In March, our overriding priority was to get our teams settled in their various homes, and to act with haste. We had to, right? Not panicking, but acting fast. In April, many of us tried to reset to some sort of sane mode of working. In May, we hung on to the systems and processes of that semi-sanity, waiting for the peak. And in June and July, we realised that this is going to be a long, slow dance and the idea of a ‘peak’ was a fancy. We looked for bigger, better ideas.
What’s Marketing’s role in this dance? Should we back off, assuming our market is not listening? Go hard, assuming the need to work harder for the same results?
Below are a few personal observations based on our work for growth companies (mostly) in Australia, Asia and Spain.
Not our first rodeo
In 1997 to 1999, the dot.com boom hurled money, talent, and hope at new retailers whose business models were later shown to be naive. Tech companies rode the growth wave by providing the plumbing for this new world. I was well and truly a part of this, leading the local internet business for a US tech giant. In 18 months, we grew from nothing to $35m with a small team.
When the emperor’s clothes were revealed, and dot.com became the dot bomb in 2000, the tech wreck was an ugly corrective period. Those same tech companies had their rugs pulled once their venture-funded dot.com customers stopped paying their bills.
We took a hit too. Despite preaching to many (in full-page feature articles in the Australian Financial Review no less) that only a few companies would succeed, we happily served those who could not. Did not. It was sobering to say the least.
After the dust settled, I had the macabre fortune of surveying the ruins of many of those tech companies, and the faint signs of life of a few. I wondered whether those that survived post tech wreck would be those who had adjusted their strategies most rapidly, or most comprehensively. Or something else.
Did they find new markets? New products? How did the few rebuild?
My intuitions were wrong. I found that the survivors were those that doubled down on their core strategy rather than those who tried to enter new markets.
I also discovered a tactical approach I have come to refer to as rhythm. That is, doing things over and over, at a regular cadence, rather than the usual stop-start that is so common in B2B. Especially for those beholden to a quarterly budget cycle. The survivors stuck to their knitting, and they had rhythm.
Maintain rhythm to maintain momentum
That brings us to 2020 – and whether we stay the course or pivot. My intuition and experience both suggest holding to your current strategy.
But if you do have to change, change what?
I worry particularly about those businesses trying to enter new markets as a response to a contraction of their old ones. The middle of a pandemic and the start of a deep and long recession, hardly seems like a good time to try to gain the trust of strangers.
Businesses are more likely to support their old vendors than to change in a time of uncertainty. Why will they embrace you if you are unknown? It seems a courageous move.
So, if a change is forced on us, consider new offerings ahead of new markets.
9 insights from successful pivots in 2020
Here are a few tips and examples of where I’ve seen pivots work:
1. Product pivots
At align.me, we have changed the delivery model for our Funnel Camps (2-3 day planning workshops). We’ve gone from in-person only to wholly remote delivery. It takes the same amount of time (in some cases more), so our prices have remained unchanged. But in the five months since the lockdown, we have done more planning workshops than we did in the five months prior. A simple change and our market responded positively.
Many of our clients have developed micro-services – small offerings that deliver big impact for a small price and in a short period. And the results? Many clients in Australia and Spain report that revenues have held or improved despite the shift to lower-priced offerings.
We’ve done the same at align.me. For our outsourced marketing business, we’ve traditionally celebrated our breadth over our depth. But many of our clients had a very specific problem immediately after lockdown, and we had to respond.
While existing conversations could easily be continued over Zoom and Teams, starting new ones became close to impossible. So, we built a narrow service based on creating new relationships over LinkedIn and it’s been a real winner. Low priced fixed outcomes, and (shudder) a single tactic.
For some of our clients, a full pivot was their only option. One client made that shift at warp speed. They pivoted from selling corporate coffee machines and supplies to hand sanitiser, and survived well. It was a bold move, and was executed decisively. We played a small role (getting a new logo and commercial website up in 24 hours). Pivoting this aggressively is not for the faint-hearted, the cash-starved, or the uncertain.
2. Meet the market
Contrary to my point above about holding our price, we’ve found several segments who had an appetite, but not the budget. For them, we’ve adjusted our offerings to provide them with all of the value that we could, at whatever price they could afford. So, instead of “to do that for you would cost xx” we switched to “at that budget, we can do yy”. And, selectively, we also gave a little on margin depending on our capacity. Right now, we’re at full utilisation and hiring. But we’ve had a couple of months where that wasn’t the case, and we happily provided services at a different rate for clients we’d perhaps not normally have been able to serve.
We met the market.
3. Love the heck out of your customers
We’ve seen many of our customers embrace their customers even more lovingly than before the lockdown. Not in pursuit of orders, or even past payments due, but to help. Genuinely. I had many long conversations with one of my favourite CEOs who was seeking more ways to help his customers. Our conversations were around what else we could do to help their clients more completely, more usefully. He sought no additional fees from his clients and sought no additional promises. He felt he could. He felt he should.
