CONTENT IN THE AGE OF CORONAVIRUS
WHAT MEME BEST DESCRIBES MARKETING?
If you had to ask me for the best meme that summed up what the world of digital marketing looks like then the ‘This is Fine’ meme would be it.
In the last few months though? With all things Covid-19 impacting our lives, the updated meme would now be this on the right. Although we’ve swapped germs for flames, what we do and what we create in our roles as marketers has changed, but not that radically. Consultancy and SEO Audits are still in demand but everything is different and a lot more exhausting.
So, now we’re (how many weeks?) into lockdown it’s high time we took a socially isolated breath and reflect on what we’re doing with our content in this moment.
What I’m about to dive into covers marketing strategy at large, but as content underpins everything we do it’s a good area to examine. This allows us to understand the bigger picture of where things are at and where things are going. So, whether it’s the content that forms the social posts, the website updates or the emails which hope to find you well in during these unprecedented times we need to understand why we’re creating what we’re creating and use it to plan for whatever the future is going to throw our way. What you’re about to read:
Note: I’m writing this post during Mid-May 2020 from here in the UK, where the government has just announced a (confused) exit strategy after 8 weeks in lockdown. Different countries are taking different approaches and are at different stages of the pandemic so what I’m about to cover may apply to some businesses more than others.
INFORM, EDUCATE, ENTERTAIN
There’s a wealth of examples from other organisations with tiny budgets and few resources who've made a lasting positive impression from this pandemic. They’ve remembered their purpose as a business and the purpose of their marketing. Before we get into them it’s worth reviewing the core components of content strategy to understand what makes their efforts so good in the current climate.
The way to think about it is by using x3 names you’re hopefully familiar with. We have:
Laura Kuenssberg - Chief political correspondent for the BBC
Each of these people have a different role to play in society. Laura Kuenssberg is there to inform us of the latest happenings. Joe Wicks; his job has been to educate kids on their health and fitness. And Simon Pegg, if you’ve seen any of his films then you know he’s there to entertain.
Or in other words, they are there to inform, educate and entertain respectively. It’s the mantra of the BBC charter and it should be used by us for our businesses too.
Simon Pegg isn’t providing hard hitting news segments about the latest infection rates. Laura Kuenssberg isn’t on Tiktok giving us all a laugh. Their purpose at this time, now more than ever, hasn’t deviated.
Although you may create content which educates as well as informs, or entertains as much as educates the lesson from this is that although your content may need to adjust the core reasons for why you create what you’re creating should remain the same now as always.
So, what you’ll find below, are a selection of different organisations who’ve doubled down, stuck to their purpose and adjusted their content offering throughout different stages of the pandemic.
STAGE 1: THE WTF HAPPENED MOMENT
The week of March 16th 2020 was the week that businesses across the UK seemed to comprehend the immediate impact of what a Covid-19 induced shutdown meant for them. With staff immediately furloughed, budgets cut and physical access to the places and equipment used to create content restricted, the best businesses did what they can with what they had, to once again, inform, educate and entertain.
One of my favourite examples was from the Field Museum. Their goal? To educate (through primarily entertainment) about its collections from its HQ in Chicago, Illinois.
For me, that week in March was an utter shitstorm - the same for many other people. And you know what people needed? Light relief, done in an entertaining way. The phrase ‘Read the Room’ has been thrown around a lot, and boy, did the Field Museum get this right. The rest of their feed ever since has continued with the goal of keeping smiles on people’s faces while talking about their collections. They educate through entertainment.
The TLDR: Read the room.
STAGE 2: THE OK, WHAT NOW? MOMENT
The next few weeks was something of a rollercoaster with good days and horrendous days. Exhaustion, worry and a never-ending news cycle to keep on top of took its toll as we began to find our feet. The biggest thing that stood out during this time was businesses being kind and offering their services for free (or heavily discounted). The way in which this was done and the messages attached to them was done without any vested interest. By sharing informative content to find other content to keep yourself educated, informed or entertained was another hugely positive thing to do.
Businesses were helping in the best way they could with what they had.
A particular favourite is this post from Sanctus (disclaimer - they are a client) who are a mental health start-up in London. Their offer? Online group coaching sessions - completely for free.
