The Most Important Digital Marketing Lessons We Learned From Lockdown

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Gareth Morgan

Group CEO

I delivered this webinar on the 22nd of September, to share what the successes were during the lockdown and what you need to consider doing digitally before the next pinch.


This is a talk that I put together a few months ago on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), and it was the things that we had learned up until that point in the middle of the lockdown. Whereas, what we’ve now seen is lockdown ended, although it’s potentially coming back. So now is a very important time to start planning things and preparing for the next crisis.

So this is what this talk is all about. It’s about learning from the COVID situation to date and putting things in place so that we’re not caught out next time.

This is split into two parts. The first half is showing you some of the things we have observed from across our client list and the data we’ve seen from the many external sources that grabbed our attention and made us react, and then part two is some advice on what to do about that; how to gather and use data, some examples from clients and brands we’ve seen adapt well.

This is a huge topic, and of course I can’t cover it all, but my goal today is to show you some of the main things to have on your radar and how to go about prioritising your efforts so you’re in a stronger position the next time we have a crisis.

I’ll start with a very quick intro to Liberty, but don’t worry this is definitely not a sales pitch. This slide is useful because not only does it show what we do and who we work with, but why I can talk with confidence about our findings and our suggestions. So, we as an digital marketing agency work with about 50 retained clients, and we also have access to the data of dozens more who we consult with. And what this means is we have our eyes on millions of pounds a year in marketing spend, millions of visitors, and a wide range of markets and target customers, whether they’re B2B, B2C, eCommerce, lead-gen and from startups to FTSE 100’s. And this gives us an absolute ton of data at our disposal, some of which I can now share with you.

So, part 1, a quick recap about the changes we saw during the UK COVID lockdown, and it’s worth remembering just how volatile things have been before we even start thinking about how we’re going to combat the next crisis we find ourselves in. So, this is data from Ubersuggest, it came out at the very start of lockdown and it shows where traffic has grown or declined over the main sectors. And it’s very scary to see some of these. You can see why marketers in the travel sector in particular were right to panic.

Now I promised myself I wouldn’t use certain words in this webinar like ‘unprecedented’ or ‘new-normal’, or any other winners in coronavirus bingo that have been used a bit too much recently, but unprecedented really is the best word for this. I mean, where else have you seen in your career such a hugely popular growing market like travel lose over 40% of its activity overnight. So as marketers we had to adapt to the biggest changes in our careers in the shortest timescales.

And what we could see right back at the start of lockdown, was that priority areas for people grew, so when it came to finance, food, the news, medicine, etc everything was up, but everything else that either wasn’t vital or was no longer possible due to COVID fell and in many instances fell very dramatically.

After the initial frenzy, people started adapting quickly. This is data from a tool called SEO Monitor that shows us wine deliveries, for example, searches in that sector went up by 87x, but other areas suffered such as evening dresses which had just as big a fall. We saw the interest centered around a smaller group of things that can keep us going, anything that wasn’t immediate to our needs went on the back burner.

And this meant that overnight, many previously successful businesses were now desperately trying to find a market, whilst others saw overnight success without even having to try. And businesses on both sides of that now really need to think about what that means for them in the medium term and the long term, as things start to get back to normal, and how do they prepare for the next crisis or the next big change.

This graph shows the peaks and declines for three key words that are representative of survival, sanity, and normality. We looked at a range of survival searches, so things like hand sanitizer, tinned food, toilet rolls, vitamins etc, and the panic made all of these jump up really quickly, but they started to fall nearly as quick. The next big jump was sanity, so these are products like exercise equipment, food, beer delivery, board games – things to keep us going after we started to adjust, and a lot of those have actually remained at a lot higher level than before. That red line you can see, that was when the lockdown kicked in.

And then in mid-May, we saw normality coming back, with searches like “first-time buyer mortgage” as people are now starting to look much further forward and be less in the moment. And something that’s very interesting right now, and why the data running this webinar is really interesting, is that since last week, now that the news is talking about national lockdowns, and now that Michael Gove told people just this morning you should be working from home again, we’re starting to see this pattern again. And, I’ve seen online on business forums that some shops have already started selling out of toilet roll. So it turns out we don’t tend to learn from history as much as we perhaps should.

