Who knows? The marketing questions with no definitive answers

Where once the road ahead looked much like that in the rear view mirror, now marketers are having to adjust and reinvent themselves as they look to the future.

Sarah Woods, Vice President for EMEA Marketing at F5, shares the debates she’s been having inhouse on where we might all be heading and how to deal with uncertainty…

Attempts to predict the future of marketing usually focus on the next three, five, even 10 years. At the moment, it would be welcome if anyone could shed light on what the next 12 months holds, as we slowly move beyond a global crisis that has left many more questions than answers about how the working world will adjust.

As they look forward, marketing leaders have been facing a landscape that offers little clarity. When will we take part in a physical industry event again? Will people turn up to our own physical events? Will remote account-based marketing roundtables continue to be well attended? Will the sponsorships and shows that were so fundamental before ever be as important again? 

In that spirit, here are three questions that capture some of the debates and discussions we are having at F5 in EMEA about our approach to marketing, how it is changing and the challenges that lie ahead in a year where uncertainty remains the keynote. 

Can digital do it all?

Like most organisations, F5 has undergone a significant pivot to digital marketing, moving our budget into paid media and virtual events. It’s allowed us to accelerate our transition to becoming a more data-driven marketing organisation. We have an even better understanding of what campaigns are and aren’t connecting with the target audience, and are constantly fine-tuning our content and channel approach to deliver marketing-sourced pipeline.

The promise of digital marketing is alluring: deep insight and access to prospects at the touch of a button, a process that can be analysed and scrutinised at a level many physical engagements simply cannot. Our experience has been good, and our pipeline is being fed through digital campaigns in a way that was never previously realised. It’s almost certain that our uplift in digital spend will be permanent, at least to some degree. 

But it’s also important to consider the potential hidden costs of an entirely virtual approach. Digital platforms can tell you almost everything about those you are and are not engaging with, but not always the entire picture. They will inevitably do a better job reaching some markets and customer segments than others. And there is the perpetual risk of being lost in the noise, of your brand’s voice being drowned out in a sea of same. We’ve made a concerted effort to not overburden our customers with product-led content and avoid webinar fatigue by delivering insightful sessions on industry trends. 

We’ve learned a lot about what digital can do – but before we abandon traditional methods, we need to learn more about what it can’t. 

What are we doing about events? 

The question I am currently asked most often is about physical events: when are they back on, and in what form?  

It’s one I can’t entirely answer, except to share that in Europe, Middle East, and Africa, our approach is complicated by a variety of factors including country-specific regulations and how meeting in-person at events – particularly in the Middle East and southern Europe – plays a critical role in doing business.  

For the foreseeable future, most large, in-person events are likely off the agenda. There are exceptions, with GITEX currently scheduled to take place in Dubai in October.

But in a constantly shifting environment where local regulations are constantly subject to change, it feels unwise to commit any significant budget outlay towards events which depend on the pandemic situation staying as it is or proceeding as predicted. 

For the moment, we prefer to keep our options open: flexible arrangements for small gatherings in markets where that is permitted could be on the cards in the coming months, giving us the benefit of being able to meet customers and channel partners in person without the potential millstone of a major plan that may have to change at the last minute. 

For the time being, pragmatism is the driver, but looking forward it is the appetite for such meetings that needs to be considered. Do people, on both the supplier and customer side, want to get together? Do they realise some benefits from meeting in person that can’t be replicated through a screen? Human nature would suggest that the answer to that must be yes, at least on some level. But events will need to suit all sides and to justify their existence. Old habits have been broken (we did not have a physical presence at Mobile World Congress this year, previously unthinkable), and in the future we may discover that less is more when it comes to industry events, and quality is the priority. 

What about next year?

Throughout the pandemic, there has been an understandable desire to define an end-point: when will the crisis subside and normality resume? In business planning terms, marketing included, this is an unhelpful framing. The idea that we can plan for 2022 as if it will be 2019 all over again doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. 

Teams have changed, customer habits have changed and the future will be a blend of the present and past without entirely mirroring either. 

A more useful way of thinking is to accept uncertainty and embrace agility as a key trait. Much more valuable than any locked plan is the ability to move quickly and adjust based on new information. And more important than our own planning is what we observe about the behaviour of customers, prospects and competitors. 

At a time of change, it is the ability and willingness to change course that becomes core to success. And in the current environment, that is as close to a definitive answer as anyone should be prepared to offer.