Several of our customers offered discounted additions. One offered an ecomm extension to their core software without fee so that their clients could affect a work-from-home transition quickly.
For us, we assumed that all our clients would need more of us. So, we increased our committed hours for every retained marketing client by 33% without an increase in fees, and we hired a furloughed digital marketer to beef up our stocks in support of that initiative. We’ve loved our clients to death, and they truly appreciate it.
4. If you have to take a break, do it right
For some, the “go hard or go home” question played out differently. Unfortunately. A client selling heating and cooling for outdoor hospitality venues had no choice but to stand down. But rather than go ‘dark’ for six months, we advised him to contact all of his customers and to offer advice about how to wind their venues down in a way that would allow a restart whenever the return became feasible. The result? When outdoor dining became the only safe option in the early days of a return from lockdown, those same venues needed more heating. Everyone wins.
5. Ride someone else’s tornado
This is an expression I have used for the last 20 years to describe the idea of supporting someone else’s momentum, rather than trying to create your own. We’ve found that established programs from our two favourite global tech companies lost none of their support post lockdown, and the execs chartered with their execution had fewer demands on their time. So, we got very, very busy helping those execs to roll out their programs.
Other versions of this same approach can centre around supporting government or industry initiatives. Ride their tornado. If there is a government program designed to support struggling businesses, we can find ways to support the program. For us, when an established contact from an industry body needed a guest presenter to share a few tips on growth during uncertainty, my business partner jumped at the chance. Despite taking that challenge on solely with the legitimate spirit of giving/sharing to help others, we had three of those businesses engage us to help them to act on the advice given.
6. Ogres are like onions. They have layers (thank you Shrek)
Shrek told Donkey that he was complex. He had layers. So does your position in a market, and the depth of that position. Another Australian client has just posted their two best months in their long history. A small discount coupled with accelerated depreciation granted by the government and a buoyant transport sector combined to generate strong demand. Of course, good marketing played a role in getting the discount message out. But more importantly, we had built a community ready to hear the messages. This sudden success was built on a foundation formed over many years. That foundation, like Shrek, has layers.
7. Not all tactics were born equal
Clearly, events aren’t super popular right now and we’re not about to do a letter run any time soon. So, what tactics are we doubling down on today?
Webinars have made a resurgence, with registrations up, no-shows down, and interest high. WhatsApp groups and Zoom communities have sprung up to fill interaction voids, and we joined the party. A group of 20 CEOs of our high-growth clients joined a weekly one-hour call that became something of a self-help group sharing tips and fears, and a bit of a chat between peers.
The biggest tactic that’s gained a lot of our attention in the last four months is outbound LinkedIn campaigns. Not InMails, but connect and direct message campaigns to create new contacts and new conversations. It just makes sense: identify your perfect audience, give them a reason to want to connect with you and send them something valuable once they do. Easy, right?
Not really. Our digital marketers compare notes and data every day as we progressively refine our concept of what works, and we’ve had to leverage experts from our team in copy, message structure, marketing technology, LinkedIn, dashboards, and complex integrations. Overall though, it’s a tactic that is perfectly timed for the market, and with continuous refinement, we’ve doubled our initial acceptance rates on behalf of the reps in our client accounts.
8. Recycling is cool
I’d be remiss if I didn’t advocate for two of the oft-forgotten tactics we use for recycling leaked prospects. Remarketing ads are those annoying ads that follow you around the web (or Facebook, or LinkedIn) after visiting a website. They cost very little, and they serve to keep your brand in the mind of a prospect that your SEO gurus worked hard to bring to your website. Failing to keep the conversation going with remarketing ads after they leave your website is such a waste.
Nurture emails are likewise key in maintaining relationships, a position, and the momentum of your conversations. Unlike our own efforts for ourselves (we stopped blogging for a year), we have maintained the blog momentum for all of our clients, and still publish on the web, share on LinkedIn, and forward by email.
And one for the ages…
9. Solve the same problem
We advocate that strategy and tactics should both be born from a clear understanding of the problem(s) you solve better than anyone else. All efforts you apply to holding, folding, pivoting, or communicating should honour the problem that underpins your strategy and market position.
In our case, we cater to two problems, both solved by “a good plan well executed”. Our pivots, if that’s what we can call them, were in line with this strategic essence. So, my last piece of guidance would be to try, to the extent that you can, to hold to your core. Find new ways to solve the same problem, and keep your messaging consistent with that.
Strategically, keep solving the same problem, even if the manner in which you do has to change. And tactically, keep your tactics focused on the original problem, even if the tone and language changes to meet the market. Even your “we’re here to help” messages and your blogs should hold firm to your chosen problem.