When in May you compare to April, it wasn’t just search habits that changed. This is an analysis of 5.9m sessions across a number of ecommerce websites that we work with, you can see small percentage changes, but you still need to be considering these as it resulted in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Browsing dropped during traditional commuting hours, in April people were doing their browsing during the day. And this is because lots of people were on furlough, lots more working from home, they were combining their time on their laptops for work and pleasure. But when in May, you compare that to April, you see almost an inversed pattern as people returned to more normal browsing behavior. People were getting used to working from home, they were starting to contemplate how this would look going forward, and so with some kind of office-based/home-based hybrid job whilst others returned to the workplace. This shows how within a space of a couple of months, the time when your brand needs to be present can completely u-turn. We’ve never seen changes like this before COVID, but now we know this can happen and we need to plan for shifts like these happening again.

This is data from Google Ads, it shows how ads shifted over to desktop within the first week of lockdown. This actually comes from the account of one of our largest fashion/eCommerce spenders, and this was the very early observation into lockdown that our PPC team spotted, so fortunately we were able to act quickly – building this into our approach, changing the way we spent the media budget for that client.

You can see here that mobile was up and computers was down, and when you think back on it it was obvious when we’re all on lockdown and not going out the fewer people are going to be using their smartphones. But the shift of over a quarter from mobile to computer is absolutely huge.

And here’s advert impression data across our entire range of our clients. Since that first shift in March things started to come back to normal, in the second half of May we were back up to 69% of ads being seen on mobile devices. But it was way back in 2016, the first time when mobile browsing overtook desktop, and in just one month our browsing behaviour went back by four years, and when you think about how big of a shift that is, it was something nobody was expecting. It caught almost all advertisers out. However, now, if we go into another lockdown, you know this is the case and you can start to build this into your plans.

And also, the way we spent our time online changed significantly. Here’s data from a selection of eCommerce clients we work with across a variety of sectors, of social traffic to their sites. This data is subject to a couple of caveats that I have to point out, there is a causation vs correlation argument that could be made for a couple of them, it may be as a result of increased activity from the brand – both organic and paid – but most weren’t doing much more social activity. In fact, a couple of the more prolific brands had furloughed their marketing team, so their social activity actually fell. Overall, it was up over 85% on average across all of these clients. It was a big area of traffic growth, not something we were expecting to be this different.

Some external data to backup our internal findings, is everyone was spending more time on social and they’re continuing to do so, it’s having a bit of a boom at the moment, and this is a huge behavioural change to consider and build into your activity.

So why are you spending more of your marketing budget and more of your efforts here? Think about the slides. A couple of minutes ago, I talked about device changes and time changes. How does that affect the content formats you’re putting out on social during the next crisis? If we’re locked down again, then does this affect the time you’re posting messages? Because what you’re used to doing in normal times will not work as well. Now, this channel is more important to businesses as well than it was as user behaviour has shifted and continues to alter. So we need to make sure we build this into our plans. And for the B2B marketers listening, because I know most of my examples so far have been business to consumer, here is a survey and data from McKinsey showing that the preference for digital is now significantly higher than more traditional sales interactions. And since the middle of lockdown B2B buyers are more than twice as likely to buy products and services digitally. This has shifted from a majority preferring traditional methods just six months ago.

On top of that, self serve digital ordering methods are also preferred. And it’s quite obvious because you couldn’t go to trade shows, there were no marketing events, and there were very few sales meetings happening in person. But unfortunately, most of the B2B companies I meet and that we speak to are way behind their B2C counterparts when it comes to offering things like self-service for buyers. So the few that have sorted out a digital journey for their customers are the ones benefiting from the COVID situation. And it’s also worth noting here, there are big increases from search. That’s up over a third, social and live chat, as well as places where buyers go to research and consider their future B2B suppliers. So what we saw change over the last six months was absolutely huge. The types of searches we were making from survival quickly into sanity, and then into normality, but also changes in the time of day, we were searching and browsing, and also the devices we were using. And then the channels we’re spending our time on, such as social becoming more prevalent, all of these things change.

But the scary thing for marketers is the speed of those changes.

