Changing your Digital Strategy and Approach due to COVID-19

Many of our clients are reviewing their digital strategy right now. Some would be doing this anyway and others are having to have a serious rethink of their approach because of the pandemic which we are all facing today. 

Where do you start? 

Knowing where to start with your digital strategy can be hard and feel overwhelming at the best of times. It’s even more difficult right now.

But we can break it down into what we know to be true and what we know has changed and hasn’t changed. From here, we can take what we know and build it into a strategy which predominantly focuses on our strengths, whilst being open to change quickly and adapting as we go. 

Let’s look at how we do that.

What hasn’t changed

It is very easy to focus on the sheer enormity of the situation that we’re all facing and think that everything has changed. Whilst a lot certainly has, and may never change back, there are also a lot of things which haven’t changed.

It’s important to remember this because these are the things that we know best and are usually the things that we have the most control over. They can also get lost very easily in the midst of things that have changed which we’ll talk about shortly.

Of course, not every industry or business is the same and elements of the below may have changed, but generally, here is what we’re observing right now in the digital world. 

Digital marketing channels

The core channels available to us are still there, here are a few examples:

  • Organic search
  • Paid search and display
  • Social media
  • Email marketing

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

These channels are still there for us to utilize for our businesses and drive more potential customers. Of course, the way you use the channels or how you prioritise them may have changed, but fundamentally, they are all still there as they were before the pandemic. 

The digital landscape

If we take a look at the digital landscape, things may have stumbled a little whilst companies adapt, but not much has fundamentally changed:

  • We still rely upon Google for the majority of our organic traffic
  • Mobile is still as big as ever
  • Facebook still presents huge opportunities for driving targeted, paid traffic
  • Bing is still Bing

When we combine these with the channels that are available to us, we still have a lot of tools at our disposal for driving more traffic and customers to our businesses. 

Products and services

Assuming that you haven’t pivoted due to the pandemic, either because you can’t or would rather not, your products and services still exist. The things that made your product great before the pandemic are still there. Demand for them right now may have changed in one direction or the other, but again, the fundamental “things” that made your product what it was are still there.

If you believed that your product was good enough to compete a few months ago, those beliefs should still be there. Perhaps they’re a little shell shocked or buried beneath a pile of other things, but they are still there.

The world has changed a lot but not because of an underlying economical imbalance or a fundamental issue with customer behaviour. Back in 2008, there was a fundamental issue with how banks issued mortgages (their product) and the eventual consequences of this led to the recession. Subprime mortgages were issued to people with bad credit ratings because of the booming housing market. Lenders were loaning money to people who were likely to struggle to pay them back. When the housing bubble burst, house prices dropped as demand reduced and investment slowed down. This led to people defaulting on mortgages and banks seizing those properties, but the bank lost money on this too. 

Banks collapsed as a result and the economic downturn began. 

It was obvious that things couldn’t just go back to how they were before and this particular product and the way it was sold had to change. More regulation was introduced to help with this and whilst they still exist to some extent, a lot of lessons were learned. 

Today, the situation is very, very different. Our products and services aren’t fundamentally flawed and the recession that many countries are in, or heading into, is because of external forces not related to customer behaviour or products. 

To summarise what hasn’t changed and needs to be kept in mind when it comes to changing our strategy:

  • We still have a number of digital marketing channels available to us
  • The wider landscape and the “big players” are still doing what they did before, along with the same agendas
  • Generally, our products and services are still what they were before, albeit a little battered or bruised

These are all key areas that we need to consider when forming our strategy, so keep them in the back of your head whilst we talk through what has changed. 

What has changed

A lot!

The scope of this post isn’t going to cover everything, but we’ll focus on a few key areas which tie into digital strategy so that we can make informed decisions on how our own strategy may change because of the pandemic. 

Customer behaviour

Our customers are thinking and behaving very different now compared to just a few months ago. Ecommerce spending spiked at an 85% increase in mid-April, before settling back down to a 50% increase by the end of May.

