How History Effects Can Impact Your Marketing in the Era of COVID-19 (and Beyond)
As a marketer, you may feel on the outside for the past few weeks. Most of the talk is about the importance of doctors and nurses in hospitals, scientists researching vaccines, civil servants leading government response, and even toilet paper makers.
Those are all vitally important professions. And I am thankful today for each and every one of them, sometimes putting their own safety at risk in the service of others. But marketers play a vital role as well. Every action people should take to stop the spread of the coronavirus relies on effective messaging.
Every employee relies on the communication of the hidden value they create for their organization – no matter how much value is created, if customers do not understand that value they will not buy.
Marketers, this is what you and I were born to do. This is our calling. But to make your mark in the world, you must first refine your customer theory and consider how history effects can have an impact on your marketing.
Successful Marketing and Communication Begins With Customer Understanding
Here’s why it’s so hard to be a marketer: Your success lies in how accurate your customer theory is.
Determining what customers want from your marketing, your products, and your company is hard enough.
But let’s say you really figure it out. Really nail it. Truly understand your customers and serve them well. What happens next?
The only thing scarier than change is not changing.
And we must change along with them. Flexibility has always been an important skill for marketers. When I started my career I was writing print ads for placement in The Wall Street Journal. Today, my writing zips across the world in bits and bytes. And I’m sure you have a similar story. As my co-worker Linda said to me yesterday, she is the “female Gumby.”
Most of the talk around flexibility in marketing is like my story – the shift from physical to digital, from offline to online, or lately, from one technology or platform to another (Hello AI! Machine learning! SnapChat! Tiktok!)
But the most profound flexibility you need is an evolving understanding of the customer.
Change is hard. And scary. And as I write this, most of the economic difficulties we’re seeing are about that fear and uncertainty around change. How bad will this get? What will happen? What will be the new normal?
But this whole situation we’re in has been caused by change, and we must evolve along with it.
What You Thought You Knew You Don’t Know Anymore
A/B testing is an effective way to build your customer theory. But to do it well, A/B testing involves more than just sending two emails, or even putting two pages in a splitter tool, and seeing which one got better results.
You also must understand validity threats. As the name suggests, these threats undermine the validity of the information you’re seeing. You can read more about different validity threats, but in this article I am going to focus on the one that you must urgently pay attention to today: History effects, which are the effects on a test variable by an extraneous variable associated with the passage of time.
For example, let’s say you test an e-commerce offer in December and learn something about your customer. Then you roll that offer out in January. You may not get the results you were expecting. The customer may behave very differently in January than in December.
History effects have a huge impact on your marketing right now, whether you are engaged in A/B testing or not. The extraneous variable that occurred with the passage of time in this case is the coronavirus pandemic.
So essentially, you thought you had valid information about your customers. You knew what they wanted. But this serious change that occurred with the passage of time invalidates much of what you knew. For example, are they still as price conscious as they were? Or is service more important to them? Perhaps they are more price conscious than ever. Anxiety and friction may be more or less important today, or mean entirely different things.
Most companies I’ve engaged with have done a poor job of addressing this change on their websites. I’ve seen a lot of emails go out about changes due to coronavirus – mostly cancellations and closings, and mostly from travel-related companies (although retail is increasing as well) – but many companies have been slower to change their landing pages and customer journeys.
Mapping the Prospect Conclusion Funnel
If you are a savvy marketer, you have mapped the prospect conclusion funnel. Due to history effects, the conclusions prospects need to reach have likely changed. So now you may need to hold an emergency meeting with your team and clients, and re-map that conclusion funnel. What conclusions haven’t changed? What new conclusions must the prospect come to? And how can you now address that on your landing page and throughout the customer journey?
Customers likely have new questions now, wondering if they can use your product or service remotely, if delivery times have been affected, and if return policies have changed if a physical store ends up closing. Address those in the customer journey.
For example, while the focus of our content is usually evergreen principles and not timely news, we’ve pivoted to help address some of the biggest concerns our audience might have with content like:
- Marketers Stand Together: 3 powerful ways your marketing can combat coronavirus COVID-19’s impact
- Use Your Value Prop to Pivot: LIVE conversion optimization to help with marketing amid coronavirus
- 41 Work-From-Home Tips for Marketing Departments and Advertising Agencies
It’s Not Just Global Issues That Cause History Effects for Your Brand
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a history effect for countless brands across the world, history effects will still exist for your company long after this is over. And it doesn’t take a major global event to cause threaten your customer understanding either. Here are a few examples.
TV Program – MECLABS Conversion Marketing Services was testing advertising headlines for an online sex offender registry. “Predators in your Area” was the top-performing headline, and “Is Your Child Safe?” was the worst-performing headline.
However, during the experiment, the TV show Dateline ran a new segment called “To Catch a Predator” that was seen by 10 million people. The use of the word “predator” in the show changed how potential users thought about a sex offender registry (check out what we discovered, here).
TV programs, news stories, and even social media memes can affect which words customers think about to describe your industry, category, and product. These changes can be short-term or have a significant long-term impact.
Promotions – MECLABS was running a layout test of a subscription form for a company that sold an online subscription product. The goal was to increase the subscription rate by reducing friction within the form.
The test was launched before Easter weekend, and the company also ran its own email promotion over Easter weekend that significantly increased traffic to our test, as well as significantly increased the subscription conversion rate for all treatments.
The way your customers behave in reaction to promotions might not reflect how they will react when no incentive is present, so be wary of anything you learn about your marketing message during these periods. Their motivations may be very different, and the promotions may even be pulling in a very different type of customer than the type of customer who regularly shops for your product when there is no promotion.
Weekend vs. Weekday Activity: Ferguson Enterprises sent a B2B email test out on a Sunday, and the control and treatment performed the same. They thought the test was a tossup. On Monday, with new data collected beyond the first four hours, the team realized that the treatment was actually the winner. While people normally react to email within a few hours, many of those emails probably went to corporate inboxes and the recipients didn’t actually see them until they were back in the office.
“Testing that takes place on Sundays need a longer time span than usual. Our usual time span for testing is four hours,” said Mary Abrahamson, email marketing specialist, Ferguson Enterprises.
People may react to different marketing messages during the week than they do on the weekend, or during the day than they do at night. You may even want to decide on different calls to action based on the time of day as well – for example, asking for a call during business hours but a form fill after business hours.
Situations change. And people change along with it. Don’t simply rely on landing pages and marketing messages that worked in the past. Always re-evaluate your understanding of the customer and give them the info they need to make decisions based on those changes.
Daniel Burstein is the Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MECLABS Institute. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience.