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Posted: March 03, 2009

Marketing in a down economy

Be current, be included and be heard

John Metzger

Spend nothing. Sell more. That’s the bean counter’s solution to marketing in a down economy. Wall Street’s shortsighted habit of rewarding cost cuts and layoffs makes sense when sales slump. But after the bottom line gets its Band-Aid, any company’s longer-term health is going to depend less on cutting costs and more on management’s ability to understand, adjust and market its products in concert with changing buyer behavior.

When times are tough, customers are slower to make purchasing decisions. Prospective buyers tend to be more thoughtful and discerning, taking more time to learn about a product or service, comparing, shopping and carefully deciding what to buy. That’s why your company’s story is so important. Though it sounds counterintuitive to spend money to make money during a recession, marketing – the creation of demand and awareness for you, your company and your product – must take place before the sales team can close deals with cautious buyers.

Tell your story

Stories about companies, products and services are best delivered by objective third parties (journalists, customers, analysts and activists) in venues that appear to be neutral and non-biased to the buyer. Editorial forums in traditional media (newspapers, magazines, TV/radio shows and public speaking venues) and on the Internet (blogs, Web sites, message boards and news sites) are more credible information sources than any form of paid-for advertising. Traditional advertising typically relies on an image that will spark an impulse to buy. But, it is “earned media” – objective editorial coverage bolstered by meaningful messaging and keywords – that will inspire buyers to think about how a purchase can save them time and money before they buy.

The words you use to position your product are more important than ever. When buyers want something, they go to Google and search for it. The keywords used in your company’s messaging, from news releases and articles to ads and Web site copy, are now the holy grail of marketing. How often you use your keywords, where and in what order has become a science.

Be relevant to be heard

Organic search results increase with change, so a static Web site with little or no activity is less likely to get your product found when searched for than a site with frequent updates, changing information and active links. Disseminate and discuss your story often in as many places as possible, repeating your keywords as often as possible (without being obnoxious). Use your own blogs,  join conversations in others’ blogs. Engage your customers, and try convincing them to do the same. Update your Web site frequently with regular news releases, articles and links to relevant industry news and to customer sites. In other words, be current, be included, be relevant and be heard.

The discussion is rarely about "new and improved," and more often about "thought leadership" themes where you discuss issues, offer advice and advocate change that matters to your customers. Every company, large or small, should get on the blogging bandwagon and contribute to the greater conversation out there. Even the slow-to-adopt Fortune 500 corporations are shifting some of their traditional ad budgets to incorporate blogging and social media outreach programs into the mainstream.

Reach beyond bad news

The best advice is to try to ignore the gloom and doom and instead, talk about your innovation, position your product or service in a way that reaches beyond the bad news to the good, to the helpful, to the forward thinking. What productivity gains do you bring your customers? Why is your company valuable – not just your product or service? Will it be around next year to support, service and upgrade your products? If you can consistently market your company’s contribution in context with the big picture, you are much more likely to attract customers, investors and/or future merger and acquisition candidates while we're in a down cycle.

Any time the economy is suffering, there’s always an industry or two that starts rising the tide to float the other boats. Usually those sectors are innovators bringing new solutions and productivity gains to the marketplace. Use your story and your innovations to create your own self-fulfilling prophecy of success by positioning your company now so your brand is top of mind when the economy picks up.

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John Metzger is founder and CEO of Metzger Associates, one the nation’s first technology public relations firms.

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Readers Respond

Insightful piece by a skilled PR and marketing innovator. In any economy, it's always buyer self-interest that motivates buying decisions. Buyers will spend money, even when they weren't planning it (like in a down economy), when they believe it will significantly improve their situation. John is right on about marketing/PR establishing those significant improvements via earned media and more, before the sales team can do its thing – especially necessary in a more sluggish marketplace. By Stephen Koenigsberg on 2009 03 04

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