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Novel Dilemmas Demand Novel Responses

handshake between real and virtual hand

How should digital marketers respond to the pandemic? The right answer hinges on your industry and geography but there are only three fundamental responses. Choose poorly, and you open yourself to well-earned evisceration in the court of public opinion led by Reddit zealots. Choose wisely and MBA students will review your case study as the benchmark for savvy and sensitive crisis management.

To illustrate your options let’s draw on a parable from the New Testament. That’s not a typical source for business citations. Whether or not you’re a fan it contains archetypal stories from which anyone can learn.

Parable of the Talents

In this story, a rich landowner entrusts three servants with three amounts of money in the form of “talents” before he goes on a long journey. Upon his return, the landowner demands an accounting. The first servant, given 5 talents, put the funds to work to earn 5 more and returns 10 talents to the landowner. The second servant did the same with his original 3 talents and returns 6. Finally, the 3rd servant – who has reason to fear the wrath of his demanding boss – thought it best to bury the lone talent he was given and return it later with no risk, and no gain.

Steak Knives Out

The first servant is handsomely rewarded, the second gets some respect, and the third fellow doesn’t fare well. Picture Biblical unpleasantness. It’s like the reward system for salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross: first prize is a new car, second prize is a set of steak knives, and third prize is you’re fired.

You’re one of the three servants. The landowner is your digital marketing boss or client. And now there’s a pandemic that threatens to sicken and kill people while wrecking business and the economy. Which path will you take when it comes to digital advertising, your budget, and results? You must make a choice.

Pump the brakes

The most obvious option is to stop. Depending on your product or service demand may collapse anyway. Everyone else is stopping too so you won’t lose market share to them and maybe your message or creative no longer seems appropriate given the circumstances. People who make this understandable choice are like the second servant. No one is going to get fired for making this choice and your boss or client will understand your recommendation to stop. He or she may secretly wonder if that’s the best you can do and later have a long lunch with your hard-working peer or competitor.

Damn the torpedoes!

The next most obvious and likely terrible choice is to get aggressive. Everyone else is out of the ad market. Auctions and inventory are cheap! You can sail the good ship capitalism through rough pandemic waters. You take market share while your weak-willed competitors flounder. I compare this choice to that of the third servant. You just take what you know, double down, and hope for the best. As the WHO’s Mike Ryan points out with regards to the pandemic response, “Hope is not a strategy”. Unless your product or service is directly and obviously relevant to the crisis, you risk being perceived as exploiting the tragedy for your own gain. Ask yourself how you feel about the people who have been caught hoarding disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer to make a quick buck reselling on Kijiji or Amazon. Your company could be the corporate version of these people.

Wait for it

So how do you get rewarded like the first servant in this challenging situation? You don’t turn off your advertising and wait for the expensive frenzy when everyone comes back. Similarly, you don’t make a tone-deaf, aggressive move that risks your brand and reputation.

Instead, you adjust your program to match the circumstances. You demonstrate good corporate citizenship. You run positive, “we’re all in this together” messaging that connects to sound advice on how to get through the pandemic in a way that also relates to your brand. You get a copywriter with a delicate touch to weave a message that’s authentic and hopeful with one that shows how your product or service helps. You don’t need to be selling Lysol or medical supplies for this to work.

How does your business help?

Maybe manufacturing and shipping your run-of-the mill household product helps to keep people working. Perhaps your service provides a safe and welcome distraction for anxious families. If you’re in high-tech, does the data you shape and present keep people informed when information is critical? Two of the hardest hit industries are tourism and hospitality: is there a list of safe solo activities you can share with housebound web surfers? What if your restaurant shares its popular salad dressing recipe with people who are suddenly cooking at home – will they make a deposit on a future reservation with you?

Beware the darkness

Before proceeding, here’s a word of caution: if your approach to helping is ham-fisted and inauthentic, you join the third servant in the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Your campaign must be done well or not at all. They don’t write case studies about mediocrity, only great wins, and big fails.

The Measure of a Marketer

If you’re intrigued by the opportunity to be a good person who also does good business, there are more potential rewards. When your appropriate new campaign launches you could own the market because the other servants turned their programs off. You’ll get the traffic and results and rock-bottom auction prices too. You also get a cost-effective remarketing list full of people who will remember your authentic, hopeful brand.

After the crisis, your competitors will pile back into the market with big budgets driving expensive auctions. Meanwhile you can save money by speaking only to your remarketing list of people who are also more likely to come back to you. That’s before your blogs, video spots, and interviews drop to share how your company struck the balance of doing good business despite adversity without ruining your brand or selling your soul.

What’s your job?

If you believe your job as a marketer is to differentiate your organization or client from the pack – in a positive way – you’re going to have to try something. We’re willing to help: the Search Warrant team is offering free consulting for your digital marketing in case we can help you come up with an appropriate way to proceed during the crisis. Kudos to Jordan Danger for the idea and providing an example of the very approach I recommend. Together we might save some jobs and help people through difficult times. Otherwise we might just as well bury our talents and hope for the best.

Looking for ideas on how to adapt in challenging times? Get in touch.


Brian O’Grady is a digital marketing and paid media innovator with 15 years experience driving measurable results and year-over-year revenue growth on 4 continents. He founded Search Warrant Online Marketing in 2007 and most recently co-designed and launched IBM’s global model for user-centric search advertising.

If your investments in SEO, PPC advertising and Conversion Optimization could perform better, Brian wants to help.

30 Burke, Guelph, ON, N1L 1J2, Canada

info@searchwarrant.ca