The Effect of COVID-19 on Digital Marketing Channels

Introduction

It feels like the world has fallen apart over the last few months and for those of us who are running businesses or trying to keep businesses afloat as we have headed into a recession, it’s been hard to know what to do.

Let’s be honest. None of us know what the future holds and how reality will look in a few months or a few years time. But now that we’re starting to understand more, we need to move forward and start figuring out the answer.

I’m going to show you how to start figuring out what your digital strategy should look like and include over the coming months. This will be a series of content pieces all designed to help you make good decisions with the information and experience we have available to us. I can’t promise all of the answers, but I can promise to help give you more information, case studies and examples which will help you get closer to them.

There are a multitude of channels available to businesses who want to grow online, I always love referring back to the t-shaped marketer model as a reminder of the range of ways we can drive traffic to our client’s businesses:

With so many ways to drive traffic online, it has always been important to prioritise your activities and focus efforts in the places which are likely to give the greatest return. This is particularly true if you’re a small or even medium sized business with a marketing team who only have so many hours in the day. Even the biggest companies in the world with the biggest teams and budgets have to prioritise somewhere.

It has gotten even harder thanks to COVID-19 and the pandemic which has, and will continue to, change life as we know it.

I’m not here to make predictions about what reality will be like in the “new normal”. Instead, I want to offer some views on how in-house marketing teams can make decisions in light of the pandemic and adapt their strategy. This will be done over a series of blog posts and we’re going to start by focusing on the most important digital channels and what has (and hasn’t changed).

The broad picture for our clients

When COVID-19 really took hold in the UK, sometime around the middle of March, we saw a monumental shift in how our clients were approaching their marketing. Some paused completely, others doubled down, and - being blunt - our new business pipeline ground to a halt.

At first, there was no clear pattern on this aside from the travel industry being the most at risk. When it came to channels, clients who wanted to pause work didn’t really discriminate - they wanted to pause everything. It didn’t matter whether we just did SEO for them, just PPC or just Digital PR, they went into crisis mode and stopped all of it.

The interesting thing for me was that we saw clients doing this who hadn’t really been hit that hard or hadn’t been hit at all yet. It felt like an overly cautious move for most of them and following the pack to save costs where they could in case the worst happened.

I got it. If it were my business, I’d be tempted to do the same. I think it was a mistake for some and absolutely the right thing to do for others, but overall, I can never hold it against someone who is worried for their business or their job. So we were super flexible with all clients and did the right thing by them, even to our own detriment.

A bit of time passed and a few clients started to talk more about what could be done with their marketing, even if it wasn’t everything that they were doing before. Which brings us on nicely to talk about specific channels.

SEO

Good old SEO. The great thing about it is that I often refer to it as similar to buying a house. Once you’ve bought it, it’s a long-term investment and you can improve it. Whereas PPC is more like renting a house which we’ll come to shortly.

I’m choosing to gloss over how Google can change SERPs at will and effectively squat in your house from time to time… forgive me, I just really like the analogy, even if it’s becoming less accurate.

What has changed?

In terms of the tactics and techniques, not very much at all. Websites still need the basics:

  • Fast loading, indexable pages
  • Mobile-first experiences
  • Clear and logical information architecture
  • Strong and refined keyword targeting
  • Authoritative, relevant links and mentions

The list goes on and they’re as important as they were before. Whilst Google updates have rolled out during the pandemic and SERPs have changed a little because of this, we’re not aware of any fundamental changes to the algorithm because of it.

One thing I do wonder here is how much better Google will be getting at identifying credible sources of information and data. They’ve always tried to do this of course and various updates have been said to affect healthcare and medical queries, but now, Google really, really has to get it right.

Whether the kind of results above are subject to manual review or not is up for debate (I think they are) but either way, can you imagine how much more advanced Google will be once the pandemic is over? I think we’ll see more updates affecting healthcare and medical search results over the next 12-18 months because of this. This could then spill over into other industries where trust is a big factor such as ecommerce.

One thing that has changed is search behaviours. We can see that demand for certain types of products, services and information has increased massively. Google has released a specific tool for retailers to be able to keep an eye on rising searches and trends which demonstrates some of this.

Should you spend resources on SEO right now?

I’m going to be super honest. If your business or the business you work for is struggling to survive right now, SEO shouldn’t be a priority for you. On the other hand, if you’re sure that your business will exist when all of this is over, then you do have some flexibility on what can be done.

It’s unlikely that investing into SEO is going to have an overnight impact and save things. There are of course exceptions and quick wins in SEO, but assuming that you’ve had the basics covered for a while, these are less likely to exist.

The truth is that if you’ve been doing good SEO for a while, the positive effects of that won’t just stop overnight because you put work on hold for a while. SEO isn’t like that. Those technical problems you fixed last year shouldn’t need fixing again now (hopefully!). Those great links you built during your last content-led campaign will still be helping you.

Where should the focus be if you do spend time on SEO?

If you’re in a position where you can invest time and budget into SEO, you absolutely should. The rules haven’t changed in that you’re building for the long-term by investing in SEO. It is also likely that competitors may not be in the position to work on SEO in the same way they used to, meaning a few things may change for them:

  • Technical debt may start to build or not be cleared as quickly as before
  • Content production may slow down or stop
  • New products or services may not get the SEO love and attention that they used to
  • New and emerging keywords may not be noticed and targeted as quickly

If competitors are stopping or slowing down their activity, this presents an opportunity for you to keep pushing ahead. SEO is still a big area though, so I would still focus on a few, key areas to make the most of your budget and time at times like these.

Technical/on-page SEO:

  • Fix technical and on-page SEO either at the site/page type level which means that one improvement scales quickly, or on specific pages which you know have high value such as products or services
  • If you’re looking at page level changes, focus on pages where you already rank well which means in the region of bottom of page one/top of page two. These will be far easier to shift than pages that don’t rank at all

If you’re a larger organisation and have development resources at your disposal, now is also a great time to look at large scale platform or product changes. I’ve spoken to a few larger brands who are quieter than usual customer-wise, but still have development resources to use, so they are taking advantage of the reduced activity to roll out improvements which improve the CMS or their ability to scale SEO across page types. These options appear to be the exception rather than the rule for many right now, but are worth considering if you’re able to.

Content:

  • If (and only if) you can add value and assist your audience with their experience and decisions in light of COVID-19, you should create content to help them. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t manufacture it or force it because customers won’t thank you for it.
  • Check which informational pages are already ranking well and go back and update them with fresh content, updated keywords, internal links, new Schema, calls to action, whatever you can - and don’t forget to update the published date ;)

Link building:

I’m going to go into more detail on this below because it’s a big area, but if you’re looking for link building opportunities which don’t involve producing new content or angles, there are still areas that you can focus on which don’t require loads of time but could lead to some good links:

  • Brand reclamation still works as long as you’re quick off the mark to turn any mentions of your brand into a link
  • An often forgotten about technique, but still an effective one if you’re short of time and want some quick wins, broken link building is a good technique to consider and can be done with just a few hours of time over the course of a few weeks
  • Now may also be the time to run an orphaned link check on your site. This is very often overlooked but time and time again we see a huge amount of authoritative external links pointing to 404 pages.

Overall, there is still a lot that you can do with SEO at the moment, even if time and budget is tight. If you’re able to carry on as before, you should absolutely do so. If not, see what you can do with limited time above and focus there.

When should I invest in SEO again?

If you’ve had to put SEO activity on hold, then you’re likely to be wondering when a good time would be to reactivate it would be.

The answer depends heavily on the reason(s) why you paused it in the first place. For example, if you’ve had to cut costs heavily because the business wasn’t making money, then you’re unlikely to be able to switch SEO back on until revenue comes back.

Because of the subjective nature of this question, the best advice I can offer is some guidance on how to prioritise investing in SEO again. I’m also going to assume that you know and understand the value that SEO brings and that it’s not an overnight success channel.

Some things to consider here are:

  • Look at your SEO activity and look at how big the projects were that you’re working on, can any of them be restarted partly without a huge commitment?
  • Can you restart activity in a small way using some of the pointers and quicker wins outlined above?
  • Can you spare budget for SEO alongside other, more immediate channels such as paid media?

Speaking of which, let’s talk about paid media.

Paid media

I’m going to defer to our resident paid media expert Byron here who has kindly shared his views on paid media in light of the pandemic. If you’re at all interested in paid media and learning from the best, sign up to his webinar here which is running weekly.

What has changed?

At the beginning of March we saw a huge amount of clients and competing businesses in ad auctions pull all of their paid media spend. In some verticals this is no doubt the right call to have made; ultimately, if you can’t service the leads or ship orders to the customers that PPC or paid social is driving, then it’s valuable cash flow which could be conserved.

However, this wasn’t the right thing to do in many instances and those businesses who were able to operate and continued to advertise, have reaped the benefits many times over.