This is likely to drop some more as brick and mortar stores open again, but is it going to drop that much?

Unlikely.

The pandemic has accelerated ecommerce growth even more than it was and manifested itself in a few ways:

  • Customers have turned to ecommerce for day-to-day essentials that they may have usually gotten from brick and mortar stores
  • Home food delivery and pickup have grown massively and restaurants who would have usually seen footfall as their primary revenue source are now seeing possibilities of making money without having a full restaurant each evening. This may not change for some people
  • Customers who traditionally didn’t shop online were forced to do so and figure it out
  • Subscription models for media have become more attractive as ways of passing time and entertaining our families 

Despite this and the huge increases we’ve seen which are positives, we must not forget that people’s income has been drastically reduced and unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future:

People are spending more than ever online, but how sustainable is it and what will they continue to spend money on? Where does your product fit when we look at the data at a more granular level:

The thing to remember is that things are still in a state of flux and these trends are changing all of the time. Keeping an eye on rising retail searches will show you how quickly topics can come in and out of fashion.

The key thing that you need to look at alongside these broader trends is your own customer behaviour and their expectations for the foreseeable future. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is my product a basic necessity for people right now?
  • Can my product make for a nice gift that can be mailed to friends and family
  • Is there a chance that my product will offer some light relief or comfort during an otherwise stressful time?
  • Is my product something that may become popular again when lockdown eases?

To get to the heart of this and to inform your strategy, the key thing to think about is what are the criteria for a customer to buy my product? This is particularly important if sales have slowed down - what will make a customer buy again? What will need to happen either in their lives, other people’s lives, or in society?

There is a range of forces at play here and one obvious one is government direction. If the government dictates certain rules and those rules mean that someone is more or less likely to buy your product, you need to think about this and be aware of it. 

Being in lockdown has seen huge boosts in home fitness categories because gyms are closed and in some countries, outdoor exercise is severely restricted. This demand won’t last forever, particularly as lockdown eases, but there will be a direct correlation between government policies and demand for home fitness products. 

On the other end of the scale, if you run a sports massage company or a beauty salon, lockdown will have negatively affected you. The question then becomes: how can you offer value in the meantime or pivot to drive even a small amount of revenue? 

Therein lies a key point - can you continue to drive top of funnel traffic and awareness of your product so that when things do improve, you’re in a good position to take advantage? This can work in a few ways:

  • Creating top of funnel content to attract potential customers in the early stages of the buyer’s journey
  • Investing in brand advertising, focusing on specific demographics and making them aware of who you are and how you help them solve their problems
  • Using organic social media channels to grow your audience and get them engaging with content that you create on these platforms

This is a medium to long-term play, but one that’s very important right now if you’re looking to ride the wave of the downturn and expect things to come back at some point soon for your business. 

Teams, budgets and resources

The pandemic has led to a huge shift in teams and budgets. For many businesses who have been hit hard, there have been layoffs or at best, use of government support such as the job retention scheme in the UK or the US.

Estimates in the UK indicate that 8.4million people are on furlough from their jobs as of 24th May 2020. This is a lot of people who are no longer able to do their jobs. We don’t know how many of these will be digital marketers, but we can assume that a lot of companies are missing key talent right now and digital marketing efforts are suffering as a result. 

Put simply, many companies will not have the expertise or the time available to execute a strategy that they may have had just a few months before. One issue that we’ve experienced at Aira is that our client has had to furlough their marketing teams, which means that there is literally no one to work with!

This can mean that projects are put on hold, which we can’t do too much about. For other companies, it means that the projects have to adapt and play to the strengths of those who remain. If this is the case with your team, then you need to factor this into the tactics and approach that you use in your strategy. Doubling down on paid social media may seem like a good way forward, but do you have the expertise and resource to handle that? 

