What we’ve been going through is going to change the face of digital marketing – and you’re helping to shape our history. Stay strong.

This year has been, by all accounts, a mess. It began well enough. But, here in the United States, 2020 began to go off the rails not long after the New Year, when the COVID-19 pandemic moved out of the news and into our lives.

Today, everybody I’ve talked to, from clients to friends and family, is going through some sort of distraction thanks to the economy, job issues, social upheaval, the world situation, family health crises, or national politics.

I can identify with these people because I’m one of them. I’ve struggled with what to write about for you. We’re in a pandemic. We’re a few weeks past Election Day, but we still don’t have closure. We’re hurtling into the biggest retail season of the year and nobody really knows what to expect.

Any one of these things is enough to sap our marketing creativity. With all of them bundled together, overlaid with the unending battle with COVID-19, it’s no wonder that many of us find it exhausting to market and think creatively.

What generally takes me a couple of days now takes twice as long because of distractions, stress, and anxiety. Back in my days as a national retail marketer, I had enough stress and anxiety to deal with this time of year. I can’t imagine having to work effectively under our current conditions.

So what do we do in the midst of such chaos? It’s easy to characterize these days as a never-ending dumpster fire. But this is also one of the most unique experiences we marketers have ever gone through, and it will shape how our work and world views from now on.

Four ways to refocus and power through

It’s a tough question, and, for once, I don’t have the right answers for everyone. But maybe these four tips will help you stay in the game.

1. Be empathetic

If “personalization” was the word of the year in 2019, then “empathy” must take the crown in 2020. And it’s not a cliché, or virtue signaling, to say we discovered the need for empathy this year. It always should have been the basis of our marketing, but this year, we need it more than ever.

Empathy is what will guide us, whether the subject is politics, the pandemic, the economy, or anything else. Our job as marketers is to understand what’s happening in the market and with customers and to present a message that compels people to act within those conditions.

Without empathy, without understanding someone else’s position, plight, or fears, we are paralyzed.

This can be hard. We all have our own concerns, fears, stress, and anxiety. Now, we also have to think about other people and what they are going through? That’s one reason why so many of us are exhausted.

I’ve talked before about the need to watch the evening news, and I know it’s a struggle, especially if the news makes you want to throw something through your screen. But that’s one of the ways we find our empathy – by seeing what our customers are seeing and experiencing.

The other way is to reach out to our own front-line teams – our customer support or service teams. Find out what they’re hearing from customers. What are they saying? What are they asking about? What are their problems? What are they hearing that can speak louder than words – are conversations friendly or confrontational? Or are they more understanding about difficulties?

Check in with your social media team, too. What about a post that asks customers how they’re doing or feeling? The answers can give you insights you won’t get any other way.

As marketers, we have to be even more empathetic and more creative about how we figure out what’s happening with our customers beyond our channel experience.

2. End the doom-scrolling. Turn off the TV. Cancel the social media alerts on your phone.

I have four TV screens in my office, and they are all tuned to the news. But more often, I have tuned my TVs to long-play beach videos from YouTube.

Even though I’m not watching the news all day, it still surrounds me. It surrounds all of us. We are inundated with opinions and late-breaking updates. It can be overwhelming.

Yes, I’m saying you need to watch the news. But watch it once a day and then turn to something else. You have to take a break. Your mind needs balance. If you can find that sense of balance, that peace, that alone time, you will get into the right headspace.

You’ve probably heard someone say, “Get your head in the game.” The problem is our heads are in 12 different games right now. So, turning off social media from time to time and limiting your TV consumption is putting yourself into halftime.

3. Do a welfare check on your teams

Not just your marketing team, but also others you’re used to working with regularly. It’s harder to do in the Zoom/Hangout/Skype space, but it’s important. Back in the day, we just hung out, at lunch or after work (remember those days?). Now it takes time to connect. But it’s important to make that effort to connect with your team, to see how everyone’s doing.

The dynamic of work iteration has changed. Managers, supervisors, and executives need to connect personally, and with empathy, more than ever before.

But it doesn’t mean ramping up 1:1s. Just as you should get creative with how  you check in on customers, you can take your team’s temperature besides asking, “How are you doing?”

My wife’s company featured a Halloween fitness challenge. She and a friend signed up to run a 5K, and they got their CMO involved. In the days before the race they shared workouts, training, and the post-race celebration.

In the office environment of the Before Times, you and your marketing teammate might never talk regularly with your CMO, let alone relate on such a personal level. Here, the race made the CMO more relatable, inspired her and her friend and got her motivated.

That’s one of the unique ways that clever executives can keep in touch with their teams, and I applaud that connection.

4. Update and diversify your models

Modeling and data are key to your success. In a recent webinar featuring Forrester’s Shar VanBoskirk, a brilliant analyst and one whose perspective I’ve long admired, she was asked how marketers can account for all the different scenarios happening today. Her response was that many companies are running a multitude of models based on a multitude of scenarios.

Whether you’re a Fortune 50 or Fortune 10000 company, you need to play out the data in different scenarios, not just for targeting your customers but also for what’s happening around you.

Does your model account for cities going back into lockdown to combat the pandemic? That means stores could be closed again. Develop different models and do some wargaming based on your business. What levers could you pull to help affected businesses?

Wrapping up

I will be glad when we get back to normal, whatever that might look like. I don’t know when that will happen. I keep thinking we’re on our way, and then something else happens that throws us back into turmoil again.

The confusion, stress, and anxiety of trying to market in an uncertain holiday season – or of trying to plan for the future – aren’t going away soon. We have to change what we are doing and find ways to make work easier for all of us.

Beyond the consternation, do what you can to find your peace and also the solution to the job in front of you. You’re not alone. You don’t see it now, but in the years to come, what we’ve been going through is going to change the face of digital marketing. You’re helping to shape our history.

Stay strong, and don’t let the Zombies win.