As every business seems to be saying in their ads: “These are uncertain times.”
COVID-19 has spread across the country. People are social distancing. And as we stand at the beginning of a new recession, businesses everywhere are cutting costs wherever possible.
Including their marketing budgets.
But when marketing budget cuts are reactionary, rather than strategic, it can hurt your business. Because marketing is an investment — one with returns that keep your business running and growing, even through economic downturns.
So let’s talk about how to defend and, when necessary, strategically reduce your marketing budget during COVID-19. We’ll cover:
Nearly 100 years of research that show the benefits of maintaining your marketing budget in a recession
Why it’s important to fight the recession herd mentality
Balancing short-term profits with long-term growth
When and where budget cuts make sense
In short, we’ll equip you to not only defend your marketing budget, but to lay the groundwork for your company’s success in the years to come.
Marketing During a Recession: The Research
Alright, let’s start with the big question.
What does the research say about marketing during an economic downturn?
The answer, thankfully, is pretty clear: a majority of studies conducted in the past 100 years on the topic show that businesses benefit when they maintain or expand their recession marketing efforts.
Here’s a summary of that research, which was compiled and analyzed by Gerard J. Tellis, a well-respected professor of marketing, and Kethan Tellis:
Cutting back on marketing dollars hurts sales during and after a recession.
Businesses that maintain or expand their marketing tend to benefit from higher sales, market share, and earnings, during and after the recession (compared to businesses that reduce spending).
The benefits gained from maintaining or increasing marketing spend during a recession persist for several years, even after the recession ends.
In other words, marketing during a recession not only mitigates losses, but drives growth for your business.
Recessions also tend to create opportunities for industry disruption. For example, according to a Bain & Company study, during the 1990-1991 recession “twice as many companies made the leap from laggards to leaders… as during the surrounding periods of economic calm.” And many companies have surpassed or gained ground on competitors during recessions with the help of marketing, such as when Kellogg overcame Post during the Great Depression, or during the 2000 recession, when Target grew profits by 50% by pairing a 20% increase in marketing spend with smart business tactics.
But why does this happen? Why, when the economy is hit hard, fewer purchases are being made, and businesses everywhere are tightening their belts, are you capable of growing by maintaining or raising your marketing budget
Because You’re Willing to Fight the Herd Mentality
The motivation to cut back on marketing budget in times like these is understandable. There’s a lot of uncertainty, so we take control by cutting costs wherever we can. We see other businesses making similar decisions with their marketing budgets, both within and outside our vertical, and that reinforces our decision.
But it’s important to realize that even though cutting your marketing budget can be strategic (as we’ll discuss later), many businesses are doing so as a gut reaction. And when a lot of businesses cut back on ad spend, the marketing landscape changes in two key ways:
There’s less noise from competitors, making it easier for your message to stand out.
The costs of ad placements go down, making advertising more affordable.
That means your marketing not only has the chance to stand out, but to do so more affordably. We’re already seeing this happen on platforms like Facebook, which saw a 50% drop in CPM for the final week of Q1 compared to last year (in spite of the fact there were twice as many impressions, due to everyone self-isolating and engaging online).
This landscape is particularly conducive for ensuring your share of voice exceeds your market share, which has been shown to correlate with business growth in both B2B and B2C contexts. Plus, all that marketing sets you up for greater success after the recession ends. When customers are ready to spend again at pre-recession levels, yours will be the brand on their minds. Your competitors, in contrast, will be stuck playing catch up.
Fortune favors the bold, and convincing stakeholders to resist the herd mentality of your industry, grounding yourself in research, and implementing sound marketing strategy are the best ways to keep your business growing through economic hardship.
Balancing Short-Term Profits with Long-Term Growth
Even in the best of times, businesses have a tendency to rely too much on short-term or last-interaction conversion metrics to judge the success of individual marketing tactics. During economic downturns, that mindset escalates, leading to detrimental reductions in brand investment — such as awareness campaigns, content production, and the various efforts that make up the awareness and consideration phases of the buyer’s journey.
That becomes a problem, because those efforts feed the productivity of bottom-funnel conversion tactics and are vital for the long-term growth of your company.
As shown by Les Binet and Peter Field, businesses need to balance their marketing budget between long-term brand building and short-term sales activation. Why? Because when businesses stop investing in their brand and put all their efforts into generating transactions, they see immediate profits, but not the same growth over time.
Only brand investment can create consistent, long-term growth.
While Binet and Field generally recommend 60% of marketing budget be spent on brand and 40% on sales activation, your exact mix will vary depending on your industry and current context.
For example, while your business may want to promote long-term brand growth, if this recession is hitting sales particularly hard, you might conclude that a greater percentage of budget than usual needs to go to sales activation as a short-term survival tactic.
But on the other hand, recessions tend to make customers wary of unnecessary expenses, which in turn lengthens the buyer’s journey. That means in order to effectively generate sales, your business might need to invest more than ever in branded content to continually nurture customers toward a successful conversion.
It’s a tough balance to strike, and it will always be unique to your business and audience. If you (or your stakeholders) want to tip the scales toward sales activation, however, just keep a close eye on those conversion metrics to be sure your reduced brand efforts aren’t hurting sales.