We can quite literally see in many of our client accounts which have stayed active, CPA has dropped off of a cliff and conversions and ROAS skyrocket where other key competitors turned off activity. No major changes were made to the account in the screenshot below - the competition just dropped out of the auction so impression share increased, as did results.

That crossover was the start of the pandemic in the UK and led to a huge increase in conversions, with a simultaneous drop in CPC.

In the short term not only are these businesses thriving where others have seen a decline or stagnation, they have also won the longer term benefit of customer lifetime value and brand awareness.

As of writing this blog, we’re starting to see some of the advertisers who ducked out at the beginning of March begin to resume campaign activity.

Should you spend resources on paid media right now?

If you’re able to operate, then absolutely. Paid media is probably the safest bet in terms of generating revenue in the short term due to the instant feedback provided, when compared to other online marketing activities such as SEO. Money in - results out. If a campaign is working then keeping it on could be what keeps the cash flow in your business. If the results aren’t there, of course, turn it off.

It pays dividends at the moment to be able to be reactive to the market and online behaviour too. Trends change often and being visible at the right time to the right users is something that you can have more of a degree of certainty with paid media.

That being said it’s really important not to take this as a blanket piece of advice, be sure to carry out your own due diligence. Look in your analytics account, see what channels are generating revenue and customers and focus on those areas.

Regularly check in your Google Ads (or any other) account and see which campaigns are delivering value still and which aren’t and make informed decisions on data not group consensus or anecdotes from Linkedin. Unlike other channels, paid media gives you that real-time feedback - make sure you use it and combine with your experience.

Where should the focus be if you do spend time on paid media?

There is no ‘one size fits all’, ‘life hack’ quick solution for everyone and suffice to say, that is very rarely the case especially with something as complex as nuanced as navigating a business through a global pandemic.

Where to focus will depend on the vertical you are in, where your results tend to come from historically and a myriad of other factors.

What I would say in terms of approach is think about intent and where you can get the best return. Cash is king right now and you need to ensure that you are getting as much for your ad spend as possible.

For many businesses this will be paid search. If someone is actively searching for products or services like yours, you want to prioritise budget to being visible here as the users are already ‘in-market’ so to speak.

Once again though this is just an example of thinking about approach, if most of your customers come through Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn usually from a paid media perspective, apply the same logic and use that channel.

Spend time taking stock of where you see the best results and then create a strategy to roll out activity, this will require a bit more of an investment of time in the short term but it means you are less likely to waste spend when activity goes live.

There is always a trade off between volume and cost efficiency so think about what is most important to you and make decisions based on that wider business goal.

For example, your Facebook retargeting campaign may very well be offering some very low cost conversions, and if that’s what you need, then perfect. It can’t be very easily scaled though due to the nature of how the audience is formed, so, you may need to be prepared to look elsewhere to get a higher volume of customers if that’s what’s most important to your business.

When should I invest in paid media again?

As soon as you are able to. If people are online looking for products and services like yours then you want to be visible, right?

We’re seeing pretty uniformly as a channel that paid media tends to be where businesses are seeing new enquiries and sales at the moment across all verticals.

I would recommend getting on your core campaigns to bring in a baseline of revenue and leads at the very least.

Social media

To follow on from above, we’re going to focus on the organic side of social media in this section. Over the years, the value of social media has often been questioned over and over again. My view has not changed much, it can drive value for businesses (both B2C and B2B) but expectations need to be set that in many cases, traffic from social media is less likely to convert immediately than other channels.

That was, until recently.

What has changed?

I think social media has saved a number of businesses in the last few months. For others, it has unlocked growth which they’ve never seen before. Basically, social media has driven direct sales to small and medium sized businesses for a range of goods which we may have otherwise bought from large retailers or from physical stores. We don’t have the clickstream data that we used to in order to see this at scale, but social usage is up massively as reported by a few sources, as is referral data for some networks.

Local companies are pivoting their business to still stay open, at least to some extent. My favourite local pub, the Fox and Vivian redid their food menu to allow for takeaway:

They have launched a true MVP. You don’t order via Deliveroo, Just Eat or a platform, you just send them a message on Instagram, tell them your order and a requested time slot.

That’s it, nothing fancy or expensive. And it’s working:

I reached out to Fox and Vivian to check and this was their reply:

No SEO, no paid search, no email list. Just social media. This is the case for a lot of small businesses right now, particularly FMCG ones which has also led to pop-up websites like Stock Up Small who promote these kinds of businesses.

