How Companies Are Pivoting Their Marketing to Survive and Thrive During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the business and marketing landscape. With lockdowns, economic uncertainty, and radically shifted consumer behavior, companies have had to throw out their 2020 marketing plans and pivot quickly to adapt to the new reality.

Some of the most significant changes we‘ve seen:

  • Marketing budgets slashed: 65% of CMOs faced moderate to significant budget cuts due to the pandemic. (Gartner)

  • Digital acceleration: 60% of customer interactions now happen online, up from 42% before COVID. (McKinsey)

  • Ecommerce boom: Online shopping has increased 30% since the pandemic began. (IBM)

  • Virtual event explosion: Marketers predict that 80% of their future events will have a virtual element. (EventMB)

HubSpot‘s own benchmark data reflects these shifts. We‘ve seen our customers significantly change their approach in four key areas: budgets, tactics, tone and agility. Here‘s a closer look at each of those pivots and how you can apply them in your own business.

Pivot 1: Ruthlessly Prioritizing Marketing Spend

With less budget to work with, marketers have had to get ruthless about cutting underperforming tactics and reallocating dollars to channels that drive the most ROI.

Paid advertising has taken a big hit, with only 45% of marketers planning to increase their ad spend in 2021 (vs. 56% who increased it in 2020 before the pandemic hit). Rather than spending on paid media, many companies are investing more in owned assets like their website, content and social presence.

"Like many companies, we‘ve certainly cut back in places like tradeshows, events and paid advertising," said John Dick, CEO of CivicScience, in an interview with HubSpot. "We‘ve reinvested that in content production like our podcast and market research reports. We‘re focused on delivering more value to our current customers and audience."

Influencer marketing partnerships and lower-cost strategies like SEO are also getting more attention as affordable alternatives to paid ads. The key is to zero in on a couple core channels that work best for your audience and goals rather than spreading your resources too thin.

Action Item: Audit your marketing channels and identify your top 2-3 in terms of ROI. Double down on those and cut the rest. Regularly re-evaluate performance to optimize spend.

Pivot 2: Going All In On Digital and Virtual Channels

With most in-person channels off the table, companies have had to pivot the bulk of their marketing to digital tactics and virtual platforms.

Website traffic is up 13% on average since the pandemic began, according to HubSpot‘s data, as customers are researching and engaging with brands online more than ever before. To capitalize on this, marketers are investing in:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO) to improve Google rankings and organic traffic
  • Conversion rate optimization (CRO) to turn more of that website traffic into leads and customers
  • Content marketing like blogs, ebooks, and videos to attract and engage prospects
  • Social media marketing to build brand awareness and community
  • Email and marketing automation to nurture leads with personalized content
  • Virtual events and webinars to replace in-person events

Pre-COVID, only about 40% of marketers said virtual events were part of their event marketing strategy. In July 2020, that number skyrocketed to over 90%. (MarTech Today)

"We‘ve had to completely reimagine our events strategy," said Lauren Flannery, VP of Marketing at Drift, in a HubSpot case study. "But the shift to virtual has had some benefits – we‘ve been able to get much more creative and branch out to new audiences. Our pipeline from events is actually up 12% over last year."

Some best practices that are emerging for effective virtual events:

  • Keep them short and interactive. Aim for 45-60 minutes max and include polls, Q&As, and breakout sessions.
  • Focus on value. Prioritize teaching and helping over selling. Give attendees clear takeaways.
  • Get creative with formats. Try AMA sessions, panel discussions, or even cooking classes and cocktail hours.
  • Leverage partners. Co-host events with complementary brands to expand your reach.
  • Promote heavily. Virtual events need more promotion than in-person ones to drive registrations. Use email, social media and paid ads.

Action Item: Pick one marketing channel to go all in on with a major campaign or initiative this quarter. Put significant resources behind it and track results closely.

Pivot 3: Leading With Empathy and Value in Marketing Messaging

The tone of marketing has shifted dramatically since COVID hit. Hard sells and overly promotional messages are out; empathy, compassion and genuine helpfulness are in.

"Brands need to be very careful with their messaging right now. The key is to be human above all else," advises Maureen Jann, Founder of SuperDeluxe Marketing. "Show that you understand what your customers are going through and focus on how you can support them. Save the heavy-handed sales tactics for later."

