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Marketing Through the Summer Doldrums – Seasonal swings are not limited to retail businesses, all industries experience ups and downs. Discover your business cycles and some ways to maintain your momentum during slowdowns
Erin O’Brien, COO at GinzaMetrics
Karen Scates, Marketing and PR Manager
FULL VIDEO TRANSCRIPT
Karen: Good morning! Welcome to this week’s edition of FOUND Friday. I’m your host, Karen
Scates. With me today is Erin Robbins O’Brien. Good morning, Erin.
Erin: Hey, Karen.
Karen: How are you doing?
Erin: I’m doing alright. It is like the 70th day of rain here so I am soggy but fine.
Karen: Oh, we’re jealous. You can’t talk about 70 days of rain to people who live in California.
Do you realize it’s May 15 and the year is almost halfway over? It’s insane.
Erin: I can’t believe that this happens. Every year we get to this end of spring, early summer
point and I feel completely blindsided by it.
Karen: That’s crazy. In fact, today because most people are blindsided at this time of year,
we’re going to be talking about “Marketing through the Summer Doldrums.”
We were talking a little bit earlier about seasonal business and how most people think of retail
when they think of seasonal business. But as we think, there are seasonal changes and cycles in
almost every industry. And most businesses experience some kind of up and down throughout
the year including B2B, service industries, consumer marketing.
Right now we’re entrained what is not so fondly referred to as the summer doldrums for a lot
of enterprise businesses. We found that there are a lot of reasons for the swings and shifts in
business and include things like holidays, fiscal year cycles, and lots of other issues. But for
every business, really, there are differences. Every month or quarter isn’t the same.
So today I thought we’d address a few things people have been asking us about seasonality.
Let’s start with, how do you know whether you’re in a seasonal cycle or experience some kind
of up or down trend?
Erin: This is a really interesting question in the fact that a lot of people don’t necessarily
recognize cyclical or seasonality for their business because they’ll attribute it to an increase or a
decline based on a campaign, based on some other kind of marketing efforts, based on product
releases, whatever that happens to be. There’s always something else they may try to attribute
With that said, it’s also hard because a lot of folks don’t necessarily do year-over-year-over-year
comparisons. There’s a year-over-year comparison – it will help you figure out, “We’re in the
same downward trend in June that we were in last year” – but what you want to be able to
figure out is how long has that been going on.
One of the things that we hear really frequently with making an analytics platform is this
conversation of, “Well, I didn’t work here a year ago (or two years ago). I’m newer to this.”
There are ways to be able to go back and backfill your analytics. It’s a service we offer but it’s
something that you can get in analytics platforms like Google Analytics and things to be able to
see how long, what does this actual trend look like? What does the snapshot of the year look
like? What does the snapshot of the year look like? While the numbers themselves may be
different, the trend lines are what you’re really looking at in terms of rises and falls.
One of the ways that I say you should be able to dictate upward and downward full trends is, to
me something is a upward or downward trend and not a cycle if it varies greater than 10% year
over year. Being able to extrapolate year over year like, “We used to do a million dollars of
business in this month and this year we’re doing $2 million,” that’s probably an upward trend
as opposed to looking back at over a year and say, “This year we did a million,” or “This year we
did $1.1 million or $1.2 million,” etc. What you’re really looking for is a massive peaks and
valleys that don’t line up with the previous year.
Karen: It seems like you need to take into account your business is growing, but are there
points where every year you see the spike in business or drop in business at the same time of
Erin: A couple of common drops are around the holidays, obviously between Christmas and
New Year for non-retail businesses, for things like enterprise and B2B businesses because a lot
of people will take that time off. Actually, traditionally sometimes even all the way from
Thanksgiving until just after the New Year can be a really slow time. Conversely to that, the
time from end of summer around August, September, up until Thanksgiving can be a really busy
time because people have new fiscal year budgets that have become available that they’re
accessing. A lot of times that’s a really good time for B2B businesses to start doing their pushes.
It’s also a great time for retail folks to be doing business because they’re pushing their holiday
shopping. Honestly, I feel like they’re pushing next year’s holiday starting in March.
Karen: I think Christmas started June these days. I’m not sure.
Erin: It really does. Those are two common cyclical times for both retail and B2B folks.
Additionally to that, the summertime – like what we were saying is like summer doldrums time
– after people experience this initial revitalized time of purchasing new tools, purchasing new
things, whatever it is, all purchases happen during the holidays and towards the beginning of
the year. Everybody works that out of their system, it gets ramped up and does things, and then
what will happen is during the summertime they experience a bit of a drop off a lot of times
because, just honestly, mental fatigue happens.
