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The Do’s and Don’ts of Marketing in a Crisis

Subbu Iyer
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In March 2020, I was in London meeting with customers, partners and teammates and upon my return to the Bay Area, organizations were preparing for what was believed to be a brief lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Weeks turned into months, and here we are, more than a year later, still dealing with the virus and its effects on the global economy.

When a prolonged crisis like a pandemic takes place, market conditions are highly unpredictable—making it a real challenge to create and implement relevant marketing strategies. Here are my thoughts on how B2B marketers can maintain relevance and drive stability and growth for their organizations during times of uncertainty:

1. Don’t stop marketing

In the early days of the pandemic, the fear of being perceived as “exploiting a crisis” caused many organizations to pull back their marketing efforts. The fact is, during difficult times, it’s essential to remain visible in your customers’ minds. The key is to be relevant and get laser focused on what your customers need, WHEN they need it.

For example, in late Q1 and through Q2 2020, we concentrated exclusively on marketing and selling our remote work solutions to our existing customers. At that time, they were all dealing with the IT challenges of enabling remote work for their entire workforce. What they needed were solutions that gave them visibility and control over network and application performance so their work-from-home employees could stay productive.

With their immediate needs met, our customers began looking at the long-term ramifications of the pandemic: the future of work, digital acceleration, cloud transformation, business resiliency and network security. So, in the second half of 2020, the timing was right to broaden our marketing activities. We expanded our target audience, enabled our partners, and launched new campaigns around the visibility and performance solutions germane to those concerns.

Even if your organization is in a situation where your customers are not buying right now, keeping your brand in front of them improves perception. Just sending a reassuring message or helpful resource goes a long way in establishing trust and loyalty.

2. Do reevaluate your go-to-market mix

According to McKinsey’s B2B Decision-Maker Pulse Survey, 96 percent of businesses have changed their go-to-market model since the pandemic hit, with the overwhelming majority turning to multiple forms of digital engagement with customers.

With digital and remote engagement proving to be as effective or more than traditional field sales, it’s imperative that sales and marketing leaders reevaluate their go-to-market mix through the lens of their buyers’ digital experience.

For marketers, this means taking a close look at the effectiveness of virtual events, online content, and digital channels such as social media, search, and email. And as your primary channel for engagement, pay special attention to your websites. Are they working for you 24×7? Are you harnessing the behavioral data that is generated online to personalize and optimize engagements?

We have a long way to go at Riverbed in this regard, but we’re making progress by adding conversational marketing, hiring more data analysts, and implementing AI and ML powered technologies to automate customer/prospect engagement across our websites and through our sales organization.

3. Do double-down on account-based marketing

In an economic downturn, when everyone is asked to do more with less, use data to guide your spending decisions. Last year, we took the time to conduct an extensive analysis of our installed base to inform our GTM and RTM models for 2021. This data also proved valuable in making choices on where to invest our marketing dollars.

What the analysis found was that the law of the vital few is true. Within our base is a set of really loyal customers who continue to buy from us, year after year. These “franchise” customers have all been impacted by the pandemic, but in different ways. Some were hit hard, others thrived, and every one of them is transforming in some way to adapt to their current environment and an uncertain future.

That’s why we made the decision to further invest in targeted account-based marketing into these franchise customers as well as a set of “look-alike” accounts. In our case, it was critical that we developed a deeper understanding of each customer’s unique situation so that we could help our sales counterparts accelerate, solidify, or increase opportunities. ABM gives you an ability to do full lifecycle marketing, not just top-of-the-funnel acquisition. And that’s the ultimate goal of marketing.

4. Do strengthen your agility

During unpredictable times, agility and flexibility is key to responding to constantly and rapidly changing customer needs. It’s essential that organizations place a premium on building these skills within their teams, investing in technologies or process improvements that enable faster decision making, and streamlining operations for maximum efficiency.

I’m still amazed at how our employees demonstrated their ability to pivot based on new priorities, try new tactics, and double down on those that worked or move on from those that didn’t. This mindset, and their ability to navigate ambiguity, enabled us to execute and drive results, even while making the transition to working from home.

5. Don’t deprioritize innovation

Riverbed was founded on the creation of a new technology category: WAN optimization. Our product called SteelHead was so entrenched into our brand identity that to this day, customers say “Oh yes, I have a Riverbed on my network.”

When you are a category creator, you win. Followers may have some success, but they will never come close to being the market leader. However, category relevance changes over time. That’s why it’s so important for organizations to always prioritize innovation, even in times of crisis.

According to a 2021 Chief Outsiders Survey, nearly half of CMOs believe the pandemic created as many, if not more, opportunities for businesses than it eliminated. Think about how many industries have already transformed their business models—retail, restaurants, entertainment, healthcare, just to name a few. Yes, the pandemic wreaked havoc, but disruption fuels innovation.

As marketers, it’s our job to know what customers are thinking about now AND what they will be thinking about in the next 1-3 years. This insight is key to both reevaluating existing portfolios and identifying new categories that seize opportunities created by changing customers’ needs.

Closing thoughts

During the worst of the pandemic, the value of marketing in driving business priorities such as brand awareness and customer retention was evident. Now, as we look to the future, we must improve our ability to understand our buyers’ mindset, provide an exceptional brand experience, and respond with agility to drive innovation and growth.

Our customers are accelerating their digital transformation initiatives to stay competitive in this new business and economic environment. I’m looking forward to engaging with them on ways Riverbed can add value in their journey—and hopefully soon, gathering with customers, partners and teammates, in person!

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