Consumer data shows that people want brands to focus more on how they can be helpful than on what they sell right now:

Consumer Expectations of Brands During COVID
Source: Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on COVID

Many companies are taking this to heart by pivoting their content and social media strategies to be more educational, empathetic and focused on customer success. For example:

  • Moz is offering daily SEO office hours and 1:1 consultations to help customers navigate new search trends
  • Typeform created a comprehensive content hub to help businesses adapt to remote work
  • HubSpot has made its paid Software Certification Program free to help marketers skill up during the recession

User-generated content (UGC) has also become more popular as an authentic way to build connection and showcase real customer experiences. Employee-generated content (EGC) is on the rise too as a way to humanize B2B brands.

"We‘ve really leaned into UGC and EGC on our social channels," said Amelia Ibarra, Social Media Manager at Glassdoor. "Spotlighting our customers‘ and employees‘ stories, challenges and wins has helped us build a stronger community. Our engagement rates are up 30% since COVID started."

Action Item: Audit your current content and social media to make sure the tone and messaging is appropriate. Brainstorm ways to feature more UGC/EGC and create truly helpful, customer-centric content.

Pivot 4: Adopting Agile Marketing to Move Quickly

The world is changing at dizzying speed and marketers no longer have the luxury of planning campaigns months in advance. Agility is the name of the game.

We‘ve seen companies increase their output of new marketing content and campaigns by 35% on average since the start of COVID, according to HubSpot research. But the planning cycle for those campaigns has shrunk from months to weeks or even days.

To stay nimble, many marketing teams are embracing agile methodologies like daily stand-up meetings, sprints and kanban boards. The goal is to quickly get new initiatives out the door, learn from the data and iterate.

"We‘ve had to completely change the way we work to keep up with the pace of change," said Ryan Bonnici, CMO of G2. "We‘re using a scrum agile marketing approach, with two-week sprints. It allows us to turn on a dime and react in real-time to new customer needs and market shifts."

Some specific ways marketing teams are speeding up:

  • Using real-time data and insights to inform content and offers
  • Leveraging AI and automation tools to scale personalization and optimize campaigns
  • Collaborating cross-functionally with sales, service and product to align on initiatives
  • Empowering individual team members to make decisions without lengthy approval processes
  • Instituting "test and learn" experimentation processes to quickly prove out new ideas

"Perfection has gone out the window and that‘s a good thing," said Meghan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at HubSpot. "It‘s more important to get relevant content and campaigns out quickly than to make them flawless. We have to be willing to fail fast, learn and pivot to the next thing."

Action Item: Choose one initiative to run a short agile marketing sprint on. Define a small cross-functional team, clear goals and a two-week timeline. After the sprint, assess what worked, what didn‘t and how you can implement more agile processes going forward.

The Path Forward: Becoming an Adaptable Marketing Organization

If there‘s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it‘s that marketing organizations need to be built for change. The old model of siloed teams, rigid annual planning and over-reliance on historical data won‘t cut it.

To succeed in the new normal and beyond, companies need to build adaptable marketing teams that can pivot strategies, tactics and spend quickly based on real-time data and changes in customer behavior.

At the structural level, this means breaking down barriers between marketing and the rest of the organization. Marketing needs to work hand-in-hand with sales, service and product to get a 360-degree view of the customer. Shared goals and metrics across departments are a must.

Marketing leaders also need to create a culture of experimentation, calculated risk-taking and continuous improvement. Teams should be empowered to rapidly test new ideas, learn from failures and scale the tactics that deliver results.

Investing in marketing technology and data capabilities is another crucial piece of becoming an adaptable organization. Tools for real-time analytics, marketing automation, dynamic content and AI-powered optimization can help marketers move faster and make smarter, data-backed decisions.

Upskilling and reskilling the marketing workforce is paramount too. Marketers need to be comfortable with data, digital technologies, agile ways of working and change management. Ongoing training and development is essential.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a forcing function for marketing transformation. It‘s clear that the old playbooks no longer apply and companies need to embrace new strategies to drive growth.

By prioritizing digital channels, leading with empathy, adopting agile processes and building adaptable teams, marketing organizations can emerge stronger from this crisis and be well-positioned to thrive in the future.