Another side to this is that for some of your team, remote working will have presented big challenges. Whilst some people will no doubt be thriving in their new environment, others will be struggling in a number of ways:

  • Productivity
  • Focus
  • Distractions from family, especially for parents who may be homeschooling

These can all lead to a negative effect on work but also a more general negative effect on their mental health. Providing whatever support you can for them is the first step, but at some point, you’ll need to consider how this could affect your strategy and plan to move forward as a business. A few things that you may need to consider:

  • Are Zoom calls for creative or brainstorming effective? Are people getting Zoom fatigue? If so, what’s an alternative?
  • Are team members able to sync up enough to collaborate on projects? If not, does this delay anything?
  • Are team members able to take enough time to really focus on complex issues and problems? Or do they need to take on other kinds of tasks?

All of these are hard problems right now. Handling them delicately is really important and ties back to the culture that you’ve been building. It’s also likely that not everyone will be experiencing these things and could be the opposite.

The key is that when putting together your strategy, don’t forget about the people around you who will be executing it. 

Stakeholder expectations

Many of us working in digital marketing will be used to pressure. Our clients, bosses and key stakeholders are always pushing for more and that’s fine - many of us need this push and thrive off it.

During such uncertain times for businesses and for us personally, this extra pressure may not be welcomed, but we need to accept it and do the best we can. 

The way to do this is by regular and clear communication on what expectations you and your stakeholders have. If these are misaligned from day 1, then it’s not going to magically fix itself later. When putting together your strategy, take the time to get clear on expectations and what KPIs are in place - these may well have changed.

For example, some businesses will be experiencing huge growth because they may be one of those categories that have boomed during the pandemic. On the other hand, businesses who are struggling may be focused solely on breaking even and ensuring that they see the other side of the pandemic.

Whichever part of this scale you’re in, don’t assume that the KPIs and associated targets haven’t changed recently - double-check and ensure that you’re on the same page as your stakeholders. If the company is struggling to survive and results are not just expected but needed quickly, you need to know this when putting together your plan. 

Something else that we’re seeing at the moment is that stakeholders who may have generally been quite hands-off previously are now more hands-on with day-to-day activities. 

This makes sense because of a few things:

  • More pressure to perform, so they want to get close to where things are happening
  • The team may now be smaller due to layouts of furlough
  • They may well have more time for this kind of activity because of the business slowing down in terms of BAU growth

Whichever it is, if you notice this happening, don’t panic and question yourself. See it as an opportunity to leverage the experience of someone who you wouldn’t normally work with too much day-to-day. Get their perspective and input on your strategy and don’t feel like they’re involved because you’ve done something wrong. 

Competitor activity

Finally, let’s briefly talk about your competitors. Everything that you’re going through, they are likely to be doing the same. I don’t believe in focusing too heavily on what competitors are doing because it’s out of your control, but having an awareness of them is important and knowing when you either have something to learn or need to change your strategy. 

In the context of a global pandemic, a key point that I want to focus on is that if competitors are struggling for any reason, this presents you with an opportunity. Here are some examples:

  • If they pause SEO activity, you have the chance to catch up/overtake/get further ahead because organic search is very much alive and well
  • They pause or slow down paid search activity, you have the chance to get a lower CPC because the auction will be quieter. This could give you a chance to drive more profit or potentially scale your spend so that you can attract more customers
  • If they stop digital PR campaigns, there is less noise for a journalist to worry about which means that you may find it easier to get cut through with your own campaigns

The list can go on but you get the idea. 

If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where you can take advantage of some downtime from a competitor, then you absolutely should do so and factor this into your strategy. For example, seeing a reduction in CPC for paid search may give you the validation you need to activate paid search and invest budget here over other channels. 

What this means for you

Let’s bring all of this together and see what we have.

We know that we still have options in regard to the channels we target and the ability of large platforms to still send us traffic. We also know that our products are still what they were and can still be just as valuable to someone as they were previously.

