Marketing in times of Covid-19

How to market respectfully in times of crisis

My friends,

we’ll never forget the Covid-19 outbreak with all the fear, uncertainty, and consequences that come with it.

I thought long about whether I want to cover it and run the danger over oversaturation or avoid it to give you all a break. Well, I decided to cover it, from a marketing standpoint, because our focus is very limited these days anyway.

So, bear with me as I’m trying to tackle the topic from fresh angles.

I hope you’re all okay out there.

Stay healthy,


PS: If you seek guidance during the Corona Crisis, I wrote about 6 books that help me cope with the situation.

PPS: I wrote a thing on Forbes about how 3 big trends changed Marketing.

Marketing in times of Covid-19

Last week, I gave a keynote about Google’s future in front of 500 people at SEO Campixx in Berlin. A day later, the conference was canceled due to health concerns. Another day passes and my flight to the US gets canceled. And, guess what, a day later I saw the picture at Chicago O’Hare airport that made me feel lucky I wasn’t able to fly.

And then I suddenly felt very dumb and pathetic. In this crisis, I’m a lucky one. Many are not. They can’t work from home. They do have kids that don’t go to school and need attention and entertainment. They might have the virus and feel bad or their loved ones do. They might go out of business.

That thought steered my mind over to how big brands act in the current situation, which made me choose this topic for today’s episode.

It’s very likely that Covid-19 changes our lives forever. We have gained the awareness that a black swan could around at any time and turn our society and economy upside down. Whenever our lives change, consumer behavior changes as well.

The role of fear in the effectiveness of Marketing

In Marketing, we connect the word fear with FOMO, fear of missing out, or scarcity, the tactic of promoting limited supply. But that’s not the degree of fear we’re dealing with during Covid-19.

Fear clouds judgment. People are afraid of Covid-19 and its second-order effects: society shutting down, melting markets, and uncertainty about how long this whole thing will last.

We Marketers need to understand that fear shuts down receptiveness for joy and excitement. Let’s not even speak about making rational choices when scared.

For most, it’s hard to plan further than 24 hours ahead because reality changes every 24 hours. What people want right now is comfort and certainty - not an exclusive offer or some other way of direct marketing. So, unless your campaigns are geared towards those two attributes, I don’t recommend you launch any. At least until the situation de-escalates.

SEO should be relatively unharmed because it’s a pull channel, meaning people have an interest. You don’t need to convince or push them. However, I do expect search demand to drop for many topics, simply because it’s hard to focus and to make bigger buying decisions.

How fear works

Fear is an ancient security mechanism that saved our butts many times before we had cell phones, cars, or even farming. Humans learn fear through personal experience, for example getting attacked by a dog, and learning from others.

A key factor in fear is control. When we feel we got things under control, fear is limited. When that stops, fear grows. And that’s exactly what happens with Covid-19: we lose our sense of control.

Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can quickly spot that one isn’t completely met in the current situation: safety. Maslow’s theory was that each need builds on the next one, so psychological and self-fulfillment needs are impaired. It’s harder to connect with others and maybe even to make big decisions.

The chemical process of fear involves the spike of glucose, heart rate, and epinephrine. In other words, your body heightens alertness to a maximum but releases tons of stress in the process.

When it gets really bad, the body flips the switch to fight or flight. That’s when your amygdala tells your central nervous system “it’s about to go down”. Your body braces for an attack. That’s the ultimate state of fear.

Now, I don’t think many people experience fight or flight during the Covid-19 outbreak unless their medical condition gets really bad. But they’re under a lot of stress, a “simmering fear”. The result is a blockade of positive emotions and sometimes rational decisions. And that’s the point: many Marketing strategies in the times of crisis are highly ineffective.

5 ways to market respectfully during the Covid-19 outbreak

So what should you do or, better said, what should you not do?

First, if your business involves reservations and people have to cancel, refund their money. That applies especially to events, hotels, restaurants.

I had to cancel a reservation with the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco because my flight from Frankfurt got canceled. They asked for proof of the cancelation, I sent it over, they gave me back all my money. Cool. I asked for a refund for my canceled flight from Condor. They didn’t even reply. Not cool at all. The same with other airlines: they offer me to reschedule my flight but not to cancel for a refund. However, with the current situation, rescheduling doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Second, people crave certainty. I mentioned how the sense of lost control leads to more fear. Thus, the more control and certainty you can provide as a brand, the better! Let your customers know what’s going on, what they can expect, and what your plan is. The best thing you can do here is to be as transparent as possible.

Third, lower your push marketing. Email invitations to your webinar about that new crazy marketing tactic are not going to hit a home run right now. They come across tone def at worst and annoying at best. Unless your campaign revolves around certainty, transparency, or the virus itself, it probably isn’t a good idea.

Fourth, decrease your marketing spend. I’m not saying to tone it down to 0, but this is the right time to be resourceful. It doesn’t seem to me that the economy is going to coming out unscathed from many countries shutting down completely.

Fifth, show how you’re helping out and contribute to the solution. In times of crisis, people also look for community, solidarity, and help. The better you can position yourself within those topics, the better people can relate to you.

5 things to check out

a16z The Truth about 1000 True Fans + Pricing Our Attention

The original future thinker Kevin Kelly on future ad monetization model. 12 minutes that blew my mind.

Moz Are H1 Tags Necessary for Ranking? [SEO Experiment]

Love the scientific approach here and that Moz ran an actual test. Sure, it’s just a single site and we need many more to run the same experiment in order to determine the real impact of H1s, but it’s a great start. Anecdotally, I also don’t think H1s have a big impact.

iPullRank It’s Time To Reconsider Rank Tracking

Fantastic article by Mike King. As usual, he’s right: our concept of rankings is outdated and so is our rank tracking.

Supermetrics From €10M to €20M ARR In 12 Months: 10 Growth Lessons from Supermetrics

Growth lessons of another kind. No quick hacks or tricks. Just lessons learned along the way. Helpful!

Search Engine Journal Unpacking the CausalImpact of Google’s Double-Dipping Featured Snippet Update

Interesting case study. I wish they had separated desktop and mobile search and taken out brand queries. Thoughts?