But bring the lessons learned over the last year with you.

Things feel as if they’re changing.

My wife and I went out to dinner recently, the first time in over a year. It was an amazing experience and one step closer to acting like normal. Just having somebody else make the food I was eating that night was simply astounding.

Transitioning to my work life, things seem to be changing there too. Since the calendar flipped over to 2021, I’ve been seeing a switch in messaging in my work with clients, in the emails that land in my inbox, in commercials, advertisements and other marketing connections.

It’s something familiar. It’s messaging as we used to do it, before COVID-19 dominated everything. Before we tossed out our 2019 playbooks and revamped our messaging to reflect the new reality.

Marketing under COVID-19

Let me trace recent history to give you the right context.

For 10 months in 2020, marketing was a hurried mess of actions and reactions. The message focus was clear: COVID-19 first, product second.

Amid the chaos, some corporations pulled back on their advertising and marketing spends, out of financial necessity or a need to see which way the pandemic would go before committing to new budgets.

Then came the vaccinations

As more people around the world got their shots, company attitudes began to shift toward spending. In my own agency, the phones rang with clients and prospects ready to get back into the game.

This renewed enthusiasm probably had its roots in new expectations —getting the pandemic under control, new confidence based on the U.S. election outcome, prospects for the new administration in Washington — who knows?

The messages began to shift away from making sure your customers knew you were complying with government lockdowns and safety protocols. Now we were switching gears.

Today, our customers know what we’re doing to protect everybody from infection because we explained it in our email message footers all last year. We can say, “You know what we’re doing for COVID. We don’t have to put it high up in the message. Here’s our sale.”

Today, consumer confidence is rising. Coresight Research documents customers’ increasing willingness to return to in-store shopping, go out to eat, travel, and gather in large public spaces.

But we have to temper this growing confidence with renewed apprehension over vaccination objections, more virulent strains of COVID-19 and a sudden spurt of new infections. We’re not out of the woods yet, but our customers are anxious to achieve a semblance of normalcy.

Read Ryan Phelan on strategic planning for 2021

Time to switch our messaging

But how do we do that? That’s what I want to focus on — how should you reorient your messaging, applying what you’ve learned about your company, your customers and your entire messaging strategy, from content to process to goals?

1. Start processing what happened

We learned a lot as marketers over the last year. I’ve said this for months — if you made it through 2020, you should put that on your resume. It’s a badge of honor.

Yes, we made mistakes. But it was okay, because everybody had to make decisions on the fly, often without data — so lots of others made mistakes too. Anybody who adopted agile marketing saw it pay off in that time-compressed atmosphere.

Today, think through what you learned from your experiences. What new strategies, processes or procedures did you try? What worked? Which changes should be temporary, and which should become permanent?

Document everything. If you didn’t keep a diary or a timeline, write down as much as you can remember now. Solicit your team members for their recollections. Document your performance, whether in email, paid search, content marketing, direct mail — whatever you did, write it down.

Do this because you’re not going to be in your same job forever. This way, your team will have some guidance the next time a major disruption happens. Plus, you’ll have the history to call on if you need it.

Did you bring in an agency to help you pivot your messaging strategy faster? Keep using it to continue your innovation arc. Maybe you found ways to reduce steps in your workflow or shorten your approval time.

2. Reprint that marketing plan you threw away in March 2020

But update it too. Not just with what you learned but also adding what you need to shift — what your new focus will be.

First, we need to rethink how we use innovation to advance our marketing programs. I’m a big believer in incremental innovation, which is a series of small changes over time that produces a big change. It’s scalable, it’s easier, and it doesn’t wait for you to perfect your innovations before they launch.

Last year, rapid innovation was the path to success. Now it’s time to go back to innovating in increments. You aren’t doing a total makeover all at once. Instead, you’ll aim at achieving smaller, related goals that add up to sustainable long-term change.

We need this incremental change mindset because it helps us develop the strategies first that lead to the tactical approaches second.

Second, move out of crisis-mode planning. In 2020, we based change on a 5-minute phone call instead of a six-month planning session. That’s not just agile marketing – that’s speed-of-light marketing! But this compressed strategic time frame works only in a crisis.

Now we have to think about longer processes that assess the impact on your brand, the effect on your planning and production processes, the costs and benefits – everything we tossed overboard in the frantic effort to stay afloat last year.

So, reprint and update that marketing plan. Account for COVID-related changes. Then look into the future to predict what could happen next. What are your contingencies, and how will you respond?

Marketing plans will change across every line of business because marketing will start to look at the possible. How have you done that? For example, did you come up with a new process for automating messages?

Remember that your marketing plan still has to spell out how you aim to grow your program, to grow revenue, make your numbers and meet your goals. That requires optimization of your current programs or creation of new ones.

3.  Keep your eyes on current events, because we aren’t done yet

Watch the news every day. You don’t have to have a wall of TVs, with each set tuned to a different 24-hour news station (like yours truly). But COVID-19 isn’t going away soon, nor is the differentiated marketing that allows you to vary your messages according to local conditions and restrictions.

Start reading digital news, too. Becoming smarter about the world around you translates into becoming smarter about your customers and your marketing practices.

I’ve long been a proponent of spending at least one hour a week reading articles, thought leadership, white papers or webinars. It’s not a waste of time. It’s your investment in a broad strategy of growth.

With conferences going back to in-person events, or evolving into hybrid experiences, an active topic for speakers will be “What I Learned during COVID and How It Saved My Business.”

4. Look for ways to streamline your production process

I was on a discovery call with a client recently, talking about their email production process. It was convoluted, long and repetitive. This client asked me to audit the company’s processes and show how to improve them.

I saw plenty of opportunities to help them find the right trajectory.  But the good thing is they recognized that they needed to change. Plus, they’ll use the time savings for investment in strategic activities and new program development.

During the pandemic, a lot of business processes got shorter. Workflows became faster, leaner and more forgiving of skipped steps. Sometimes these were sanctioned by the C-suite. Sometimes not.

Now is a great time to look at the “temporary” changes you made to see which ones should be permanent. Can you institute a new policy for rapid development of new campaigns? Can you outsource certain parts of your process?

For example, shortening production time can free up time for more strategic thinking to drive innovation.

It’s time for a mindset shift

I can remember walking away from jobs that were a daily battlefield. I felt a little guilty at leaving my friends in the office. But, like soldiers huddling in a foxhole while bullets fly over their heads, we developed a camaraderie.

Back then I needed time to decompress and get my head back in a productive space. You need to do this, too. You’re not quitting your job. You’re retooling your operation from battle stations to every day operations. That takes a mindset shift and a recalibration of viewpoints.

Take your team out for drinks and dinner.  Celebrate the victories and appreciate what you all went through together.  Then ask yourself, “What’s next?”