ChiefMarketer: COVID-19 Marketing Outlook


The marketing industry has experienced unprecedented disruption since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Most marketers have been forced to pivot, improvise and innovate while the business world adapts to new consumer purchasing behaviors, social distancing mandates, fluctuating economic circumstances and sobering public health scenarios. To thrive—or simply survive—within these new circumstances has required a radical rethinking of marketing budgets, customer experiences, content creation, virtual engagement and much more—in a very short period of time. To pinpoint what aspects of marketing have shifted as a result of COVID-19, Chief Marketer surveyed our readership in two waves: first, in February and early March, as the potential effects of COVID-19 were just beginning to appear; and again in late April and early May, when the pandemic’s effects were in full swing. The data revealed some intuitive and surprising insights, from the decline of marketing budgets to the rise of virtual events to the increased reliance on social media for both engagement and conversions.


Here’s a snapshot of some of the key findings:


Survey data revealed that budgets were dramatically affected by COVID-19. In fact, the number of marketers who said their budgets were increasing in 2020 dropped by 30 percent, from 37 percent in February to seven percent in April and May. Moreover, compared to the first wave, many more marketers surveyed in April and May said their budgets were decreasing— from 14 percent pre-COVID-19 to 55 percent just two months later. “We have cut all nonessential spending to include our marketing dollars,” according to one respondent. “We haven’t bought any media or planned at all for our upcoming season of events,” said another. “It’s all email, social posts and web-based. We’re not allowed to spend any money the rest of our fiscal year, until June 30,” according to a third.


Prior to COVID-19, the marketing categories requiring the most spend were content marketing, events and paid advertising, according to the surveys. Post-COVID-19, content marketing and paid advertising continued to require the most spend, but event spending dropped significantly among marketers from 41 percent to 22 percent of marketers ranking events in their top three spending categories. However, when respondents were asked where they were reallocating live event spend, nearly half of B2C marketers (44 percent) and more than half of B2B marketers (64 percent) said they were allocating live event spend to virtual events. This points to a major trend within the postCOVID-19 era: virtual engagement. “We have shifted from a heavy emphasis on live experiential events (consumers, press, etc.) to digital. Naturally, event budgets have also slightly decreased due to the uncertainty and the current shelter-in-place restrictions,” said one respondent. “Dollars are shifting to accommodate new initiatives brought on by COVID-19. For instance, investing in more platform tools to support virtual events,” said another. For many, the absence of live events has required a complete retooling and an adoption of virtual engagement. “We had to completely overhaul our business model from live shows and in-person storytelling workshops to an allvirtual model,” according to one marketer.


When examining which budget categories would receive more funding in 2020 compared to the year prior, there was consistency between the two waves. Content marketing, paid advertising and SEO were the top three choices for both time periods. However, Martech spending declined from 17 percent of marketers COVID-19 MARKETING OUTLOOK | 5 placing it in their top three to just eight percent post-COVID-19. Moreover, 25 percent of marketers surveyed in the second wave said they were not certain which line items would receive more spend in 2020. It is significant that a quarter of marketers surveyed post-COVID-19 were unsure of where and how to spend their budgets. One respondent described the challenging situation as “paralysis,” adding that “decisions are on hold and there’s an absence of top-down direction given business uncertainty. Further, there’s a reticence to invest in brand-building activities. Finally, there’s a rush to figure out how best to deploy digital solutions to engage customers,” the person said. “Frozen, if I can use a movie name to describe the current plan,” was another’s cheeky response.


Despite budget shifts, new strategies and business models, when it came to return-oninvestment, content marketing remained one of the most effective aspects of marketers’ budgets. The ROI for events decreased from 33 percent pre-COVID-19 to 21 percent post-COVID-19, as one might expect. But one category’s ROI increased significantly: Influencer marketing jumped from nine percent of marketers placing it in their top three during the first wave to 22 percent in the second. Indeed, while content studios were closed and production halted in the midst of the pandemic, some brands have relied on influencers to deliver content to consumers via digital platforms. “Social media engagement has spiked, influencer partnerships have developed and our overall marketing plan has completely shifted from in-person to digital opportunities,” said one respondent.


When it comes to metrics that matter most for marketers, survey data indicated that the customer experience metric increased considerably post-COVID-19, from 29 percent of marketers in the first wave to 48 percent. Out of necessity, online purchasing has dramatically increased during the pandemic, a fact that could point to the increased importance of the customer experience. In the absence of in-person interaction, brands’ marketing abilities have been largely limited to onlineonly channels. Following that logic, the metrics for time spent on brands’ websites, shares, comments and content shared also increased post-COVID-19.


Social media marketing has risen in importance during the pandemic. LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram were the most effective social media channels for marketers both before and after COVID-19, with Twitter and Instagram experiencing the largest increases. But while both surveys indicated that marketing handles the majority of social media management, there was an uptick in the number of marketers who are using a dedicated social media team in the post-COVID-19 era. This points to a growing need for more digital and social media skills in marketing organizations moving forward. For several respondents, social media marketing initiatives and providing updates to services were the primary means of communication during the post-COVID-19 wave. And when looking at what marketing tactics will be relied on more on in 2020 and beyond, 65 percent of marketers placed social media in their top three—the highest ranked tactic in the post-COVID-19 wave. In terms of challenges, creating content that resonates during the pandemic was one of the greatest obstacles, with 45 percent of marketers ranking it in their top three, suggesting that pandemic messaging and marketing remains a challenge in our current environment.


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