I think that’s what startled me and the team here the most. For example, mobile usage falling in a matter of days faster than it had grown in half a decade is unheard of. We’ve never seen or faced volatility or challenges like this before. But we need to get used to it.

Whilst we have been returning to normal in the past couple of months, there’s unfortunately a lot more volatility to come. I’m certainly not here to scaremonger. But as marketers, we need to get used to this situation, we need to get used to big changes happening quickly and in a way that we’ve never seen before. And it might be depressing, but it’s the new reality we face. And it’s our job as marketers to be at the forefront of this and guide the brands we work with.

Now I’m going to show you some ways to do that.

So we obviously, we haven’t seen the end of the COVID uncertainty. And in the future, there will be other situations to consider; there’s going to be recessions, there might be other coronaviruses that come along and derail our plans etc. So what lessons have we learned during the lockdown to date? And how can we apply them to future crisis situations? Let’s take a few minutes now to look at what was successful in 2020. And how we can use them in the future.

Now, there’s a simple approach to this. Because there’s so many things going on, there’s so much news, and so much messaging to try and digest, it’s to come up with this very simple model and just make sure that you’re informed and you’re agile, make sure that you’re finding the data that really matters. And make sure it’s up to date, so your decision making going forward is top-notch, and then also make sure you’re in a place where you’re agile, put yourself where you can take advantage of the huge changes by preparing things beforehand.

Now, when it comes to staying informed, there’s three areas I’d say you should concentrate your efforts, simplifying it down to these three things. Three sources of data to seek out, and that’s data from your market, data from your business, and also from your website. And then data from your rivals and their marketing activity.

Now one good source of marketplace insight is the trends tools. Google Trends is one way to do this and is very commonly used. Then there’s also SEO monitor, that’s another but there’s plenty more. And at the end of this talk, I’ll give you a link to a blog post that we created a couple of months ago that lists all of these tools, so you don’t have to furiously scribble down notes now. But at times, historical search trends obviously go out the window, so you need to stay as up to date as possible on demand. And these trends tools really help you with that. One thing I’d recommend is to track keywords across the funnel, not just ones to do with the products or the services that you offer. If you see trends that inspire product purchases are increasing or decreasing, then we can expect the same trend for the products or services themselves.

So during the lockdown, we saw a huge surge in dry skin searches. This led to a very closely following surge in moisturiser searches. So having a good understanding of your buyer behaviour and looking further than just the keywords you’re bidding on or optimising your website for can really pay off. If you monitor the problems that people have then it’s much better than just the solutions you offer, and most orders will give an indication of what consumers are wanting more or less off.

Site search is a great place to find insights into the changing needs of the consumer. When people come to your site now, it may be for different reasons than what you’re used to, what you’re expecting. And here’s a couple of examples, for one furniture client, during working from home, we saw a rise in desk searches (which was obvious and predictable), but we also saw a big rise in people searching for pillows. No one saw that one coming. So, track and monitor your site search to see what people are looking for. And you can then craft your content and your priority products or services around this new demand.

And when it comes to business data, I want to highlight one client of ours, one retailer took this more seriously than most; they’ve always had a really good grasp on all of the data that matters to their business. Now, two things they did during lockdown, and I didn’t see many other brands do, was speaking to their suppliers and speaking to their couriers on a daily basis. So when they spoke to their suppliers, they were figuring out what are rivals ordering. And if rivals are no longer ordering products, then can they purchase them instead, is there any unwanted stock that they could buy cheaper than what they normally do. And then they also spoke to couriers, they found out who had staff on furlough, so therefore longer delivery times or worse service, which they didn’t want to pass on to their clients. And they started building this data into a daily spreadsheet that then informed their digital advertising and their spend. New prices from suppliers meant different profit margins. So therefore bids changed. And this was a really fascinating thing to watch in, in real-time, seeing how their entire digital strategy changed, depending on real-world issues. And it made an enormous difference.

What you can see on here is the ROI from Google smart shopping campaigns for this client, and you can see that it more than doubled during lockdown. This is something I actually found so fascinating. I’ve written a blog on their approach to data and how they use it in their PPC adverts along with my team, which is something I actually finished yesterday. So we’ll be putting that up on the Liberty site this week, and we’ll send out a link to it to everyone.

