Content Marketing During a Downturn: Here’s What the Conventional Wisdom Gets Wrong

Recession. Downturn. Economic uncertainty. When these words start to appear, conventional wisdom tells businesses to cut their marketing budgets.

It turns out that advice is dead wrong.

As multiple researchers have found over decades of studies, stopping your marketing efforts during tough times is a mistake. Data shows that proactive marketing “pays off” during recessions—for brands across industries, including the likes of Toyota, Amazon, Coca-Cola, etc. As two marketing professors put it in a 2020 Harvard Business Review article: “Firms that maintain their marketing spend while reallocating it to suit the context … fare better than firms that cut their marketing investment.”

When everyone is on high alert, pulling back might seem like the safe bet in the short term. But keep in mind that this moment full of challenges also presents opportunities. Companies need to keep growing to succeed, and content is one of the most effective ways to do that.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore reality and pretend everything is great. The trick, as many researchers found, is to adjust and reallocate your budget rather than gutting your chance at growth. Here’s how investing in content can help you overcome today’s biggest challenges and position your company to succeed long term.

How content marketing leads to meaningful ROI

Paid ads and content marketing have inverse reputations. Ads tend to be annoying disruptions that don’t work well but are very easy to track for ROI. Content, meanwhile, offers buyers a lot of value but takes deeper effort to tie to business results. This strange dynamic is one reason why professionals fall back on paid budgets despite the crappy user experience.

In the last few years, though, content ROI has gotten much easier to track and optimize. If you examine the two tactics side by side, it’s clear content is a better investment, especially if budgets are tight.

Let’s say you have $500. If you spend that on an ad campaign at a $10 cost per click, you get 50 clicks. When the budget runs out, you’ll have to spend more to keep seeing results. But remember, you can’t necessarily tie that click-through rate to sales. You’ve got to hook them and drive them to action.

With owned content marketing, you take that same $500 and work with a skilled creator who produces an asset that truly helps your audience. It can be optimized for search and distributed through your organic channels. That article drives 500 clicks through email and social, and continues to drive results for months to come.

You can always scale ad spend up or down over time, depending on budget constraints. But no amount of paid spend can make up for weak content. Focusing on great content puts you in a better position to succeed and gives you flexibility around distribution.

Remember: Buyers don’t stop buying during a recession. They just get really choosy about where their dollars go.

Where to increase your content spend

There’s a really interesting contrast playing out in marketing right now. According to Gartner, marketing budgets as a percentage of revenue are actually up overall this year compared to 2021. However, ad spend is down, particularly in consumer and B2B tech.

Marketers would be wise to use some of those new funds on ambitious content. And if other companies are making cuts, one advantage is you won’t have to deal with as much competition for attention.

Plus, innovation happens when budgets are tight.

We don’t even have to look that far back to see an example: How we work and interact with colleagues has changed dramatically since the global pandemic. Prior to March 2020, Zoom calls and people working remotely were rare and few and far between. Now? It’s the status quo.

With dozens of companies announcing layoffs, we’re seeing an increase in demand for freelance content creators. Gartner research also revealed that 58% of CMOs don’t think they have the in-house talent “needed to execute on their strategy.” Addressing the talent gap is a smart way to adjust your content spend.

That way, you’ll be able to keep content quality and volume up with a smaller team. You can streamline communication with both internal and external teams with platforms like Slack or even our own Contently, where you can manage deadlines, projects, and communications all in one location.

How to adapt your goals during tough times

In 2016, CEO Tim Cook told a crowded room, “We believe in investing during downturns,” as he reflected on Apple’s response during bleak times, like 2008 at the height of the Great Recession.

Similarly, now is the perfect opportunity to move miles ahead of the competition. For one, you’re already out of the starting gate by understanding the important role storytelling plays in how we connect with brands. We’ve got a few ideas to help you plan your improved path forward and win the day with content.

Focus on big ideas and big rocks

While you’re adjusting your goals to meet the current need, it’s vital you step back and look at the giant opportunity waiting on the other side of the crisis.

Need some inspiration? Procter & Gamble was already famous for their “floating soap” at the start of the Great Depression. As the Depression lagged on, stores cut back on their orders and sales stagnated. P&G could have stopped producing soap altogether to take care of the immediate need. Instead, they realized they had to engage their audience in a different way—people still needed soap—and they created the first ever direct-to-consumer marketing strategy, increasing their soap sales and changing how brands interact with consumers to this day.

For today’s content marketers, look at your current strategy and goals and adapt them to fit where we’re headed, not just where we are today. That could mean focusing on your most important owned channels like email and social rather than experimenting elsewhere. Or maybe you choose to focus on a few essential big rock content pieces that you can repurpose instead of producing a bunch of shorter articles.

Audit your content

Now is the perfect time to audit the content you currently have and review your data. What are your most popular articles and have any shifted since the beginning of this downturn? Look at individual pieces and ask: How is it performing? Are people reading it all the way through? Is it still generating traffic to your site?

Update some of that content to engage today’s audience (and it’ll do better in search). You may find you have a lot of material on a topic and can create a course out of those pieces. You’ll give customers a way to learn a skill or how to use your product more efficiently, and if they’re new, you get their email address to continue building trust with them.

Listen to your public-facing teams

Your Sales and Customer Success teams are your “ears to the ground.” They know very well what your customers are saying, because they’re on the phone or in a live chat with them on the daily. What are they hearing? What fears and concerns do current clients and prospects share with them?

Take this feedback and use it to generate content that helps address their concerns. (Where do you think we got the idea for this piece?) What content can you generate that can help them make the case for your product or services and prove bang-for-the-buck? This is another moment where you can showcase your value and reinforce why they should choose you—even in the middle of a recession.

While your internal teams are listening to the customers they’re talking with, what are people saying to you on social? Are you asking questions? You should be! This is a great opportunity to be like Slack and create channels dedicated to listening to your customers directly.

Create content for your current customers

Once someone becomes a customer, it may be easy to forget about them and move on to the next lead. But that’s short-sighted and an easy way to lose them. (Anyone fed up with their internet provider and switched just because of poor customer service? Just me?)

Customer success teams tend to be overbooked as they juggle keeping 12 clients happy at once. Retention content is such an important tool that many companies don’t invest in till it’s too late. Creating content specifically for your customers, whether it’s onboarding or beyond, helps strengthen the relationship and can increase profits exponentially.

So as you prepare to balance the need for growth with the urge to save, think about how great content can lift your organization. Now’s not the time to pull back. Those willing to stay the course and double-down with their content can reap monumental rewards that will follow them well beyond the current downturn.

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