We know that things have changed in regard to our customers, but we understand how things have changed. We’re aware of the budgets and resources that we have available to us at the moment, along with what our competitors are doing (or not doing) and what the new expectations are for our business.

The bottom line is that the fundamentals of what we do and how we do it hasn’t changed. The things that have changed present us with opportunities. We need a strategy which allows us to build a solid foundation to work from, but allows us to spot and take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves.

We need to split our strategy into two parts and change our mental model. 

Deliberate strategy and emergent strategy

I thought that I was being super clever with this thinking. Then I started doing more research and discovered that this approach has actually been a thing since around 1985. Still, I tried.

You’ll see that the paper above talks of a number of different strategic approaches, but we’re going to focus on a few key one's today which can help us think about the structure of our digital strategy. 

Deliberate strategy

This is what most of us are most familiar with. A number of things feed into a deliberate strategy including:

  • Intentions to create a strategy in a particular way
  • The intentions need to have been accepted by the organisation
  • The conditions surrounding the strategy need to have been perfect - no external forces affecting it, nothing to mess with what has been decided etc

All three of these at once are tricky to achieve, but most businesses will achieve them to some extent and end up with some semblance of a deliberate strategy which they plan to execute.

Another way that Mintzberg described deliberate strategy is:

“Provide the organisation with a sense of purposeful direction. When a deliberate strategy is realised, the result matches the intended course of action. Controlled”

In summary, a deliberate strategy is one that is executed the way it was intended and leads to expected outcomes.

Emergent strategy

Here we’re focusing on the opposite end of the scale - the absence of intention, along with the absence of specific goals or a mission. At the same time, actions need to be taken which allow for a strategy to emerge. If no actions are taken, and there are no intentions, then not much else is leftover!

To come back to Mintzberg and his school of thought here:

“Emergent is a pattern of action that develops over time in an organisation in the absence of a specific mission and goals, or despite a mission and goals. Emergent strategy implies that an organisation is learning what works in a practise. Based around day to day working practises, not specific goals or objectives over time.”

Sound familiar? It may well be something that you’ve consciously or unconsciously done for a long time and something which applies more than ever when there is such a high level of uncertainty in the world. 

In summary, emergent strategy comes about as a result of learning what is working day to day and then feeding this back into your intended strategy.

How these strategies tie into your business

Bringing this back to digital strategy, we can think of our strategy being split into these areas in such a way that we establish a baseline activity which we plan to drive most of our results and revenue.

Alongside this, we accept that things will happen along the way which we don’t plan for and may throw us off course at least for a little while. Of course, it’s impossible to plan for the unexpected and I don’t think anyone would have predicted what would happen to the world in 2020! But that’s not what we’re trying to achieve here. 

We’re trying to achieve a mindset which allows us to be as prepared as possible for change and to always know that opportunities will present themselves and change our planned, intended strategy. 

Mixing deliberate and emergent strategies will help you focus on moving forward with what you know, whilst allowing for course corrections along the way and culture of always learning. Many of us may be part of strategy workshops or off-site meetings where strategies are thrashed out and then taken back to the business to execute. 

However, the day-to-day grind often kicks back in which means that execution may take a back seat and that time is quickly forgotten about. By the team you do get around to it, momentum has been lost and the enthusiasm for your fresh strategy may have waned a bit. 

Let’s make this more concrete.

When setting your digital strategy, your deliberate strategy should include your safest bets - the things that you have high degrees of confidence with and those which you’re sure that you can execute well. Of course, things can go wrong along the way, but here you need to do what you do best. This part of your strategy may not lead to a huge uptick in business results (although that’s possible), instead, you’re looking for consistency and compounding growth.

