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Marketing in uncertainty: What I learned from Google

Uncertainty is becoming the new normal. The coronavirus pandemic moved some of the biggest countries in the world into deliberate lockdowns, causing thousands of businesses to close doors, lay off staff or change their model of operation. No one was ready for a disruption of this size and the consequences are still to come. In my personal opinion, uncertainty and volatility will continue long after lockdowns are over and change a lot of what we have taken for granted.

What did I learn about uncertainty so far?

Since I joined Google in late 2018 it has been a year and a half of constant change and adapting to new realities every few months.

At the beginning I thought this was bad. I felt stressed as if I was attending an exam – a never ending exam of my abilities, of how well I prioritise and read situations, people and goals. There were moments of the notorious “imposter syndrome”. Often I would feel I am the only person who doesn’t understand what is going on in a meeting. I was obsessively trying to stay a few moves ahead of the next inevitable change.

I no longer think this is a bad thing. Google has an innovative culture. In Google projects get started, explored and sometimes dropped off only to be dug out of the bin and brought back life a few years later. To some people this might sound insane – huge projects like Google + getting sunset. However this kind of agility and resilience is a strength for a business – to be able to stop what’s not working and just focus on what works best. This spirit of experimentation and trial and error, of being encouraged to do new stuff without the fear of failing is quite rare. Many businesses claim to be innovative and disruptive, but all they do is sing the old song with a different note.

…anticipating change with positivity

This constant state of rediscovering and adapting to new realities made me resilient and funny enough I am now joyfully anticipating change. Understanding that it’s OK to not know the answer, it’s OK to ask the dum question, because actually everyone else is quietly thinking the same. This has now gradually become part of me. When the coronavirus situation hit, I was already in the state of mind to expect the unexpected: Cool, what’s next.

In my current role at Google I often find myself in a new situation, where there is a problem on the table with many unknowns. If you think as a mathematician for a second, a problem with many unknowns often means that there is not just one right answer. It actually might be not a problem, but a function with a whole curve of right answers and relationships between the unknowns.

Yes, but what if your whole existence is at stake?

You might judge me here – I still get my pay check, it’s easy for me to talk about “being brave” and “embracing change”… I know. I was actually laid off twice since I started at Google. It’s a shitty feeling, but there is one thing I learned – you are not laid off forever. You do find the next thing, or more often the next thing just runs upon you with full speed. Your experience, your skills and your uniqueness stay with you no matter what. Even the dum questions you kept asking actually got you to speak more often to more people and learned more things. 

When your whole world is upside down because of a little bug you might start feeling resentful and angry. However, there is one way out (there always is) – focus on what you can do. Tough times are a call for creativity, finding new ways to market, attract new audiences or reconnect with your fans to offer a new solution. 

Here are a few tips depending on the type of situation you are in:

First Scenario: You are significantly challenged

This would be the situation for many live venues, hotels, travel agencies, gyms, car dealerships and real estate companies. Some of your main functions might be on hold right now. This however does not mean that people will never buy a car, an apartment or ever book a hotel room. 

Focus on building a relationship with your current clients and leads during the slow period. Over communicate if possible. Share the latest models you have, build awareness and spark more online research. Using Google trends you will understand if there is demand and what type of searches people perform on Google. The Rising queries table will show you recent spikes for your category.

In Sweden searches for hiring a summer house are rising recently.

For many sectors trends show demand is lower than last year at this time, but it stays volatile. One week bad news might be flooding all media and fear comes in, next week nice weather and hopeful information makes people start searching for a holiday cabin to spend their vacation close to home.

Scenario two: You are in a transformation state

Actually many businesses which are in scenario one might quickly move to scenario two by being creative and finding solutions to keep operating. Some examples are restaurants which started sending food and ingredients home, car dealers offering home test drives, tourist attractions which started sharing video content from the closed destination. This stage requires a lot of new skills and agility. 

Businesses in the transformation stage are searching for ways to adapt and find this lingering demand. This might involve changing keywords in Google campaigns, using tight radius targeting, adapting ad copy to show the new offering. Utilising extensions like Callout, Call extensions, Price and Promotion can make your ad helpful and prominent on the search results.

Many retailers which relied mostly on in store trades, now gradually expand their inventory to Shopping. Product ads on Google, Facebook and Instagram require setting up a product feed. In some cases inventory feed as well (Local Inventory Ads on Google). This allows advertisers to show what is in stock and the proximity of their store to the user’s physical location.

Google recently made product listings show both paid and organic listings to help retail businesses generate incremental online sales. Similar to Search now in the product section of Google’s results there will be both, paid and organic results. The same merchant can now have two listings while only paying for one of them. Products with great rating and well written description as well as landing page experience are going to be featured more in the organic listings. The unpaid product listings are now only available in the USA with plans to appear soon in more markets. Merchants with a feed and website in english which ship in the US can already take advantage of this regardless of where they are based. 

The Shopping tab in the US now includes unpaid listings as well as ads.

If you don’t have a product feed, you don’t have to rush and create one. Try maximising your Search campaigns first. If you already have a Shopping feed, make sure you enable “Google Services” in the Merchant Centre. This will allow both your ads and organic product listings to show across multiple shoppable properties on Google.

Scenario three: more demand than before

If you are one of those lucky businesses which now see higher demand than ever before, it’s time for you to really take advantage of the opportunity and invest in your marketing. This means, expanding keywords on search, including broader search terms to capture demand. You can easily exclude unwanted terms with negative keywords. Having all applicable ad extensions, variety of relevant ads and especially Responsive Search ads will help you get much more exposure. 

Using Smart Display campaigns can help you easily target the full funnel of users – from creating awareness to getting the sale. If you have merchant feed, enabling Dynamic Remarketing can help you show the products which users researched on your website but didn’t buy. 

Video advertising can help you really create strong brand awareness, especially if you are in a competitive niche. Videoconferencing technology might be in high demand, but how do you get a share if you are new to the market surrounded by famous brands. YouTube for Reach is a skippable format you can utilise and combine with short Bumper ads to get the message through.

Finally, if you are a merchant now is the moment to get your product feed in great shape. Use automated image improvement and high quality product images to make your products stand out. Consider increasing your ROAS to capture higher demand and be more competitive.

These are just some tips which advertisers can implement and be relevant, appealing and competitive in a world of uncertainty. I understand that a lot of businesses are going through unprecedented times and maybe not all this is feasible. Still do not forget that on our planet for some  reason opportunity is always mixed with difficulty. Don’t ask me why, I was not there when the original set up was done  🙂