How should we do business during a global health crisis?
There’s a famous Peter Drucker quote that says “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. That concept has been drilled into MBAs and senior executives for the past fifty years, largely to the benefit of the business world.
What happens when we only pay attention to what can be measured is that, when a global crisis emerges, the articles that get the most attention are the ones about the effect on stock prices. You’ll read in our other articles a lot of preaching about the value of data-driven strategy and the need for effective measurement, but when we write those pieces there’s at least some assumption that CPA and ROAS are secondary to human wellness and public health.
Periods of time when the world is in turmoil put senior leaders in a difficult spot. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders to provide return on investments and to grow the business, but to what extent? It is important to our economies and to our customers that we remain in business, providing our goods and services to the people who need them. At the same time, profiteering off of the illness (or worse) of a global population would eliminate any shred of hope that corporations are capable of humanity.
Those leaders have a particularly difficult question to answer as it relates to digital marketing for two reasons: First, there are few precedents for proven best-practice, or industry-standard reactions because digital as a business practice is still so young; and second, when every little thing in digital is so inherently measurable it can easily become cold and mechanical.
Both of those challenges can be solved by one simple change in the way that we plan, how we create, and (most importantly) how we view our responsibilities to our customer. Instead of looking at the market as a pool of cash that we, as marketers, can drain with the right mix of tactics, we need to flip that perspective and see the people who we serve as recipients of the value that we create. All of the challenges and moral pitfalls of operating within a global crisis stem from an inward focus – when we pay attention only to the benefits that our customers give to us, then it’s difficult to see a thriving business as anything but opportunistic; however, when we turn that focus outward and consider the value that we’re delivering to our customers, then the whole equation changes.
Here are a few examples:
For the social media manager:
An inward focus tells us that the success of anything that we publish is taking advantage of the suffering of others. An outward focus reveals that people look to us for information, and we can provide guidance, or education, or entertainment. The value of our content should be a direct reflection of the value of our company, so as long as we’ve done a good job of defining and delivering that value, then there’s no reason that we should feel a need to dial it back. Instead, take a look at your upcoming content through the lens of your customer and the current conversation. Is it appropriate? Is it valuable? If yes, then green light: Go.
For the digital advertiser:
This space in particular is guilty of some pretty serious navel-gazing. Customers are reduced to data points and conversion rates. I’d hope that you’ve had this conversation already, but now is a good opportunity for you to answer the question: What value do people get from your ads? If you’re selling something that satisfies a need, or provides a better solution than the rest of the market, then you’re providing a service by exposing people to a better alternative. Take a look at all of the ads that you have in-market and have a real check-in with yourself. Are you legitimately exposing people to a better alternative or something that they need?
For the executive:
Are you being globally responsible? The people in the weeds have the ability to shape only their areas of influence, and you have a much greater responsibility. You set the direction of the company, and have the distance from the work to evaluate its impact. As you’re thinking about the way that you’re doing business during a time of crisis, ask yourself: What value are we delivering? Or, I like to look at it from the opposite perspective: If our company didn’t exist, what would the world lack? These are tough questions, but you’ve signed up for a tough job, and if you don’t answer them then no one will.
I had this same conversation with myself this weekend as we planned our coming week. I took a moment to consider whether publishing The Brief was even appropriate given everything that’s going on. That’s when I returned back to the reason that we publish in the first place, and it became clear to me that our role is to help organizations develop their internal digital capacity, and for us to back off when times are tough would be to miss the opportunity to provide value when it may be most valuable to some people.
The fundamental premise of capitalism is that the market will distribute goods and services based on demand, and the people who provide the most value will receive the greatest rewards and, if anything, a global crisis only heightens the need for those forces to do their thing. While the current virus is a real threat to the health and welfare of millions of people, supply shocks, mass hysteria, and economic recessions have real negative effects on people’s lives, and there are no vaccines in the works for the stock market.
Should we be fixated on the Dow Jones instead of the World Health Organization? Absolutely not, but it’s our responsibility as business leaders and voices within our organizations to keep the wheels of capitalism turning because, at least for now, that’s how we get the stuff we make out to the people who need it.