It’s not just FMCG businesses either who are pivoting and enjoying the benefits. Pete Heat (what a name) pivoted his magic show so that he can run it via Zoom and has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook. And my favourite, Sweet Farm Animal Sanctuary who launched Goat-2-Meeting which has been shared over 5k times on Facebook.

This kind of innovation, fun and quick thinking is so prevalent right now. Britney Muller received tons of replies to her tweet asking for examples of companies doing this. Social didn’t drive them to do this, but it has given them an almost instant stream of traffic from customers who not only want something different during lockdown, but also want to support local businesses.

The movement to support local businesses has certainly gained traction and makes social media a bigger opportunity for many than it may have done a few months ago. Instagram have gone as far as to introduce new labels for specifically this purpose:

This is allowing smaller businesses to take back a tiny amount of business from larger businesses such as Amazon. Despite a great quarter, Amazon had to push delivery times on non-essential categories back by a few weeks, pushing customers to look elsewhere. Many will have used their local supermarket trip, whilst others turned to smaller, independent businesses.

Where did they turn? Social.

This spike in social media usage may not last forever and fatigue is likely to start kicking in at some point, but for now, it’s very much alive and well.

Should you spend resources on social media right now?

Despite all of the above and the positive impact that social media has had on many businesses, we shouldn’t forget that organic reach on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram is still very low. This will be offset a little bit by the increased usage, but it’s hard to justify throwing lots of time into organic social at the current time.

As with other organic channels, if budget is a real challenge right now, social media should probably take a back seat in your list of priorities. There are some things that you can do with minimal investment which are outlined below, but generally, I’d advise most teams to keep investment minimal. Unless…

Unless you’re a small, local or national business who have a product which can help put a smile on people’s faces right now. Whether that is their own, or by sending a gift to someone else.

For example, if you sell Yorkshire Pudding Pies or amazing Cornish Pasties, organic social media could work very well for you right now. These are the kinds of products that can give people something nice to look forward to in an otherwise difficult and bleak situation.

Another example is things like healthy snacks for those of us who would otherwise snack at our desks at work or before we go to the gym.

Where should the focus be if you do spend time on social media?

If you’re one of these companies, there are a few simple ways that you can promote yourself better on social media which won’t break the bank and won’t take lots of time either.

  • Ensure that your profile page across all platforms is up to date and that it’s super, super clear that you’re still open for business
  • Take a bit of time to take some great photos of your products. You don’t need anything fancy for this, an iPhone and good lighting will do. Make sure you're shooting with a window facing your product, so that you have lots of natural light. Clean your iPhone lens (just wipe it with a dry cloth), and finally make sure the background is simple and not too busy. If you feel brave enough to edit, just adjust the contrast and sharpness a little, to make the colours pop.
  • If you’re a local business, speak to the admins of local Facebook groups and ask if you can post a discount code or special offer in their group. Or offer the admin a freebie!

Digital PR and link building

Finally, let’s talk about digital PR and link building. Of course, these are part of the overall picture of SEO but you all know that I love link building, so I felt that I should dedicate a whole section to it.

What has changed?

Similar to SEO broadly, not a lot has changed in terms of the tactics themselves. The ways that we built links a few months ago still apply now and will for the foreseeable future. However, the approach certainly has changed. The news agendas for many publishers around the world have been (understandably) dominated by COVID-19.

One industry that was particularly affected was of course travel. Back in February and early March, we paused travel campaigns that specifically mentioned highly affected regions such as China and Italy. However, as time went on and of course, the virus spread, not launching campaigns with affected locations became a real issue.

Alongside this, even travel campaigns that were agnostic of region were difficult to promote. Brands didn’t want to be seen as possibly encouraging travel at a time when the virus was spreading so quickly across the world.

This meant that for a while, travel campaigns pretty much ground to a halt whilst the team worked out what was next. Slowly but surely, this happened in other industries too and it became very hard to keep promoting campaigns at a time when many journalists were focused on COVID-19.

Our messaging also had to change, along with our process. We needed to be a lot more conscious of chasing journalists and sending follow-ups, as well as not being insensitive to the fact that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and that our lovely content campaign isn’t the most important thing in the world right now.

Gradually, this has gotten better, even to the point where some journalists are actively asking for non-COVID stories and ones which are COVID related but with a positive angle. Things do appear to be settling a lot, particular with niche magazines and publications who are focusing on their own areas.

We’re now seeing things getting easier and whilst not back to normal yet, campaigns are improving a lot. We’ve found that having a mix of planned and reactive campaigns that we can share with the media is working well and generally getting cut-through at a time when COVID-19 is still very much at the forefront of the news agenda.

