Xavia
by on May 17, 2021
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The last six months have been incredibly challenging for businesses as the world tried to cope with the COVID-19 coronavirus. A global pandemic resulting in a complete or partial lockdown of the economy is a scenario that no CMO playbook could have planned for.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

As organizations try to conserve cash and scale down expenses, marketing budgets have been the first to be trimmed. Marketers are also struggling not to sound out of sync with the times, a task made more difficult as different geographies are going through different phases of the pandemic. Marketing technology investments have been postponed even as businesses have tried to pivot their models and go online.

Advice aimed at CMOs ranges from ‘stick to your brand message’ to ‘this is not the time for your brand message’ depending on who you ask or what an algorithm decides for you.

I took on the role of CMO for a healthcare organization in April, just as the pandemic was shutting down the world. Operating in a new industry under new constraints, these are the things that I learned over the last six months.

1. Edit the marketing program ruthlessly

Every CMO knows that their marketing program could do with editing. This is the best time to trim those excesses. Edit the program down to the absolute essentials — something that is impossible to do during the normal course of business as there will be a lot of internal resistance to letting go of things that ‘we-have-always-done’.

This includes renegotiating existing contracts, adding new partners, changing the media mix, changing budget allocations, dropping some big legacy projects, and re-prioritizing campaigns. Cutting budgets does not mean that marketing comes to a stop; smart allocation of budgets can ensure that the brand remains connected to the core customer.

Marketing is accustomed to a yearly calendar — this is the time to change that. Plan quarterly, monthly, or even fortnightly. For large organizations, it is an opportunity to be nimble — to evaluate campaigns on a weekly basis and make changes. Optimize for spends, channels, and creatives — all things that you have wanted to do, but never had the time or space to.

2. Focus on owned channels

Traditionally, marketing has focussed most of its attention on paid media management. Owned channels are never looked at as effective media options in their own right. But we can now renew our focus on owned or organic channels and using internal resources better. For eg:

  • Google My Business listings and other directory listings
  • Websites and micro sites
  • Local WhatsApp groups
  • Facebook conversations
  • Customer forums

It is quite likely that these channels were used only for ‘feedback’ or ‘customer research’, but they are all potential business drivers. By treating these channels as active sources of revenue, we can apply the same rigorous tracking and attribution that we do with paid channels.

3. Plug the data leaks

No matter how well integrated the information systems are within an organization, there are ‘data leaks’. In many cases, data exists in silos that don’t easily talk to each other.

In the post-pandemic world, it is critical to align the organization around first-party-data and good data management.

The first step in this journey is collecting clean, accurate data. Even in organizations where data collection is an integral part of the customer journey, it is often incomplete and inaccurate. This lean period in business can be utilized to put in place a rigorous process to ensure clean, accurate data. It will be easier to organize training and build alignment during this period.

The second step is to orient sales & operations around campaign and customer data.

Almost every organization believes that they are data-driven in decision making. But this is usually based on ‘convenient data’ — data that is easy, available, and familiar.

Though CMOs are talking performance marketing, other departments still consider marketing to be vague and subjective when it comes to ROI. This is the best time to introduce tracking and attribution — especially for offline campaigns. Custom SMS codes, tracking codes, and virtual numbers give us the opportunity to embed performance orientation into every single creative. Re-orienting marketing spends to support lead generation and lead qualification will help the sales & operations team deploy their resources better.

The third step is to ensure that ‘no-lead-is-left-behind’. In happier times, we were all content with respectable conversion ratios. Now, we need to ensure that every phone call and every lead form is tracked right through the funnel.

By following the journey of a lead — SMS/WhatsApp/Email/Call/Form fill — through the system, one can spot a number of ‘leakage’ points that are easily plugged.

Taking these steps to ensure that sales teams are supported with adequate leads will also make it easier for the marketing team to insist that the leads are followed up and updated.

4. Go local

With each city and neighborhood responding to the pandemic differently, the messaging needs to reflect the local context. Use the organization’s physical reach to help augment your digital presence. By using your local team to record a message in the regional language for social media, you are going one step further: communicating in a voice that is familiar to the customer.

Use in-house resources to create content — FAQs / How-to Videos / What-to-expect Guides etc. This is also a good way to ensure that available resources are deployed well and engaged in meaningful work (Zoom calls from 9–7 PM for ‘up-skilling’ do not always count as meaningful work).

5. Test. Test. Test.

Without the luxury of big budgets or extended timelines, every element in the marketing program should work — from creatives to audience definition to channels

Agility in an organizational context is often looked at only through the dimension of speed. But agility is speed with direction.

Testing with small budgets and a controlled audience helps immensely to ensure that the direction is right. Start with small steps, stick to the testing plan and you can build a robust testing culture in the marketing organization.

Most organizations are postponing large investments in tech-stacks or digital transformation projects. This is the time to embrace small pilots. The good news is that most software and implementation partners are now open to doing smaller pilots or POC projects. By working with a small, focused team you can roll out a pilot project, evaluate the hypotheses, and be ready with the roll-out plan for a large-scale program whenever things improve. And the data from the pilot will make your discussions with the CFO far easier.

6. Communicate and engage with all stakeholders

This is perhaps the most important part of the playbook.

Different departments are responding to the pandemic in different ways. Keep up an active communication with your counterparts in supply chain and finance. Understand how they are looking at cash flows and revenues so that marketing can play an active role in helping the business.

Negotiations led by supply chain could help you pass on a pricing benefit to the customer. In case there are any anticipated disruptions in supplies, this can be built into the marketing plan. Similarly, you can plan spends based on the cash flow projections by the finance team. These small steps in building alignment will go a long way in ensuring organization-wide support to the marketing initiatives as and when they roll out.

Posted in: Business
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