COVID-19’s Impact on Paid Search: How Brands Must Adapt

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As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, many businesses were forced to adjust their plans on the fly. Companies switched to a work-from-home model, conferences were cancelled or moved to virtual platforms and marketing budgets were reduced. Consumers needs and behaviors have also been altered – making it more important than ever for marketers to be agile.

People are spending almost all of their time at home which is causing an increase in media consumption online, such as browsing, researching and shopping. Total internet hits have skyrocketed anywhere from 50% to 70% for people sheltering in place, according to Forbes. On top of that, 32% of people say they spend more time on social media than before lockdowns took effect. With these pivotal shifts in consumer behavior, markets must maintain – or even increase – their paid search presence to keep up with the evolving needs of users. Below are what marketers must keep in mind when crafting paid search strategies:

Maintain the Momentum – Even in Challenging Times
In a recent survey from The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), 81% of large advertisers said they plan to defer ad campaigns and decrease budgets and 57% said budgets were slashed greatly or somewhat because of the pandemic.

While some companies must go this route, experts say a downturn is not the time to shy away from advertising. In fact, cutting those efforts could make it more challenging in the long run. For example, companies that continued investing in brand awareness came out of the 2008 housing crash stronger than those that didn’t.

In resources shared by Google, the company states, “Even in categories where consumers have pulled back spending right now, creating a branding impact now will have a halo and pay dividends when the market normalizes. Research and historical examples of economic downturn have shown this to work.” This emphasizes the importance across all industries of continued investment in your brand and branded keywords. Plus, the last thing your company wants is to see competitors monetizing on branded search results.

In a time where every penny counts, paid search emerges as a great option for companies because of its cost effectiveness, and the ability to adjust campaigns as needed. The process to get up and running, conduct tests, collect information and update is quick and simple – making it a viable tactic when the landscape is changing daily. With the ability to track conversion, click-through rates and levels of engagement, marketers can track the ROI of the campaign and determine how to adjust. While day-to-day life is constantly shifting at this time, the learning and testing marketers can do with paid search makes it an incredibly flexible resource to use in this volatile market.

Paid Search Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
Industries across the board are affected by COVID-19; however, not all industries are impacted equally so paid search strategies should fit the specific needs of each changing industry. For example, e-commerce and B2B companies have improved paid search performance during the pandemic, while travel and healthcare have yielded poor results.

At first, it seems odds that healthcare is struggling considering the need for healthcare services at the moment. But, while many hospitals are busy treating COVID-19 patients, people that aren’t sick with the virus choose to avoid hospitals, medical centers and elective medical services like bariatric surgery. This is changing how people are shifting their healthcare searches to find options for care without leaving the house, such as telemedicine. Between February and March of this year, CivicScience found the number of adults interested in using telehealth services increased 12%. To accommodate for this changing need, hospitals and healthcare providers are updating their messaging and offerings to showcase their virtual medical services.

On the other side of the spectrum, B2B companies have a longer sales cycle so they’re concerned about how the current landscape with affect them in the months to come – or years to come in some cases. A company’s gut reaction may be to decrease marketing budgets to save money in the short term but making drastic changes to the paid search strategy could have negative impacts in the long run. It could also give a competitor the opening to take the lead. This time is essential for building awareness and directing leads into the funnel to continue filling the sales pipeline.

What Works Best
When it comes to adjusting strategy, there are a few best practices to keep in mind when optimizing paid search: Pivot the message, track the tone of marketing copy, adapt offerings for customers’ needs and update based on changing digital behavior.

Start with updating the messaging of the marketing copy. This is as easy as confirming store hours and offerings are updated to reflect any COVID-19-related changes. Additionally, ensure all call to action messages are revised. For example, be sure to steer clear from language like “Visit In-Store” if the location is under strict regulations to limit in-store business.

Next, test the tone of the message to keep the copy appropriate. Customers want to build relationships with the brands they interact with by connecting with the brand’s identity and values. They don’t want to support companies that come off like they’re gaining from the pandemic. It’s tone-deaf to run a campaign around booking a vacation package, but it’s helpful when businesses share how they’re maintaining a safe work environment for their employees.

Find ways to adapt offerings to fulfill customers’ needs. Like the previous examples, healthcare companies can highlight their telemedicine offerings or restaurants can promote carry out and delivery options.

Finally, your customers’ digital behavior is changing, and your ads should change, too. As more people stay at home, desktop usage has increased correspondingly. With more people using desktops, mobile search has decreased by almost 25%. It’s important to craft paid search ads and landing pages to be optimized for both desktop and mobile experiences. Since we’ve grown accustomed to a mobile-first society, marketers need to refocus on these types of behavior changes.

Be Agile
This pandemic has forced marketers to be even more flexible. Previously, marketing professionals and agencies had the ability to create multiphase processes for campaigns with lots of planning, feedback and various iterations. Now, everything is accelerated, and ads must be current to avoid appearing tone deaf. Paid search provides marketers with the flexibility they need to be quick, while also being cost effective.

We’re all in this together; taking it one day at a time. There isn’t a specific plan to follow in times like this, but that’s why many people rely on marketers to bring smart, agile strategy to stay connected with customers.

Brianna Desmet
As a media specialist at R2i, Bri is responsible for the day-to-day strategic execution and management of cross-channel media campaigns. Her primary focus at R2i is around the planning, implementation, optimization, and reporting of digital media strategies for a variety of clients. Bri is especially skilled at aligning media mix and strategy to the each client's KPIs and overarching business goals.

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