In an unpredictable world, it pays to have an agile approach to marketing. Brands that can adapt effectively during a time of change or crisis will be equipped to deliver appropriate communications, to manage customer expectations, and ultimately to make their marketing fit the moment.
This guide will give you some useful tips and tools to help your brand nimbly navigate change – from pandemics and geopolitical flash-points to supply chain issues or reputational problems in your own organisation. You can expect to leave with some actionable ideas on how to make your marketing more agile.
Tip #1: Make sure there’s a place to show service updates on your website
One of the best things you can do to make your marketing communications more agile is to equip your website with a way of delivering customer service updates.
This could be a banner, textbox, alert icon, or whatever else works best for your site. The service update feature should:
- Stand out from the rest of the web design
- Be able to toggle on/off – so it only appears on the webpage when it’s needed
- Be customisable, so the message text can be changed to reflect any situation
Some website themes have this functionality built-in. Otherwise, it can be coded manually by a web developer, or added via a website platform feature such as WordPress custom fields.
Here’s a great example of how service update messaging can be incorporated into a webpage:
Northern Rail have incorporated three customer service updates into this web design: two via the banners at the top of the page (which we’ve crudely labelled 1. and 2.), and a further feature with information on service disruptions in the form of a link button showing the current number of disruptions (3.).
Note that the level of urgency in each of the alerts is effectively sign-posted by the colours used: orange for important but non-urgent information; red for urgent updates.
As a train operator with no shortage of disruptions to tell customers about, it’s logical that Northern Rail would have comprehensive provision for customer service messaging on its site. For some brands, this level of functionality is appropriate; for others, a simple textbox may suffice.
If you have a WordPress website and you just want a textbox that can be added to webpages when needed, you might be able to add the feature using custom fields.
A custom field is a way to add special information to webpages, often temporarily, via your website’s WordPress back-end. (Other website providers have similar features, so you may be able to use this approach even if you don’t have a WordPress site.)
One of the great things about custom fields is that they can be configured to add new information to multiple selected pages of your website. So, if there’s a supply chain problem and your delivery times are impacted, you could set up a custom field to add a message explaining the situation on every product page and every transactional page on your site, ensuring that everyone who makes a purchase has appropriate expectations around delivery times.
If your brand doesn’t have a website, but it does have social media, you can replicate the function of a website service update feature by pinning a normal post containing a service update to the top of your profile. Or, if you have your own app, you could potentially send users an alert.
And if something really significant happens – e.g. a very serious disruption to your service – you might consider creating an alert message box, which pops-up and obscures the webpage until the user interacts with it. This feature can be coded manually with CSS, and is also available in many off-the-shelf website themes.
Tip #2: Use situational analysis tools like SWOT or TOWS
Good preparedness for agile marketing starts with situational analysis. In a nutshell, this means analysing the environment in which your brand operates, and identifying any factors – good or bad – which could impact you.
For instance, your situational analysis might make you aware that new data protection regulation is coming into force in the near future. Acknowledging this in advance gives you the opportunity for strategic planning, which will help you to respond appropriately and in good time. In this example, situational analysis is the difference between scrambling to understand the new data regulations after they come into force; or having a plan in-place and a policy to show to customers when the legislation becomes effective.
There are lots of different situational analysis frameworks that are widely used by marketing teams. Some of the most popular frameworks include:
- SWOT analysis
- TOWS analysis (a way of looking at SWOT factors from a different perspective)
- PESTEL analysis
SWOT and TOWS analyses involve assessing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a brand.
PESTEL analysis encourages a more subject-area-oriented approach, based on studying political, economic, social, technological, ecological and legislative factors.
For detailed information on these frameworks, click the links in the bullet point list above to read our dedicated guides on each subject.
If you use a project management approach to your marketing work, you could also factor risk management into your situational analysis. In this context, a ‘risk’ is any foreseen possible event that could affect a project in some way, for better or for worse.
In a risk management process, you identify good and bad risks which could affect your project, and then deal with each one appropriately – e.g. by devising a crisis plan, by commissioning different marketing assets to be used selectively depending on which risks actually happen, or simply by monitoring a risk factor.
Doing situational analysis regularly will give you the head-start needed to do truly agile marketing, responding to events from a position of strength.
Tip #3a: Make time for crisis planning
It may be hard to tell what the future holds for the world and for your brand, but some of the possible crises that may lie ahead are roughly predictable. We may not know what the next international conflict will be, what will be the next difficulty our businesses face, or what the next pandemic is going to be like – but we do know, sadly, that these sorts of things will happen.
For marketers, it pays to plan in advance for how your brand will operate in various types of crisis. This means you can have the groundwork ready for when crises occur – assets such as:
- Press release templates
- Special social media policies for times of crisis
- Customer offers/benefits/perks to provide in difficult moments
We suggest that you prepare a set of communication assets and strategic guidelines for various types of potential crisis.
