Picture the scene; two weeks ago Rachel and I were at Rossendale’s Mayor’s Ball, which is an annual black-tie event held by our local council to celebrate the mayor’s year in office. We didn’t have a care in the world. GrowTraffic was flying, we had money in the bank and a couple of property deals on the go. Two weeks later it seems like the whole world has diametrically shifted; our digital marketing agency has had some serious setbacks and a lot of things are going to need to change.
On the day of the Mayor’s Ball, there had been an announcement from the government that the local elections in May would be cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. It was frustrating, however, I could see the logic in stopping all those canvassers – with whom I would have been numbered – going from door to door and I didn’t think too much of it in itself.
When the Leader of the Council casually asked how GrowTraffic would weather the storm, I blithely replied it would be fine. I mean, we had already taken the decision the team would work from home, we had loads of retainer clients to cover the employees’ salaries, we had several month’s wages in the bank and we had a sales pipeline that would propel us for months to come and would in time see us taking on more employees. What’s more, everyone in business knows a dip in the economy is the best time to redouble their marketing efforts, don’t they?
I set up GrowTraffic in my spare time during and because of the last recession and it’s through the hard work of the team it has grown into something bigger than I originally planned. But that foundation does provide some perspective.
It’s that experience, which tells me this is when all the entrepreneurs will come out of the woodwork. This is the time they bring their new ideas to market and try to out-market their larger competitors, who might find it that bit more difficult to be agile.
I was kind of looking forward to a slight slowdown in the economy and I even had a subtle campaign ruminating in the back of my mind about how best to use the current downturn as a business opportunity.
Three days later the Prime Minister made an announcement in Downing Street. This wasn’t the kind of emergency briefing Theresa May used to make about Brexit on the street in front of Number 10, where nothing had really changed, this was big. In this announcement, Boris Johnson detailed the threat from COVID-19, saying: “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”
The following day will live in my memory for a long time. The schools were still open, however, there were significantly fewer children being taken to school. This, and the lower volume of traffic on the main road through Broadclough, was the first thing to suggest this would be an unusual day.
Losing a client is thankfully a relatively rare event for us. Over the last ten and a half years I don’t think we have ever lost more than one client in a month. On that day, multiple clients would ring to pause or cancel their contracts with us.
In the next few days, we would have more calls from cancelling clients. Our telemarketing provider would pause our contract with them, as no one was interested in talking to them about business and our strong and definite pipeline fell like a house of cards.
For the first time ever we would have to have serious conversations about how long we could keep the business going on our cash reserves and what the line in the sand would be before we would have to make GrowTraffic employees redundant.
I knew we were one of the lucky small businesses though. We have cash in the bank and a retainer model that meant we could absorb some of this crisis and hopefully see us through to a point where confidence returned to the market. I was having conversations with various business owners and marketing professionals who were all coming back with the same stories, many of whom were not in as secure a situation as ourselves.
Within the space of a week, the kids would be sent home from school, the country would enter a stricter lockdown, we would lose almost all our B2C clients and a number of B2B clients would indicate they were giving notice.
During that time, there have been a number of announcements from the government that take the pressure off a little bit. We have the chance to furlough some of the team over the next couple of months, which means we don’t have to deplete our cash reserves as quickly while we rebuild the client base.
My head has been all over the place about the best course of action. I’ve had calls with the directors and senior management team, and whilst we have to act fast, the general lack of clarity about the government’s measures has made these decisions more difficult.
We do have to furlough people, which is better than the redundancy conversations we were having only days earlier. We can try to ensure they aren’t out of pocket in this whole process. I contemplated and suggested furloughing everyone but Rachel. Rachel is front-facing and does the sales role and she can carry out most of our services. But we’ve still got to keep the business going and service the clients we’ve got at the moment. Financially, it would be useful to furlough me, but based on some of the projects we’ve got in that’s trickier, at least in the short term.
But I can certainly see there may be an opportunity to furlough me in the coming weeks and I’m trying to ensure we’ll be able to make the most of that opportunity should it arise, either to bring an employee back on or ensure our cash reserves remain healthy for longer still. Like many businesses, we’re going to be reviewing things on a regular business.
There are some green shoots though. In the last few days, we’ve started getting new enquiries and we’ve had old clients coming back for small jobs and existing clients have been pressing us to get some ongoing projects over the line as quickly as possible.
Plus, during this time we’ve been able to help out in the community. Rachel has been all over the radio, hosting social media sessions and holding virtual meetings, both for GrowTraffic and in her capacity as chair of the local business association. Hannah has signed us up to use some of our capacity to deliver free marketing support to struggling businesses in South Yorkshire. And I pulled an allnighter to build the Rossendale Connected website that’s aimed at bringing community groups together, to help deliver support services to residents of our local area.
I remember the sense of pride I had when we first won an award and looking around at the team, seeing what my dream had evolved into. While these are difficult times I feel that same sense of pride now, that even when we’ve got our backs against the wall we’re still fighting and we’re still accomplishing things that give back and are bigger than the sum of our small digital agency.
These are unprecedented times, which have once again taught me how fickle the marketing industry is. Being an owner of a digital marketing agency is always a little precarious, but when you largely carry out the kind of medium-term content marketing and SEO strategies we do for our retainer clients – the types that have upfront costs – it leaves an agency in a particularly vulnerable position.
Of course, everyone knows they should step up their marketing activities in a downturn, but when you’re not sure where the money’s going to come in from in the first place, many businesses make the decision to pull back.
Our own marketing activities have flipped to a more immediate, direct response approach. We’ve even introduced a range of entry-level COVID19 Help packages to support those businesses who are struggling to attract or communicate with their audiences. But looking at the amount of traffic we’ve had this month – which is the highest month for visitors to GT in over 10 years – I can’t help but be confident about where the business is heading in the long term.
We’re in the same boat as a lot of other businesses and a lot of SEOs and content marketers are saying the same. Let’s see what things look like in the coming few weeks.
I’m confident confidence will come back into the marketplace and I’m confident our little digital marketing agency will be back to full team strength in the next few months. A little battered, perhaps. A little wiser, I don’t doubt.
That idea of setting up GrowTraffic to protect me and my family from the next downturn has thus far just about held-up. However, I’m learning it’s not enough to have retained clients and a historic client base, the next iteration of GrowTraffic will have even more resilience built-in. And I can’t wait. But getting there is going to be a whole different journey.
If you’re struggling with your business and need some digital marketing support please get in touch on 0161 706 0012 or use the contact form. If you’re struggling and would just like to speak to someone going through the same thing, please keep an eye on our Facebook page where Rachel is running a series of Facebook Live sessions every Friday or alternatively, please feel free to give me a call on 07411 420740.