The following is the full transcript of the webinar “COVID-19 Response Checklist for Digital Marketers,” which included hosts Jake Renter and Wes MacLaggan. Renter, Chief Operating Officer at Intertwine Interactive, and MacLaggan, Head of Marketing at Marin Software, answer a wide variety of questions related to the effect COVID-19 has had on the digital marketing industry.
Main Q/A Transcript
Can you tell me a little bit about Intertwine and your mix of customers?
Renter: Yeah, absolutely. Intertwine is a digital marketing agency based out of Omaha, Nebraska. We currently have a pretty eclectic group of customers that we’re managing for. We have about 75 unique clients that we’re managing upwards of $1 billion in annual revenue, which is about $100 million in ad spend on an annual basis. It’s a pretty even 50/50 split between ecommerce lead-generation clients and it ranges: we’ve got B2B clients, B2C clients, local clients, national clients, so it’s really all over the board. In Intertwine’s 15 years of business, we’ve really touched almost every vertical out there, so it’s kind of one of of the exciting parts of what we do: you just get a touch of so many different verticals.
What are you seeing from your advertisers? What are you hearing from customers during this [time]?
Renter: Our customer mix is really all over the board. It’s not necessarily one message we’re hearing or seeing within our clients’ accounts. We’ve got clients that are 10x over what they were previously getting in the last year or even early parts of January. We’re also unfortunately on the opposite end of it, we do have clients that are naturally down 80 percent. Customers just are not searching for the vertical. We do have clients that have paused campaigns entirely, so it’s really a mix all over the board and we’re just doing as much as we can to convey the best strategy across the board for each of our individual clients.
What kind of advice are you giving your clients if they’ve got to start scaling back on their programs? Where do they look to make the cuts? Is there anything that’s the first to go or anything that should be the last to go?
Renter: I would say we’re kind of looking at it from a top-down approach. First of all, we need to understand what the channel mix is, what their attribution funnel is so we can really understand the value that every initiative is bringing to their bottom line. And then again take that top-down approach: if they are hurting for business, if they need new customers right now, we’re really trying to focus in on the bottom of the funnel and maybe the first thing to go is that mid-to-upper funnel initiative, so we can focus in on the immediate dollars, the immediate return that we’re getting right now. Vice versa if their business goal is more long-term, maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe if the demand is not better for your customers, change that mix and work on more mid- and upper-funnel. The demand is not there, so now you can go out and build a brand. You can further your awareness because of a lot of other advertisers are pulling back.
If we focus on search in particular, do you see search budgets being less impacted as they tend to be more bottom of funnel or do you see people shifting dollars from category terms to brand terms?
Renter: I would say search is the last to go that we are seeing. Most is from a display perspective, it’s from an awareness perspective that they’re pulling back and they’re searches is that model of somebody’s actively searching for it, they’re in the market to purchase and so your budget might naturally decrease. We’ve certainly had clients in the retail, in the restaurant business that people just are not searching for the demand and so it is naturally 60-70 percent down, thus the budget is down. But if people are still searching, I think you really need to be there.
What about on the ecommerce side? I know you handle Amazon for some clients: how has that been affected?
Renter: So, Amazon. Our biggest recommendation right now is our issue and further recommendation is on a fulfillment perspective. Amazon has obviously restricted a lot of what they are doing, a lot of what they are prioritizing from a fulfillment perspective. As we’ve seen that we’ve just tried to shift our focus into products inventory that consumers have a high surplus of inventory with Amazon right now. We certainly don’t want to run out of inventory. Amazon has not taken any new products, so it’s really prioritizing on an inventory perspective form Amazon, and that’s kind of trickled down to website, where we’ve seen more demand, more we’ve been pushing on products, we’ve been communicating on products with the client that they have an excess of inventory to make sure they don’t run out in three weeks, three months, however long this continues to last.
Inventory makes sense. What about Amazon is doing some level of prioritization of certain types of inventory verses others in the shipments. Have you seen that affect shipping rates or are you factoring that into Amazon decisions at all?
Renter: Shipping rates has not really been affected, but it is the by-box, it is you know have seen an issue with being able to get a product within the next 2–3 weeks. So, it’s kind of overall your rating, your scores with Amazon we have seen kind of it pull back a little bit. Just because you know if you don’t have a usually it’s 4 percent delivery, you’re losing out a lot of your ratings with Amazon. So, we’re seeing Amazon kind of push that and extend that back to allow for the extended shipping time.
If we take a look at the other end of the spectrum where there’s opportunity, a lot of brands are not interested in this being seen as capitalizing on this moment. But as you said, if people are searching for your products like they have a need that they’re trying to fulfill, how do advertisers who are seeing demand, how do they take advantage of that responsibly in a way that’s helping customers and in continuing to build their business?
