Digital Marketing Tips for a Downturn

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In August, an advertisement from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising appeared in The Financial Times. Its bold single page aim was to alert and influence c-suite leaders about the impact of cutting marketing budgets in the face of upcoming economic turbulence.

The IPA shared 40 years of evidence to show that short-term reactions are never as effective as long-term investments for brands – or the economy.

According to The Drum, all of the IPA’s analysis on who does best in a downturn shows businesses that either maintain or increase their marketing spend during difficult economic times, recover fastest. In fact, the evidence shows that cutting ad budgets in a recession significantly undermines a companies’ ability to recover and grow future market share and profits.

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Tobias la Cour

Tobias la Cour is co-founder of Somebody Digital, a global digital marketing agency established in 2013. He says: “As marketing experts, we also know that not adapting to recessionary influences leads to stagnation. Maintaining the marketing status quo during challenging times is not the answer. When economic change impacts customer behaviour, it’s business behaviour that needs to pivot - not the budget.”

As an experienced leader in growth through marketing, Tobias has a 25-year in-house and agency track record for clients including McAfee, EA Games, Nokia & Phillips. 

Tobias offers expertise in all elements of the marketing mix including partner marketing, online marketing, e-commerce, product launches and successfully managing and building a wide variety of international brands. Alongside co-founder John Wilkes, Tobias has led the growth of Somebody Digital, responding to a significant global demand for results driven performance marketing.

Tobias says: “So, what are the guiding principles for making digital marketing work during a downturn? How can we ensure we don’t make the same mistakes of the past to navigate a future on repeat? We’ve been here before and we’ve learned the lessons.” 

Here are five top tips drawn from Tobias’s agency’s own learnings.

Don’t stop in a downturn

Somebody Digital's single most powerful piece of advice for digital marketing in an economic downturn? Don’t stop. This might seem selfishly motivated, given my line of work, but the evidence is overwhelming. 

Tobias says: "I’m all for taking time to re-evaluate plans, to assess whether the foundations of digital are in place, fit for purpose and operating efficiently. This should be done often anyway, but a downturn is not the time to put the brakes on. 

"When organisations pull back on their digital marketing efforts and related media spend, they’re pulling back on their visibility too. In the short term, this increases the risk that their brand or product will not be top of mind when a need arises for the consumer."

Get ready for opportunity

Successful marketing is an iterative process of implementation and modification and the best time to work on a recession plan is before recession hits. A key aspect of this planning involves data gathering and analysis.

According to Retail Week, most European consumers will adopt recessionary behaviours to stretch their budgets this autumn. This will involve a mix of trading down to cheaper brands, sacrificing perceived quality for lower costs, shopping around and switching to discounters. 

As some competitors will scale back their digital presence, it will create even wider opportunities for businesses who have come prepared and are ready to strike.

In the 2008 recession, evidence showed that organisations who maintained marketing activity were 3 times more successful. Not only were they able to navigate the slowdown but their approach enabled accelerated recovery when the market returned.

Reduced competition will lower marketing costs and improve efficiency. For those prepared to invest, the advertising landscape becomes a much more, not less attractive opportunity - as long as your messaging and creative output is adjusted to align with customer needs.

Listen to customers

A winning business tactic in a recession is to nurture your loyal client base. Focusing resource and marketing efforts on servicing existing clients can offer more results with far less effort and expense than it takes to acquire new clients. 

But economic shifts will impact even your most loyal customers, whether B2B or B2C. So getting under the skin of your customers and understanding their needs is a fundamental approach to survive economic change. 

How are your customers searching? Where are they searching and what are they searching for? Research and tailor tactics based on your audience personas and their specific searches. 

There are many ways you can do this but the simple marketing principle is to engage more deeply with your customers so you can better understand them.

Use social media polls, send surveys and encourage incentivised feedback on your products and services. If possible, implement and maintain a hyper-personalised conversation between customers and the business founder through email marketing, website blogs, and social  channels. This will help your business learn what your customers are looking for and build a better relationship. 

Agile adaptation

Economic challenges mean customers may now need to engage with your business differently. So look for ways to adapt and improve the customer experience. Could your business launch a loyalty programme that rewards your customers? Or perhaps your customers might appreciate more flexible payment options? 

Reminding customers about your price competitiveness and offering a flexible tiered pricing system is a great way to provide choice when spending is restricted. A key tool here is to monitor response and test options and adapt accordingly. 

This is where content marketing supported with SEO can play an effective role. Whether B2C or B2B, most buyers will be searching for ways to navigate tougher economic conditions. Blog tips and thought leadership insights supported through SEO and PR backlinks will help customers see your business in a better light: Empathetic, supportive, and trustworthy. 

Think about your digital marketing during a downturn as a conversation with your customer. It’s fluid, collaborative, and mutually beneficial.

Embrace creativity

When standard behaviour changes, perhaps one of the most overlooked areas to focus on is brand standout through creativity. According to LinkedIn, B2B audiences exposed to both acquisition-focused lead gen ads blended with creative brand ads are six times more likely to convert. 

An advertising report in 2021 from the European Association of Communicators revealed that 44% of the most successful recessionary ads engaged a freshly relevant empathetic and emotional approach with their customers. 

But if all advertisers are embarking on this engagement route, creativity needs to kick in. Putting a spotlight on real people (business workers and customers) through rich and creative filmic content is one way to deliver uniquely personalised messaging that can be cut many ways and shared across multiple platforms

And remember, videos don’t just sit as a top-of-the-funnel format; they can, and should be a key part of your revenue generation strategy. For instance, include clickable CTA buttons or help B2B viewers move down the sales funnel with opportunities to find out more through a report or demo request.

History has repeatedly shown us that recessions can offer opportunities for growth for businesses that sustain and adapt their marketing activities and budgets.

As the saying goes, “When times are good, you should advertise; when times are bad, you must advertise.”

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