Growth Marketing in Crisis

March 24, 2020


At Mercato’s Traverse Fund, we think a lot about growth-stage venture-backed companies. I specifically think a lot about marketing in the growth stage.

It’s challenging in the best of times and these aren’t the best of times by any stretch. In the current environment, focus on things to do and things to let go. Here are some to consider.

Strategy

Unless there is a very compelling reason, don’t waste time rehashing strategy. Your mission and vision should be the same. It is your response in the context of this crisis that must be nuanced.

For example, Disney’s vision continues to be, “one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.”[1] At the same time, they have:

  • suspended global park operations
  • closed their retail stores and malls (though the shopping mall attached to Shanghai Disney is slated to reopen this week in a hopeful indication)
  • waived rebooking fees
  • shifted focus on online assets by doing things like releasing their animated feature, Frozen 2, months ahead of their planned schedule.

Communication

Marketing will typically be asked to serve as a resource in curating the email communication strategy. Build plans for both internal and external audiences. Furthermore, breaking down different external audiences is an opportunity to systematically tailor messages. For example:

  • Customers
  • Prospects
  • Partners/dealers/distributors
  • Suppliers
  • Regulatory agencies

In all communication, consider a checklist explicitly stating these key elements:

Sender

Content

Tone

Frequency

Sender – typically the highest appropriate team member. That means to consumers, the message is from the CEO; to prospects the CRO; suppliers, the head of supply chain etc.

Content – Last year, the average email open rate across all industries was just shy of 23%.[2] With the move to social distancing, there is an anticipated shift to online. It is not clear what the outcome will be on opens and click-throughs. There will be more time to stare at the inbox but there will be an avalanche of work and personal emails, both solicited and original. The one certain conclusion is that effective email content and policy are even more critical than ever.[3]

Tone – the nightmare to avoid is tone-deafness in time of crisis. That does not mean you have to stifle your particular voice. Moderate it instead. Fast food giant Wendy’s has an infamous Twitter account known for its frequently savaging its competition.[4] Check out the shift from Feb 28 to March 17. Still fun, conversational and irreverent—just not too irreverent.

Frequency – In a crisis, increase the tempo of internal communications in order to overcome the phenomenon of interpretative bias—“no news is bad news” [5]. Left without a narrative, people in crisis will create their own framework, typically worse than the truth.

Counter this with a straightforward communication timetable, for example: emails every week on Friday for internal audiences and for the outside world, an initial message followed up by relevant updates. The key is relevance. Goldilocks is best. Neither too hot nor too cold.

Budget

Another thing to prepare for is the budget reconciliation. Build multiple scenarios and have them ready before the CFO asks.

This is an excellent time to revisit the demand generation mix. Clearly events and other in-person activities are going to be off the table. Have a team member track down prepayments and start the refund process. Thankfully, most organizations are accommodating.

Question all discretionary spending. Of course, this is not the time to undertake rebranding or logo redesign. If projects are in process, see about suspending them. This crisis will eventually pass but conserving cash and driving revenue are top priorities.

Expect to get program dollars scrutinized and cut. Make it less painful by planning in advance, make 10%, 25%, 40% cut contingency budgets and see where the spending mix would land. Most important, be sure to highlight what the impacts of the cuts will be.

Shift attention and focus to essential activities like demand generation. If you have the cycles, create a demand-centered budget. Roll up a plan aimed at an overall demand generation target, driving more leads to make up for the slowdown in the market. Even if this scenario seems unrealistically expensive, use it to communicate what marketing dollars might buy.

The same is true for pricing and promotional strategies. The novelty of the crisis can serve as an inspiration for thinking that would have been out of the question in normal conditions.

Metrics

This is a time to really put the funnel under a microscope. All of the forecasted revenue should be suspect. Time in stage and conversion rate are also suspect. This crisis will highlight any asymmetries or weaknesses in the funnel.

If there is a conversion rate that is too low (or too high), this is the time think about causes. Is lead scoring misfit? Are advancement criteria through stages too hard or too easy.

If you are doing email campaigns, what’s happening on open rates? Click-throughs?

Is your website performing well enough? Number of unique visitors? Time on site? Time on page? Also, hygienically, are there broken links? The point here is to know where things are and make clear-eyed projections so marketing can more accurately forecast what will be happening in demand generation.

Content

If the business cycle is slowing down, think about adjusting the focus of your content strategy. The core role of informing and relationship building is still intact but if the crisis is increasing time in the funnel at each stage, what sort of content will keep the lead engaged.

What sort of information can you provide in the context that might help the prospect? This is not the time for a hard sell or a traditional features and benefits analysis. You cannot force the sale. You can build the relationship.

Summary

Growth stage marketing is unique. Challenges range from profound to pedestrian; the ratio of effort-to-outcome is addictive; the speed of plan-to-execution is exhilarating.  Overlay a crisis like covid-19 and it’s like brewing coffee with crushed amphetamines.

Here are some of my observations from weathering previous crises that marketing teams, especially those the growth-stage, might find useful.

What are your best bits of learning? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks and wash your hands.

 

John Yoon leads the marketing practice at Mercato Partners

You can reach him at jyoon@mercatopartners.com


[1] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/12/21177375/disney-coronavirus-covid-19-theme-parks-disneyworld-disneyland

[2] https://mailchimp.com/resources/email-marketing-benchmarks/

[3] https://litmus.com/blog/6-tips-sending-effective-email-crisis

[4] https://twitter.com/Wendys?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

[5] https://psycnet.apa.org/journals/emo/11/1/145.html


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