Our marketing agility has been tested as of late.
COVID-19 stripped away core components of business strategies across the globe, forcing us to face the weight of unprecedented change; a new world where business travel and in-person events are replaced by remote work and budget cuts (for both us and our customers). Our strategies were hit with an asteroid. Overnight, our ecosystems changed.
Most of the mass extinction events on earth have been due in some way or another to global warming—with as much as 75% of all life on earth disappearing in a single episode. In a changing environment, you either collapse or adapt.
Nothing is as costly as inaction.
Adaptation vs. the Fear of Change
In nature, adaptation is the process of a species becoming fit to live successfully in its current environment. Nature is very budget-conscious; it can’t afford to simply let life in an ecosystem die out when things change. Biological forces are always working to maximize the return on nature’s investments in living things, so adaptation is a natural reaction to an evolving ecosystem.
Marketing agility means successfully adapting to new (and continuously evolving) environments. It’s the ability to adjust your marketing programs quickly and easily based on often unforeseen circumstances related to your company, your customers, or something else in your ecosystem.
This isn’t a foreign concept to marketers. We’re constantly making changes based on different criteria like timeframe, data, or engagement. But in this case, I’m talking about dealing with seismic shifts: tectonic plates moving inches at a time below the surface that form a richter-breaking earthquake. Having the marketing agility to maneuver massive change not only rescues you in dire situations, but it helps you execute more effectively on day-to-day changes.
Fear of the unknown is very real. When something unprecedented happens, no one wants to just throw away a go-to-market approach that has worked for 24 months straight without another surefire plan in place.
But we must come face-to-face with that fear in times like these, when our families, our companies, and our customers depend on us. We must be brave enough to stop for a moment and take stock of the current situation in order to determine the best course of action moving forward—whether or not that means abandoning programs we spent 18 months trying to build.
You never have to throw anything away, of course, as long as it continues to drive measurable results. But keep a close eye on it, and at the same time proactively research your new environment and test some new things based on what you learn. Utilize adaptive storytelling.
Stories build our identity. They help us understand the world, and they shape the way we see it.
In business, we tell stories with our brand design and messaging, through our events and experiences, via the content and communications we share, in the sales and customer conversations we have, and so much more. We’re telling stories constantly to help people understand why our product or service is relevant to them.
What we say in those stories must be relevant to our audience—not ourselves. The messages you bring to the market must answer the question of why you’re reaching out to that audience (whether on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis) and why they should care. Otherwise, you’re a stranger with a sales pitch or a glazed-over digital ad.
If a brand is the sum of all interactions someone has with your company, then your collective go-to-market message is the conversation you’re having with your audience. Are you talking about you or about them?
Hopefully, your core narrative and messaging framework are, indeed, relevant to your audience. You solve a challenge, satiate a desire, or provide something else valuable enough for people to invest. And that value is something that’s relevant to each and every individual in your audience. It's what ties them all together in a common thread.
“Personalization” is for building relationships with individuals. Relevance is for building relationships with the masses.
PSA: Call Your Customer
Relevance ensures that the way you communicate your value speaks to what matters most to your audience today. Your core message might resonate with your audience on an overall basis, but if it’s not among the, say, three-to-five top things they are thinking about prioritizing within the next week/month/year then they’ll scroll right past you.
In the attention economy—where scarcity exists not in the amount of space we can use to get in front of our buyers, but in the length that we can hold someone’s interest—being relevant means staying close to our buyers and customers. We hold someone’s attention by bringing valuable information as a resource, answering their questions, and helping them make informed decisions.
But the world changes quickly. What mattered to many of us two months ago isn’t even a blip on the radar anymore. And that can happen to our buyers or our customers on any scale (big or small) at any moment, whether or not we know it.
We must always know how to make our core value and messaging hyper-relevant to what matters most to our audience today; this month; this quarter; this year. If we can’t speak to that, then maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing.
This approach, of course, requires staying very close to your audience. Listening, conversing, interviewing your customers as much as possible. As marketers, we spend so much time reading about them and writing for them and talking about them, but we don’t often get the same amount or frequency of face time as some of our other customer-facing counterparts.
This is the part where I tell you, The Marketer, to call your customer.
Living, Breathing Stories
Of course, many of us in the marketing discipline do already call our customers. We interview them for case studies and put them on our advisory boards and ask for product feedback.
But what I’m suggesting is just a regular cadence of check-ins just to understand what’s top-of-mind for them. It’s not a sales call, but rather a way to understand how they’re thinking on a day-to-day basis, throughout different times of the year, and during unique events. What decisions are they considering and when (and why)? Thank them for taking the time to speak with you with a coffee or cocktail. (Alternatively, you could send them a handwritten note or another token of appreciation if you don’t live in the same region.)
Cycle through interviews with different customers to ensure you’re getting a diversity of perspectives. Keep the questions short (don’t exhaust your interviewees) and focus on getting into their state of mind to be the best resource possible. Find out …
At the same time, be sure to establish a strong pipeline of feedback from your sales, support, and other customer-facing teams. Use the same set of questions with these internal teams and compare that research to yours. Find the patterns. Then craft a mini messaging framework that aligns with your core framework but is hyper-focused on where your audience’s head is at right now.
As a situation changes or time goes on, allow that messaging framework to evolve. Even something as small as a change in certain vernacular should or a specific emphasis should be allowed to inform you’re saying to the market. Use continual research in order to make educated guesses on where to iterate. Let your stories live and breathe.
“Brand journalism” is one of those murky terms that typically has to do with sharing stories about a brand to build affinity; and it usually involves some combination of public relations, content, and corporate communications.
What I’m describing here is more like ... adaptive storytelling, where you know the story but you allow it to grow and adapt to the situation as necessary. This allows you to be a lighthouse to your buyers, customers, and community when they’re navigating uncertain waters; a reliable and trustworthy safe harbor.
Tone-deaf messages without relevance (and in uncertain times, hyper-relevance) fall on disinterested ears. Winning brands build relationships like people do: by creating mutual value, through shared positive experiences, and being there in times of need.
This piece is part 1 in a series about marketing agility. To read part 2, click here.
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.