One Year Since the Pandemic: Top Learnings, Changes, and Challenges

March 15, 2021

Group of men and women at work in a meeting room with masks on.

It was just a little over one year ago – March 11th, 2020 – when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. I had just settled into my space at LinkedIn’s Chicago office the week it shut down.

Around that time, the virus went from being a vaguely looming threat to an unavoidable everyday reality. This once-in-a-century event uprooted lives, businesses, and conventions around the world like nothing we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes. For those of us in marketing, it’s certainly been a whirlwind.

Twelve months later, we’re finally on a solid path back to semi-normalcy. Vaccines are rolling out, CDC guidelines are loosening, and states across the country are scaling back restrictions to various degrees. 

We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’ve come a long way. This felt like a fitting time to step back and reflect on the past year’s journey from a digital marketing standpoint. What have we learned, what has changed, and what are the key implications of the pandemic we’re still reckoning with? 

What We’ve Learned

One of the biggest takeaways from the dramatic impact of COVID-19, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders is that all of the tremendous effort and resources organizations have long poured into strengthening the digital part of digital marketing have been well worth it.

When online engagements became the sole means of connection between companies and customers, the value of a high-caliber digital presence grew all the more profound. 

We also learned that buyers tend to favor this dynamic. Research by McKinsey & Company last year found that 70-80% of B2B decision makers prefer remote interactions with sellers and digital self-service, citing ease of scheduling, savings on travel expenses, and safety. As B2B sales falls in line with evolving buyer preferences, marketing will be empowered to elevate its symbiotic partnership and support the sales process in powerful new ways.  

(Source: McKinsey & Company

Perhaps the most crucial learning — which is not unrelated to the above — is how vitally important it is for businesses and their marketers to be nimble and adaptive. Because, as we’ll cover next, much has changed and there’s no end to that in sight.

What’s Changed

COVID-19 disrupted almost every aspect of life in certain ways, so it’s a little tough to narrow down a succinct list of specific changes. But as I look back at the past year, these developments feel most distinct in the marketing realm.

Content strategies shift and adapt

In the latest installment of their annual B2B content marketing benchmarking report, Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs asked a set of questions specific to COVID-19. Nearly all respondents (94%) indicated that the pandemic had some level of impact on their content strategies, with 70% describing the impact as moderate or major. A vast majority expected these adjustments to be at least partially long-term in nature.

(Source: Content Marketing Institute)

The most commonly cited reactions were changes to targeting/messaging strategy (70%), adjustments to the editorial calendar (64%), and changes to content distribution/promotion strategy (53%).

At LinkedIn, our team lived through this firsthand, as I’m sure many reading this did. Our carefully crafted content calendar went out the window. Our goals and priorities pivoted on a dime. We re-examined everything we published through an entirely new lens. 

For marketers everywhere, the stakes for understanding and empathizing with audiences were raised dramatically.

Empathy becomes more essential than ever

“Lockdowns churned up stress, anxiety, and so much more," said Amy Fuller, chief marketing and communications officer at Accenture, in a new article at Marketing Dive. "Those emotions are now a lasting part of the landscape — not just for marketing, but for all forms of communications, and most importantly, for people.”

"Empathy and compassion are a permanent part of marketing's new tool box," she added.

They’ve always been key traits, but now – as Fuller asserts – they are essential. Empathy is, in part, a naturally-honed art form, fueled by active listening and earnest intentions. But it is also an increasingly data-driven science. Compassion comes through understanding, and a new era of in-depth customer insight is opening new possibilities. But more than ever, marketers need insights they can trust.

Quality data is the name of the game

Over the past year, we’ve seen how fast circumstances can change – for people, companies, and entire business sectors. This chaotic landscape doesn’t necessarily mean customers have more patience for marketers and salespeople that can’t keep pace and stay on top of the details. 

The value of dependable, pertinent, and up-to-date information is immense. Companies that target prospective customers more accurately, reach them more effectively, and connect with them more resonantly will own a decisive competitive advantage. 

Remaining Challenges to Overcome

Marketers should focus on these key areas as we venture forth into an uncertain post-pandemic world. 

Staying ahead of the curve

In an article at AdAge discussing how COVID-19 has changed marketing forever, Forrester’s analyst Jay Pattisall argues the pandemic “flipped everything on its head. It used to be that branding communications was the constant, and we’d look to technology for opportunities. Technology used to be the differentiator. The priorities have flipped. Now technology—marketing technology, data, analytics, ad tech—will be the foundation.”

While a strong digital underpinning might have once been the sign of a forward-looking organization, it’s now table stakes. Marketers will be challenged to innovate and think creatively within a new tech-driven paradigm to stay out front.

Building community from afar

Needless to say, widespread lockdowns made it more difficult to maintain a sense of connectivity and community between brands and their audiences. Even as live events and in-person experiences gradually return, there will continue to be an  emphasis on strengthening digital relationships and fostering brand communities. On LinkedIn, online community-building tools include LinkedIn Pages, LinkedIn Groups, hashtagged conversations, and LinkedIn Events.

Tackling the diversity directive

The pandemic’s impact served to underscore deep fundamental divides and inequalities in our society. It was crushing, for instance, to see women account for 100% of jobs shed by the U.S. economy last December.   

While gender equality seems to be improving in marketing leadership, where a 2020 ANA national diversity study found that women now account for more than half (52%) of all CMO-level positions, that same study found those women in leadership were overwhelmingly white (88%). Another 2020 study from Marketing Week found that 88% of all respondents from the marketing industry were white. 

Addressing this diversity gap ought to be an utmost priority for the marketing profession collectively as we forge ahead. It’s an edict that extends beyond any single demographic facet. Recently our Chantal Augustin shared practical ways marketers can foster diversity, equity and inclusion every day.

A Future Full of Opportunity

There are certainly serious challenges ahead for marketers, but these lessons and changes also represent exciting opportunities to grow the function’s role and chart a bold future.

“The pandemic has put marketing more squarely back in the middle of a company's operations," Ivan Pollard, global CMO at General Mills, told Marketing Dive. "Any talk about not needing a CMO or marketing anymore has quieted down a little all around the industry."

Let’s rise to the occasion and conquer these challenges together. 

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