When we’re looking at competitor data, we found that PPC auction data was an incredibly useful tool for giving us insights throughout the lockdown situation. Within Google ads, you can see who’s investing more or less in PPC for the keywords you care about, so you can get a good idea of their priorities and their strategies at that moment. You can also see which rivals have chosen to pause their PPC during things like lockdown, so now may be the time to quickly build up market share. The example here is data one of our largest spenders in the eCommerce world. It shows two competitors dropping out of the auction but one actually pushing more, which led to significantly increasing the impression share without having to spend much more money.

And looking at data recently, for one of our B2B Financial Services clients, we saw even more drastic results. The average click in their market before lockdown was £21, but by the middle of lockdown we found it was all the way down to just £6 a click. A hugely significant difference in the cost of traffic. Now that client at the start of lockdown had paused all of their PPC campaigns. But by going in and taking a look at the marketplace data, we could see that almost all of their rivals have done similar. So we advised the client to start testing it out again, and what it actually meant was for a quarter of their previous budget, they were able to have the same number of leads they were used to. I mean, the traffic in their marketplace was the cheapest it had been for over a decade and by keeping an eye on this data, we were able to help them take advantage of that.

Now, these last few slides were examples of things to look at, but there’s obviously loads more. There is an absolute tonne of data you can be digging through almost a never ending amount of it. And that causes problems in itself.

So one of my main pieces of advice is to make this easy for yourself, automate it, and build a dashboard. Import relevant metrics from things like Google Analytics, your search console, your Google ads, Facebook, your SEO Software, and even like the client I mentioned before your stock systems and for a lot of B2B clients, things like their CRM tools can have data sent into one big dashboard where they can see all of these hugely volatile areas in one simple place. And there are also other tools like analytics alerts and analytics insights you can use to gain valuable up to date knowledge on performance and trends.

Now once you’re informed, we can now move on to some suggestions for being more agile going forward. The example from earlier that I highlighted from that fashion client with the shift into desktop from mobile back in late March, was not so much of a problem because we use bid automation. The bidding strategy for this brand changed automatically to match the change in user behaviour. Now, whilst automation still needs to be managed, and overseen, it is the quickest way to adapt to changing user behaviour and changing user needs. Times like March and April were really not good times for manual scheduling; peak times changed, and what made sense for years as a good time to schedule your adverts and your social messages for, probably wasn’t. So if you can ask the machines to monitor this by the second it means you don’t have to, and it frees you up to think about bigger picture stuff.

And something incredibly important for the user experience and disruptive needs and expectations that visitors have, is making sure things like up to date delivery information are in place. People during lockdown were concerned about availability and how quickly they could get stuff rather than other more important factors beforehand, like price. I saw that one furniture retailer online put up a page for immediate delivery items, which I thought was a good idea. They changed their site to reflect people wanting goods there and then and stayed away from the fact they had decent deals which they’d normally promote, they were now a secondary incentive. So have a think about how can you set up a process to update your page titles and your meta descriptions to change for info like this, to take advantage of what people really care about during a crisis, and that would really quickly improve not only your click-through rates, getting people into your site, but also your conversion rates, because you’ve given those people exactly what they’re after. But then can you also look at the wider user journey? And think about your homepage? And can you change the call to actions on there? Can you change your banner? Can you do what this brand has done and add specific pages?

One of the things I know quite a few companies are doing is they’re now planning this out, and they’re storing alternative versions of pages and alternative banners in their CMS ready for the next time things change.

Something that is also worth considering and something that caught a lot of brands out was stock information. Having that up to date and in place and as accurate as possible via your shopping feed and back end is hugely important because here’s one example of a big retailer I found showing a PPC advert for an item that was actually out of stock within a 30-mile radius. I use the example at the start of this talk of how exercise bike searches have changed in demand going from 60,000 searches last year to 673,000 searches this year. Even with a really low cost per click, you can waste a significant amount of your budget when search volumes go up 11 fold. So this is something that the next time there’s a lockdown or next time there’s a crisis, you make sure you’ve got a handle over.

