It’s amazing how quickly things can change. In just a few weeks, marketing plans have gone out the window. Whole departments are now working remotely. Budgets are being squeezed tight. At the same time, businesses still need customers — some need them more than ever. That means there’s plenty of things for marketers to do, and plenty of questions to get our heads around as we try to understand marketing during a pandemic.

Here are five questions we think most marketers (ourselves included) are asking right now, and the answers we’ve been able to glean.

What Does COVID-19 Mean For Everyone’s Marketing Budget?

You’d think that marketing budgets would be one of the first things to be slashed as companies look to cut costs.

In many organizations, particularly consumer-facing brands that don’t sell essential products, that’s exactly what’s happened. In a poll of 176 marketers, Gartner found nearly two-thirds (65 percent) were expecting moderate to large budget cuts.

One anonymous direct-to-consumer media buyer told Digiday’s Kristina Monllos that their company was decreasing campaign spending by 10 percent. If things got worse, they were ready to pause entire campaigns.

But not everyone’s marketing budgets are on the chopping block. Singular’s John Koetsier reports gaming and news companies are splashing out. Ad spends from gaming companies are up 25 percent from the year’s low point. News and information companies have increased ad spend by 11 times from early January.

In the B2B sector, budgets are being shifted. Funds allocated to canceled conferences are now being spent online, writes Bernard Marr. Even those who barely have a Facebook presence will be pouring money into digital ads.

There’s even the possibility that those who continue advertising online will get more bang for their buck. ICF Next’s Nick LeRoy points out that the cost of advertising in many industries is lower than it’s been for a long time.

young worker at a whiteboard; marketing during a pandemic concept

What’s the Right Way For Brands to Approach Marketing During a Crisis?

There’s an important distinction between appearing to profit from a crisis and simply continuing to market your business within a pandemic context. Brands will have to recognize where that dividing line is and tread carefully in the coming months.

One strategy being pursued by brands like Nike is to amplify public health messages, writes EY’s Janet Balis. Brands with agile internal departments and agency partners may be able to pivot scheduled marketing campaigns and replace messaging with something both on-brand and on-message.

Acts of kindness and charity are also effective strategies. Many banks are choosing to waive overdraft fees, for instance, while fashion brands are creating masks and gowns. Your customers will remember how you act during this period, says Marc Beckman, CEO of advertising agency DMA United. Get behind a common cause, and they’ll be much more likely to repay your efforts in the future.

Above all, brands must strike an empathetic tone. Ignoring the current pandemic in your marketing message is a surefire way to come across as tone-deaf. Yes, there’s a danger your bland coronavirus support message will get lost among the dozens of other corporate well wishes. But a vacation-themed marketing message will get your brand noticed for all the wrong reasons.

It’s why Convince & Convert’s Lauren Teague recommends brands cancel all scheduled posts. Go back and look at your editorial calendars, then assess which content is still relevant and acceptable in light of the current situation. If there’s even the slightest chance it could come across as insensitive, scrap it.

Where Does Content Marketing Fit in All of this?

Content marketing remains as important as ever. Of course, we would say that, but hear us out: Of all digital marketing strategies, content marketing remains affordable, accessible and effective for virtually every brand.

Content marketing even trumps other digital marketing tactics like PPC right now, writes content marketer Miranda Miller. If you’re struggling to serve customers right now, you’re much better off focusing on SEO and content marketing. Both are long-term strategies, which will deliver even bigger ROIs in the future if competitors fail to keep pace.

Further, people are craving content now more than ever, writes Dean Yeong. When people are panicking, your brand can stand apart by offering positivity. Content marketing is a great vehicle for this.

Content marketing is also a much softer sell than advertising, notes writer Hayley Yager. By delivering value and building trust, you shore up your position as an ethical marketer during times of crisis.

Your content doesn’t have to be about the virus (it’s actually better if your content is evergreen). But it must help your target audience solve a problem. It must also be sensitive. Write about how to work from home better or bodyweight exercise routines. Don’t talk about how to save money on your next business trip.

Best of all, help is at hand for brands who want to increase their content marketing efforts. Moz Academy is offering free SEO training for everyone. SEMrush has made its Social Media Toolkit free of charge, too, as well as its lead generation service, Oppty.

Times Square ads; marketing during a pandemic concept

How Is User Behavior Changing Now That Half the World is in Lockdown?

Unsurprisingly, being stuck inside all day is having a pretty fundamental effect on our behavior.

For starters, people are genuinely concerned, and this is impacting their buying decisions. Research by consumer-intelligence company Suzy, presented by CEO and founder Matt Britton, found that 71 percent of Americans are very concerned about news surrounding COVID-19. More than half (54 percent) of consumers are putting off big-ticket purchases like homes and cars for the next three months.

It also seems a lot of us might not be as addicted to our phones as we think we are. WordStream’s Mark Irvine points out that paid search campaigns are showing a big drop in search traffic as a result of shelter-in-place orders. “Since Monday, March 16, mobile traffic has consistently been down an average of 24% from the last week of February,” he says. “Tablet traffic is similarly suffering from a 19% drop in the same time period.”

Most big tech platforms are experiencing the same phenomenon, Ella Koeze and Nathaniel Popper report in The New York Times. “Facebook, Netflix and YouTube have all seen user numbers on their phone apps stagnate or fall off as their websites have grown, the data from SimilarWeb and Apptopia indicates.”

The coronavirus may change the way we work in the future, too, writes Social Media Today’s Andrew Hutchinson. “Many workplace experts have already noted that the forced shift to working from home will likely alter the way businesses approach their operations, even after the pandemic,” he says.

What’s Happening on Social Media?

Social media has been an unsurprising winner in a world where everyone is confined to their homes and not allowed to socialize outside.

The New York Times’ Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel report that messaging on Facebook and Instagram has increased by more than half in a lot of countries. Italian video calls have increased by a staggering 1,000 percent.

At the same time, brand engagement across all platforms is down, according to Social Fresh CEO Jason Keath. The decline is twice as bad on Facebook and Instagram as it is on Twitter. Engagement on Instagram fell 14 percent since the start of the year while Facebook engagement fell 13.5 percent.

The lesson: It appears users care a lot more about hearing from friends and family they can’t see in person right now, and a lot less about what brands are trying to sell to them.

What’s more, some of the less savory elements of social media have re-emerged as a result of the pandemic. Misinformation, conspiracy theories and scams are rife among private groups on Facebook, Mark Scott at Politico reports. Anti-Chinese sentiments are also becoming common across the major platforms, Hanna Kozlowska at Quartz reports.

At the same time, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all sent content moderators home, Wired’s Louise Matsakis and Paris Martineau write. The task of sifting through the mire of fake and vitriolic content has been left in the hands of machines.

And they aren’t doing a good job. Content from authoritative publishers like The Atlantic and Buzzfeed are being taken down for violating spam rules, Matsakis and Martineau report.

What’s Next?

We are still in middle of all this, and parts of the new normal still seem uncertain. But hopefully, these questions provide some guidance and direction to your COVID-19 marketing strategies. Remember, wherever you’re currently working and whatever budget you’re working with, there’s still plenty you can achieve in the coming months and the year ahead.


Images by: Fusion Medical Animation, Diggity Marketing, Donn Strain