HubSpot identifies eight types of crisis which could affect a brand and its marketing:
- Financial crisis. The brand is struggling to stay afloat financially.
- Personnel crisis. A person involved with the brand is seen to behave very badly.
- Organisational crisis. A brand significantly wrongs its employees or customers.
- Technological crisis. A technological fault affects a brand’s activities.
- Natural crisis. A natural disaster, public health issue, climate effect or other natural adverse event.
- Confrontation crisis. Consumers or other observers confront the brand about a perceived failing.
- Workplace violence crisis. A current or ex- employee commits violence in the workplace.
- Crisis of malevolence. A third party intentionally disrupts the brand’s activities.
We would add another point to this list: delivery crisis, where external factors impact a brand’s capability to deliver its products or services to customers.
Planning rough assets and guidelines for each type of crisis might feel like a big investment of time now, but it will minimise strain and enable you to be agile when a crisis crops up.
Bad things happen; smart companies plan for them.
Tip #3b: Plan for multiple possible crisis scenarios
Within the planning for each type of crisis, you may find it helps to formulate dedicated strategies for different possible scenarios.
For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, you might’ve made different crisis plans to cover different sets of government countermeasures – e.g. if we go into Tier 5, we implement ‘Crisis Plan A’; or if the government lifts the lockdown, we implement ‘Crisis Plan B’ instead.
When you’re in the midst of a crisis, or when it looks fairly certain that a crisis is about to happen, it’s a good idea to prepare strategy for every eventuality that seems reasonably likely.
Tip #4: Tap into ‘T-shaped’ team members
In HR-speak, a T-shaped person is someone who is deeply skilled in one subject area, and who also has supplementary skills in a few others. The central column of the ‘T’ represents the deeper skill; the arms of the ‘T’ represent the other proficiencies.
Having T-shaped people on a marketing team can enhance agility – especially if the team is small. You might have a paid social expert who also has some skill in photography and image editing; or a content strategist who is also knowledgeable about copywriting and SEO.
Having this type of person can broaden the range of skills in a team. Improved skills coverage means that when new requirements arise, there’s less chance you’ll need to hire someone, or commission an agency or freelancer. This is why a T-shaped person can help a marketing team to be more agile.
There are two ways to add T-shaped people to a team: look for this kind of person when you recruit, or train your existing team members in supplementary skills.
Of course, not every team member needs to be T-shaped. Some of the best marketing professionals are laser-focused on a single area of specialism, and you wouldn’t want to pass over this type of person just because they don’t have any secondary skills.
Our very own Daniel Rowles writes in detail about T-shaped people in his book, Building Digital Culture: A Practical Guide to Successful Digital Transformation.
Tip #5: Carefully study complex situations before responding through official channels
To be agile doesn’t just mean being quick: it also means being precise, careful and smart.
With this in mind, when an external crisis occurs, it’s best not to respond too hastily to events, before you’ve had time to make a careful assessment of the situation.
It’s true that people expect brands to respond to current affairs in a timely fashion. But giving a response straightaway – whether that’s by press release, press conference, social media post, or another type of announcement – can lead you to respond in a way that misjudges the public mood and reflects badly on the brand.
Social media monitoring can help you to understand how people feel about a developing news story.. This involves using tools to analyse what your audience is posting about the relevant topic (or keyword) on social media. The findings from the monitoring can be fed into a sentiment analysis tool, which assesses the positivity/negativity of people’s statements. You can then take those findings into consideration, before you finalise your brand’s response to a crisis.
Sometimes, when a particularly serious crisis occurs, it’s inappropriate for a brand to keep quiet about the matter, and audience members will soon start to demand a response. Remember that in these cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that your brand is assessing the situation and will respond fully after carefully considering the facts. You’re taking the matter seriously – and that means taking your time.
To recap, here’s your five-point plan to make your marketing more agile, ready for crises and change:
- Equip your website with a special feature for service updates. Replicate this with available features on other channels such as social and apps.
- Do regular situational analysis. Use frameworks such as SWOT, TOWS and PESTEL.
- Plan for different types of crisis. Prepare strategic guidelines and assets such as press release templates for each type.
- Hire/train staff to achieve a broad spread of skills. T-shaped people with supplementary skills can help.
- Respond carefully to crises. ‘Agile’ means precise, careful and smart, as well as quick.
The points we’ve covered don’t tell the whole story about how to make your marketing agile, but they do provide a good basis for agility.
More generally, we suggest you consider agility as a factor in your decision-making. Agility is an orientation, as well as a list of factors. If you choose the more-agile option wherever possible – be that in choosing software, structuring your team, selecting advertising channels, or anything else – you’ll be optimally placed to respond effectively, no matter what the world throws at you.