The TLDR: Sharing something of value (and expecting nothing in return) goes a long way to reaching people
STAGE 3: THE CONTENT PIVOT
As organisations began to get used to life in lockdown there seemed to be something of a content frenzy. Businesses who traditionally be so silent began mass producing content as a kneejerk reaction for something to do.
Most stayed true to their purpose and the content angle quickly realised they could in some form carry on from home, doing what they normally do, but in a slightly different fashion.
Museum Educator Sacha Coward launched a fantastic daily Twitter video series called # museumfromhome. His goal? Educating through entertainment.
Meanwhile countless creators have been able to create content online which stays true to their core purpose. From Instagram Live HIIT sessions for personal trainers (education), virtual tours of the Faroe Islands (inform) to fast fashion making use of customer pictures (inform) to showcase these on the website when product photoshoots are cancelled.
Where it goes wrong however is when brands feel the need to take it upon themselves where they’re not needed, don’t have the expertise to talk about a topic, or worse - a combination of the two. Prime example include BT using Jake Humphrey’s as part of a campaign to help to get your business online. That’s followed by Clare Balding with tips on working from home. Yes, it’s educational (of sorts) but as a business whose sole purpose is to keep the British telecoms industry how does this help us? And how does this help us a brand
The TLDR: Whatever your pivot, it still needs to align with your business goals….
STAGE 4: THE REASSESMENT
In normal circumstances Stage 3 and Stage 4 would be the other way around. In normal circumstances it would also mean Stage 4 would actually happen. It seemed though most organisations in a grip of panic churned out something and everything to keep the wheels turning. But this meant no breathing space, no reassessment - not for what type of content would be best to produce at the moment, but instead what the new landscape looks like that they’re putting this content out into.
One of the areas I often find myself spending the most time on when it comes to content strategy is competitor analysis. But it passed so many creators by that who their competitors are in the present moment are vastly different to who they were just a few short weeks ago so I’ve included this stage as something which would have been great to see happen.
Because the pandemic has impacted so many businesses it’s hard to summarise but it the change in competition takes the form of:
Local businesses suddenly finding themselves up against national or international competitors. Why bother using a local Personal Trainer if another better, cheaper PT exists online?
Online businesses finding themselves dwarfed as larger businesses pivot into their territory. Take the rise of wholesale food retailers suddenly switching direct to consumer
Everyone creating more content (however good or bad) which has meant more noise, making it harder to stay out from the crowd
In retrospect, it would have been a huge relief if businesses could have taken stock of where they were and re-established themselves with an emergency content strategy. Even if it’s a few hours of to get down onto paper - and to communicate to those remaining in the business about who their competition is now, what their customers need and want and how they’re going to produce this with the resources available.
The TLDR: The landscape around you has moved - you need to accommodate for it.
So, far what I’ve covered above is the real-world experience I’ve had with clients combined with multiple discussions with other marketers, agency owners and the general industry chatter from social media. What comes next is all speculation as we try and use what we’ve learnt to make appropriate plans for the future.
STAGE 5: LIFTING LOCKDOWN
For all the efforts going into this new wave of content creativity it’s being done with the underlying assumption that lockdown, in one form or another will be lifted in the not too distant future. As such the content there has all been rather temporary, a filler. An intermission while we wait for the main spectacle to continue. After all, a travel destination selling holidays can’t pivot to 3d tours as their business model forever.
That in turn rests on a deeper assumption that when lockdown is lifted, we’ll be somehow going back to what things were like before. Like switching back on a light switch, places will reopen and your old content creation plans can resume. But herein lies the problem. It’s not just your business that’s changed but your customers too. So, the question becomes, when lockdown is lifted how do you adapt things once again, but doing so with far fewer resources than you previously started with? The new customers that emerge from this will be much changed, mainly, but not exclusively, because of x3 reasons:
Economically, the country is crippled with what is forecasted to be one of the worst recessions on record
Socially, people are fearful of returning to places and routines which put them at greater risk of infection
Culturally, people have discovered aspects of the lockdown which they now prefer
To give you a firmer example let’s take the gym industry. Told to close on Friday 20th March 2020 and with a reopening date earmarked for sometime in July it’s an industry which falls squarely into a category of a business which can pivot their content temporarily to keep things ticking over, but can never make the jump to exist 100% online as a business.
