The REAL state of marketing in 2020
COVID has turned the world upside down.
During this time there have been many who have prospered, and a huge amount who have suffered, too.
Not that long ago, Andy from ContentCal, Vanessa from Third Light, and Joe from The Marketing Meetup were chatting. All are marketers, but each has had a different experience of the COVID period.
Thinking this was interesting, we resolved to explore this on a far greater scale, asking 536 of our marketing peers what their experience of COVID has been and how it has affected their marketing activities.
Specifically, we focused on the topics of business, marketing, personal reflections, technology & productivity, and learning. These were the results...Get the PDF
The respondents came from a variety of backgrounds and seniorities. This rich data set gave us an overall understanding of the marketing industry, not just focused on one type of person.
Among the respondents, there was a general sense of positivity. Just under half - 48.7% - reported feeling positive and 83.7% stated they had adapted to the situation presented by COVID either ‘pretty well’ or ‘seamlessly’.
This left another 33.2% reporting a generally neutral feeling, and 18.1% stating they were feeling pessimistic. This 18.1% figure more or less matches the 17.1% who pointed to their performance in adapting to the circumstances either going ‘not well’, or ‘neutrally’. Interestingly, not a single respondent pointed to a terrible adaption to COVID - which feels encouraging!
From the data, we can gather that on a personal level, many marketers are doing just fine or getting by. Although with a fifth of us feeling pessimistic, or as if the shift has been a struggle, there is a significant number of us who should not be forgotten.
The numbers show us as a whole that COVID has forced a positive change on work and our approach to it. A very slight majority of people reported a greater balance between work and life (51.7%), with 38.6% pointing to more time to learn, and 34.5% indicating they’re more productive than they were in a pre-COVID environment. Respondents pointed to fewer distractions than within the office environment; no commute; and the cancellation of personal activities for this increase in productivity.
Interestingly, this figure also nearly perfectly aligns with the 53% of marketers who reported a general sense of positivity right now.
That being said, this is certainly not ‘the rule’ as one in five respondents stated they were less productive than before, and 15.9% found themselves less focused on work. It’s no surprise that childcare was mentioned numerous times, with one parent almost shouting through the form “get the schools open!!”
While these top-level figures give a view into a general trend, there is nuance here. One respondent pointed out that their experience has varied “between days of productivity and days of running through treacle.”
Perhaps reassuringly, 40% of respondents stated they were missing their colleagues… however, we’re not sure about the other 60%!
- More balance between work and life - 276/534 - 51.7%
- More time to learn - 206/534 - 38.6%
- More productivity - 185/534 - 34.5% (fewer interruptions)
- Less productivity - 103/534 - 19.3%
- Less time focused on work - 85/534 - 15.9% - (childcare)
- Missing colleagues - 213/534 - 39.9% (even moments of frustration)
- Spending too much time working - 6/534 - 1.1% (blurring of lines and little else to do)
Change is afoot, but it feels like more of a blended approach than a moment of revolution.
Just over half - 55% - of respondents suggested that remote working will continue beyond COVID, and 57% expect more balance between work and home life.
While this is the general expectation, only 15.5% expect ‘the office’ to be a thing of the past. Many pointed to a more grownup approach to work - such as being required to only come into the office when you need, to or just attending for a specific number of days a week with the remaining time being made up at home. Overwhelmingly, this feels like a stamp of trust to employees, but could also have large benefits to employers when it comes to not having to take up large office spaces.
Perhaps an underline to the biggest change here is a comment by one respondent who stated “My boss is archaic and wants us back into the office ASAP.” This suggests companies who don’t adopt working from home policies are also those who may begin to be seen as old-fashioned. Working from home is no longer a perk; it’s expected!
Interestingly, the increased capabilities of people to work from home also appear to signal the possibility of far fewer people traveling. One-third of respondents indicated that travelling for work would feel ‘alien’ to them. Whether this remains true once COVID is consigned to the history books remains to be seen.
Finally, freelancers could be in for more competition but also benefit from a normalization of using them for work. One-quarter of respondents expect the freelancer market to boom post-COVID.
