Marketing in Uncertain Times

Stock market jitters and the mortgage credit crisis have corporate America in a bit of a panic. Every week, the media unearth another scandal, looming crisis, or gloomy prediction about corporate earnings. Everyone thought things were looking rosy and we could focus on aggressively building online businesses. Now, CEOs and CFOs want to know about your crisis scenarios. They’re questioning the investment you’re about to make in a sparkling new commerce site. They also tactfully remind you the CMO role has an average tenure of less than two years. You need a plan now.

Fortunately, marketing in uncertain times (or in the middle of a genuine crisis) requires the same fundamental skills and process you’ve already been using. Often, the best response to uncertainty is the ability to take rapid, decisive action. Your department should already be using analytics to guide decisions about future investments, as well as measure current ones’ ROI (define). Marketing departments can be effective as both leading and trailing indicators of the health of the company, the market sector, and the overall economy.

Last week, my ClickZ colleague Kevin Lee wrote about an economic downturn’s impact on SEM (define) and made some excellent points. His examination zeroed in on one element of the total marketing picture and demonstrated that there are always upside opportunities even in the most downward-trending marketplace. When you look at the much bigger marketing picture, you can find clear paths to success in the midst of uncertainty.

Here are the action steps to take now to be prepared for any crisis that may lie ahead:

  • Build a crisis plan. Just because your boss asked for it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. A crisis plan is useful even if you never have a crisis. Consider it a scenario plan instead, and work through the various events that could happen in your market, to your company, and to your competitors. Evaluate how your business should respond. These scenarios — a classic element in strategic planning — can cover things as mundane as a commodity price increase and as extreme as world economic meltdown.

    Map out both the crisis elements and the responses each will generate. Include a timetable for response actions as well. Finally, consider how the Internet itself may be affected by a crisis. Will bandwidth be reduced or transmission costs increased because of a global crisis? What does the elimination of a competitor mean to traffic patterns? Can you count on customers spending their time and money online, or will they head to stores to bargain-shop? There are plenty of questions to address in the plan.

  • Add crisis KPI levels to your scorecards. I’ve been writing for a long time about the importance of identifying success metrics, defining core key performance indicators (KPIs), and building an actionable scorecard. Take another step forward to really examine the KPIs you must watch carefully in the face of a looming crisis (or even in the face of a minor blip). Determine the levels for these KPIs that indicate significant change in your environment.

    These needn’t be negative levels. If you find you’re getting a spike in search traffic that once went to a competitor, that competitor might have reduced its SEO (define) investment. Is the competitor doing that because it needs to cut back or because it’s hoarding cash in the event of a market drop? Every piece of available data tells a story. You decide which story it tells.

  • Monitor better information. For decades, the large petroleum companies have had entire departments dedicated to strategic assessment and planning. These groups often consist of dozens or hundreds of individuals worldwide who track information across many sources and provide regularly updated perspectives on what this information means to their businesses. The U.S. government does something similar in most of its branches. They all know the minutiae often tells a very different story when viewed from 50,000 feet rather than from 50.

    It’s unlikely you have a large research and strategy organization, but you do have the Web and the insight into the trends and topics relevant to your business. Start your own clipping service internally, using sites like Digg and del.icio.us to provide tools to help you get the macro perspective on your industry and the economy as a whole. Impress your peers by knowing recent sales gains are due to the poor rice harvest in one country that led to the reduced export of a product used by your competitor.

  • Looming crises or not, be prepared — and practice safe marketing.

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