There are plenty of studies out there showing how COVID has impacted PPC, SEO, and Social Media across various industries. Most of the news is pretty dire, particularly in entertainment, hospitality, leisure, restaurant, and travel verticals. Even some industries that have been deemed essential services and have been able to keep their doors open through shelter-in-place orders have seen declines too: automotive, construction, and elective medical, to name a few.
So what can we do as digital marketers, working with in-house stakeholders and consulting clients, during this dark time? Start planning for how and when to re-emerge.
We don’t know how consumers of our clients’ products and services will choose to re-enter public life once governments relax quarantine restrictions. But there are some indicators we can keep an eye on that will signify that business is returning to normal, or whatever new normal looks like.
Leading Indicators for a Post-COVID “Normal”
We’re keeping an eye on a few specific things for our clients that will show us that people are starting to return to pre-lockdown life (once government restrictions are lifted). Most of them revolve around transportation and travel, but some of them are unique to the businesses we’re working with and the industries they operate in.
So what’s a framework for the things that you look for in a leading indicator? Ask yourself these three questions:
- What are the signs people are comfortable being in public again?
- What are the prerequisites for people using your products or services, and how are those things trending?
- What are the non-brand category searches that people use when they are starting to research your products or services?
From there, you can extrapolate specific phrases or ideas to monitor on Google Trends. Here are some tangible examples of a few things to focus on.
When’s the last time you looked at the traffic report for your metro area? Probably not very recently, right? If you did, you would find average commute times are down incredibly. Here in Seattle, even with all the delivery drivers and essential personnel on the roads, today’s commute times are down 27% from the average. Commutes were even faster a few weeks ago when the shelter-in-place orders were first instituted. We anticipate that an increase in commute time will indicate that people are becoming more comfortable being out and about and in need of products or services.
Let’s face it: We’re all gonna need a vacation after this virus runs its course. The index on “vacation” searches is down 42% year-over-year compared to last April, according to Google Trends. Folks may be hesitant to go on a trip, even after broad travel and public assembly restrictions are lifted. But once we see an uptick here, it will be a promising sign.
One of the hardest-hit industries were airlines. In early March, there was a huge wave of “flights” and “flight prices” searches as people were afraid they weren’t going to be able to travel out of state or out of the country. After that, volume on air travel terms is down almost 60% for what’s usual for this time last year.
Our companies’ and clients’ brand searches will be another key indicator. We don’t work with TGI Friday’s, but like most dine-in restaurants, they were hit really hard by quarantine. Watching searches for their brand name climb back up will be a good indicator that folks are out shopping and needing places to eat that aren’t geared for delivery.
Product and Service Searches
Similarly, demand for products and services over search will be another indicator that people are researching with intent to buy after the COVID lull. Even essential services like “auto repair” that have remained open have seen declines. More recently, in April, driven by stimulus checks arriving from the government, we’re noticing a slight uptick to indicate demand for those services again.
Re-Entering the Post-COVID Marketplace in Phases
With leading indicators in place, the next step is deciding when and where to relaunch marketing campaigns. A lot of advertisers have pulled back budgets in the last 60 days, and understanding how to re-approach those in phases is important.
Another consideration here is that local governments are talking about re-opening certain aspects of the economy in waves. So what’s right for one business may not be right for another. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a real return to business-as-usual until a viable COVID vaccine exists, but some verticals will get a temporary head-start.
Phase 1: Brand
The no-brainer is bringing brand campaigns back first. Be there when people need you and are seeking you out specifically. Start with paid search branded keywords (I would argue that you should’ve never turned these off, but some businesses might not have had a choice) and paid social messages targeting only true categorical intent for your brand or industry.
Phase 2: Essential Services
First responders, medical professionals, grocery store workers, and delivery drivers come to mind here, but essential service folks are busier than ever. If you can find an elegant way to target campaigns to these folks and to offer them truly helpful products and services while they’re risking their lives to keep the lights on in our society, do it. You can do this with clever content marketing on your site and through email campaigns, regardless of the inbound channel.
Phase 3: Subtle Remarketing
If you have people continuing to filter into retargeting campaigns in search, social, and display, again, be there for them when they need you. Make sure you keep the frequency of these ads low so as not to be annoying or insensitive and think about making the pool expiration shorter than you would normally.
Phase 4: Non-Brand
With a close on product and service searches as leading indicators, ensure those have recovered first before you start buying non-brand advertising in search or doing any prospecting campaigns in paid social or display channels. Demand has to be there, or else companies and clients will see very poor ROI on these efforts.
Phase 5: Sales and Promotions
Nothing reads more tone-deaf during a crisis like this than touting a doorbuster or one-day-only markdown campaigns. If you had a big sale initiative planned for the 4th of July this weekend, maybe skip it this year. Make this the last type of advertising message you bring back until COVID is well and truly a thing of the past.
Use Your Judgement
There is no playbook for how to be a good marketer in a global pandemic. But we can use our empathy as humans to think about what feels right for our clients and customers and go with our gut as we plan.
If you’re not sure how a new campaign would be received, maybe send out a quick survey to some of your most loyal customers with an incentive and get a read on it before you bring back a big component of your marketing budget.
When in doubt, wait it out. Like all the people who hoarded toilet paper in March, our first response in a time like this is to panic and follow our lizard brain. That, historically, doesn’t make for great marketing and could land you in more hot water PR and public sentiment-wise than the campaign is worth.
Above all, stay safe and be smart out there, people. If you do, there will be a lot of great case studies for us marketers when this is all over.