December 14, 2020
Case Study

What 2020 Has Taught Marketers: 8 essential marketing lessons


2020. For many of us, the year can’t end fast enough.

But before we say goodbye to 2020 for good, it’s worth taking a look back to see what we can learn from the year.

This was an especially popular topic – we heard 191 lessons from marketers. We winnowed through them for you, and in this article we bring you eight essential marketing lessons.

Read on for examples from Mastercard, an executive recruiter, a jewelry website, education companies, a freelance platform, and a dog treats business.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

What 2020 Has Taught Marketers: 8 essential marketing lessons

This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

Lesson #1: Stay focused, but stay flexible

This first lesson comes from yours truly, what I learned over the past year working on MarketingSherpa, its sister publishing brand MarketingExperiments, and the parent organization of both – MECLABS Institute.

I know some marketers that are news junkies. And they see every political move, macroeconomic shift, sports victory, trending celebrity, and cultural phenomenon as a driver of marketing campaigns.

While you can find success with real-time marketing, make sure the activity is truly right for your brand. And don’t get so distracted by the wobbles of the day that you constantly get pulled off course by what’s new and shiny. Don’t lose a long-term focus on the overall strategy you crafted to learn what customers want, serve them better, and communicate your brand’s value proposition.

In fact, that is something I always took pride in at MarketingSherpa. Don’t come here for the latest marketing news – the shiny new platform launch, the new client signing, the latest algorithm change, privacy regulation, cookie conundrum, app store update or antitrust lawsuit.

We don’t cover it. Why? Because there are endless websites and print publications that can cover this marketing news faster than us. Go to one of them.

However, if you want specific examples of marketing strategies and tactics to inspire your own marketing campaigns, case studies filled with ideas that make you want to be a better marketer, inspirational stories of customer-first marketing – well, you’ve come to the right place.

I know who we are and who we are not. In a fast, shallow and #BREAKING world, we’re slow and deep. And that’s OK. That is our unique value proposition and we stick to it.

And then along came 2020…

Some news stories are just too big not to cover. They are all encompassing. They transcend news and force a fundamental shift in the basic infrastructure of our lives…and the lives of our customers. It didn’t take long for us to see that the COVID-19 pandemic – and its resulting economic and societal aftershocks – was one of these moments.

So cover it we did, in our own MarketingSherpa way. We still didn’t focus on the breaking news element, but rather the modifications marketers needed to make to adapt and even thrive in this new world. Here are a few examples so you can take a look for yourself:

An Inspirational Guide for Uncertain Times: 7 ideas and resources for marketers and business leaders to help spark your next great success

48 Resources to Help You Overcome Seven Marketing Challenges in the Era of Coronavirus (that aren’t necessarily new)

8 Examples of How Business Owners and Marketing Leaders Can Respond to the Coronavirus Covid-19 Pandemic

Pivot Your Value Proposition: 6 ways brands, entrepreneurs and marketers are responding to Covid-19’s economic fallout

The Hidden Upside of the Covid-19 Crisis for Brands and Marketers: 10 opportunities

Before Covid-19, if you had asked me, I didn’t think we would ever invest any significant content in covering a news story. But I (re)learned an important lesson this year – while it’s important to stay focused, we must always be flexible as well.

So don’t run your marketing department with rules. Run the department with a customer-first approach as your guiding principle and a value proposition as your core goal.

If we were just following a rules-based approach, a rule would have quickly told us to ignore Covid-19.

But taking a customer-first approach forces us to ask this question instead of following a simple rule – “What is in the best interest of our customers (audience)?” Clearly, helping them navigate the pandemic.

Could we do it in a way that was in line with our value proposition? Yes. If we didn’t chase the news, but we focused on strategies and tactics to help marketers adapt.

Lesson #2: Don’t think too narrowly about the offering you provide

Evian Gutman, Founder & CEO, Ringcommend pitched me on a story about a referral program. It was a good enough pitch that I visited the jewelry site…and then got hit with one of the most brilliant pop-up ads I’ve ever seen. More brilliant than a well-cut diamond.

Creative Sample #1: Pop-up ad on jewelry website

Creative Sample #1: Pop-up ad on jewelry website

This is a great lesson for every marketer. What is the pressing problem your prospects have when they first hit your website?

For a man shopping for an engagement ring, the most pressing problem likely isn’t “Which engagement ring should I buy?” And besides, there are a lot of places to buy one.

The most pressing problem is, “I need a ring so I can propose but I don’t know which one she would like to wear on her finger for the rest of her life.” (I’ll admit I proposed to my wife with two paper clips in the shape of a ring – yellow for the band and white for the “diamond” – so she could pick out her own ring.)