Some examples here may be:

  • Organic search consistently brings targeted traffic to your product pages, so investment into these pages and organic search is a safe, deliberate part of your strategy
  • Paid search brings in a level of traffic at a good CPA until a certain threshold is reached, at which point the CPA drops and you can’t scale results very well. This means that part of your strategy is to allocate a fixed amount of budget to this activity in order to reach the right CPA.
  • You know what email marketing gives you a return of $1.00 for every opted-in subscriber, so you model out some initiatives to get new subscribers at a cost of up to $0.50.

These are all things which you’re doing deliberately and based on what you know to be true about the world and your own business. 

Contrast with an emergent strategy which is where the big opportunities may lie. We don’t know what opportunities there will be, but there will always be some - even at times of crisis. Emergent strategy is for those of us on the front lines of digital - we see the changes and landscape every single day. Many stakeholders won’t be close enough to the day-to-day work that we do to be able to see these opportunities. It’s on us to find them.

Taking advantage of opportunities and feeding them back into your digital strategy isn’t easy. However, it’s less about your skills and more about your openness to finding them, as well as the culture of your team and stakeholders. If they’re dead set on your deliberate strategy being the route forward and unlikely to deviate, you may well struggle to change that.

Right now, with the state of the world and changing customer behaviour, these kinds of companies are going to struggle to survive or at best, will be in a weaker position when all of this is over.

Let’s look at some examples of how an emergent strategy may present opportunities to you:

  • When reviewing organic traffic, you spot that a few blog posts are sending good levels of organic traffic, so you add some calls-to-action to these posts to see if you can get people to show interest in your product or service. This works well so you put more effort into producing blog content and improving your existing content
  • An external blogger writes about your product and their post sends you a lot of traffic and sends conversions, so you start to build a relationship with that blogger to see if you can formalise a partnership and leverage their audience more
  • A global pandemic hits and footfall to your offline stores stops, so you move all offline staff to remote customer service and social media roles to support with new online demand

The final one is just an example, but you can start to see why being able to adapt to such things is in itself an advantage. 

Implementing a split strategy

Chances are that you’re already thinking strategically in regard to the day-to-day things that are important to your business, so I won’t focus on this too much.

When it comes to emergent strategy, there are some ways that you can get started with this.

Adopt the right mindset

Now, more than ever, you need to have the right mindset and be prepared to learn more and more as the situation develops. This is true of any situation but is particularly important right now. This needs to spread to your team who also need to be prepared to adopt new ways of working quickly and then feed them back into your business.

Accept that strategy is ever-changing

We’ve drawn a fairly clear distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy here, but the truth is that they’re two sides of the same coin when it comes to your business. This means that you need to think of your strategy as ever-changing and not something that you review once a year in a management team offsite. This way of working will get you through difficult times and in normal times, may well mean some healthy growth. But it’s also a sure-fire way of falling behind when things get really hard. 

Learn what your safe bets are

You should know very, very well what your core competencies are and how you can drive the MVP of success to your business. Assuming nothing ever interferes with your plan and things are in good shape, what are the things that you do to attract customers? Focus on these and ensure that they form the bedrock of your deliberate strategy. 

Know how to spot emerging opportunities

Part of this comes back to culture and mindset, but the bulk of it comes from looking below the surface of your day-to-day activity and essentially always asking why. During difficult times, we have to not accept things for the way they are, but look for how things could be. This may lead to some dead ends, but at some point, you will spot that golden nugget of an opportunity in the midst of your paid media data or in the depths of a successful digital PR campaign which gives you a new idea. 

Know what you know and what you don’t know

This brings us full circle and back to where we started with this article. Make sure that you understand what has and hasn’t changed when it comes to your business and industry. If you don’t know this, then putting together any kind of plan and strategy is difficult. 

Conclusion

Strategy isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. Give yourself some time to think and reflect on a few things:

  • What you know to be true about your business, industry and customers: then start your deliberate strategy here
  • What you know has changed and hasn’t changed in these areas
  • Know how open you currently are to adapting quickly and changing everything you thought you knew, this becomes your emergent strategy