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How to Think about Restarting Digital Paid Media

Darko September 8, 2020

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The “Reactivation Post-Lockdown” Problem

The link between business hypotheses and digital media spend is more important now than it ever has been.

“Well, obviously”, the crowd murmurs. However, the majority of larger corporations as well as many more agile SMEs still regularly treat marketing in a one dimensional way. “What does our return look like?” Is followed by a decision to stay on, or switch off. Worse still is “We have a budget to spend, so let’s spend it”, with no independent analysis inserted. Sadly, this is far more common than most of us may think.

From a business perspective this can be sound logic, but especially in light of many organisations switching off marketing altogether during COVID-19 lockdowns, this approach misses the biggest opportunity: taking the time to understand how and why their campaigns behave the way they do, and tying it intrinsically back to business decisions. In other words, treating marketing and commercial as a two-way street.

Those who do well at this, or even just have an educated guess with their heads in the right place, are more likely to see better returns, waste less money on things that don’t work and have their performance be more predictable (in a very unpredictable environment, I accept this may not seem like much, but every little helps!) in the longer term.

Let’s take a look at some things every organisation should be focusing on when they think about reactivating paid media campaigns, and simple steps that can be taken to help maximise success. 

Business Hypotheses Need to Focus on Customer Sentiment

Starting off by saying “every business is different” sounds cliché, so to be a little more pointed: a post-lockdown consumer market will have most affected organisations in these categories:

  • Industries that bounce back due to pent up demand (some financial services including mortgages, for example, are generally experiencing this)
  • Slow-to-return industries where confidence will take longer to return due to volatility (travel is the most obvious example here, although “staycations” are a notable exception)
  • Longer-term impact, possibly permanently in some way (office related services, industrial workplace and event supplies, cinemas and other large group activities)

In each of these cases, a good starting point would be for organisations to assess how consumer sentiment has changed. This is not to be confused with consumer intent: for example, someone wanting to go on holiday could still be as intent as before, but their purchase cycle and decision making process may be heavily impacted by current sentiment.

The reason we do this is subtle, but important: consumer intent can often be oversimplified to a CPA or ROI calculation. Consumer sentiment forces you to look at where your ads are placed in the purchase funnel and your messaging as well. It is here that differences can be made which you won’t necessarily find from historical data.

Sanitising and Sense-Checking Digital Media Campaigns (PPC, Display, Video, Direct Buys) for Reactivation

Now that we have seen how looking at historical data can be simplified or lead us down the wrong path, let’s finally look at ways we can be practical to maximise success in digital campaigns.

  1. Sense-check and structure your digital campaigns to reflect how the organisation believes consumer sentiment has changed. Remember that the best technical experts in the world still shouldn’t know your business and industry better than you do!
    • For direct buys and Display advertising, focus on how relevant placements may be on platforms or websites that serve different purposes as you reactivate (i.e. rather than being somewhere to sense-check before making a final purchase, have particular placement types ‘moved up’ the funnel from your buyers’ point of view? Perhaps because of a more conservative industry outlook, all placements in these channels can be generally considered to be upper-funnel?)
    • For Paid Search, are campaigns separated accurately into both higher- and lower-funnel consideration as well as the usual factors such as geography and product/service type? If not, now would be a good time to split your campaigns so that each part of the funnel can have its own allocated budget, enabling you to reactivate campaigns in a more structured, phased way. Structure is absolutely key here – if beforehand this looked haphazard, now would be a good time to restructure from scratch based on new hypotheses. Old structures may work to an extent, but will likely mean missed opportunities as the market shifts.
  2. We will write about this separately, but be extremely wary of autonomous and automated bidding. No matter how smart, these algorithms primarily use historical data. At best, a decent chunk of budget will be wasted trying things that used to work, but don’t anymore, before your automated bidding strategies adjust to whatever their “new normal” is. Business hypotheses should generally trump these, so a temporary pause while things settle down is almost always worth the effort.
  3. Diarise dates where you will evaluate how things have gone so far, and prepare for some campaigns to not perform as expected! The word “unprecedented” has been thrown around a LOT in the last half a year, and that’s because it’s broadly true. Some things will work, others won’t, and that’s okay. Make sure your relationship with your internal teams, agencies and consultants is as tight as possible. Don’t be afraid to discuss what hasn’t worked alongside celebrating your successes. This is how you will learn the fastest.
  4. Monthly reporting is of limited use right now – look at and compare to Q1 2020 or even Q4 2019, and compare side-by-side then. If your business is purely once-a-year seasonal, then a year-on-year comparison might be more sensible. Decide on what these benchmarks should be, and why, prior to discussing your first report as a group – so that everyone has a chance to get on the same page.

Hopefully, while every organisation will operate differently, the above guidelines will assist you in making some business-led decisions not only on reactivating marketing campaigns, but seizing opportunities to make existing campaigns better as well.

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