COVID undoubtedly had a terrible effect on the economy, with the UK seeing a 20.4% shrinkage in April 2020 alone. To speak to this, our survey shows that 45% of businesses had a negative or devastating experience of the COVID world.
Interestingly, compared against only 25% of marketing teams who have reduced in size, we’re forced to draw one of a few conclusions: either the furlough scheme is still keeping people in employment; there is more pain to come with redundancies; or brands recognize that not investing in marketing means leaving the door shut to increasing share of voice in the market once happier times return.
We also can’t ignore the 24.3% who experienced a positive time where their business has grown or has been transformed. These percentages are a sound representation of Rand Fishkin’s webinar with The Marketing Meetup, where he identified there will be some businesses that directly win, and others that lose, with the third category being those who are indirectly affected - likely a large portion of which is represented by our 25.7% of ‘neutral’ survey members.
Despite the general negativity of the period, it’s good to see 67.5% of businesses reported adjusting ‘well’ or ‘seamlessly’, suggesting a period of innovation and adaptability. This is something the majority of respondents think will stay in place, post-COVID. Alongside the generally positive outlook of marketers right now, it feels as if there is cause for cautious optimism within the marketing community.
It’s clear content marketing has been seen as a critical tool for marketers in this crisis, with 93% (490/527) citing an increased focus on content. This increase in content breaks down into three core areas:
- 329/527 - 62% are focusing more on organic content channels, such as blogs and social.
- 267/527 - 51% are investing more in educational content (webinars, courses, etc.)
- 171/ 527 - 32% are orienting their communication towards top-of-funnel awareness messaging
It’s clear that this has increased workloads for marketers, with 51% saying they have increased their content production in the last three months, despite many working with teams of the same size or smaller.
What’s less clear, however, is the position on direct response advertising. Eleven per cent said they would be reducing direct response advertising and 10% said they were increasing spending in this area.
While views might be split, the opportunity is clear:
One respondent said: “We’re taking the opportunity to stand out in the market through investment in advertising - many companies will take a step back from ad spend and that's the opportunity to step in and win those customers.” This was backed up by another commentator saying they’ve seen “a sudden investment from the business in marketing to claw back market share.”
Standing still is not an option. Fewer than 5% said nothing has changed and it’s clear that this crisis has represented an opportunity for some businesses to re-evaluate:
- Many have shifted focus on to new markets and verticals.
- This shift relates to the marketing too, with marketing plans and campaign strategies being re-written.
- ‘Focus’ and ‘trust’ were also frequently mentioned words, with this time presenting an opportunity for those to re-evaluate what’s working and use messaging to build trust with that target audience.
- Budgets have been shifting from traditional media into digital, with many focusing on brand-building content along with hygiene factors, such as SEO.
To deal with the massive shift to digital-first content marketing, respondents have made “big investments in outsourcing copy and automation” and “encouraging more participation in marketing activity from across the business” to help manage the increased workload of content creation.
Based on the strategic changes, it’s little surprise that social media platforms feature as a key channel for the majority (63%) of marketers.
While paid social still features heavily, attitudes towards paid social have changed slightly, as signified by the preference towards organic.
SEO emerges as the other clear focus area for marketers. As mentioned above, the strategic shift has forced marketers to re-evaluate a paid media-first strategy, realizing that organic-led strategies are the route to long-term growth.
That said, other channels that don’t often get attention are still being utilized effectively, such as out of home, radio and above the line (print, TV, etc.)
One area that stood out is the large percentage (25%) that will be investing more in is affiliate marketing, showing a shift towards relationship-orientated marketing from more traditional media-driven marketing.
Just like the employment figures, the largest portion of respondents reported things staying the same for now. Fascinatingly, however, one-third of marketers indicated an increase in spending.
The 2010 Harvard Business Review article ‘Roaring Out of Recession’ indicated that the companies most likely to survive a recession are the ones which invested in R&D and advertising while reducing operational expenditure. Perhaps companies are heeding this advice? Perhaps more realistically, many of the comments provided did indicate that the budget is very much in a state of flux, depending on results - “our spend is a proportion of our income - when that increases, so will our spend.”