So a pop-up that says, “Want to propose but prefer looking for a ring together? No problem…Borrow one of ours!” That is just sheer customer-first marketing brilliance! Change the offer from one that benefits the company to one that puts the customer’s needs first.

“One of the key takeaways for us has been to not think too narrowly around the offering [we] provide. We used to hang our hat on being able to say that we provide the highest-quality rings at the lowest possible prices (which we do), but this relates to our offering from a strictly (narrow) ‘product’ perspective. There are many pre- and post-sale service elements of our offering that customers value as much as the product itself, and this is especially the case with engagement rings, since the purchaser is never the recipient of the product that ends up being purchased themselves. We therefore elevate pre- and post-sales customer service as one of the highest values that we attempt to bake into our DNA on a day-to-day basis,” Gutman told me.

The jewelry site does not charge for the service. The customer is not required to sign any agreement that they will ultimately purchase their engagement ring from Ringcommend. “This is purely a goodwill gesture, and from our years of experience in the jewelry game, have found that trust and relationship are some of the key buying drivers for customers. This is an explicit and overt act of trust that we place in our customers, and one that we've founded to be rewarded and reciprocated in-kind with follow-up purchases,” he said.

Customers just have to sign a declaration that they will be responsible for the ring for the duration of the loan period, and then come up with timeframes for the loan ring’s return. “As you would suspect, many happy brides-to-be cannot wait to swap their temporary ring with a real ring, and we [have] yet to have an issue with rings getting lost, damaged, or not returned,” Gutman said.

The jewelry site had offered this service previously, but only formalized the offering with a form on the site recently. A number of leads fill out the form requesting information to loan a ring yet choose out of personal preference to purchase their own ‘surprise’ ring in time for the proposal, regardless of the offer. So the form has been a lead generation tool, beginning a conversation that would unlikely have happened without it.

Visitors who complete the Borrow a Ring form are three times more likely to buy and twice as likely to make a secondary purchase (e.g. wedding rings), even though only less than one-third actually end up borrowing a ring.

“Customers feel empowered by having that option, and it alleviates many of their underlying concerns, as well as overcoming trust issues that stand in the way of making this significant purchase,” Gutman said.

Lesson #3: Crises are going to be a part of our life – Covid-19 isn’t the last one. 

“We witnessed in 2020, not just one crisis, but a confluence of crises – health crisis, economic crisis, social crisis, and crisis of consumer confidence. It disrupted every aspect of life in an unprecedented manner, and at an unbelievable scale,” said Raja Rajamannar, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer and President, Healthcare Business, Mastercard, and author of the book Quantum Marketing: Mastering the New Marketing Mindset for Tomorrow's Consumers.

Three years back, Rajamannar began a scenario planning exercise at the financial services company to envision the next five years.  One thing he forecast from the exercise was a series of crises. Rajamannar formed a risk management function and asked the CFO to head it. The idea was to identify all potential crises the company and its marketing function could face, the impact it could have, and how to potentially mitigate that impact. 

“At Mastercard, we pivoted significantly toward experiential marketing, away from traditional marketing. However, these experiences were all of a physical nature. As part of our crisis management framework, we said we will pivot to digital experiences, should there be a big storm or some other natural disaster that will prevent people from going to these experiences, like sporting events, concerts etc.  So, when Covid happened, we activated the digital experiences pretty rapidly, and at scale,” Rajamannar told me.

“For example, Mastercard’s ‘Priceless’ offerings, featuring tennis pro Naomi Osaka, acclaimed chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Joseph ‘JJ’ Johnson, and sommelier Belinda Chang shifted physical events to digital offerings. And these popular events enabled cardholders’ families/households or friends to participate virtually as well,” he said.

While his team did not see the global pandemic coming in 2020, the crisis management building blocks they put in place allowed them to adapt quickly and seamlessly. “Crises are going to be a part of our life – Covid-19 isn’t the last one. There will be all sorts of crises in the future and we need to have a systematic framework and process to navigate them,” he said.

Lesson #4: Mid-to-high funnel campaigns don't have the same effectiveness

“I am not sure if it is consumer sheepishness post-Covid, purchasing sensitivity in light of tenuous economic circumstances, or just a general change in consumer purchasing habits, but our campaigns that have targeted mid-to-high funnel users – low intent, more general research, curiosity in the product or service – have been lackluster,” said John Ross, President & CEO, Test Prep Insight.

Pre-Covid, the campaigns had clickthrough (CTR) rates of around 3.5%; however, since March, these numbers have plummeted to below 2%. But campaigns geared towards low-funnel users – high intent, close to purchasing, final research before buying – have stayed strong for the online education company, and the team has reallocated time and resources to focusing on these low-funnel campaigns.

