How marketers can keep on top of constant change
The pandemic has demonstrated how much marketers need to accelerate their intelligence gathering to stay ahead of the market.
The success with which brands are getting through the coronavirus pandemic seems to depend largely on their ability to adapt quickly to their new realities.
Most large organisations are not set up to switch directions as frequently as current conditions demand. And yet, they’re learning. Old processes are being turfed out or dramatically sped up to accommodate the new circumstances, and many marketers will not want to revert to the ‘old normal’ once this is all over.
While numerous sessions at this year’s Festival of Marketing explored the impact Covid-19 was having on marketers’ short- and long-term plans, Marketing Week and the Festival’s editor-in-chief, Russell Parsons, chaired a roundtable in partnership with Salesforce that welcomed a host of senior marketers grappling with the challenge of becoming highly reactive, adaptable organisations. They all spoke under the Chatham House rule.
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Analytics must move faster
The CMO of one consumer finance group acknowledged that dealing with today’s hurdles while trying to understand trends can be a struggle. “It’s difficult with sophisticated econometric modelling to work at speed, particularly those changes that were made to advertising through Covid. How we adapt those models to understand what’s happening much faster is something we’re grappling with at the moment.”
Like many other brands trying to adapt in the current circumstances, the business she represents is no stranger to analytics and modelling. But what the pandemic has shown is that existing approaches are too inflexible to cope with anything beyond the norm.
“It’s difficult with sophisticated econometric modelling to work at speed.”
As a head of EMEA digital marketing for a finincial services proivder warned: “We spent a lot of time and investment on a very sophisticated analytics tool to do local market planning, looking at insights and where to invest marketing and sales resource. It’s all proprietary but all the data is from the previous year. Now that data is completely redundant. [This situation] is emphasising that you need an agile process, even in a business this size.”
As with much that has happened during the pandemic period, those companies that had already embarked on customer experience programmes, agile working methodology or digital transformation found themselves with something of a head start. One energy company's insight director said he believes this has certainly been true in his case.
“We were deciding to undertake a global review, which kicked off in March 2020 with a 16-week discovery period, looking at 13 different capabilities that we deemed important. One of those is around marketing automation – the tech that we put at marketing’s fingertips to democratise access to data. We’ve been fortunate that we have been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to improve our capabilities.”
Plan for the future, be relevant in the moment
There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however. Participants agreed that the work they had done so far was certainly of value. They just needed to make sure that it didn’t leave them hidebound to decisions that were no longer relevant.
“The campaigns we ran pre-Covid have changed as we progressed. We had to pivot not only how we were servicing messaging, but data in real time was giving us insights into how we could follow up at the height [of the pandemic],” said Aisling Kearns, VP EMEA marketing for Salesforce. “It’s taking the historical data as a guide of intent, and layering on the behaviour we’re seeing in the Covid era and using it to be as relevant as possible.”
What this means in practice is that marketers have had to get used to a very different rhythm of working. Some, such as the marketing director at an outsourcing firm, noted that the six-monthly deep dive into data needs to happen much more quickly, while Kearns added that even operating on 90-day sprints is a bit too long and that 30 days is more realistic.
For the hospitality industry, even looking this far into the future is something of a luxury. “A lot of our decision-making has to be reactive to government announcements. The rules are different in every single part of the devolved nations,” said the global brand marketing director for one hotel brand. “We’re having to change to more short-term, tactical [initiatives]. I’d love to be thinking about the long term but I just can’t do that.”
The CMO of another accomodation brand agreed: “it’s not been ideal from a planning perspective. We have been focused on moving to a customer lifetime value model in the year since I joined and it has come to be helpful, despite demand leaving the market. We can still use it to make investment decisions and it feels a bit better to use than sticking our finger in the air and waiting for a vaccine.”
Join the dots
“With this thing, as fast as you write it, it changes again,” added the director of marketing at a broadcaster. “Agility, pace and speed – to suddenly shift direction is really important. But also making decisions without complete sets of data. Historical data is flawed in making decisions in uncertain times. It takes both logic and feeling to move the business forward. A lot of us are in this position,” he empathised, “and we don’t know what they future holds.“
There are no easy answers, according to the panel, and no silver bullet was identified in the session. Many likened the discussion to a form of therapy, realising that most marketers are in the same boat of being entirely reactive, dependent on incomplete data and, to an extent, taking a leap of faith. It seems this situation is where the marketer’s skill really comes to the fore, where gut instinct is actually experience honed over many years. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon data altogether.
“It’s about using the best of what you have today to your best ability, knowing you haven’t got all the answers. It’s slightly nerve-wracking,” admitted the CMO of a bank. “We’re doing more research than ever before. It’s about constantly listening. We’re trying as best we can to join the dots for the future.”
It is a subtle irony, as we all communicate from bedrooms, dining tables and home offices, but the prevailing opinion was that marketers need to work collaboratively with their teams and the wider business, more now than ever before. “We’re leaning heavily on great brains and our extended family of agencies and partners to focus on what to do. It’s driven good behaviours and relationships and ways of working among ourselves.”
The head of EMEA digital marketing from the finance sector agreed, adding: “We all operated very much in silos. It was unprecedented for the whole business and forced us all together. We had to sit with people on calls every other day to put together delivering the [organisational] plan.”
As much as the pandemic has been a salutary lesson for brands in terms of making sure their businesses are truly responsive and genuinely able to cater for the changing needs of their consumers, it has also revealed that many are on the right track. It has revealed that there are no exact answers and that uncertainty tends to be the norm, rather than the exception. And that it is the marketer’s particular skill to be able to fill in those blanks, guide the organisation to respond and still keep on track to fulfil the bigger picture. ■
data is flawed
in making decisions in uncertain times.”