Opinion: Could COVID-19 help digital marketing grow?

Jayant Keswani Trimble

Trimble Buildings’ Jayant Keswani explains how COVID-19 will alter marketing communications in favour of digital and social media marketing.

Only five months into the COVID-19 pandemic and it feels like we’ve experienced enough disruption to last us a full year or perhaps longer than a year. While most businesses are still reeling from the pandemic’s economic impact, with the enormity of the impact still unfolding and thus difficult to fully calculate or grasp, they have simultaneously moved with alacrity and implemented fairly significant process and policy changes that are nothing short of a dramatic transformation. 

Driven by pandemic-induced lockdowns and social distancing norms, many organizations have sought to minimize disruption by rapidly embracing digital processes across all organizational functions. To take one example, with online meetings becoming a norm, platforms like Zoom became the world’s preferred meeting and conference option literally overnight and is used today across the organization spectrum — be it HR, finance, operations or sales & marketing. 

While all organizational functions have leveraged digital in some way or the other, it’s the marketing function, across industries, that has displayed agility to transform itself in this age of the pandemic. Let’s take the example of events — B2B marketing has historically relied a fair bit on in-person events, conferences and workshops to engage, nurture relationships, drive thought leadership and win new customers. Events still continue to be a cornerstone for them, but those events have completely moved online. Virtual event platforms have evolved to monetize this opportunity and we have very capable platforms today that replicate an onsite event experience, with all the bells and whistles like multiple auditoriums, breakout rooms, video chats, networking rooms etc. 

The ubiquity of virtual conferences is a clear example of digital marketing’s impact in the Covid-19 era. Another looming imperative for B2B companies is to move sales online and find a balance between traditional and online sales. With physical channels and 1:1 sales either out of consideration in the near future, or to be managed with restrictions in these challenging times, every business including B2B companies, is exploring e-commerce for sales. As marketers adapt to this reality; they will need to integrate digital throughout their marketing process, and the time really for that is now.  

The budgetary windfall & the challenge ahead

One of the unexpected outcome of cancellation of physical conferences and events this year is that marketers have saved a large chunk of their budget, on top of the savings on account of literally nil travel/hospitality costs. They now have the freedom to reassign these budgets on other viable elements of their marketing mix — which in present circumstances coalesces fully to digital. 

That’s easier said than done because let’s face it, a significant number of companies till recently allocated a relatively lower percentage of their overall budgets to digital marketing, and the lower allocation also reflected in staffing. Fortunately, there’s ample talent available with a large number of agencies, big and small, that can serve up a talent pool immediately, even as companies plan to hire internal talent. While the new and evolving digital tools and technologies are different and engaging; and it’s exciting and invigorating to play around with them, the real trick is in utilizing the right medium for the right task, with a key focus for B2B firms being in getting prospects into and through the conversion funnel with digital tools and strategies. 

This is a rare opportunity for B2B marketers to dive deep into digital marketing, be it social media marketing, influencer marketing or content marketing and develop a strong foundation & marketing framework for the future, aligned with their organizational goals.

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The innovators have already had a head start and have mature plans and processes. As an example, a few brands regularly use social live streaming tools. These tools can in some ways mimic the experience of a physical booth or pop-up stall, and even otherwise can be useful in creating short and impactful marketing engagement for potential customers. B2B marketers, who use LinkedIn as the go-to social media channel, felt the absence of a live streaming feature within the LinkedIn platform but that gap hopefully is expected to be plugged soon. 

Remarkably, a majority of marketers seem to have embraced digital PR for their corporate communication activities – new product launches and various other press communications. Apple famously hosted its worldwide developer conference online this year and the journalist community is also now accustomed to attending virtual press conferences.

Is the transition permanent?

For the foreseeable future or until such time that the pandemic scare is not fully over; doing business in the physical realm or via in-person interactions will remain a challenging proposition. For savvy marketers, however, the transition to digital is more than just a stop-gap arrangement to keep the wheels moving. As many direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands have successfully demonstrated, digital and social media marketing is quite sufficient to build and market a brand from ground-up. 

However, this does not mean we will see a permanent and complete transition from physical retail stores, trade shows and seminars, roadshows etc. to online channels forever. As social beings, touch and feel will remain important and real-life events/activities will certainly make a comeback and the better ones will gradually even get as crowded as they used to until last year, but virtual events and conferences will continue to be an affordable alternative to the marketer with a keen eye on ROI. An integrated marketing plan will be the way forward — a ‘balanced’ plan that integrates traditional and digital — but traditional that is still effective and affordable. 

Marketers are also well-advised to create a strategic roadmap that takes full stock of skills and competencies they need to run an effective digitalized marketing engine; and outlines whether they should be acquiring those competencies through hiring new team members or external, specialized agencies. Once they start approaching digital or social marketing as but one strategic element of a digitalized marketing engine; they would be able to unlock true long-term value from these investments even when the world eventually gets back to normal.

This piece has been authored by Jayant Keswani, Marketing Director-India & Middle East, Trimble Buildings.