How COVID Changed Marketing & What Marketers Should Do About It

Shannon Fitzgerald-Lussier
November 5, 2020

The world has changed significantly since the beginning of this year in response to the global pandemic and financial crisis. Marketing is not the same–for better and for worse. 

The farther we move from the initial and abrupt challenges, the more marketers need to think about how to navigate the significant and lasting changes. COVID has changed how businesses operate, and that includes the business of marketing. 

Iron Horse and Uptempo commissioned a survey, exploring how marketing teams plan, budget, and measure. The research and analysis was led by two former analysts from SiriusDecisions and IDC: Jay Famico, Chief Research Officer at Iron Horse, and Sam Melnick, VP Market Insights & Growth at Allocadia. We’ll be publishing the full report in the coming weeks, but wanted to give you a director’s cut version of some of the compelling data and findings that won’t be published anywhere else. 

Our findings reveal some bad news for marketers, but there are also some very positive trends. We’ll wrap up the discoveries with four pieces of advice for how to ensure your marketing organization is changing for the better during these tumultuous times. 

50% of Marketing Organizations Struggled to Align their Goals to Business Objectives. 

COVID clearly caused massive disruption within all businesses and departments. What this meant for many marketing organizations is it further separated their activities from their company’s strategy. When marketing’s initiatives aren’t anchored to business objectives, any business growth marketing happens to achieve is through luck, meaning it’s not a repeatable, scalable process. 

Much of that misalignment was initially caused more by circumstances outside of marketing’s control. For the first quarter after COVID hit, change was happening at such a frenetic rate that the chance of always keeping marketing’s goals aligned to business objectives was unrealistic. 

But now that we’re two full quarters into the pandemic, change isn’t happening at the same rate. Marketing organizations should be able to reassess, and replan so their goals better support business objectives, without going through five iterations in a single month. So if your marketing organization doesn’t have alignment by now–you have a problem that needs immediate attention. 

Start by taking a step back and looking at how the overarching goals of the business have changed. Then, make sure that the CMO or marketing’s objectives align to and support the new reality of what the company as a whole is aiming to achieve. From there, each marketing leader needs to update their plans in support of the new marketing goals. This will ensure alignment up and down the entire marketing organization. 

We’re not fully past COVID yet, so while marketers should expect more changes to happen, it likely won’t be as drastic as early 2020. But it’s always smart to have a few back-up plans ready. Learn more about creating agility in marketing plans, especially with scenario planning, in our Guide to a New Era of Agile Marketing Planning.

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63% of Marketing Organizations Struggled to Get Buy-In for Their Investments

No marketer should be shocked to hear that their financial investments have come under even deeper scrutiny than usual (In fact you’ve probably lived it!). The ongoing economic uncertainty has significantly tightened the grip most Finance departments keep on the company’s purse strings and for good reason. With less overall resources to go around and the largest discretionary budget in the company, marketing is uniquely put under the microscope to evaluate what ROI they bring in for the business.

To Jay and Sam, the 63% is significant and it’s indicative of a lack of confidence in marketing as a whole. If marketing is having challenges making a strong case for their investments, it shows an inherent lack of trust and understanding in marketing’s value to the business. And when times are tough, that lack of trust leads to marketing losing resources first and for good–something we cover in our marketing investment benchmark report The State of Spend.

This issue is particularly acute when major market changes occur. In these times, marketing needs the latitude to move quickly and pivot their plans and investments. But when time is diverted into proving marketing’s worth internally, less energy is spent on much needed revenue driving activities. When marketing is held back in this way, it makes it harder to deliver and sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. 

In our research, we found that 96% of marketing organizations that saw a 10% or greater budget increase post-COVID had a strong partnership with finance. How did those organizations turn things around to get to that point? Our report covers that in more detail, along with steps marketing organizations can take to recreate that success partnership relationship in their own companies.  

Since COVID, 66% of Marketing Organizations Increased Their Focus on Metrics and Testing

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. COVID was a wake-up call to marketers, exposing gaps in their approach and metrics was a significant area. When marketing organizations need to pivot their limited resources, they want to divert investments towards high-impact programs. And depending on how a marketing organization approaches measurements this can be as simple as loading a dashboard or taking two weeks to merge spreadsheets and sift through data. Clearly many marketers realized that their approach to measurement was lacking and needed to circle back ASAP. 

Similarly, two-thirds of marketing organizations are now testing and trying new approaches from their pre-COVID programming. This is actually a really healthy habit! Marketers should be testing and experimenting with new tactics, otherwise we never evolve. And if you’re experimenting with new ideas, you better be measuring them to learn what works and what doesn’t. The more marketers learn and grow, the better they become, and they’re able to make smarter decisions on the next step to drive business impact. 

But what constitutes an increased focus? Jay and Sam, define a mature data strategy as one that produces multiple levels of measurements to support the marketing organizations’ strategy. And by multiple levels, we mean focus on more than just one ROI or attribution measurement. Every marketing organization will be slightly different and that’s ok–what’s important is that the measurement framework is tailored to your organization. They advise marketing organizations to look at their collection of data structures and processes and think about how those disparate sources could be connected in a meaningful way. Marketing organizations currently doing this are more likely to be part of high-growth organizations and receive increased budgets post-COVID. Those marketers have incorporated three key aspects of data strategy that are covered in more detail in our report.   

How To Ensure Your Marketing Organization Is Changing For the Better Post COVID

Step 1

Start by refocusing on measurements and bringing them to a level that empowers your marketing organization to make smart decisions. Be honest when you evaluate your current system of metrics. If there are easy ways to increase your measurement capabilities then do them now. Understanding and trusting your metrics is the first step to owning them and gaining confidence in your decisions.

Step 2

As you adjust your system of measurements, make sure that you create alignment between your KPIs and company goals. All of marketing’s programs should ultimately support business objectives, and the easiest way to demonstrate that is by baking those metrics into your measurement system. Clearly showing how marketing’s objectives are being met and supporting wider company priorities is a great way to create more alignment between marketing and finance. 

Step 3

Don’t stop testing and experimenting. Every marketer had to pivot plans and try new tactics this year, don’t think that this was a one-time exercise. Resources for testing should be baked into your marketing budget. When you try something new, measure it. Then tweak it, scale it, or discard it depending on its success. 

Step 4

Share your changes, plans, and investment strategy with other company stakeholders. Show what marketing is doing and why. You’re seeding conversations down the road for buy-in on investments by bringing everyone onto the same page early. 

We’re excited to share the report findings with you! Read the full report here!

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