When and Where Marketing Budget Cuts Make Sense
In an ideal world, maintaining your marketing budget would be as simple as waving a wand and making it so. But when cuts are demanded from above or if the funding simply isn’t there because of reduced sales, the best you can do is make smart, strategic cuts to your budget.
Here are some suggestions.
Cut back on low-performing initiatives
When cutting costs, start with the campaigns that aren’t performing well so you can prioritize the ones that are.
That being said, remember you aren’t comparing apples to apples. Bottom-funnel advertising, for example, is going to have an inevitably higher conversion rate than, say, organic social or blog posts, and that’s because they serve different phases of the buyer’s journey.
So yes, cut back on low-performing efforts, but remember to judge those efforts according to their purpose, context, and relevant KPIs.
Invest in fewer channels, more deeply
When facing a reduction in budget, be careful not to spread your marketing too thin. Diluting your funds across too many channels can hurt performance and (since there’s less data) make it difficult to measure success. Instead, consider reducing the total number of channels so you can invest more deeply and effectively in the ones that remain.
Remove inefficiencies in your process
Every marketing team, over time, can develop inefficient processes and technologies, whether it’s software subscriptions nobody needs or a creative approval process that leads to unnecessary (and costly) rounds of revision. So examine your processes and tools, then streamline everything to reduce costs.
Repurpose your content
Content is a vital part of the customer journey, and a great way to produce a lot of it quickly and affordably is through repurposing.
For example, let’s say you write an in-depth white paper. You can repurpose that content into blog posts, emails, and social posts, and if it proves popular, you could even use it as the basis of a video, which could be broken into digestible soundbites for distribution, and so on.
Always get the full mileage out of your content, especially during a recession.
Take advantage of low ad costs and reduced competition
As I wrote above, recessions lead to fewer advertisers in the market, which results in lower costs and less noise. So take advantage of both. If you can’t reinvest your ad placement savings, hold onto them, and if your competitors greatly reduce their marketing, consider reducing your own presence just enough to stay ahead in terms of share of voice. That way you’ll maintain your competitive edge without breaking the bank.
Reduce ad spend if there are failures in your supply chain
If your supply chain is disrupted due to COVID-19, temporarily reduce ad spend to better match what you’re capable of producing. For example, if you continue to heavily invest in sales activation when there’s not enough product or if deliverability is down, you’ll only hurt your relationships with customers when you fail to follow through.
Your Marketing Budget is Worth Defending
Remember. Marketing is an investment, and even in today’s context, it’s an investment that sets your company up for growth and success.
So defend your budget. Make strategic cuts when necessary.
And stay optimistic.
These times are uncertain, but your marketing doesn’t need to be.
Social media marketing is a great opportunity for your hospital to educate and engage the communities you serve. But a lot of hospitals don’t utilize Instagram as much as they do other platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. So what does Instagram have to offer hospitals?
In short? Quite a lot.
In fact, Instagram may be one of the best tools hospitals have at their disposal for reaching younger populations and combating the perception that hospitals are only for older people.
That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive guide that covers:
Why your hospital should be on Instagram
Great ideas for hospital Instagram posts
Tips for successful hospital instagramming
Why your Hospital Should be on Instagram
There are three sets of statistics you need to know when thinking about getting on Instagram as a hospital.
Instagram boasts 1 billion active monthly users worldwide, which includes 35% of all US adults. (Sprout Social)
34% of US millennials say they use Instagram daily, and 72% of US teens are on Instagram. (Hootsuite)
On Instagram, users comment, like, and share at 84 times the rate of Twitter, 54 times the rate of Pinterest, and 10 times the rate of Facebook. (WeGoHealth)
First, they tell us Instagram has a strong presence in the US and worldwide.
Second, they tell us Instagram is widely used by teens and millennials, making it one of the best platforms for reaching and educating younger audiences about health. Getting access to these generations on social media is also becoming increasingly important for hospitals, as teens and young adults continue to diversify their online tactics for finding health information.
Third, these stats tell us that Instagram’s engagement rates are far above and beyond other leading social media sites—which is good news for any hospital hoping to have a more active relationship with their audience.
With all that in mind, if you aim to educate and impact younger generations (who aren’t as accessible as they once were on platforms like Facebook), and you want to effectively engage them, Instagram is perfect for your hospital.
Great Ideas for Hospital Instagram Posts
There’s a wide variety of content that works well on Instagram, especially for hospitals looking to actively engage their audience. Here are some of our favorite types of posts that we think every hospital should take advantage of.
Community Education and Outreach
Today, people seek health advice from an increasingly wide variety of sources: social media, hashtags, forums, websites, and more. The only problem? There’s a lot of inaccurate information out there, and one way a hospital can make a difference online and in their community is by reaching out with quality health advice, right where their patients are: on social media. Cleveland Clinic does a great job of this on their Instagram, creating informational videos about different health conditions.
Hospitals make a huge impact on their patients’ lives, and sharing those patient stories on Instagram is a great way to make your impact known to the community. On top of that, health care can already be such a stressful subject, so highlighting successes not only lifts spirits, but inspires confidence.
These types of posts are also very shareable. Just be sure to get the patient’s permission first before sharing their story (and of course follow all HIPAA guidelines).
