The State of SEO During an Economic Recession
When Covid-19 virus spread across the world, the resulting pandemic led to an economic downturn that immobilised certain industries and changed the way businesses operate in order to survive.
Because of the uncertainty of the situation, many consumers were forced to re-evaluate their spending habits and cut back on some usual household or personal expenditures. Consequently, a lot of businesses also had to reduce expenses like curtailing manpower, withholding risky investments, and slashing their marketing budgets. And because of the budget cuts, companies have made radical changes in the way they allocate resources, financial or otherwise, for their marketing campaigns.
Question is, how do you lobby for the often unseen value of SEO in a time when brands are quick to write off efforts from the marketing team as unnecessary and impractical?
THE CASE FOR SEO DURING THE PANDEMIC
For brands that occupy a small estate in the digital space, moreso in industries that still had a blinkered perspective about digital marketing, SEO is one of the areas where the rug was getting pulled under. In an attempt to increase sales, they thought it best to focus more on paid ads and temporarily cease any effort to optimise organically on search.
This action was most likely a decision made during a chokehold. While we agree that cost-cutting is a necessary response to an economic crisis. We believe that brands should not stop analysing the evolving consumer behaviour, and continue addressing their needs where they are in the buyer’s journey using the pandemic as the backdrop of the market study. If brands miss this gap, they will likely miss huge opportunities to improve their performance months down the road.
In 2020, when Covid was in its heyday, and threw a huge wrench on businesses’ goals, plans, and timelines, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) issued a warning against losing the ‘share of mind’ of brands that are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to invest in further marketing efforts despite the incredible financial difficulties that the pandemic ushered at the start of the year.
In the United Kingdom, the IPA published a series of tweets discouraging brands from pulling the plug on their existing online marketing campaigns. Instead, companies are enjoined to align their efforts based on the following principles:
- Maintain marketing expenses at a minimum
- Spend and invest wisely
- Prioritise retaining your current customer base
- Leverage your competitor’s weaknesses
- Adjust spend targeting segments based on market behaviour
MARKETING TO AN ANXIOUS MARKET
If you’re part of an SEO team doing in-house marketing for a company, making the case for just one brand may already feel like a street brawl. What if you’re an SEO specialist or an agency who’s fighting for your retainer or battling it out with several brands at once to renew their marketing contract with you? How will you justify how their SEO budget will positively contribute to the bottomline and make the cash register ring?
That, my friend, feels like World War III.
No one is ever prepared for an economic recession. But we can revisit scores of data from the 2008 recession (and those who had successfully sailed their brands against the roaring waves of Covid in the last 2 years) and glean invaluable insights about what they did when they tweaked their messaging and execution, thus enabling their companies to power through the economic downturn without pausing their SEO campaigns.
- Knowing your Total Addressable Market (TAM) and realigning your messaging.
The Total Addressable Market or TAM is defined as the total number of people who can buy your product or avail of the service you offer. For example, if you own a nail salon, your TAM could be anyone who needs a manicure or pedicure, which is the majority of women and a small subset of men.
While not a totally airtight metric, TAM strongly draws the attention of would-be investors because even if the competition is often tough, a bigger TAM means a greater potential for growth.
Continuing on the salon example, if you’re marketing to an economically distressed market, a great strategy will be to do SEO and promote your salon as a cheaper alternative to all other salons nearby. Because an unstable economy sees low price as the most attractive factor for non-essential services like nail salons, you have to position your brand as the best choice for the price point you set.
Marketing-wise, the low price should cover the basic mani-pedi service. It’s not smart to promote your salon by pushing expensive nail art treatments as most people do not have glamorous events to go to where they need to show a fancy nail art for.
In contrast, if your nail salon traditionally caters to a more upscale clientele, you can reinforce the message that a visit to a nail salon is a day of pampering, which could lower stress levels and boost morale. For customers who may want to splurge on some luxury, but are ever more finicky in where to spend their money, your message should center around giving the customers the best and most rewarding experience, which they will not regret spending more money for.
It’s harder to own a piece of the market if your product or service falls under the category of postponables and expendables.
Examples of postponables are services like subion to a media streaming service, updating of a home security system, maintenance of an AC unit, etc. If your brand is a postponable service, your SEO should target questions around why your brand needs to be retained against other products or services, or perhaps your brand brings more ROI retained than if it was suspended or cancelled entirely.
For expendable products and services, local SEO will be the most impacted. Instead of hiring a carpenter or a gardener, people will learn how to do the fixes or maintain the house themselves. The challenge is to provide content for the consumers on how best to perform the task and maybe step in when a particularly difficult or risky task arises. Your SEO team should see this as an opportunity to raise more awareness about your brand and build trust around it.
Essential products are price-sensitive during a recession. Inflation is felt best when the price of basic goods and services rise uncontrollably like food, raw ingredients, oil, transportation fares, etc. If you intend to keep your prices down or play along the rate of inflation, this is the best time to harp on your unique value proposition (UPV) or any attribute that separates you from the competition. For example, if you sell uber-yummy baked goods and you have no choice but to increase the price of your pastries and cookies, you may want to promote your brand by offering free delivery or offering a discount for batch orders.
- Target competitors by filling in gaps they created
During a recession, the first step to protect income is by cordoning off your existing customer base. Keep them in and encourage brand loyalty among them.
As the next step, during the shakedown of consumer choices and spending habits, you should position your brand as the best alternative against your competitor. Customers are looking for a change — whether it’s the cheaper option, a higher quality one, or something they feel is more rewarding or more supportive of their goals; you must convince them that it is your brand that best fits their idea of that change, and not your competitor. This shouldn’t be that hard since one of the cornerstones of an SEO campaign is competitor analysis.
For this, you have to keep your ears on the ground. What about your competitor are the customers complaining about? What issues can you address that the competitors cannot do as of the moment?
The answers to the above questions can be a springboard to a new conversation with your prospects. Understand those weak spots and highlight the strengths of your own product.
Circling back to the nail salon example, if the competitor’s customers are complaining about the wait time before the service, you can promote your salon as having less wait time, OR offer nice refreshments to waiting customers, and having cool and comfortable lounges, which make the wait time less grudging.
You can turn this competitive advantage into an action item in your SEO campaign and run it in the coming months.
Making your SEO Marketing Recession-Proof
It’s true that SEO is a long-term strategy, but let’s not forget that the effects of an economic recession can trickle down for a couple of years too. Businesses will require 1-2 years to recover the losses during the downturn, and if they’re lucky to manage to survive and witness a re-establishment of new marketing norms, which by the time will have restored consumer’s trust pre-recession level, they must use the learnings they acquired to gain a leg up in the emerging competition. Continuing with SEO ensures that these brands will continue to be visible and prominent in their niche and remain competitive in their own vertical.
Whether or not we heed these insights, Google and other search engines will continue to update their algorithms to reflect and respond to these new markets. Your competitor, or YOU, will have lost long-term opportunities by pausing your SEO campaign solely in the name of short-term viability.