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Your guide to marketing in a down market

Let's be honest: as marketers, we all want more. More resources, more team members, more technology, more budget, more hours in the day. We could always use more - and sometimes? We even get it (thank you, finance!). But other times, we have to make do with what we have. Regardless of our company’s growth trajectory, this will be the case for us more often than not. 

Even so, ‘making do’ in general is very different from having to make do in the midst of an actual recession. It’s been 13 years since that scary little word was whispered and, given the timeline, was probably while most of your current workforce was still in university or even elementary school. Now that another imminent recession is being predicted, how do you plan to handle your marketing through the storm? Here’s some help. But first…

Economics from a marketer’s perspective

In between the last recession and the present day, we got a taste of a bear market in 2020 (that’s a prolonged period of price declines in a stock or entire market, usually of 20% or more from a recent high). But, it only lasted a little more than a month. Contrast that with the bear market in 2008-2009, where the market fell more than 50% over a span of 408 days (side note - 408 days is extremely long; the average bear market is 289 days). 

I’m aware this all sounds like a bunch of doom and gloom, but it’s important to paint a clear picture of what may be ahead and how the business world is likely to react. Typically, when business leaders fear this type of market, there’s a trickle down effect that occurs. Fear causes a reduction in consumer spending, which reduces the value of companies, which catalyzes a reduction in their expenses - and so it continues. In these times we need to be ready to do more with less. I know this sounds insane, unreasonable and unfair all at once. But it’s happened before and we need to be prepared. 

Of course, the above is a very simplified explanation as I'm a marketer, not an economist. But being a marketer, my mind instantly goes to how I will retain and grow my customer base in the 289 or so rough days ahead. Basically, what is my new go-to-market (GTM) motion? Where should I invest or double down? And yes, where should I make cuts? 

What can be done?

Now, like many of your workforce members, I was not in the marketing driver’s seat back in 2008. I was in marketing, but taking direction from other mentors and leaders. So with these questions in mind, I spoke with some great CMOs who have navigated a bear market before to get their advice. These people were all in the driver seat (either VP or CMO level at some very impressive companies) during the last notable recession. I was fortunate to chat with:

  • Elissa Fink - CMO of Tableau in 2008 (for 12 years total)
  • Meagen Eisenberg - Director at ArcSight, which was acquired by HP in 2008 and since VP at DocuSign and current CMO at TripActions  
  • Peter Isaacson - VP at Adobe during 2008 recession and since CMO at Demandbase and now Replicant
  • Brian Kardon - Started as CMO of Eloqua, acquired by Oracle just before Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Has since led at companies like InVision, Fuze and Lattice Engines. 

These leaders have all been there and done that in times we can’t imagine. Here are some of the key takeaways from our conversations.

1. Be the Chief Optimist 

Both Elissa Fink and Peter Isaacson agree that maintaining an optimistic outlook is key to success during a tough economic time. But, they also went out of their way to emphasize the importance of pairing it with pragmatism. Piggybacking off of this wisdom, here’s what I’d recommend: 

  • Hold regular team meetings, as well as one-on-one meetings so your employees have the chance to ask honest questions and share their concerns. Side note: different meetings are needed with your direct reports versus the team as a whole if you’ve got layers. 
  • Be transparent. Acknowledge the reality of the facts to your team, and then buoy their spirits with confidence that you’ll get through this time together. 
  • Use clear messaging so your words don’t get distorted through an office game of broken-telephone/Slack, and reinforce that people still need your product. This helps your team feel confident that you’ll ultimately emerge from this stronger. 

2. Go All-In on Revenue Generation 

Every CMO I connected with stressed the need to fund strategies that directly support revenue during an economic downturn. Brian Kardon said that what matters most in these times are tactics related to pipeline, like campaigns, product marketing efforts, SEM and SEO. Brian also said during the last recession, he and his team focused more on customer marketing. In his words, “We wanted to make sure our current customers felt really good about us because they’re the closest route to upsell expansion referral business.” 

Peter seconded this by saying to “keep investing in landing and expanding customers.” In other words, don’t make cuts in the areas of customer acquisition and maintenance, because you need to keep your pipeline going. He said that once the deal flow stops, a company usually starts cutting salespeople, which then restricts deal flow even more, leading into what he’s termed a “spiral of doom.” Avoid the spiral by putting your efforts into your pipeline.

In addition, I suggest the following if you want to prioritize revenue generation:

  • Consider whether some (but not all) brand-based advertising should be cut.
  • Ensure you have revenue attribution through a combination of your marketing automation platform and attribution modeling (e.g. via systems like Bizible or Qualified).  
  • Within the former, in these times knowing what content is informing your customers is key so make sure you have tracking built into your content experience (e.g. platforms like Uberflip)

3. Get Focused on What Moves the Needle

Elissa emphasized going back to your core priorities. Maybe you had ten originally outlined for the year but, given the rocky circumstances, it’s wise to narrow it down to the top three that make the biggest impact. Any initiatives that aren’t connected to those three priorities are free to be cut, while you should plan to “double down on anything you can to boost your revenue and pipeline priorities.” 

