COVID-19 and corporate social responsibility in search engine marketing

March 20, 2020

On Jan. 31, US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar II, declared a public health emergency in response to the outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Consistent with the latest news from the CDC (as of this writing on March 11), which states, “This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation,” many US businesses and digital marketers have already seen the impact of the COVID-19 on paid search planning and execution.

First and foremost on marketers’ minds, and in the minds of our clients, is the health and safety of our employees, our respective clients, and the international community at large. If you are sick, self-isolate, or work from home, if possible.. The CDC recommends that you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Use common sense and good judgment when traveling, both domestically and internationally, and fact-check the source of any information you find online about the coronavirus – the CDC is at the forefront of information dissemination for this virus in the US.

Pivoting strategies 

In an age when marketing success can hinge on a business’s ability to quickly react to and pivot strategy around Internet trends in real time, the COVID-19 outbreak is changing consumer behavior. Just as CEOs are adjusting business travel policies and IT professionals are preparing networks for an influx of work-from-home traffic, marketing teams are also preparing for changes.

International disruptions in the daily operations of people and businesses have already had resounding effects on search engine marketing (SEM) planning and execution across multiple industries. From search volume fluctuations to supply chain interruptions, our SEM teams have had conversations with clients about how to pivot strategy to ensure businesses are doing everything they can to protect the health and wellness of their employees and of those in their supply or manufacturing chains, while also supporting their customers.

The first thing that some search teams may notice is an increase in search traffic around certain products or services. For example, an increase in searches for “face masks.”

Some initial precautions SEM teams can take to ward off any unwarranted increases in search traffic are:

  • Set up automated reporting dashboards to review traffic and spend at a glance.
  • Consider applying negative bid modifiers to heavily affected geographies, depending on product or service availability.
  • Monitor search query reports closely, especially for broad and phrase match keywords.

Increased search traffic

One of our clients saw increased search traffic on zinc-related products, led by a viral message from a noted pathologist that was being shared on social media platforms, which led people to believe these products would protect users against the coronavirus (that claim has not been substantiated by strong research). After the letter went viral, the client sold much of its zinc product stock in one day, and the search team saw a traffic increase on zinc-related products. The search team has increased paid search presence on wellness products in response to consumer demand, capturing an opportunity to support those communities that have been affected by the virus. One large benefit of direct-to-consumer goods is that they allow sick people who are self-isolating access to medicine or symptom-relief products without having to leave their homes.

Check traffic monitoring tools, such as Google Trends and search query reports, at regular intervals. Keep an especially close eye on shopping campaign traffic using reporting dashboards.

Proactive planning for events

Already, the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused multiple businesses to postpone or cancel the execution of large events. France and Sweden have restricted any event with more than 5,000 or 1,000 attendees, respectively. Have proactive conversations with your teams about upcoming industry event support and how SEM traffic may be affected. Discuss the messaging plan with clients who are canceling their own events and determine if it’s necessary to keep paid support in place for canceled event keywords to minimize confusion or frustration among your event user base. Monitor year-over-year reporting, and discuss how event changes may affect monthly, quarterly, or annual results.

Most of the historical performance from keywords such as work-from-home and telework comes from users who are job-searching, rather than searchers who are already employed and are looking for guidelines, policies or restrictions on working from home. This trend may be changing in real time, and the marketing team is preparing to pivot strategy if necessary.

Don’t react rashly to noisy data – make sure any changes in strategy are supported by clear data trends. Widen your analysis lens to think about other trends that may cause data fluctuations. Check analyses for statistical significance and ensure ad copy and website messaging are in full support of employee and customer wellness. Be aware of people’s reaction to this sensitive issue.

The travel industry is anticipating large effects of coronavirus travel restrictions and event cancellations as testing becomes more frequent and the number of confirmed cases increases. Where someone searching for “Italy travel” at the end of 2019 may have been looking to plan a vacation, someone searching that same query now could be looking for information from their local government on travel restrictions.

Monitor efficiency metrics like click-through rate (CTR) and cost per click (CPC) to determine if the nature of people’s broad search queries are changing. Rely on remarketing and customer match audience types to assign value to returning searchers. Audit prospecting tactics and targeting, putting thought behind how to minimize COVID-19’s effect on your typical marketing traffic. In an era where corporate social responsibility is driving consumer behavior, CMOs and their marketing teams have an obligation to themselves, their colleagues, their communities and the world to protect communities against coronavirus panic through a fact-based discourse. As businesses are increasingly scrutinized online and on social media, this is an opportunity for businesses to show their commitment to a healthy global population and the safety of their workforce and supply chain. Remember to continuously check your facts, wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, and take necessary precautions to stay safe.

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