Even as the COVID crisis shifts gears and communicators look to restoring their worlds—and their operations—to normal, there’s still plenty of concern about what “normal” will look like. New research from creative studio Shaped By finds that tech marketers looking to carve out a competitive edge in the post-COVID world are embracing creativity and taking more risks. At the same time, social and mobile marketing are key strategic responses to decisive shifts in customer behavior.
Creativity more highly valued post-pandemic
In the survey of over 200 senior marketers at UK and US tech brands conducted by Opinium, three quarters (74 percent) say their organization was more creative with its go-to market approach in 2020 than previous years—while 73 percent report that the pandemic triggered more imaginative audience strategies.
Underlining the need for companies to adapt to rapidly-evolving audience demand, 66 percent of tech marketers in the study assert that creativity in marketing is more valued by their organization than a year ago. Similarly, design and creativity has emerged as a lead priority for 60 percent, as tech marketers seek alternatives to tried and tested methods. This is ahead of performance marketing (57 percent) and market research (55 percent).
Tech sector also encouraging more risk-taking
In parallel, the survey shows a trend towards bolder, more courageous, decision-making. Seventy-four percent of participants in the survey believe the tech sector is ‘brave’, and 66 percent say their organization supports courage and risk-taking in their go to market strategy.
That said, just 12 percent say the pivot towards a more risk-oriented, differentiated strategy is down to COVID-19. Instead, the pandemic is acting as an accelerant for profound changes already in motion.
Marketers experimenting with new channels
One impact of the pandemic is that tech marketers have embraced new communication channels, with 98 percent expanding activities on lightly-used channels or experimenting with new ones. Before the pandemic, online advertising and social media were the most common channels used, mentioned by 42 percent and 38 percent of marketers respectively. During the pandemic, channels used for the first time have included:
- Online events (25 percent)
- Webinars (23 percent)
- Social media (21 percent)
The research shows a disparity between large companies (+1000 employees) and smaller companies (between 50-499 employees). Compared to smaller counterparts, big brands were twice as likely to use online advertising and digital events, nearly three times as likely to use social media, and four times as likely to use SEO.
Social marketing proves its worth
Tactical use of online events and webinars during COVID-19 should not deflect from deeper trends. With over a quarter of tech marketers (28 percent) experiencing an increase in audience engagement over the pandemic, social media is emerging as a key way in which end users explore and acquire products and services. Meanwhile, 39 percent of surveyed marketers deemed social marketing to be the most important area to focus on. Mobile marketing (34 percent) was also front of mind, as was purpose-led brand marketing (34 percent).
Audiences responding to new content and messaging
Encouragingly, 59 percent of tech marketers have seen an increase in audiences responding to different types of content and there has also been significant uplift in the ability to get leads (55 percent). One warning sign, however, is an increase in potential clients dropping off the sales cycle at different times (51 percent)—probably because of new work patterns. Businesses best-placed to counter this volatility are those that have cemented their bond with customers. For example, the renewal of subscriptions and upselling of products/services remained robust during 2020 with 49 percent reporting increased frequency and 37 percent no change.
Brands humanizing their offerings
Shaped By co-founder Nick Farrar believes the appetite for experimentation and creativity shows that tech marketers are switching from a sales approach to a value-driven ethos. “Many tech brands found themselves in the eye of the storm with COVID: their technology was in huge demand, but they also needed to step up in a crisis situation,” he said, in a news release. “As a result, brands have strived to humanize their offerings, and connect on an emotional level.”
Emphasis on community and collaboration
This mindset rings true for Barbara Moreno, head of marketing, NDC[X] at Amadeus, whose airline clients were severely hit when Covid-19 struck, causing a global shutdown of the travel sector. Like 28 percent of marketers questioned in the survey, Barbara saw a growth in audience engagement last year amid a Rethink Travel campaign her company launched to spark conversations on the best path forward. “This pandemic has forced us not just to be creative, but also to be more empathetic,” she says, in the release. “We need to be really understanding about what our customers are going through, and engage them in a collaborative team spirit.
Getting back to marketing basics
“Brands are realizing you have to communicate with clients around their passion points, and problems that you can solve for them,” said Dave Corlett, business director at Shaped By, in the release. “So it’s about getting back to the basics of core brand identity—and how you communicate on a genuine and profound level.”
Inexorable march of tech—and how creativity fits in
Increased emphasis on risks and creativity does not, according to the survey, signal a rejection of the trend towards AI/machine learning and data-driven marketing: 50 percent of survey respondents say their marketing is dominated by technology, with 27 percent noting a dominance of creativity and 24% reporting an equal mix of the two. The underlying message is that tech marketers need to accommodate creative and tech under one roof.
US vs UK—cultural differences across the Atlantic
Tech marketers in the US and UK were mostly in agreement but sometimes attitudes diverged. Here are a few times the survey hinted at distinct corporate cultures.
US respondents were especially upbeat when asked if their organization has a culture that embraces design and creativity, with 81 percent saying yes compared to 76 percent in the UK. This gap was even wider when asked if they had been able to be more creative as a result of the pandemic—with 79 percent of US marketers saying yes, compared to 66 percent in the UK.
Forty-six percent of US marketers expect increased reliance on tech in the next 3-5 years, compared to 41 percent for the UK. The figures flip when asked if there will be increased reliance on creativity: 25 percent of US marketers said yes, compared to 37 percent from the UK. This may suggest the US is ahead of the curve—having already prioritized creativity and seeing tech as the next wave.
Both camps said their organizations support risk-taking, but the situation in the UK appeared more volatile. Under ‘strongly support’ risk-taking, the UK came out ahead of the US by 32 percent to 28 percent. However, the UK also scored higher when tech marketers were asked if their company tends to oppose risk-taking—15 percent (UK) versus 8 percent (US).
The Shaped By Study was carried out by Opinium in 2021. Opinium interviewed over 200 senior marketers in medium to large tech companies in the US and the UK.