Renter: The essential items have kind of been flying off the shelves as everybody would expect. it’s really just making sure that we’re actively present, that we’re actively there communicating with the client to ensure that they’re not running out of stock, that we are pushing when demand is there. Has kind of been our number one thing that we’ve been trying to push, it’s just that open line of communication both ways between them to us and us to them. In terms of this week we’re seeing a shift in to particular products, so let’s really focus in what we’re doing with that particular category, but next week that demand might pull back and so we don’t need to be as aggressive and we can shift our focus into where that demand is.
Are there any unexpected bright spots or anything that something that you wouldn’t expect to be doing well this situation?
Renter: The DIY projects, the household products, I know my honey-do list has expanded pretty significantly and so we’re seeing pretty big demand just for DIY, for household goods, for kind of individual projects that you can do isolated from the masses.
When I talk to our advertisers, we talked about there’s some areas that are doing well, some people that are having to pull back, it seems like there’s a big group in the middle who are facing uncertainty. Their business is doing okay, but what is the economic outlook? How long is this going to last? How are you helping customers think about the right way to navigate if work for that group in the middle?
Renter: First and foremost, I think we’ve been very fortunate with our clients: we’ve built very good relationships, both personal and business relationships. A lot of them are long-term clients. So, the first thing that we have been trying to communicate and convey is just he personal relationship that will be there where we’re helping support just as another person to talk to for strategy. The second one is just every business is different, every business is a little unique, so we’re just trying to understand what the best strategy is for each individual business as opposed to creating kind of mass rules across the board for everybody. The third one in terms of how are we helping, it’s really all about the data at this point in time. We’re just trying to follow what the data is saying; if we’re seeing pullbacks and conversion rates in average order values, we really need to start pulling our advertising vice-versa. If and when that conversion rate starts moving upwards to where it was pre-pullback, then start really stepping on the gas and pushing more as we see that data come through.
Do you see anything that’s working well for your customers in terms of how they’re talking about their offering or have you seen any examples of any mistakes to avoid?
Renter: First and foremost, is don’t force it. If COVID-19 is not directly impacting your business, don’t necessarily try and add messaging about COVID-19 just to have it. When it does fit, keep it simple and we have not been trying to directly push COVID-19 messaging as opposed to how your business can benefit from it. A message is like, “Shop from home,” “Curbside Pickup,” “Virtual Tours,” just things like that. Can you subtly add in there that the consumer knows that they can still shop through you? They can still and this is how they can get their product from you guys.
Some of our clients we’ve seen having a little bit more time on their hands if their industry has slowed down. Are you helping clients with any type of strategic projects or working through their backlog that’s going to help them set themselves up for the recovery? What type of projects are you working on?
Renter: Like you said, I think the most important thing is setting yourself up for once this ends, it’s going to be even more crucial for businesses to acquire customers to get new business coming into their doors. Things that we’ve seen the most is more on the SEO, more on the website, more on the conversion optimization side of things. Where they’re auditing their site, they are adding new content. They’re adding more pages, more depth to their websites, trying to figure out or trying to improve their conversion funnels, both for ecommerce and for lead gen clients, so it’s more of the behind-the-scenes, the web that we have seen the web development that we have seen. People trying to clear the clutter from their to-do projects that typically get backward.
I know you’re not an economist, but what’s your gut feeling on how quickly this is going to bounce back? If we think about things ramping back up, any last tips?
Renter: Like I said, I’d hate to speculate on how long COVID-19 lasts. Hopefully we’re already at the apex and has started to come down. I think from a digital perspective, once it does it’s going to bounce back pretty quickly. I also think we’re going to have a long tail for the clients that have seen an increase in demand. I think there’s going to be a very long tail that they experienced as a result of this. I think overall the consumer buying behavior, the digital behavior is changing and we had the apex in demand and it’s going to start tailing off. But I don’t think that is ever going to get back down to where it was. Whether it’s curbside pickup, whether it’s food deliveries, those are two of the areas that have seen the largest increase over the last 4–6 weeks. I don’t think that’s going to drop back to the pre-level. Fortunately for those that are in that space, they will be benefited from it.
I really appreciate your thoughts. You guys are a full-service digital agency, if anybody needs help managing their programs, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Renter: You can reach out to me directly at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to offer a free audit whether that’s paid search audit or an SEO audit for anybody that would like to reach out to us as a result of this webinar.
A customer is seeing their conversion rate dropping: how should they think about bidding on their brand terms in that environment?
Renter: From a brand perspective, your conversation rates dropping brand really is going to be the last place that we would recommend that you pull back from. If it is currently in your marketing mix, it’s obviously proximal to the business to continue on it and even with that drop-in conversion rate, more times than likely it’s going to be make sense to leave that on. Customers are of utter importance right now. So, if you did pull out, if you did stop advertising on your brand you run the risk of losing what is most valuable right now, which is the new customers.
