Startup marketers are in uncharted territory. Since the pandemic started, you’ve changed your messaging, added a COVID-19 response page to your website, cancelled your events, and reworked your budget. But now you’re left with a hole in the lead funnel. So how do you fill it? Increase digital spend even if CPAs might be higher? Are people buying? Do you double down on SEO? Take the chance to update the website? Build out that content strategy? Do you focus on the short-term or plan for the long-term? Is it ok to talk about the pandemic in your marketing? What words do you even use to describe this moment since ‘the new normal’ clearly won’t cut it. Let’s face it, the data is confusing and there’s no established best practice. So what’s a savvy marketer to do?

Our clients are primarily technology startups, from early stage all the way up to late-stage private companies with established global customer bases. And they are just as eager to know how they should adapt their strategies. We’ve been studying the situation and are sharing what we’ve found here in the hope it will help other tech startups navigate the uncertainty of the next few months. 

What do we know?

Let’s start with the fundamentals: what buyer behaviors are we seeing?

Website visits dipped briefly but recovered quickly

Our own data showed a slight drop in web traffic in late March right after stay at home orders were rolled out nationally, and then a steady increase from early April onwards. We even noticed an increase in weekend traffic over the period. It seems tech buyers are encountering the same work/life balance issues as everyone else. Hubspot, which has published a comprehensive analysis of online behaviors since the pandemic began, reported that website visits have stayed relatively consistent and in fact engagement has actually increased, with interactions over messaging and chatbots up by 26% compared with pre-COVID levels. Small companies (below 26 employees) are seeing the highest engagement. 

Content and media consumption are up

Findings from sales intent data provider Bombora showed that B2B consumption of online content has stayed relatively consistent through the stages of the pandemic, except for in the healthcare and finance segments where consumption increased. We have also seen media outlets report higher levels of engagement with editorial tech content since the pandemic began, such as increases of 200-400%+ for cloud, security and remote working stories. Clearly, even when people shifted to remote work, they continued to read content and conduct research.

Paid search conversions are rebounding

Online advertising software provider Wordstream reported that, while paid search conversions dropped in March, they returned in late April back to 89% of their pre-COVID levels. It also reported an increase in paid search spend among SMBs, with budgets up 5% in late April. It’s likely that, as companies started to see an uptick in campaign effectiveness, they became more confident in investing in lead generation again.

Email marketing has increased

Hubspot also noted that both marketing and sales email volumes and open rates have increased since March. Anecdotally, I think we can probably all attest to seeing this trend play out in our inboxes. Response rates fare less well: they are down for companies of all sizes but only marginally (1-3%) for companies under 201 employees. Interestingly, marketing emails with educational resources have garnered much higher engagement rates than sales missives. Even factoring in that many of those early marketing emails contained COVID-specific information, the data is clear enough in its implications: content that educates will meet with more success than self-promotional content, especially in a time when buyers are under more pressure and exercising more caution.

Intent and deals are down, but start-ups and tech fare better

When it comes to purchasing intent (as measured by Bombora’s intent score, Company Surge, which assesses spikes in interest in a topic), buyer intent dropped early in 2020 and continued to decline well below 2019 levels as the pandemic gained momentum in February and March.  But then it started to climb again in early April, across technology topics, notably software, and particularly security which spiked 35%. In terms of deals, Hubspot reported an industry-wide drop of 21% in deals in March. But, according to its data, the computer software sector seems to have weathered that storm better than most and is one of the best performing sectors of all eight tracked: despite small drops in computer software deals in mid-March and early April, there has been a steady increase to pre-COVID volumes since then.

So what can we conclude?

While there was a decline in buyer interest in February and March as the threat of the pandemic loomed and the shelter in place began, as of April buyers became more active online. Clearly, as people have become accustomed to the situation they are looking to establish some semblance of business as usual and are thinking about their long term business prospects. Tech in particular has seen a spike in interest as people turn to technology to aid work from home. This race toward digital is unlikely to retreat, leaving tech vendors jostling for a slice of this increased buyer attention.

Tech buyers are however taking more care and time to research topics and solutions carefully – spending more time in chats, consuming more educational content and emails, but making fewer deals. This likely reflects a tightening of budgets due to economic uncertainty – and we can expect longer sales cycles and a need for more nurturing.

The volume of sales and marketing activity, especially email and content marketing, is clearly increasing as vendors shift their attention online and aim to bolster their dwindling sales forecasts. This means there’s more noise to compete with and only emphasizes the importance of offering value in every communication. 

Our five recommendations for tech marketers

Clearly B2B tech has an important role to play in the new reality, whether it’s helping us work from home, get remote healthcare, or deliver necessary efficiencies for survival in a deeply impacted economy. Tech marketers must navigate this opportunity while being sensitive to their customers’ needs. To do this, we recommend adhering to these five principles. 

Address urgent buyer pain points

In times of crisis, buyers shift their focus to short-term priorities for survival. Likewise, you need to focus your marketing on meeting urgent pain points, without neglecting the longer term opportunities (see point #2). Examine your value proposition in the light of the current reality and re-orient your marketing (from messaging to content to sales enablement) accordingly. It’s ok – necessary in fact – to acknowledge that customer pain points may be different from the usual ones. It’s about being contextually relevant, not ambulance chasing. Adjust your spend to reflect the new buyer priorities. For example, if your solution meets an urgent need, you may want to shift more budget into paid search and display to capture buyers in-market. If your business meets less urgent needs, you’ll want to focus on safeguarding your long term sales pipeline with activities such as SEO and PR. Since the market situation will change, you also need to be ready to adapt. Map out the likely best, worst and medium case scenarios in terms of buyer needs for the next six months and have a plan for meeting each of them. In any case, you should ensure that you are addressing all stages of the funnel to some degree to optimize return on your marketing investments and prevent problems in future. This is always best practice but is more important than ever now.

Prepare for longer buying journeys 

Adapt your lead funnel to allow for lengthier nurturing periods. Analyze your buyers’ behavior to identify any new patterns – you’ll likely find that buyers are conducting more research both on your site and elsewhere. You’ll need to meet this demand with more educational content. For example, you might add more case study content to reduce perceived risk. Or direct leads toward ROI calculators that help them make the case internally amid budget wrangles. Ease of implementation may be crucial for high priority purchases, so be ready to address this during the buyer journey. Help customers sharpen their skills and knowhow through webinars or guides. Similarly, given buyers’ increased reliance on media for educational content, if you’re running a PR program you should focus on sharing useful insights that help journalists inform their readers. 

Shift sales outreach from promotion to connection

Be there for your customers. Offer value. Help them, perhaps for free. You don’t need to be a huge company with a CSR program and millions to donate; an hour of consultancy, a complimentary risk assessment, a free trial are all possible for companies of any size. More importantly, lending your expertise when they ask for it (whether that’s responding promptly to a chat message or giving them a few hours of your time to help them solve an implementation problem) are the things that will be remembered. 

Revamp your online presence

Now that opportunities to engage with prospects in-person are on hold (and, for conferences, that may be the case for the foreseeable future), you’ll need to ensure your online presence is as impactful as possible. Ensure your messaging is on point (adapting it for current customer pain points). Update imagery so it’s relevant. Create product videos and virtual POCs. Consider an online chat option if you don’t already have it in place. Launch a schedule of virtual events.  

Keep measuring and adapting

The one thing that’s certain is that conditions will continue to change rapidly. The mood now is very different to late March or early April. For example as the shelter in place began, outreach dipped as people struggled with their new situation. In late March, the tone changed and we saw outreach increase but with a strong recognition of the anxiety people were feeling. Now, we’re frankly all tired of emails that begin “in these uncertain times” or “hope you’re staying safe”. We get it. People are anxious to move onto some form of normalcy, to get on with business, albeit in very different circumstances. So your tone needs to acknowledge the current context but not over-emphasize it. The tone will likely change again in the coming weeks. You need to be constantly adapting your marketing to reflect the context and what’s working/not working. 

In its simplest form, the overarching recommendation is simply to engage in best practice. Know your customer. Understand what’s top of mind for her. Deliver value. Respect her time. Measure, attribute and adapt. None of these is new to tech marketers. But, as with other painful periods in our history, the cost of not doing so is much higher.

If you would welcome a personalized recommendation for your marketing strategy, or simply need support delivering high-value earned, owned or paid content that meets your buyers’ needs right now, Firebrand is happy to help. Our goal, as ever, is to help tech startups succeed so they can continue delivering the innovative technologies we’ll all need for whatever lies ahead.


About the Author

Lucy Allen is a Principal at Firebrand with two decades of technology communications experience. Lucy leads client operations, from executing programs that help clients grow their business, to developing Firebrand’s team and services. Prior to joining, Lucy held leadership roles in global agencies including US tech sector chair and Bay Area GM at Edelman and chief strategy officer at LEWIS.