• How tech marketers have adapted to the COVID-19 world
  • How tech marketers have adapted to the COVID-19 world

    Technology marketers have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a mixture of rapid-response measures, shifts from physical to digital actions, a doubling down on account-based marketing (ABM) and bucketloads of empathy.

    Technology marketers have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a mixture of rapid-response measures, shifts from physical to digital actions, a doubling down on account-based marketing (ABM) and bucketloads of empathy. 

    Ever since the lockdown age began, I've been checking in with CMOs and their lieutenants to hear how they have adapted. Their stories have sometimes been moving as they have struggled to maintain work discipline and learn new skills while taking care of domestic and family duties or recovering from illness themselves. It's beyond doubt that the pandemic has caused stress but, hearteningly, many have also reported back with tales of companies, teams and partners bonding and looking out for each other while keeping up an esprit de corps in any way possible. 

    The following is a roundup of emails, phone conversations and, inevitably, video calls. (Note: Many spoke off the record for background knowledge only; some on condition of anonymity and only perhaps a third were willing to be directly quoted.)

    Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

    Benjamin Franklin's famous line ("By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail") often applies to marketing but how much preparation was possible for an event that was low on the list of possible causes of business interruption for most of us?

    Yama Habibzai, president and COO of desktop virtualisation platform maker HiveIO, admitted:

    "If I said we were prepared for an event like this, I would be lying. No one really knew just how hard and fast this pandemic would come at us but we did have to make some changes. We have customers who are unable to physically get into datacentres, attend conferences, and meet with us face to face. We moved our customer meetings and interactions online, and we repositioned our marketing efforts for the rest of the year with an assumption that travel will be highly restricted and limited." 

    However, there was at least one visionary. A CMO who had previously worked at Microsoft is an avid follower of her former boss Bill Gates and said that she had been aware of his fears over pandemics bringing the world to a halt. (In a 2015 TED talk, Gates said "If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.") 

    She had also been indirectly exposed to supply-chain issues caused by the SARS outbreak and therefore had kept a close eye on COVID-19 from the time of initial media coverage last year.

    "I don't want to boast but I was in a very good place because I had planned for this eventuality and we had a very solid framework of options depending on no spread, some spread or a fully-baked pandemic. I knew that a major physical event could be sunk and I knew that the company could be exposed to supply-chain issues. I raised the alarm bells in December. Some board members took it seriously, most didn't, and I got the impression from some that I was being unnecessarily alarmist. 

    "It was interesting to see the landscape change so quickly and there was this dawning realisation. On a personal level that really raised my profile in the senior team: I became, like, the coronavirus guru. It was interesting and I learned a lot but there was certainly no time to gloat or say ‘told you so'. It was too emotional for office politics and that's the positive I've taken here. When it's that binary, you just have to get on with it… and people really did knuckle down very, very quickly."

    Robson Grieve, CMO at application development company OutSystems, said that, in some ways at least, marketing through the pandemic represented an extension of trends that were already in play and an opportunity to experiment. 

    "Marketing departments that have been embracing growth techniques that emphasise empowerment for buyers and open up self-education as the primary path, have been preparing for this kind of event," Grieve said.

    "Opening up information, community-driven sharing of ideas, free trials and technical support … all our motivation in pursuing this direction is to create a marketing experience that is built around how people want to shop, but it turns out that is really useful as the primary path for customers in this time of crisis when the events path and face-to-face meetings are all of a sudden gone."

    Speaking strictly on condition of anonymity, many respondents said they had huge marketing continuity challenges.

    "We were knee-deep in event planning and there was this slow realisation that there was a good chance it wouldn't go ahead. But there was some denial at first and in fact we didn't cancel until very late in the day. That cost us time and led to pain. It's a lesson that we need to heed."

    Another CMO said he was adamant that from now that a traffic-light indicator system on crisis planning will need to be in place.

    "We were caught cold and I include myself in that. If there is a next time, we need to have systems to manage the risk and we need Plan B, C and D in place." 

    But most appeared to rate their planning as neutral to good, given how rare this sort of trigger remains, with the more advanced adopting formal frameworks for measuring risk and impact.

    Barbara Murphy, VP of marketing at datacentre storage firm WekaIO, said:

    "We have had a crisis plan in place for some time, so we were prepared to put it into action when the pandemic crisis hit. Because it's difficult to gauge just how much impact a crisis will have on the business, we believed it was important to employ a phased approach. As to be expected, Phase I is for minimal impact and short-term crisis, Phase II, and Phase III for maximum impact which could then impact investments and human resources.