Another area where a lot of brands got caught out, and it actually led to quite a few negative reviews online was their local listings. So if you have branches, you’ve got offices, stores, concessions, basically anywhere where someone can visit in person, it’s important that you own your local listings, and that you can manage them. Because when you quickly need to close one or all of them, it really doesn’t pay to wait days or weeks for Google to help you get into them. So lots of customers were complaining about turning up to empty shops and offices and restaurants during the easing of lockdown. But it was very simple to avoid that. You can temporarily close them, and this is an option that Google introduced for the COVID-19 lockdown this year. So it’s just something to bear in mind going forward.

But what you can also do is adding COVID updates, so those visitors aren’t wasted. If people are coming to your local listings they want to visit one of your stores but they aren’t able to, can you send them to online orders instead? Can you offer a pickup delivery service? If so, then you can now update the listing so you can still capture that business.

I would recommend is just double check that you own all of your listings so that you can then put in place future changes, and start having to think about these various options, and if one of your locations is closed, what’s the next best move for that person?

And then the final thing to talk about when it comes to agility is a really good example of getting in touch with customers and prospective customers as soon as things change. So this is an example of one of our clients in the property finance world, what happened in their game is the government backed CBILS loans – which obviously made a huge difference to a lot of businesses – weren’t actually available for certain kinds of customers, in particular, ones that have invested in property developments. But then halfway through lockdown, we found that lending rules changed and that the market opened up. And so it was vital that all of these people soon knew about this. So this client sent out emails to all of their customers, and they wrote a blog post about it, optimising it so they could actually rank organically and they promoted it on social, but the thing that made the biggest difference was remarketing it.

When things changed, everyone who’d been on relevant pages of their website soon started seeing adverts talking about this product. And with countdown timers in place, because this was a very limited time offer. Now to give you an idea of the big impact this had over the first month, there was just a £2,000 spend on remarketing here, which showed adverts to thousands and thousands of previous visitors. But it generated instant enquiries that so far have bought in over £80,000 of business, and that’s actually expected to well exceed £200,000 by the time CBILS is closed and done.

Now, not just is 100 to 1 ROI, something that all marketers dream of, I think the key thing here is it brought instant income into a business when it needed it the most. They were absolutely crying out for this kind of traffic.

So have a think about when situations change. And if you have stock again that you didn’t previously have because your suppliers and are open, or you’re opening your stores or restaurants again, or services that you offer, you can now resume, or even an event that you couldn’t run is now able to run again, then how can you remarket to people to let them know what kind of messages do you want to put out there? Which previous website visitors do you want to read those messages? This is something considering the issues happening in the economy in the UK right now, it’s something I’d put in place ASAP if you don’t have it already. You can build up remarketing audience lists in the background you don’t have to advertise on and it’s a common misconception, this is something that can be free. But if you don’t have those lists in place, then future remarketing is not an option for you.

And then finally, I’ll finish by saying that many brands are already embracing the long term consumer shift to digital-first. And it’s something to bear in mind because it’s going to get a lot busier and a lot more expensive to advertise online. If you want higher Google rankings, you’re going to have to be prepared to fight for them. If you want more social followers, you’re going to need to stand out more.

What we’re seeing is previous digital winners have already figured out what they need to do to stay ahead. And they’re already reinvesting money here. But also brands that haven’t bothered with digital before have now had a taste of just how powerful it can be on already shifting budgets from traditional media to these areas. But, by having better data and better insights than your rivals, and being more prepared, or more agile, you’ll be at the front of the market. And you will be one of the ones that wins.

And during that, as I mentioned earlier, there’s been plenty of things and data sources and tools in this talk. Many of them will help you get ahead. And I thought it easier to click them all into one blog for you all. And so here’s a link to it. If you go to, you’ll find a blog post we put up for a recent similar webinar that we delivered on behalf of the Chartered Institute of marketing that gives you all of the tools you need to get ahead.

And that’s it. Thanks for your time. I hope you found some of this useful and that you’ll be better prepared for the rest of lockdown and any changes to come.

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Gareth Morgan

Group CEO

Gareth has experience across a wide range of Business Sectors from over 20 years working in marketing, including: B2B Tech, Financial Services, Ecommerce, Property. In particular he enjoys the day to day variety of working in Marketing. Every single day is different. Tomorrow it could be an event, attending a pitch, working on strategy, or…

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