Physician and Staff Profiles
Trust between a patient and their doctor is paramount for a successful, long-term relationship. We’ve conducted research ourselves that reflects this, with patients we’ve interviewed often citing their primary care physician as their most trusted source of medical advice. With that in mind, using Instagram to share profiles of your doctors, nurses, and medical staff is a great way to add a relatable face to your hospital’s social presence—a sense of human warmth, trust, and expertise that everyone wants in their healthcare provider.
Hashtags are a great way to categorize your social posts so that they appear in front of relevant audiences. But you can also create branded hashtags to elevate and drive your marketing campaigns and initiatives—engaging audiences and spreading awareness of topics you’re trying to highlight. The #YesMamm hashtag, for example, was originally created by Carilion Clinic to encourage women to get mammograms, but now it has spread across multiple platforms and organizations (such as UMC New Orleans’ post above).
In the past, influencer marketing meant getting big stars or famous athletes to promote your business, product, event, etc. And while some brands and hospitals still do that today, with the rise of social media, there are a lot more options. Now there are micro-influencers in communities and interest groups across the US who command thousands of followers.
In terms of healthcare, these influencers are starting to take the shape of doctors and nurses on social media platforms, and there are also opportunities for Instagram collaborations with influencers in mental health, physical wellness, illness support groups, and more. For example, Dr. Jason Roostaeian, above, is a plastic surgeon at UCLA, and his own Instagram account (which has 22K followers) draws positive attention to UCLA as a whole.
Events and PR
Just like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is effective for PR just as it is for marketing—sharing hospital announcements, inviting the community to events, highlighting certain departments, etc. These shouldn’t make up a lion’s share of your posts, but they still have a valuable purpose and help achieve PR goals.
Instagram Stories & IGTV
Snapchat was the originator of the “Story”—a visual feed where you can post photos or videos for your followers to view for a 24-hour period. Instagram, in turn, has adapted their own version (with an option to archive and/or feature Stories beyond just the first 24-hour window), and these posts are great for sharing health tips from physicians, behind-the-scenes insights into hospital operations, and highlights from events. Hospitals can also share longer-form videos, interviews, and features through IGTV, right on their Instagram profile.
Tips for Successful Hospital Instagramming
Now that you’re seeing the benefits of Instagram and can visualize the type of content you might create, what are some simple best-practices for successful posting? Here are some tips to get you started.
Make it Visual
First things first, you need to remember that Instagram is a visual platform. While other platforms also have visual components, on Instagram, visuals are foundational. That means all your posts should be built around an image or video, since that’s the thing that will catch people’s attention while they scroll through their feeds.
Instagram. Loves. Hashtags. So use them! According to a report from TrackMaven, using more than one hashtag on Facebook or Twitter can hurt your post’s engagement, but Instagram is unique in that the more hashtags you use, the more engagement you get (at least until you get to around 10 hashtags). So take the time to do some hashtag research, and be sure to add multiple relevant hashtags per post, to encourage engagement and to reach new audiences.
Engage your Audience
You should be actively engaging followers on all your social platforms, but those efforts go a long way on Instagram because of the higher engagement rates. So prompt your audience in your posts! Ask questions, encourage people to share stories, drive them to tag people or use your branded hashtags, etc. And when they comment or tag you in a post, respond! Make it a conversation and form connections.
Post with Consistency and Variety
To build and maintain a following on Instagram, you’ll want to post with some consistency, even if it’s just a few posts per week. And remember all those post ideas we discussed in the last section? Make use of them! Don’t let your feed get overwhelmed by one or two types of posts; keep things fresh and engaging for your audience.
Repurpose Other Content
Instagram is a unique platform with unique strengths, but that doesn’t mean you can’t repurpose content from your blog, Twitter, or Facebook. In fact, adapting content can save a lot of time and effort. Just remember to cater the content to match Instagram’s strengths, such as by pairing the content with a strong visual and using multiple relevant hashtags.
Healthcare Social Media Marketing
Need help with your hospital’s social strategy or execution? Whether you want guidance for a particular platform like Instagram, or more holistic advice, please get in touch!
Your e-commerce brand has a story—a story worth telling.
But how are you going to do it?
After all, even the best stories fall on deaf ears when poorly told, and the same is true for your brand narrative. In fact, it’s especially true for your narrative, because you probably have a lot of people trying to tell it—internal team members as well as external marketing partners. And if they tell your story inconsistently, or if they create content that fails to drive your narrative, it won’t have a meaningful impact on your audience.
That’s why every brand narrative needs a communication strategy—a collection of guidelines for executing your narrative across different channels and contexts. But what kind of guidelines do you need to consider? And how will they help impact your customers?
Don’t sweat it! Your old buddy Saltwater will walk you through it.
There are various types of guidelines you can include in your communication strategy. The catch is that the types of guidelines you need, as well as their direction, will have to be catered to your brand’s narrative, available marketing channels, content creation capabilities, and goals. Simple, right?
So let’s talk about some of the factors you need to consider when putting together a communication strategy. We’re going to focus on communications strategies for the outdoor industry, and we’ve even included a few examples from work we did for Jetboil—an industry-leading manufacturer of backpacking stoves.
Narrative Structure: Brand narratives come in many shapes. For example, your narrative might have a tiered structure to accommodate various product types, or it might consist of a small collection of sub-narratives to highlight the different facets of your brand (as we did for Jetboil, above). Whatever shape your narrative takes, you’ll need design, imagery, and copy guidelines for when, where, and how to execute your different narrative components.
Channels: Execution guidelines for your different channels are a vital component of your communication strategy. Why? Because every channel is different, both in the user’s expectations and the publishing specifications. Your approach to copy and design will be different for social vs. email vs. your blog, so you need to establish guidelines for telling your story in the best way possible, no matter the context.
Buyer’s Journey: Some call it the sales funnel while trendier folk call it the sales flywheel. Regardless of what you call it, your customers undergo a journey from awareness to purchase, and your communication strategy should address how your different channels and narrative components usher them along that journey.
Content Topics and Types: What type of content is going to best communicate your narrative to your customers? What topics do they care about? Your communication strategy is the perfect place to answer these questions, so you can be confident that every piece of content (whether it’s a blog post, social image, live video, email, etc.) contributes strategically to the story you’re trying to tell.
Marketing Plan: Does your marketing plan include campaigns throughout the year, or do you take more of an always-on approach to marketing? Maybe it’s a combination of both. Either way, it will affect your strategy. For example, some of our clients, like Jetboil, have leaned towards an always-on approach, but also needed guidance for executing product launch campaigns throughout the year.
Style and Design Elements: What’s your company’s visual style? Do you use bold, eye-catching colors, or subtle, sophisticated hues? Whatever your brand’s look and feel, provide guidelines on how to execute it in the context of your brand narrative. This is especially important if your narrative includes new design elements, as you’ll need to provide direction on how and when to use these elements. When it comes to design, consistency is paramount.
Your Logo and Tagline: Depending on your narrative, you might be introducing a new tagline, or now have logo variations (such as a standalone logo vs. a logo-tagline lockup). You’ll need guidelines for when to use each, particularly when determining how prominent you want them to be in marketing throughout the year.
Current and Planned Imagery: What imagery do you currently have, and what imagery are you planning to acquire? Craft imagery guidelines around your answer. Feel free, for example, to create aspirational guidelines for imagery you don’t yet have, so long as you have a means of acquiring it. Otherwise, try to be realistic about the imagery at your disposal.
QUALITIES OF STRONG NARRATIVE EXECUTION
Now that you have a better idea about how to create guidelines for your narrative, let’s take a look at what a strongly executed narrative should look like.
Entertaining: Getting your audience’s attention is always step one. Either through humor, aesthetics, an appeal to curiosity, or something else, your brand narrative and its content should capture your consumers’ attention in an entertaining way.
Aspirational: You should aim to inspire customers with a higher purpose or goal. Maybe it’s motivating people to get the camping gear they need for their next adventure, inspiring people to be better stewards of the environment, or helping them live less cluttered lives with minimalist products (full disclosure: this Salty may have recently purchased a minimalist wallet). This is the “organizing principle” covered in our last post about e-commerce brand narratives.
Actionable: Customers don’t just want to be inspired in the short term; something should come from that inspiration, and ideally your brand is facilitating that. That’s why your narrative and its communication strategy should include the creation of valuable content your consumers can act upon—such as a fly fishing company writing content that teaches you not only which rod is best, but how to use it, which conditions it’s ideal for, and where to go to use it.
Joinable: A large part of what makes a narrative effective is that it makes consumers feel like they’re participating in a community when they use your products, rather than reaching a simple end point in a transaction. So it’s important to find ways to involve your consumers with the brand, whether it be through something big like supporting a shared mission or something small like creating a hashtag they identify with.
Payoff: Whether it’s deals, giveaways, or freebies, consumers want incentives if they’re going to keep following your brand online. Educational and entertaining content may keep their attention for a while, but the more incentives you give customers to regularly check in, the better.
IS YOUR NARRATIVE READY?
The brand narrative has become a vital component of every e-tailer’s marketing strategy. It helps you stand out and resonate with customers, while also making it possible to coexist with Amazon (who may offer cheap prices and fast shipping, but can’t resonate with niche audiences like you can).
But execution is everything. So if you have a narrative you’re ready to share with the world, be sure to give its communication strategy the attention it needs.
And remember, we’re happy to help if you want guidance! Whether you want to talk about developing a brand narrative or communication strategy, feel free to drop us a line.
Making your voice heard as an e-commerce brand is getting harder.
Why? Well, for one, the internet is a loud, crowded space, and people are fed up with the same old ads. In one HubSpot survey, 91% of respondents said they found ads more intrusive today than a few years ago, and 87% said there appear to be more ads now in general.
That’s no surprise, considering the average person is served over1,700 banner ads per month—an over-saturation of ads that not only makes it harder to stand out as a brand, but also leads to banner blindness (a common phenomenon where people develop a tendency to totally ignore online advertisements in expected places).
And on top of all that, more and more consumers are abandoning the individual e-tailer, just like they did the main street retailer, in favor of Amazon. With its all-encompassing selection of products, competitive prices, and fast, free shipping for Prime members, it’s not hard to see why.
So what can you do? Competitors are crowded around your customers, shouting out offers and promos—and your customers are growing increasingly deaf, shutting themselves down and defaulting to the lowest prices and fastest shipping. How do you cut through all the noise?
A kick-ass brand narrative.
What is a Brand Narrative?
A brand narrative is the story your company tells about who you are, what you do, and why you do it. It pervades every piece of communication you create, from the copy you write for blogs, ads, and social media, to the visual language of your imagery, videos, and design—everything working together to tell your story.
But what is your story?
At its most basic level, the story of your brand narrative is built around your company’s organizing principle—or the core belief that motivates everything you do.
For example, REI believes that to live outdoors is to live well. Driven by that belief, they aim to help everyone discover the joys and benefits of outdoor activities through their products.
At Tesla, they believe it’s vital for the world to accelerate its transition to a zero-emission future, which is why they innovate and sell electric cars.
And Harley Davidson’s organizing principle is the freedom of the open road, so they aim to unite, inspire, and empower motorcyclists who share that passion.
In summary: REI sells outdoor equipment. Tesla sells electric cars. Harley Davidson sells motorcycles. But for their loyal customers, the products are not the end-goal; instead, they’re a means for achieving a higher aspiration.
That’s a brand narrative. It’s what makes customers sit up in their seats and take a closer look at your brand—and it’s the story they buy into when they choose to become a customer.
Why Brand Narratives Are so Important Today
There’s a lot of research out there that will tell you whycustomers respond well to storytelling in marketing (spoiler alert: it’s because stories are compelling, memorable, and make your brain light up like a Christmas tree), but they don’t talk about why implementing a brand narrative is suddenly so important today.
Because of the internet.
Shocking, I know, but allow me to elaborate. It’s because of the internet and, in particular, how the internet has enabled consumers to tell their own stories more effectively than ever before.
Of course we’re talking about social media and online publishing platforms, which have made it effortless for everyday people to broadcast their voices (with many even monetizing their voices as influencers). But just as significant is how the internet has elevated e-commerce, and the vast array of products available, to enable customers in telling their own stories, both online and off.
How e-Commerce Brands Fuel Personal Expression
Design anthropologist Dori Tunstall explains how throughout history, we’ve almost always used “things” to identify who we are. In the modern day, that means handbags, watches, clothes, gear for our favorite activities, etc. And consumers want these products to have stories attached to them so that the products can aid them in telling their own stories—whether that story is a particular design aesthetic through Gucci, or a love for conservation and the great outdoors through Patagonia (whose ecological Don’t buy this Jacket ad created a lot of buzz back in 2011).
In fact, it’s the rise of e-commerce that has given consumers access to a much larger variety of products and, therefore, a much larger palette of items to choose from for expressing their identities in daily life as well as through social media. That’s why brand narratives have always been important for e-commerce stores in particular: consumers buy products to fulfill a need and to bolster their own personal expression. And today, while sites are increasingly competing to address the former, their success is predicated on the latter.
In other words, you need to sell more than just watches, clothes, outdoor equipment, etc. You need to sell how your products will help customers live out their values and aspirations.
If you do that effectively, you’ll be able to compete with anybody online. And we really do mean anybody, including…
Competing with Amazon
Let’s start with the bad news.
The bad news is you’ll never beat Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ once-upon-a-time startup, now e-commerce behemoth, makes up 43% of all online sales in the US alone, and there’s no fighting that.
But the good news is you don’t need to. Amazon, at this point, is less of a traditional competitor, and more of an e-commerce platform. It’s a tool built to facilitate the sale of products, with 54% of all product searches starting there in Q2 of 2018 and many e-tailers utilizing Amazon as an additional sales channel.
But Amazon’s size and ubiquity is both its own strength and your opportunity. The company has grown to such a massive scale by selling everything to everyone—which means they’re completely incapable of specializing. In other words, they can’t:
Speak to specific audiences like you can
Build loyalty in a niche like you can
Tell a story like you can.
There’s room for both brands and Amazon to succeed, as long as you don’t try to become Amazon. You’ll never be able to significantly compete in terms of shipping rates or convenience alone—but you can dominate Amazon any day in terms of telling a story that moves people to choose and commit to your products.
So what do you say?
Let’s tell a story.
How to Get Started
The first step in developing a brand narrative is to have a conversation.
That conversation begins at your company—with you and your team discussing your brand values, the audience you’re trying to reach, and how a narrative could help you connect with that audience.
Step two is continuing that conversation with an outside partner.
Obviously, we’re biased (Hello, our name is Saltwater, and we do brand work), but collaborating with an agency that’s experienced in branding is the best way to ensure your narrative gets results. After all, you need to do more than just create a narrative—you need a communication strategy, too, for effectively executing that narrative across your various channels.
Smart speakers are hot right now, and only getting hotter. According to a joint report by NPR and Edison Research, 18% of American adults already own a smart speaker, like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod. That equates to about 43 million people (a 128% increase from last year). Other research even projects that by 2022, over half of U.S. consumers will have smart speakers in their homes.
That’s exciting news for content marketing, as smart speakers present a new avenue for connecting with customers—via smart speaker apps, which Amazon, the current king of smart speakers, calls “skills.”
What Are Skills, Exactly?
Alexa, the virtual assistant that operates Amazon’s smart home devices, has a lot of capabilities, but she can’t do everything on her own. That’s where “skills” come in. “Hey Alexa, play Free Bird on Spotify.” “Alexa, play Jeopardy!” “Alexa, what’s in the news?” Skills, when enabled, expand Alexa’s abilities. While other virtual assistants have skills of their own (Google calls them “actions”), Alexa was the first virtual assistant to fully open up shop for third-party developers. This allowed Alexa to accumulate a vast library of skills, over 30,000 in the U.S. alone, and has made Amazon smart speakers the most promising platform yet for smart speaker content marketing.
Brands Already Getting in on the Game
As we speak, Alexa’s skills are being integrated into the content marketing strategies of various brands. Take Tide’s Stain Remover skill. “Alexa, tell Tide I have a red wine stain,” a user might say. With that simple invocation (to use Amazon’s terminology), the skill provides users with step-by-step directions on how to treat red wine stains—and other stains, too, if you ask; it knows how to treat over 200 types. There’s also the Johnnie Walker Whiskey skill. “Alexa, open Johnnie Walker. Try a Guided Tasting.” This multifaceted skill offers a lot for whiskey drinkers, such as guided tastings of Johnnie Walker products, a Q&A feature to determine the perfect blend of whiskey for your palate, and cocktail suggestions. Stubb’s Legendary Bar-B-Q has also gotten in on the game. “Alexa, ask Stubb for a recipe.” The skill provides recipe suggestions, barbecue tips, and bluesy music as you cook. What really sells the skill, however, is how it’s narrated by the actual Christopher “Stubb” Stubblefield, using past recordings to make it feel as though the old grill master himself is right there beside you. Check out how it works below.
Good content marketing nurtures customer relationships through valuable, relevant content. These brands are doing just that, and by providing consumers the option to order products directly through these skills, they also reduce friction between interest and purchase. So the content at least is good. But are the skills finding an audience?
The Problem of Retention
Perhaps the biggest hurdle that Amazon and its competitors need to address for smart speakers is skill retention. According to data from Alpine.AI (formerly VoiceLabs), there is only a 3% chance that a user will continue to use a skill after the second week. Traditional apps, such as those on your phone, have a retention rate as high as 36% after the first month. This isn’t necessarily surprising. Voice is a relatively new and unfamiliar interface, and we’re still learning to navigate its challenges, both as developers and users. Alexa’s software, for example, still has clear limitations in understanding human speech. But it’s likely the lack of a visual interface that’s causing such poor retention. When you download an app onto your phone, an icon appears, serving as both a visual reminder and easily accessible way to open the app. Push notifications also help us remember to engage with apps. Alexa, however, only offers the invisible voice interface. That means to use a skill, it’s entirely on you to remember you’ve enabled it (among the many others you’ve enabled) and to recall the right combination of words to open it. It’s no wonder people are forgetting to use their skills.
Amazon has taken perhaps the most important step in addressing skill retention by rolling out a feature called skills arbitration. Skills arbitration allows users to discover, enable, and engage with skills more easily and naturally than the usual invocation, and it doesn’t require users to remember the name of a skill. Instead, when users ask Alexa to do something outside her capabilities, she automatically arbitrates the task to a skill. For example, if you say, “Alexa, how do I remove a grass stain from my shirt?” she might reply with, “Here is Tide Stain Remover.” Or if you say, “Alexa, what are some pulled chicken recipes?” she might respond, “Here is Ask Stubb.” Alexa seamlessly hands users over to skills (both enabled and undiscovered) to better assist in their requests. Skills arbitration will go a long way in improving skill retention, and we’ll likely see companies other than just Amazon adopting such an approach for their smart speaker apps. (In fact, Google already has a similar feature called implicit invocation, though it’s not as seamless an experience as Amazon’s skills arbitration.)
But Amazon and its competitors could do even more to improve skill retention by taking advantage of their touch screens.
Amazon’s Echo Spot and Show speakers both have touch screens, for simple actions like telling the time and making video calls; and Lenovo similarly released a Google Home with a touch screen. While these screens do use text to educate users on how to use their apps, adding an easily accessible menu that lists the apps and allows for touch activation could go a long way in helping users more easily remember and access skills.
This could also be better implemented in the virtual assistant phone apps, where Alexa skills and Google actions are currently accessible, but not easily so. This would encourage more of a hybrid interface of voice and touch, rather than just voice, but for some users that may be the little extra help they need before fully committing to a voice-only interface.
What the Future Looks Like
Right now, smart speaker content marketing is in its infancy. While Amazon may be paving the way for a healthy skills-based marketing ecosystem, there are still significant barriers keeping brands from interacting with and retaining customers at large. But the landscape is changing. Amazon, Google, and Apple are always improving their virtual assistants, and with smart speaker ownership rapidly on the rise, users are growing increasingly familiar with voice-enabled devices.
Skills arbitration, while still only a year old, will likely be vital for the future of skills-based marketing, and it makes now perhaps the perfect time for brands to carve a niche in the skill market. If a brand can make their skill Alexa’s preferred choice for arbitrating a particular pain point, that uniquely positions them to dominate that area. To gain that position now, before Amazon potentially incorporates a bidding element into arbitration (not unlike Google Ads’ bidding system), could prove especially advantageous. Amazon’s access to user shopping data also makes a compelling case for the future of skills, as data could become rocket fuel for targeted content marketing. For example, say a user who utilizes Amazon for groceries views Stubb’s barbecue sauce, but doesn’t go through with a purchase. If that user asks Alexa, “What are some good barbecue rib recipes?” she could arbitrate the task to Ask Stubb, giving Stubb’s the opportunity to nurture a user through valuable content and bridge the gap between interest and purchase.
How to Make Skills Today, for Tomorrow
If you want to boost your Alexa skills, there are five things you can do to ensure your skills are not only successful now, but ready to succeed in the future landscape of smart speaker content marketing.
Conduct a survey of your target audience. Right now there aren’t many methods of gaining insight into your customers’ smart speaker habits: if they use them, how they use them, and what types of pain points smart speakers might resolve. Amazon also doesn’t offer any method of viewing the types of requests your audience is making of Alexa, so surveys are the most direct method of discovering your audience’s needs. Keyword research tools that include voice-search results, however, could provide additional insights.
Respond to your audience’s needs. With skills arbitration posed to be the dominant method of reaching users, it’s important to design your skill with arbitration in mind. That means ensuring your skill addresses specific problems and questions your audience has, as well as filling out the CanFulfillIntentRequest interface—where you get the chance to improve your chances of arbitration by telling Alexa the types of problems your skill can resolve.
Keep reusability in mind. What makes the Tide skill so effective is that it’s something you’ll use any time you need help with a stain. Likewise, a good recipe skill will keep you coming back whenever you need ideas for meals, especially if there’s regularly updated content. So to ensure a higher retention rate, create skills that are more than just one-off gimmicks.
Don’t sell too hard. Right now, many of the branded skills lean so heavily into selling their products that they sacrifice usability. Tide is particularly guilty of this, peppering their stain removal instructions with ads for their products, which has hurt their rating in the skill store. If applicable to your brand, you should make it easy for users to purchase products through your skill, but keep in mind that Amazon’s purpose for skills arbitration is first and foremost to improve the user experience. That means skills that allow self-promotion to eclipse usability will likely struggle to win arbitration spots.
Read the Alexa blog. Amazon constantly updates how Alexa discovers, recommends, and arbitrates skills. By following the Alexa blog, you’ll stay up-to-date about these changes and find more technical tips on how to optimize your skills for arbitration and discoverability.
With smart speakers rapidly growing in sophistication and ubiquity, it’s hard to imagine a future where content marketing doesn’t thrive on these platforms. The question, really, is when will skills-based marketing gain traction?
And who will be at the starting line?
What do you think? Are Smart Speakers a passing fad or the next big opportunity? We’ve shared this post on Instagram and Facebook, so let us know your thoughts in the comments.
The livestream for Paul McCartney’s secret concert begins with a close-up on Paul. His face is contemplative as he playfully tests the acoustics of the room, clapping a few times and calling out “oh-oh.” He pauses, then sings two words: “Hey Jude…”
Off-camera, the crowd responds: “… Don’t make it bad.”
Paul smiles, and nods. “Very good.” The crowd erupts into applause as he grabs his guitar and kicks off the concert with the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Over the course of the evening, Paul plays 26 songs in just under two hours, drawing from his career of 50+ years as a member of the Beatles, Wings, and as a solo artist. By any standard, the concert was incredible, but the audience did more than just experience a concert.
Whether they realize it or not, they also participated in an exciting, memorable experiential marketing campaign—one that communicated to them, and all of us, Paul’s brand identity.
BRANDING THROUGH EXPERIENTIAL MARKETING
Experiential marketing is emotional and memorable. It makes an impression, can generate a lot of buzz, and lends itself particularly well to fostering brand relationships with audiences.
But it’s often confused with event marketing. The misconception is understandable, especially when the “experience” happens to be an event. But the key difference is communication. Event marketing is one-directional, with brands speaking to audiences, and audiences passively listening. In contrast, experiential marketing is interactive branding, with communication going both ways—allowing audience members to contribute to the experience and build unique relationships with the brand.
That’s the kind of experience Paul was hinting at when he started mentioning in interviews an upcoming “secret concert”—one that would occur Friday, Sept. 7, somewhere in New York City, to celebrate the release of his new album, Egypt Station (which is a pretty good album, by the way).
The buzz, of course, was huge. A secret Paul McCartney concert in NYC? Fans and media outlets were abuzz, and people throughout the city tried winning tickets by following Paul on social media and entering the concert code into their Lyft apps.
By Friday, about 200 winners were selected, and that evening, they were brought by Lyft to the surprise venue: Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Station. There they participated in the McCartney experience of a lifetime.
THE CONCERT: AN INTIMATE, INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE
The venue itself was intimate, with just 200 audience members and a handful of celebrities mixed into the crowd. The effect, I’m sure, was surreal for attendees, to be standing on equal footing with Meryl Streep, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon, and Jon Bon Jovi, everyone there gathered to see one man: Paul McCartney.
Paul himself was charming and accessible. The stage was low, and people were close enough to potentially reach out and touch him. He sang with surprising vigor, especially considering his age, and he bantered with the audience, told stories about the Beatles, discussed song inspirations, and had the crowd sing and dance. While many musicians do the same at concerts, the effect was entirely different with someone as iconic as Paul McCartney in such a small, intimate venue.
Throughout the night, Paul directly connected with individuals in the audience. For example, at one point, he prefaced a song by explaining it was about bullying. He asked if anyone in the crowd had ever been bullied, and a few people responded. Paul asked two women to come onstage and share their stories—the first bullied for being uncool in high school, and the other, ironically enough, bullied for being a Beatles fan.
The moment was emotional and reaffirming, but it became candidly humorous as Paul asked for the names of the bullies. The crowd went “oooh!” and laughed, and Paul playfully called the bullies out before beginning the song and inviting the women to stay onstage to dance.
The connections didn’t stop there. Later in the show, Paul asked if it was anyone’s birthday. Toward the front, someone shouted and held up an ID. Paul laughed and said, “Why are you holding your thing up?”
“To prove it!” the man responded.
Paul took the ID and said, “Oh wait a minute… This is a false identification card! Come on, man. Cops! Come on, get him.” Everyone laughed, Paul returned the card, and he said, “Okay man, this is for you. This song is for you, and for anyone else in the audience who’s got a birthday sometime this year.” He then broke into “Birthday.”
Paul also worked to immerse the crowd in the experience, both musically and aesthetically. Early on in the show, during “Letting Go,” he sent his trombone, trumpet, and saxophone players into the middle of the crowd to play. Later, when he sang “Let it Be,” the lights were dimmed, and the crowd was given electric candles and lanterns to illuminate the darkness.
“I’m coming amongst you,” Paul said at one point, grabbing his acoustic guitar and walking out through the crowd. He shook hands and made eye contact with fans as he made his way to a slightly elevated platform at the center of the crowd. From there, he sang “Blackbird,” projecting notes of authenticity and even vulnerability as he fumbled a few lyrics.
Throughout the concert, Paul fostered this atmosphere and its interactions to create a unique experience, but also to communicate to the crowd who he is and what he represents. He’s a legend, but down-to-Earth. He’s one of the most successful musicians in the world, and yet he cares about his fans and their lives. He loves to have a good time.
On Friday night, he built this brand identity with 200 individuals, but also broadcasted it to the world over YouTube Live—a particularly important move as he tries to make himself known to younger audiences who didn’t grow up listening to his music.
The result? An unforgettable experience for the crowd, with many having had a unique interaction with Paul. And for those of us watching at home, while we weren’t physically there, Paul’s brand message came through loud and clear.
WHAT OTHER BRANDS CAN LEARN FROM PAUL
When someone as famous as Paul McCartney executes an experiential marketing campaign, the results are inevitably going to be huge. But Paul made a lot of smart moves during this concert, and while only larger brands will be capable of replicating his scale, the following guidelines will apply to any effort you make to build brand identity design through an experiential marketing campaign:
Make it interactive. The big difference, again, between a normal event and an experiential one is communication. You need to design your experience so that it’s not just your brand talking to the audience, but your audience talking back and shaping the messaging. Paul did so by conversing with the crowd, bringing them onstage, having them sing and dance along, and entering the crowd to sing among them. Whatever your campaign, you should strive to move your audience away from passivity and into active participation.
Make it emotional. Emotion is perhaps the most important element of experiential marketing. It’s what makes the experience memorable, and it’s the foundation of the brand relationships you form. Paul made the concert range in emotion from touching to joyful by making himself intimately available, telling candid stories about his decades-long career, and asking audience members to share stories of their own. If you’re planning an experiential marketing campaign, be sure to identify which emotions your brand wants to bring out in people and tailor the experience to do so.
Spread the word. In the days leading up to your experience, alert the press so they can be there to cover the story; and as long as it isn’t meant to be a surprise, be sure to drum up excitement within your audience to boost attendance. Paul did so via interviews and social media, and the result was extensive media and fan attention leading up to (and after) the performance.
Create shareable content. Experiential marketing can project your message far and wide, but you’ll need to facilitate that through shareable content. That can include, among other things, social media posts and video clips from the event. Paul livestreamed the concert on YouTube with a shareable link, but even after the concert, he posted smaller, more digestible clips of him performing each song. You can take the same approach with video and social media, so long as you tailor it to your specific experience and audience.
Drive traffic to key channels. The end-goal of experiential marketing campaigns isn’t to sell products (although it can boost sales), but to build brand relationships and disseminate that messaging across audiences. Part of that can, and should, involve boosting your presence on key platforms. Paul, for example, incentivized fans to follow him on social media with the chance to win tickets to the concert. He also drove traffic to his YouTube channel by posting the livestream recordings, which in turn gave more exposure to the Egypt Station music video he released days later. While planning your campaign, be sure to identify the channels you want to boost, so you can effectively direct your audience there.
With those guidelines, I leave you now with Paul’s secret concert at Grand Central Station, so you can watch him in action yourself. The concert begins with a nod to “Hey Jude,” and ends with the final three songs from Abbey Road—the last album the Beatles recorded together (for you Beatlemaniacs out there). So kick back, hit play, and enjoy getting to know Paul.