MacLaggan: Yeah, I wouldn’t agree with that. Brand terms are generally less expensive than more upper funnel stuff. And it helps you dominate the page. People are going to be searching from their phones quite a bit and you prevent a competitor from getting in there and eventually taking those customers from you.
Should I think about moving the budget from the bottom of the funnel to the middle or the top?
MacLaggan: I think one situation that businesses are running into is that they need to make up for revenue that they’re losing in physical channels. If you have the same shift how people think about your company or your offering, that is your reason to try and invest a little more in the middle or the top of the funnel, so that they know that you’ve got ecommerce present, so they know that you will deliver. For whatever it may be that it has shifted in your business, that may be different than what they were thinking of before. That would be one reason I would think about shifting budgets.
Renter: I would echo that. It’s really understanding the value of proposition that the middle and upper funnel channels are having to do overall business. And if your business can sustain an increased investment in those channels at the row as you are currently getting from the middle and upper channels.
Do we think that this is going to drive a decrease in job opportunities for digital marketers and do you have any tips for staying relevant, what we should be doing for our own careers during this?
Renter: Forward term, there may be because there are a lot of industries that are pulling back. Short term, there may be some sacrifices that we as digital marketers have to make. I think long term it’s going to bounce back and there’s going to be more demand in 3–6–12 months than there was over the last 3-6-12 months. So short term, I’d really focus in on all of the skills that you have. If you are a paid search marketer, make sure you’re an expert at Amazon, make sure you’re an expert at YouTube, at display. There’s an increase of inventory in those channels right now, so just really use this opportunity to broaden your knowledge and your skills that you’re bringing to your clients, your organization, whoever you work with.
MacLaggan: I think the good news in the long term here is with everybody being at home, you’re online all the time, digital is going to be the first line of contact that companies have with their customers. Although there may be some macro trends where there are people are concerned about economic uncertainty; they look to pull back overall, but the digital is definitely not going away. I think we’re in the right place in the industry; while it may take a little bit of a hit this year, it’s going to continue to grow and evolve, and more dollars are going to be shifting to digital from traditional media. People aren’t looking at billboards right now, so that’s a long-term trend that’s going to continue to be in all of our favor.
The next question comes from someone in the UK: Are we seeing different patterns in the US vs. the UK?
MacLaggan: We haven’t really seen a big difference in what we’re seeing. There are some subtle differences in timing, the way that the government programs are supporting different industries may play out slightly differently, but in terms of overall impact: the same type of industries, the same type of challenges and opportunities are kind of working in both sides of the Atlantic, from what we’re seeing in our customer base.
Regarding the searches and impressions shown in the presentation slides at the beginning of the webinar, is that increasing in total or in rates of search per person?
MacLaggan: What I did was basically look at across all of Marin’s customers and see how many impressions we were exposed to. What I wanted to see there was was there a big drop-off in search activity that would indicate that people are pulling away from search and hunkering down. I think the very clear answer from that spike in the early chart was “no, that’s not something that we were seeing.” It really looks like there is consumer demand out there and I really do believe that we can help meet customer demand, help jumpstart the economy and what people are looking for as this starts to unwind, by making sure that people can get what they need.
There’s a participant who lives on a small tourism-based island and a lot of the customers are tourists. Travel companies that aren’t seeing a lot of traffic of course because people aren’t traveling, so they’re not able to sell anything to their clients. Would you have any advice for what a small digital agency, how they should be helping their customers or what they should be doing in this time? Is there something they can do to help their customers recover, but recognizing that they also need to be paying the bills?
Renter: First of all, thanks for the detail: it’s a great question. This is the prime example to do all those items that have been backward. This is an example of a time that I would not reinvest the lower funnel or your search into other channels or other middle- and upper- funnel packets, just because the demand regardless is not going to be there. So, I would take those budgets, take your time right now and reinvest in the offline packets that you can do, which again would be SEO. I love some of Wes’ recommendations earlier of identifying your audience and building a better audience strategy, better understanding your revenue tracking, whether that’s lifetime value, your first party integration. I think there’s a lot of other things that can be done; again, knowing that in general demand is going to be down and you’re not going to be able to recoup that in any other way. So how can you focus your time to make sure that in 3 months your business is set up for success.
What would you say to a client who wants to only have high performing campaigns on due to cash constraints, even if that trims off the upper part of the funnel? Is that a valid strategy for someone who’s got to be focused on getting the right ROI or cutting their budget back?
Renter: At the end of the day, every business needs to make the best financial decision for them. And if cash is of utter importance and the investment into requiring new customers is not right now, then what I would understand what tactics, what channels, what keywords, what campaigns are generating your highest return and prioritize those. Whether you turn off all other channels or you just significantly adjust what your acquisition targets are; there’s things you can do to make sure you don’t completely go dark, maybe just pull back your bids, maybe just increase your role as targets that you’re trying to get. There are things that you can do to become more efficient, as opposed to just flat turning it off. But I would focus in on the top performers.