But the gym as a product remains unchanged. The equipment is still there. Memberships are frozen. Staff are furloughed. The whole industry is in stasis. Yet, even if a reopening was as easy as switching on the lights, it’s what the customers are (rightly) doing which is the concern.
If you’ve spent the last 60+ days at home using that time to run, cycle or blast through some high quality free Joe Wick’s workouts, does a £40/month membership, when finances are tight, to go to a place which could make you ill, really sound that appealing? Or is the stay at home workout something which is set to continue?
Although the gym will be as good as it’s always been the entire customer ecosystem around is has altered radically. And you can be damn sure gyms are going to have to be working extra hand in order to encourage members, both new and existing, back through their doors when lockdown is finally lifted.
The challenge therefore when it comes back to content is starting to plan for this eventuality now. That means prepping messaging, videos and campaigns explaining how businesses are putting in measures to keep everything working when they do reopen. We’re going to need to be personal, be honest and really wrap this up creatively; because you can bet that every other business will be shouting from the rooftops that they’re open for business - and the noise will be deafening.
The TLDR: Realise your customers are not who they once were. Plan accordingly for post-lockdown.
STAGE 6: THE NEW NORMAL
“The last few months have seen us all building life rafts. What we need to be doing now is preparing a ship for life at sea.”
What exactly is going to happen in the future is pretty damn uncertain but I’d like to make a few guesses. First off there seems to be every possibility that a lockdown could happen again in the winter of 2020/21.
To plan for this eventuality when it comes to content, everything I’ve done with clients during this time and everything we plan to do for post-lockdown is being documented. We’re also going to be carrying out an analysis of what content worked and what didn’t in line with the businesses objectives. So, if things get restrictive we have action plan to react more quickly and more effectively than the first time around. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail and all that.
What we’re about to encounter in the new normal though, presents two rather gloomy scenarios: In the event of another lockdown the content we produced is unlikely to cut it second time around. The filler, the intermission content, while well-meaning for a few short weeks to keep people occupied and entertained, isn’t likely to have the same effectiveness if people have seen it all before. Plus, its shelf life can only last for a few weeks, while a winter lockdown which could be for far longer. So, although we can learn from what we’ve done this time round we’d be stupid to replicate it. That means trying to answer big, hard questions about what content can we create and how to create it now before then to see us through this eventuality. Think of it as an insurance policy.
Secondly, even in a scenario where we have a lockdown free future, we’re still going to be facing new challenges. The financial, social and cultural effects of the pandemic are going to make lives harder for us all for many months ahead. It’s not going to be business as usual for a very long time.
While working through this challenge I’ve come to the conclusion that you need to start building something more robust. The last few months have seen us all building life rafts. What we need to be doing now is preparing a ship for life at sea.
The level of investment which businesses have placed in digital, in marketing and in content has varied hugely. Some are 100% online. Others are finding themselves setting up a website for the first time.
However, the fallout of the pandemic has tested every business and exposed their weaknesses. It’s easy to point the finger and say to bricks and mortar businesses that they should have a digital presence. However, even 100% online businesses have found their supply chains strangled or their staff unable to work. Others have instead been given the hug of death by a tidal wave of demand as supplies ran out. What we’ve put in place with our content has been a sticking plaster but now with the worst out the way the temporary measures we’re implementing need to grow and mature into a digital offering which becomes robust enough to take another hit.
When this comes to content it means what we’re doing now shouldn’t be the same as what we’re creating in a few month’s time. So, we need to be working as hard as ever to plan, expand and develop our digital offering to counter whatever the future may throw our way.
Doing this, at this pace, takes, investment and learning. No easy thing given the current climate. Yet, one useful thing that has come out of all of this is that we have an entire planet’s worth of businesses to learn from - for both good and bad in what content to create or avoid. Whether that content is there to inform, to educate or to entertain you can only do what you do best.
Without wanting to end this on a gloomy note, it’s essential that you use this time to, plan, learn and adapt - because this storm is far from over.
I’m genuinely curious to know what you think of the situation, or how digital can help with whatever comes along in the future, so tweet me your ideas. You can find me at @danwht.