    "Our phased crisis approach is comprehensive and covers all aspects and functions of the business, globally. It includes not only internal but also external communications plans and how we message our work to the industry and customers. Information during a crisis is critical, we have put great effort in ensuring our messaging lands with everyone involved." 

    Peter Smails, VP of marketing at container management company Rancher Labs, said, "I don't think anyone can fully prepare for a crisis the magnitude of Covid-19. That said, we had put a resource continuity plan in place, wherein we have no single points of failure within the organisation. Though people in the company have been affected by COVID, resource continuity has ensured that business can continue while individuals are recovering."  

    Marketing ops in the time of Covid 

    The pandemic has been a wrecking ball, but some executives noted areas that were particularly problematic for marketers. 

    "One function that has been heavily impacted is communications, specifically customer communications, said Yasutaka Mizutani, CMO of telecoms firm Colt Technology Services

    "It has been crucial that we communicate with our customers continuously, but also in a consistent way. We formed a cross-functional communications team made up of internal and external communications as well as PR, to ensure all messages going out about our business were the same. It was critical to us that we didn't bombard customers, our employees and the market, but we did want to ensure there was a regular cadence, which is why alignment of the team and the message was so important."

    At Colt, Mizutani has also been stepping up use of AI.

    "Our marketing team has been utilising AI for some time to analyse and better understand our customers' requirements, but during COVID we have been using AI to monitor how the market is moving and shifting, in order to try and better understand the impact of this environment on our business as well as our customers' organisations."

    At OutSystems, Grieve sees a long-term perspective: "While it was already happening, ops is shifting even faster towards understanding and managing ongoing engagement. Historically, ops focused a lot on lead-to-opportunities and entry into the funnel. As businesses like ours are in a long-term, land-and-expand relationship with customers, our ops infrastructure needs to contribute to the understanding of the customer journey and provide actionable insights to a team looking to help customers achieve their goals." 

    For smaller companies, that impact was less and some said they benefited from having a federated, agile setup. 

    Rancher Labs' Smails said "We have always been a remote workforce with resources on five continents so the impact on day-to-day operations has not been all that dramatic. While we certainly miss the face-to-face and hallway conversations, remote working has not dramatically affected us operationally."

    Surprises, both positive and negative 

    The unusual situation meant that surprises were in store for marketing teams, but not all of these were negative. Many marketers report it being harder initially to reach people but later finding that it was possible to spend more time talking.

    "We were surprised to see the number of prospects and contacts who are no longer in their positions, due to layoffs and furloughs," said HiveIO's Habibzai. 

    "We had to cleanse and update our contact data more aggressively [but] for those customers and prospects working from home, they are more engaged and responsive. Emails are answered and phone calls returned more quickly than was standard."   

    WekaIO's Barbara Murphy said, "The impact on field marketing wasn't a surprise, but it did have a negative impact on the business in terms of lead generation. A positive outcome for us was the increase in customer win rates. Our product adds great value for high-performance computing and analytics in life sciences and finance, two markets heavily impacted by the COVID pandemic, and as such both saw increased investment in IT infrastructure to enable research, high-performance data analytics, and discovery -- there is a race to answer and a race to cure. We are honoured to be a small part of that race. 

    "Another surprise was just how much we can accomplish virtually. With an entire company and all customers moving remote, it forced many new realities for all of us; some, I am sure, that will change the course of work as we know it."

    Almost unanimously there was agreement in terms of how easily teams could work together without sharing office space, although there were a few dissenters as to whether this should be perpetuated.

    "Everybody calls this ‘the new normal' but, in the rush to appease staff and maybe save costs, I hope people don't forget 30-plus years of office design encouraged to build strong teams and feed human ideas and interaction."  

    For OutSystems' Grieve, there has been an uptick in productivity amid other outcomes.

    "Probably the most surprising discovery has been the degree to which we need to actively encourage people to pay attention to their work/life balance. While we love the commitment and drive, we know we're in an endurance sport, and we know our people need to have time to connect with family and friends, need to get exercise and rest, and need to continue to develop personal passions."

    Colt's Mizutani found surprises closer to home as demand boomed for connectivity.

    "We have always understood the importance of connectivity, but during the last few months, connectivity has played an even more vital role. Connectivity continues to be the lifeblood that keeps enterprises, communities and even our society functioning, despite these unprecedented times. In terms of impact for Colt, the amount of voice traffic that has been requested by our customers has been especially surprising; overall, we've seen considerable upticks in the requirements for both voice and data services from of all our customers." 

    Read next -  TechMarketers reports on how tech events are facing up to the pandemic. 


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    About Martin Veitch

    Highly experienced Editor and Technology writer


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