Shannon spoke about this approach at MozCon in 2019 and explained it in this blog post. Even prior to the pandemic, the approach was working well for a number of clients and this diverse approach is now paying off more than ever.

Should you spend resources on content-led digital PR right now?

Similar to SEO, if you can, you absolutely should and for similar reasons - if your competitors are not actively building links and you are, you have the opportunity to get further ahead than them.

The one caveat to this is one that has existed for a long time - amazing links won’t fix a broken website, bad product or terrible customer experience. I’ve seen many examples of websites generating hundreds of links from the who’s who of the internet, but traffic staying stable because of fundamental technical and on-page SEO issues. If this is the case with your business and you know that there are technical issues that could be fixed, I’d balance this against the need to start or continue building links.

Where should the focus be if you do spend time on digital PR?

If you’re going to invest time into content-led digital PR, then the focus does need to change a little and be a lot more risk-averse than it may have been a few months ago. Even if you’re in the fortunate position of being able to spend budget and time on this activity, it’s more important than ever to do it in a way which makes the best use of that budget. Whilst previously, we may have incorporated the odd risky campaign into a schedule, now isn’t the time to be doing that.

The focus therefore needs to be in a few, key areas:

  • Focus on content ideas which are not one-hit wonders. We’ve never been big fans of them at the best of times, but even more so right now. We’d only advise going for these if the time invested is really small (a matter of hours) and if it fails or only gets a few links, the time investment won’t have been too high but could pay off big
  • At the opposite end of this scale, focus on content ideas which are truly evergreen in nature and go beyond link building. Incorporate things such as keyword targeting, expert content and quotes from the client and a plan to continuously promote the content over the course of many months
  • If you can’t produce large content pieces for digital PR, look inward at your company and see if you have anyone who can provide an opinion on the pandemic as it relates to your industry. Then keep an eye on services such as HARO and hashtags such as PR Request and Journo Request, then respond to relevant requests
  • Look at any older content that you have and existing campaigns - can you promote them again either as they are or with some slight updates such as a refreshed angle or data point? If so, you can effectively relaunch a campaign without the investment you’d normally need to do it from scratch
  • If you’re an ecommerce business, can any of your products be adapted in light of the pandemic? Either to bring some light relief and humour to the situation or to be genuinely helpful? We’ve had success with a client in the gifting space by promoting their subscription based products which put a smile on people’s faces during a difficult time

When should I invest in digital PR again?

As soon as you can and as soon as you’re happy that other channels such as paid media are taken care of. If you’re pretty happy with your technical/on-page SEO and feel that it’s quite robust, then link building can go ahead of this in your list of priorities. Links are still going to matter in a post-pandemic world, so investing into them now, especially when competitors aren’t, will not be a risk for your long-term business.

If you are to invest in it again and start launching campaigns, make sure that any ideas that you move forward with are not a gamble and at risk of being put on hold if the pandemic continues or gets worse for a long period of time.

Conclusion

So, let’s summarise all of that.

Make sure you make it to the other side...

The general theme here is that the focus first and foremost should be on ensuring that you still have a business at the end of all of this. If you’re not sure that this will be the case, then you need to be even more careful what you invest time and budget into.

If digital marketing can help dig you out of a hole and increase the chances of your business surviving, then chances are that paid media and social media are likely to help you the most. Of course, paid media also carries risk because it’s pay to play, but the “instant” traffic that you can get from it could give your business that influx of cash and customers that may see you through everything.

Start slowly but surely plugging activity back in again…

If you’re confident that your business has ridden the wave and gotten over the worst, then you should start to reactivate digital activity whenever you can. This may be slow and steady to begin with, but if you can start to do it now and get ahead of competitors, then you absolutely should be doing so.

This doesn’t mean that you should go in all guns blazing. You should still carefully consider your ideal marketing channels, as well as the messaging and content that you can send out during a pandemic. But generally, start to switch things back on and monitor closely.

Go for it

If you’re one of the fortunate companies who have seen an upturn in business since the pandemic started, then don’t be afraid to go for it and secure long-term customers who may not have otherwise found you right now. Whilst some businesses are suffering, others are thriving:

If this is you, don’t be afraid or feel guilty for it. Of course, be sensitive to what’s going on in the world but assuming that you can keep up with demand and provide a great experience, you should be doing everything you can to take advantage of this opportunity.

And a final example on this from a small retailer with an Etsy store, I’ll let this note within the order do the talking: