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Leading Marketing Through a Recession with Alice de Courcy

A looming recession tends to put people on edge. Even the word ‘recession’ has lots of negative connotations that make people nervous about what’s to come.

But recessions aren’t always scary. In fact, they can offer businesses time to focus on refining and optimising processes.

Alice de Courcy, Cognism CMO, views times of economic turbulence as an opportunity. It’s this positive mindset that helps to keep her and her team thinking calmly and clearly through the environmental chaos.

If you’d like to hear more about how you can lead your marketing team through a recession, keep reading below. 👇

Being a leader during an economic downturn

During the last period of economic uncertainty, (the beginning of COVID-19 in 2020) Alice learned some important lessons about leading a team through stormy weather.

The B2B SaaS marketing world was in mass panic. No one knew what was going to happen. And the media kept broadcasting disaster stories about businesses going under.

But in any stressful event, keeping calm and making rational decisions is what is going to help get you out of it.

And that’s what Alice believes was Cognism’s superpower during these times:

“We didn’t panic. We only focused on the things that were in our control. We saw this time with reduced targets as a chance to focus on tasks we hadn’t had time for before.”

“It all came down to optimisations. How can we get more out of this? What activities and tactics can we do on a low budget?”

So Alice and the team turned their attention to activities like:

  • Reviewing and streamlining website journeys.
  • Reviewing messaging.
  • Researching and understanding the core personas or ICP.

Because these were areas that could help to increase conversions and make the website traffic work harder.

Another big area of focus was content. In particular, consistently producing high-quality content with robust processes for scaling.

Alice adds:

“This is going to be an ongoing process for us as we look at the upcoming recession. We want to optimise every piece of content we have for the channel we share it on. We don’t want to waste anything.”

Speaking of avoiding waste, Alice raises an important point about redefining your target audience.

“We realised that some industries were hit harder than others during the pandemic, such as the events industry.”

“They’d ordinarily have been an audience we’d serve. But under the circumstances, we realised that would have been an inappropriate use of our time and focus.”

In other words, during a recession, it makes sense to re-evaluate who you’re targeting to ensure you’re prioritising the accounts most likely to want to do business with you.

Alice adds:

“You may as well be focusing your attention on the areas where there will be growth - there will still be areas of the market that boom. That was a big lever in our success during the pandemic.”

How can a recession impact B2B marketing?

There are a number of ways in which the B2B marketing landscape changes during a recession. But one of the most common is reduced budgets.

Alice says:

“Marketing is one of the first departments usually hit with budget cuts because we tend to hold a large percentage of the budget for activities that can be turned off without impacting headcount.”

“I think the marketing budget tends to get more highly scrutinised compared with any other department.”

Alice suggests any marketing leader should get oversight of any proposed cuts in budgets early on:

“Try to be a part of those conversations.” 

“Finance will be working on models of what reduced budgets could look like. It’s important you’ve got sight of that and are doing your own modelling including business impacts.”

“You want to be able to show the board and execs what the potential outcomes of that reduction in spend will look like. It’s vital they understand the constraints in which you will be operating the following year.”

Because reduced budget and spend now will have a knock-on effect on other areas of the business. For example quotas for sales as there might be a reduced pipeline of leads for sales to close.

Alice adds:

“Present a very clear picture for decision makers, highlighting any downstream impacts that they hadn’t thought of.”

“I tend to find this helps make those conversations much more constructive and sometimes you even get a bit of your budget back as a result.”

This is exactly what Alice is working with the finance team to do at the moment - making sure that all budgets, quotas and targets are aligned for next year. This also includes ‘early warning signals’ that highlight when plans might be going off course.

Time heavy vs cost heavy activity

And it’s not all doom and gloom if you get a smaller budget. Generally reduced growth goals come along with budget cuts. And with reduced growth expectations, comes some extra breathing room.

Instead of focusing on the high-spend activities, it gives you an opportunity to focus on the time-heavy ones that have just as big an impact.

Alice says:

“When your budgets are growing month on month, you have to spend a lot of time servicing them.”

“The frequency of ads going out is much faster. You’re working on new campaigns and creatives all the time. And a lot of your thinking space is taken up by figuring out how to stack growth - because with your increased budget comes increased targets.”

“As a result, you tend to push the time heavy tasks to the bottom of your list. That’s just what happens when you’re on these crazy growth trajectories.”

But if you had this time back - and you didn’t have to spend so much time focusing on campaigns and ads at the same rate. What could you have the capacity to do?

Alice loves having this time as a chance to consolidate, optimise and capitalise on the tasks stuck in the backlog.

“There are tonnes we can focus on that can make an impact without huge program spend. One area I’d recommend anyone look at is conversion rates across the funnel.”

“If you move those up by even just 1%, that can make a big difference.”

“You want to be using this time to test and experiment with ideas for improving the metrics that matter.”

For example, if your MQL to meeting booked metric could be better…

This could be a great opportunity to test if direct inbound lead to AE routing could work.

Alice explains:

“This could be a great operational cost saver as the time taken up by SDRs dealing with inbound leads could now be focused on outbound.”

“You’re far more likely to get buy-in for experiments like these during these times as management is looking for ideas to make improvements. Anything around efficiency is going to be a priority.”

Don’t retreat from create demand

We get it, in times of recession it can be tempting to revert back to old ways, focusing on demand capture only. Especially if you’re new to the create demand game.

But Alice’s advice would be to the contrary. Instead, stick with the same ratios of create and capture demand.

She says:

“A lot of people are going to want to focus their paid spend on capture demand only. But that means there’s going to be a lot of cheaper attention to be had on the create demand side of things on channels like LinkedIn and Facebook.”

“I’d definitely recommend avoiding putting all your eggs in one basket, only focusing on capture demand because everyone will be doing the same. You’ll get less for your money if there’s more competition.”

Don’t forget in the future, when we’re on the other side of this recession, you’re likely going to need to scale again.

So if you’ve only focused on capture demand, you’ll be back at square one, trying to rebuild the create demand engine.

At Cognism our general budget split is 30% demand capture and 70% demand creation. We never turned off the create engine.

Coming out of the last economic downturn, we were in a great position to begin scaling again. It felt like we had a 100m headstart in a 400m race.

If you’re worried about having the budget to continue investing in creating demand, Alice has some advice.

“Optimise for CRM metrics and revenue. Cut out any capture demand activity that isn’t converting in your CRM. This will give you money back to continue to invest in creating demand.”

Involve your team

Picture this.

You’re sitting in a car driving over an uneven road with a blindfold on. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And every bump feels like it’s about to break the car.

That would make most people scared, right?

But that journey becomes much less stressful once you take off the blindfold, know where you're going and use SatNav on the way.

This is why communication is so important during uncertain times.

Marketing leaders need to stand up for their teams. They can do this by letting them into the decisions that are being made. And explaining why and how these decisions are going to impact them or the business.

Alice shares a number of ways in which you can do this.

#1 - If you had more time, what would you want to focus on?

Run an exercise with your team asking them about what they’d want to do to make more impact if they had more time.

Then use this as part of your planning process for 2023 to create a roadmap of ideas.

Alice says:

“You’ll be surprised at the number of creative ideas that come out of this.”

“As a marketing leader, I understand the feeling that you need to hold the planning and strategy responsibilities yourself.”

“But opening up the dialogue helps people buy into the plans. You’ll be amazed at how well people respond when you’re transparent about everything.”

#2 - If we were to cut the budget by x amount, where would you make the cut?

By involving your team in decisions like this, you’re more likely to:

  1. Avoid any nasty surprises if the company is announcing budget cuts.
  2. Show you respect and value their insight and professional opinion.
  3. Get a better idea of the activities that aren’t pulling their weight so you can optimise.

Alice adds:

“You need to give people time to process information. Just presenting a plan and a newly revised budget can feel like a surprise and a backslide.”

#3 - Open and transparent team meetings

This is pretty self-explanatory. If you are in the middle of making changes in the planning for the year ahead, then share that with your team.

Once you’ve made your decisions, then share this with your team.

If there are underlying reasons for why you’ve made certain decisions, share this with your team.

You’ve likely hired your team because they’re smart, switched-on people. So they know economic circumstances have changed and that will likely bleed into the business environment.

So instead of making them feel nervous, waiting around for information, share it as soon as you’re able. Keeping your cards close to your chest in these scenarios is only likely to cause increased stress and anxiety.

The final word

Yes, recessions can be tricky times.

But no, they’re not a reason to panic.

Instead, this is a time for marketing leaders to come into their own.

Anyone can make a splash with a huge budget. But not every marketer knows how to make a big impact from small tweaks and optimisations.

It’s time to get creative. Get hands-on. Get scrappy.

Looking for more tips for marketing leaders? Say no more. Here's 200 pages of tactical plays and insights that documents Alice's whole journey as a first time CMO.

Click below to access 👇

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