Automation, collaboration, and reporting tools top list of technologies used by marketers
The number of tools available for marketers to manage their marketing and social media marketing activities has increased dramatically. As the ways of working rapidly shifted to home working during the lockdown, tools have helped marketers maintain efficiencies and continuity essential to perform their roles.
When grouping the tools that marketers have been using to manage their daily activities, these tools are centred around automation, collaboration, insight and analysis.
Top list of content marketing tools ranked by marketers:
- Marketing automation platforms (eg Hubspot)
- Collaboration tools (eg Trello, Slack)
- Insights and analytics platforms (eg Google Analytics)
- Social media management tools (eg ContentCal)
- Customer relationship management platforms (eg Salesforce)
- Email marketing platforms (eg Mailchimp)
- Content management systems (eg WordPress)
Although many of the marketing tools have been adopted to bring efficiencies, it was interesting to observe from the comments that the current crisis has made it more challenging to shift to adopting all-in-one solutions.
Marketers also indicated that while there would be some consolidation of sometimes costly tools, most are here to stay. Only 24% indicated that they would look to drop some of their marketing tools immediately; 58.4% stated they would keep the new tools they’ve picked up from this time.
Building an authentic brand while being agile, a key lesson for marketers
There is a shared sentiment amongst the surveyed marketers for brands and businesses that to survive beyond the pandemic is to build a brand that is authentic and connects with people. This will be a key driver for them to succeed.
While brand activation will continue to be one of the main drivers of sales, the crisis has brought to the forefront of marketers the importance and value of building brand trust. Previously seen, mainly in the context of B2C, brand marketing that involves long-term brand thinking is increasingly being applied by B2B marketers too. As one respondent commented: “People buy from people when they're being themselves.”
It is also evident from the survey that while building a brand is crucial for marketers, they also must stay agile and nimble with their strategies, with one respondent stating: “Focus on building brand while others are quieter,” and another: “Adapt plans more frequently.”
Helping brands stand out in a crowded market has always been a challenge faced by marketers. But when you add a major global crisis such as the one we’re experiencing, marketers understand that creating an emotional connection at each brand touchpoint in a consistent, positive, and meaningful way, is what will build the long-term trust that will eventually help customers choose their brand over others. “People want brands they can trust,” as one respondent commented.
Reassuringly for The Marketing Meetup, 47.6% of the audience indicated the best way they’ve learned throughout COVID has been through webinars. There is perhaps a hint of a bias here given the audience, but we’ll take it! To the wider point, however, as there have been no events going on during this period - online events could have picked up much of the slack.
The remaining best place to learn was distributed across a whole manner of media, with videos, blog posts, and podcasts topping the list. Interestingly, only two respondents chose books as their top source of learning throughout the period - so much for all the reading lists we put out!
The lesson here for marketers: it’s still worth doubling down on your webinar schedule if this data is anything to go by, and podcasting still remains a strong channel - even when people aren’t commuting like they used to.
The survey returned a real mixed bag of results. On one hand, marketers are more likely to feel positive than negative right now, and there have been some clear benefits in terms of work/life balance too - even if childcare has been a hard slog.
That being said, when overlaid with economic data, there are challenges ahead for all of us - even if the nature of this challenge is felt in many different ways. A real positive takeaway is the marketing industry’s ability to adapt and implement strategic changes with no prior warning, as almost everyone’s 2020 plan was consigned to the scrapheap.
These changes have largely been positive too, allowing many businesses to refocus on key strategies and channels that will drive long term growth. This time has focused the mind; that much is certain.
Technology has also been a real boon during this time, with the implication being that work for the majority of us has changed - likely forever - with more flexibility than ever before. Tie this into a suite of tools that help us all do our jobs better, and we could all be in a more efficient working environment very soon.
Finally, learning has taken a real step forward. Whether it’s having more time or access to additional resources not dependent on location (such as webinars) - for marketers, the opportunity to learn has never been stronger.
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