even more so right now. If your business is struggling to survive the pandemic, then you need to weigh up all decisions against a timeline to get a return. 

For some parts of your digital strategy, you’ll have a strong idea of when a return will come and how long it will take. Any paid media is a classic example of this where it’s possible to see a return quickly compared to other channels. Obviously this doesn’t mean that you should rush into an investment, but it makes it a more viable option when the business is under pressure and needs quicker results than usual. 

Right now, this is likely to mean that you’re going to make some decisions which are very, very focused on the short-term business and getting you through this period of time. If it means that your business survives, then that’s fine. You shouldn’t ignore the future though, which we’ll talk about next.

The future - skate to where the puck will be

Putting the pandemic to one side and focusing on link building alone, what do you think the future holds? In this case, what’s the evolution of link building? Look 5+ years ahead and think about what link building tactics will stand the test of time and truly be long term investments. Again, the question then becomes, can you afford to make that long term investment right now or are you worried about the long term for your business?

Remember that the goal here is to learn what bets we should make and what the risk will be if we were to invest in link building. So when you’re asking yourself these questions, you need to be spotting where risks and opportunities lie and cross check this against the context of where your business is at.

For example, if you find that link building could work for your business because of the current landscape and past activity, but historically it has taken some time to see a return, you may decide that you can’t afford to wait that long in the current climate. Link building (and SEO generally) is a classic long term game when it comes to inputs and outputs:

(More on this below). 

So whilst it may be a good investment, the current climate may rule it out for you because past experience tells you that the return will take time.

Input vs. output led decision making

Another way to make decisions is to weigh up the inputs vs. the outputs:

The question then becomes, do the inputs for the decision outweigh the outputs?

If the inputs outweigh the outputs - cool, nice and easy - don’t do it.

If the opposite is true:

Great - do it!

You know it’s not this simple though, especially in the world of SEO and digital marketing. Expectations from stakeholders can often look like the chart above too i.e. the results will correlate exactly with the effort. 

Although of course, there are exceptions to this and things can look a bit different in other worlds such as the silicon valley, funded start-up world where expectations can look like this instead:

Sometimes, it takes time for the outputs to outweigh the inputs. This is particularly true with SEO because as we know, it doesn’t happen overnight. Even with more immediate return channels such as paid media, it can take time to get the data to learn and adapt your approach to providing a good return on investment:

Even in this reality, it’s a strong possibility that your boss may have given up before you get to this point:

Add to this the current situation and if your business is struggling, you may not have the time to wait for the outputs to outweigh the inputs. If cash is running out and profits aren’t coming easily, then some digital marketing approaches will be off the table for you. 

For many clients that we work with, results can often look like this:

Pre-COVID-19 and the additional pressures on businesses, this is usually fine and to be expected. You can overlay this with key decisions along the way, some of which work well and others not so much:

When it comes to SEO, there are times when you’ll do absolutely nothing and make zero decisions, and this happens:

This is a real example of a site that did nothing before or after any of those peaks and drops.

In summary, this kind of decision making is usually fairly sound as long as expectations are aligned. Right now, if your business is under pressure, you may only be able to use inputs and outputs which are reasonably well correlated with each other and business performance.

Having the right team around you

Before summarising all of this, I want to quickly touch upon what I believe to be one of the most important aspects of whether decisions are risky or not: your team. 

I truly, honestly believe that if you have the right people around you and all of those people are in the right seats on the bus, you’ll get through most situations, even pandemics that can rock your business and the team like never before. 

This is a post for another day, but the businesses who are most likely to make the right decisions and survive and a pandemic are those who have been preparing for it without knowing it. One of the ways they’ve been preparing is by taking a strong focus on hiring the right people and giving them a culture in which they can thrive.

Trust the people you have because you hired them for a reason and don’t shoulder all of these decisions yourself. The buck may stop with you if you’re a leader, but part of your job as a leader is to gather opinions, data and work through a decision so that you have the highest confidence possible that it will be the right one. Of course, this won’t always be the case and we all get things wrong, but remember:

“Effective decision making is about placing bets and making hard choices. The objective is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success.”

A great team around you will help you with all of this.

In summary

To finish up, I want to leave you with one thing and one final idea. 

No matter which framework, mental model or process that you use to make decisions during this difficult time, it’s important that you offset risk. To coin a very old term, the best way to do this is to not put all of your eggs in one basket. 

Your decisions and the consequences of them need to be spread across a few areas and not be too heavily weighted toward risk and where possible, not too heavily weighted toward safe. In the current climate and if your business is struggling, leaning toward safe is a wiser choice than it may have been a few months ago, and that’s fine.