Tolerating Uncertainty

28th April 2020

Waracle’s Blair Walker has over 10 years experience working in large organisations for some of the biggest global brands in Banking, Insurance, Broadcast Media, Pharmaceuticals and FMCG. Starting out in Web Analytics and Data Analysis before moving into Digital Marketing Strategy, Blair has planned, executed and analysed Digital Marketing campaigns that drove Brand Awareness, Product Consideration, cost effective Acquisition and Customer Retention. Today we’re exploring: Tolerating Uncertainty.

Tolerating Uncertainty

The American Theoretical Physicist Brian Greene said “Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty”. Whilst I won’t claim that Digital Marketing requires quite the same intellect as exploring string theory. It is one of many quotes that came to mind when thinking about what COVID-19 means for businesses and their digital marketing over the coming months and years.

There is no perfect plan or correct route for your marketing strategy during this period.

There is no foolproof comms plan, channel mix or investment level. We are exploring the unknown.

I believe that the key to success will be in the adoption of an appropriate mindset and in the application of suitable methodologies for planning & execution at this strange and somewhat unnerving time. It will be the considered, refined and targeted Digital Marketing activities that will serve businesses well during this period and build for a future when things return to a new normal.

The Mindset

Second-Order Thinking is a mental model that tries to examine the potential long term consequences of a decision or action. It is a useful model for decision making which touches on complex systems thinking and explores the inter-connectivity of outcomes. The purpose of this model is to help align decisions with multiple timeframes. The idea is to establish what is the best decision for the short, the medium and the long-term.

It starts with the reasonably simple statement ‘and then what?…’.

People tend to think in First-Order models, where “This action will deliver that outcome”. What this mental model forgets to address is the potential impact of a decision further down the line on inter-connected teams, disciplines, customer behaviours and more.

If you map a decision to its potential outcomes over multiple time periods, you can start to identify which decisions look like they map to multiple positive outcomes over time, in comparison to those which could start to align with negativity after the initial positive.

Take “Switch off all our Marketing to save money” as an example. This is the product of first order thinking (action=outcome). However, it may in the medium term mean loss of competitive advantage, less brand memory structures in your key consumer base, internal negativity around unwillingness to support your marketing team and may encourage a sense of ‘we down tools when things get tough’, rather than operational resilience.

The output of Second-Order thinking might say “Let’s pause some of our Marketing which may be seen as unempathetic during this period, keep the high-performing activity live, test pivoting towards messages that are seen to be supportive and use any saved budget to promote free, valuable content that supports our brand ethos and our customers shared values on platforms where people are habitually”. This may not only keep the lights on with a trickle of trade, it will also support an inclusive open-source ideology and highlights your brand values in such a way that someone who isn’t in a buy-phase right now, will remember your brand when they are… in eight months time.

The Methodology

Alongside looking beyond the horizon and making brave calls, Marketers & Advertisers need to adopt a test and learn methodology that allows for hypotheses to be tested, data to be analysed and tests to be scaled or failed without finger pointing or blame. This is the foundation of any growth-orientated digital marketing effort, but becomes even more important during a period where the normal rules don’t necessarily apply.

Having available pots of test budget that can be ‘micro-pitched’ for based on a backlog of hypotheses that your team has come up with, could be one way of not only exploring the potential of your Digital Marketing efforts, but also empower your team to make bold calls and give them the opportunity to take responsibility for driving innovation.

The uncertainty of this time should be explored with curiosity and a passion for finding long term solutions to short term problems. The businesses that get things right over the next 12 weeks, will create a platform for success in the future.

What to do

I have seen many fascinating insights during this period that show what you may want to test and why. The broad consensus across Digital Marketers is that opportunity lies in amongst:

  • An increase in remote working means an increase in at-home screen time
  • Increased need for entertainment means video content engagement continues to grow
  • Search engines are uncovering trends and showcasing where user focus is developing during the lockdown
  • Social media is ever-more where people are habitually, both on their mobile and on their at-home workstations
  • Podcasts are continuing to grow and the methodologies for dynamically buying audio-only media are getting better all the time

If I were to suggest a couple of things to try at this time:

First I would suggest YouTube Video Campaigns, utilising Custom Intent Audiences to target. This allows you to curate a 15-30 second video ad which condenses down the key message that you want to communicate to potential customers at this time, then you can target them based on keywords that they have used on Google, alongside a range of other shared traits to ensure you are buying inventory in front of the right people at the right time.

Secondly, and more prosaically, I would spend time on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). The internal investment of time in your web presence from an infrastructure, technical, content & link point of view will pay dividends in the long run. Whether it is basic stuff like removing duplicate content, updating title tags & meta descriptions or updating your internal linking to establish a suitable site architecture, or if it is bigger stuff like the CMS migration that has stalled due to competing priorities. Work that supports your businesses long term organic visibility will deliver a return for years to come.

To close, I will recount an anecdote from a previous economic downturn, which illustrates the need for bravery. In the U.S in the 1920’s the market leader for cereal was a brand called Post. During the great depression they cut their advertising spend entirely, whilst a plucky competitor took the bold move to double its advertising spend and double-down on radio advertising. That competitor was Kellogg’s.

We’ve distilled our 4 key tops tips for digital marketing during Covid 19, download them here now.

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