I second this, and also recommend that you:

  • Use your attribution model to guide how you prioritize. 
  • Make sure you have a project management software like Asana or in place so your team is in the loop about what the priorities are. These are relatively affordable and worth leaning into. 
  • Be prepared to push back on behalf of your team, if they’re asked to do too much (or too much outside of their comfort zone). 

4. Put Your Scrappy Marketer Hat On

Elissa advised viewing a downturn as a challenge. She said to use it as a time to brainstorm and get creative about different ways you and your team can increase efficiency and go “guerilla” on your marketing efforts. Brian echoed this sentiment, saying times like this force you to become disciplined in order to do more with less. He said that “having guardrails actually helps you become more creative,” which is ultimately a silver lining. 

From my perspective, this also means you should: 

  • Leverage your existing customers, and seek to put them first. 
  • Leverage your existing technology (in other words, can you use the tools you have in place more thoughtfully and productively, to get more ROI?).
  • We’re often tempted to cut things like tech as opposed to first looking to see if the silver bullet is right in front of us but not yet being leveraged. This could even be a person who refocused on a different project and should not be terminated. 

5. Nurture Your Database with Relevant Content 

Elissa and Meagen both mentioned the value of continuing to create and distribute content, as you’re exploring channels to keep versus cut. Content is a cost-effective tactic that also serves buyers when they’re ready to be served. There’s great power in delivering a content experience that meets buyers where they are in their journey with your brand and offers them truly relevant information. 

I’d take this further and advise companies to move away from ad spend during economic uncertainty and invest more time and energy into nurturing your existing database. Rather than trying to acquire new customers, make cuts in tactics (like advertising) so you can keep more of your people and put your focus on waking the dead (dormant customers). Not only is this cost-effective, but it’s also a smart way to allocate your resources in lean budget times.

Honestly, solving these problems is a big part of why I co-founded Uberflip. There’s not a single campaign that works all year long every year because circumstances change, so marketers need to be able to surface the right content in order to reach a specific goal.  With that, here are some key takeaways I’ve added on this one:

  • Centralize, organize and tag your content, so you can be nimble and pull what you need when you need it.
  • Having content for marketing campaigns is just half the battle. Ensure your sales reps and CSMs have access to the right content in minutes for their outreach. 
  • Focus on the experience! Line up the content assets that are relevant so that your buyers can discover at their pace versus the drip you want to force. This never works and especially in these times. 

6. Shift Your Tone to Reflect the Times

On the topic of content, it’s important to also remember that your tone matters. Be sure that the content you’re surfacing and sharing doesn’t come across as flippant or disrespectful of today’s current environment. 

For example, a piece of content from economically abundant times wouldn’t be appropriate in the here and now, and could come across as callous, arrogant or alienating. Meagen Eisenberg recommends viewing new and old content through the lens of how buyers are feeling in this moment, and adjusting your tone to meet them there. 

Meagen currently works in the travel industry and spoke to the need to completely adjust the tone of her content in 2020 when the pandemic hit. She expects the same tweaks will be needed in a downturn and feels her team is ready to embrace that challenge. 

So with that:

  • Determine the message or campaign your team will rally around for these times and what your audience wants to hear in the months ahead.
  • Take time to audit your content and even sunset assets that no longer apply.

7. Shift Your Account-Based Marketing (ABM) Practices into Higher Gear

If you’ve been dabbling in ABM, or maybe aren’t fully invested yet, now is the time to take the strategy more seriously. In fact, ABM is completely built upon the idea of getting extremely focused and spending the bulk of your time and resources on the accounts and buyers that can yield the biggest impact. What could make more sense during shaky economic times? 

To this end, consider where your ABM relationship currently stands. Do you have an account-based platform, but aren’t fully utilizing it? Or have you been waiting to get such a platform out of fear of the change it will require? This can be one area where investing into the right tech now could save you significant dollars in the long run, especially during an economic downturn. 

Here are some additional tips: 

  • Make sure you have your ideal customer profiles (ICPs) nailed down, so you know where to focus your efforts.
  • Based on your ICPs and available data, create specific content experiences that speak to these buyers at this point in their journey with you and with their current needs in mind.

8. Be Bold in Your Expectations 

While many leaders suggest scaling down your expectations during times when you’re strapped for cash or your resources are restricted, Meagen had a different, powerful view. She said that team members need to remember these are the opportunities they’ve wanted, in which they can prove themselves and show what they’re capable of. She said economically shaky times are when leaders must challenge their teams, and expect more of them - not less. 

For marketers specifically, Meagen instructed to:

  • Show ROI and how you’re driving pipeline. 
  • Know attribution and how to prove it. 
  • Make sure you’re providing ROI to your customers, so they’re getting value from your company and are incentivized to stay with you. 

By following this guidance from seasoned, savvy marketing leaders and relying on the right tech, you’ll be positioned to guide your team through what’s ahead - and keep buyers engaged along the way. Then, when the market is hot again (which you can trust it will be), you’ll be stronger than ever and your customers will be ready to buy from you. 


About the Author

Randy Frisch is a co-founder of Uberflip and held many roles, including President and CMO, where he evangelized the content experience.

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