“Targeting high-funnel users just doesn't seem to pay in a post-Covid world, at least in our space,” Ross said.

Lesson #5: Use the coronavirus against itself

“My advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to use the coronavirus against itself. What do I mean by that? Figure out a way to embrace contactless business transactions and punch that up as a feature of your service offering,” advises Bryan Clayton, Co-founder, GreenPal.

Before Covid, homeowners were interested in the cheapest way to get their grass cut, Clayton says, but once the pandemic hit he believes ordering lawnmowing service in a contactless manner became more important.

The team changed up processes for how vendor partners interact with their clients to embrace social distancing due to the coronavirus. Previously they were required to do a walk-through with the client to go over what’s included in the service and manage expectations, but now homeowners can choose to have a contactless option where they can hire a lawnmowing service to cut the grass without having to speak with them or meet with them face-to-face.

“This [change in customer preference to contactless] has caused us to adjust our copy in our Google AdWords campaigns and Facebook marketing campaigns and we have seen a lift in conversion as high as 17% in some markets,” Clayton said.

Lesson #6: The power of “live search behavior”

“The marketing lesson I learned this year relates to the power of ‘live’ search behavior and free tools like Google Trends,” said Dan Rawley, SEO Specialist, TwinklHive.

Like many industries, search behavior in the education sector was completely thrown off at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. With schools shut, millions of children were suddenly learning from home, and as a result demand for new teaching resources changed dramatically overnight.

Normally, the team would use historical search volume averages for keywords to identify customer demand – but as these are based on data from the last 12 months, they were no use when trying to track demand for completely new search phrases.

“Instead, we began using tools like Google Trends to see what our customers were searching in (almost) real time,” Rawley said. The data from these live tools influenced the production of new resources during lockdown.

For example, the team saw huge demand on Google Trends in Spain for a certificate rewarding kids for good behavior during lockdown that parents could print at home. People weren't yet searching for it in other countries, but the team was confident that it was only a matter of time before it was popular across all markets.

They quickly made the certificate in a number of languages, and by the time it was being searched for in the US, the UK and elsewhere, they already had multiple versions live on the website ready for download.

Creative Sample #2: Lockdown behavior certificate made by education company based on search analysis

Creative Sample #2: Lockdown behavior certificate made by education company based on search analysis

The certificate has received more than 7,500 downloads and more than 30,000 pageviews.

“There's no way we would have spotted this opportunity without using live search behavior tools,” Rawley said. “Even after Covid-19 dies down and things return to some kind of normality, we'll still be using tools like Google Trends to spot new customer demand as it emerges and [stay] ahead of the competition – it will remain a key part of our marketing strategy.”

Lesson #7: Find the unique opportunities that are presented by changing circumstances

“In my case, I was able to take advantage of the fact that many dog-related fundraising events moved online this year,” said Alex Willen, Founder, Cooper's Treats

Traditionally, these are local events, and the company wouldn't be able to participate in the vast majority of them. This year, because they were virtual, Willen was able to secure low-cost “virtual vendor” and sponsorship slots that were perfectly targeted since people who participate in charity events for dogs tend to have dogs and a willingness to spend money on them.

“These not only got me significant positive ROI, they were also low-touch and provided some SEO help through links on the charities’ and rescues’ sites,” Willen said.

Lesson #8: Hiring to fill a marketing role requires a competitive compensation package, even in a pandemic

The pandemic has wrought economic devastation and job losses. That much you know from the global headlines.

However, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to save budget when going after new hires…especially when replacing long-time employees.

Executive recruiter Jamie McCann was recently retained by a billion-dollar packaged good company to find a director of marketing for the number one product in their portfolio. The previous person had been in that role for eight years.

“While the overall package outlined by the president was attractive, he was going to try and entice a candidate with a compensation package that was nearly a decade out of date. It was my responsibility to educate him that times have changed since the last time he hired anyone for this role, as have compensation packages in 2013,” McCann said. “He needs to make the offer worthy of a candidate of today—2020—not for someone who took this role back in 2013.”

McCann was ultimately able to fill the role after a few months thanks to the more modern compensation package offered by the company’s president.

“Companies need to understand that they cannot entice talent today with the same compensation packages that previous candidate accepted years prior,” McCann advised.

Related resources

Marketers Stand Together: 3 powerful ways your marketing can combat coronavirus COVID-19’s impact

41 Work-From-Home Tips for Marketing Departments and Advertising Agencies

The Hidden Opportunity Within the COVID-19 Crisis: Three ways to transform your work and your life

Use Your Value Prop to Pivot: Conversion optimization to help with marketing amid coronavirus

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