Four Communications Strategies for a Down Market

Marketers can learn a lot about how to talk to their customers and prospects from the vice presidential debate. U.S. Senator Joe Biden, known for his public gaffs, and Governor Sarah Palen, who appeared less than knowledgeable in her widely viewed Katie Couric interviews, both went through extensive training to ensure they could respond to the questions posed while incorporating their candidate’s campaign message. Both were very careful to tailor their messaging to the immediate context.

In light of the recent turmoil in the global financial markets, marketers must step back and assess all of their communications to ensure they are in sync with their customers’ current situation. In this weak economy, marketers must modify their message to respond to customers’ changing perspective.

Four Strategies at a Glance

In a weak economy, price becomes an even more important purchase determinant. But using exclusively price-oriented promotions (including free shipping and handling) is a slippery slope that can result in permanently reduced margins. By focusing on price, customers are trained to wait for the next sale. So sale- and price-related promotions should be used sparingly.

Marketers must change their communications to provide an open channel with their customers and prospects. This translates to creating a variety of ongoing messaging that moves beyond a sales promotion to build relationships and to continue to be read using a variety of means, including e-mailings, onsite content, blog postings, RSS feeds, and tweets. Remember, consumers may take longer between initial research and purchase, do more comparison shopping, and look for ways to reduce expenditures.

Consider the following four types of non-price-related communication to engage prospects and build relationships (you can always add some information related to a targeted product at the end of your message):

  • Budget stretchers. Think creatively about how to help your customers extend the purchasing power by using your product, either directly or indirectly. For example, offer customers larger quantities to save money and provide helpful hints, such as decanting large containers into smaller ones so that family members aren’t overzealous in their use of the product.
  • Timer savers. Before the recent economic turmoil, time was consumers’ most scare resource, and they were willing to spend money to save time. Since money is now tighter, highlight how your products can help customers save time without incremental cost. For example, buying online can save shopping trips.
  • Affordable treats. People need something to brighten their lives and reward themselves during difficult times. Assess your offering and consider how to position your products differently to appeal to these goals. For example, a consumer may forgo an expensive luxury vacation but treat herself to a day at a local beauty spa.
  • Entertainment. Consumers want to take their minds off their troubles. This translates to making customers smile. As a result, consider how to position your products and communications to meet these needs. Use entertainment or humor to get customers and prospects to keep receiving and opening your e-mail, making your firm look like an advertiser or sponsor.

Metrics to Monitor

To assess the impact of this type of communications strategy, look at a variety of measures to track how your business as a whole is doing as well as the ability of your marketing communications to build relationships. Among the most important indicators are:

  • Sales. As with any marketing initiative, revenues are the dominant indicator. During weak economic times, monitor revenues more immediately and closely to ensure that you’re on top of any market changes and can react quickly. This means tracking top-line sales as well as sales by product. Where possible, track sales back to your communications to show that they’re effective and worth the investment. Also, watch price points and your competitors’.
  • Costs. As budgets get tighter, it’s more necessary to watch expenses and plan variances. Brainstorm ways to keep costs under control, as it’s critical to have resources to fund marketing efforts.
  • Margins. In weak economic times, marketers feel the need to reduce costs, so keep an eye on product margins to determine whether price-related incentives are hurting profitability. Include analysis of free shipping and handling as well as other types of promotions, such as percentage or dollars off and purchase with purchase offers.
  • House file. Since a marketer’s e-mail list is the most cost-effective revenue driver, it’s essential to continue to build and expand one’s house file. This list can include a variety of ways to touch customers, including e-mail, package inserts, RSS feeds, and even old-fashioned direct mail.

While many marketers are reassessing their budgets and trying to find areas to economize, ongoing customer communications are a critical and cost-efficient way to remain top of mind. These communications tend to be less expensive since you’re talking to existing prospects, customers, and past purchasers. Further, creative marketers can adapt their offerings and content to fit a variety of formats to ensure they reach their consumers with a message that is in tune with their mood as well as their needs.

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