For people who have families or kids out of school or who just like to take summer vacations –
there’s a staggered set of vacations – so if somebody needs to get permission, they may be
gone for a week or two and then somebody else who needs to be part of the decision may be
gone for a week or two. Sales cycles and decision-making processes can expand out. Sometimes
it’s not as much of a drop off or doldrums as just an expansion of the sales cycle.
Karen: Industry to industry, that’s going to be different. Are there some industries you think
that experience stronger cycles? I think that we think of cycles or at least seasonality only think
of retail. Are there cycles any stronger than B2B cycles? What’s happening industry to industry?
Erin: I think that every industry will be really different. But one of the things that is interesting
is for things that require an enterprise-level purchase agreement, things that have say $1,000
and up, this can often have a stronger cyclical nature because there’s typically a bigger
decision-making process involved and there’s typically a contract involved at this point, as well.
Anything that people would sign up for a year or more, they might already have a tool in place.
So what you’re waiting for is the previous tool to cycle out. Because a lot of times that’s based
on quarterly or yearly budgets, you are going to be beholding to whatever that budgetary cycle
is. So if somebody says, “Our contract with provider X ends in October, let’s talk again then,”
that pushes you into this summer doldrums time. But a lot of people do have spring and fall
fiscal year changes and updates.
Karen: As businesses, how should we adjust our metrics to match our known seasonal cycles?
We’ve already done the match. We figured out every year at June, we have a drop. Now what
do we do? What do we do going forward?
Erin: One of the things that’s important to do going forward is you need to recognize obviously,
like you said, where peaks and valleys are. If you know when a valley is, understanding there’s a
peak that will naturally happen later or is likely to happen later, (1) don’t panic and (2) it’s
always great to buffer your abilities to say, “What can we do during the slow time?”
One of the things that we do when we have these natural cyclical times is, this is a great time to
be creating the content that you’re going to need when this slower time ends. Write blog posts.
Create new landing pages. Update old content. Use your SEO platform to make sure that all of
your content is as findable as possible. That’s a huge thing that you can do that is going to
generate a ton of traffic later on. You might as well because you’re in a slower period anyway.
It’s also a really good time to recharge your batteries a little bit and rejuvenate some creative
juices. We all do get a little bit more down because we as humans are cyclical species.
Another thing to do is go back and use this time for a messaging revamp. Look at your
competitor trend charts and say, “How are we really stacking up against competition?” and
update and ask, “Have the competition released new things?” Go back and do some of that
exploratory work. This is a really great time (let’s specifically say the summer doldrums – this is
great because we’re at a midway point of the year) to assess where things really are and make
sure that the last half of the year kicks butt by taking this month or two slower time to refresh,
revamp, do the research, do the digging.
Karen: Do you think this is a good time to do a site and content audit and really figure out what
you want to do and how you want to do it? A lot of people are doing second-half-of-the-year
budgeting. So is this a good time to do that sort of a thing?
Erin: Yeah. This is a great time to do a site and content audit for a lot of reasons, one, because
you may be able to get some budget for this and pre-plan for your next fiscal year based on the
results. What you’re going to get from doing a site and content audit now is if you’re on an
upward trend already for the year and you’re doing well, you’re going to figure out how to
leverage that and continue the trend and make the best possible choices moving forward when
you do get that new fiscal year budget or when you are doing next year planning. A lot of
people will start 2016 planning three months before the actual year.
In addition to that, doing the site and content audit now allows you to course correct. Say you
haven’t met goals or there are a couple of things that are lagging. This is a great way to go
ahead, get everything in order. You still have six to seven months left in the year to make these
corrections and see a swing come back the positive way.
Karen: Do you see that the people make the mistake of coming into maybe a seasonal down
cycle and then saying, “Oh my God. What we’re doing isn’t working. We have to completely
change what we’re doing. Something is wrong. Something is wrong.” Is there a tendency to
panic at this time of the year or during other seasonal cycles?
Erin: Yeah. This is why in the beginning the first question that you asked is so important, which
is: how do I know that I’m in a cycle versus a trend? How do I know that this isn’t just the way
things happen every year versus a downward sloping trend?
Panicking is never a good reaction because panic will never actually result in a better outcome.
One, if you’ve been trending down all year, you probably already know that you’re not meeting
goals. If you went from doing fine to experiencing a drop off and hitting these summer
doldrums, go back and look and see, does this happen regularly? Is this a yearly occurrence? If
not, let’s pay attention. Let’s conduct a site and content audit. Let’s see how things are
performing. Let’s see what might work better.
Messaging exploration – you can dig in and do a lot of that work to see what’s going on and try
some new things because you still have enough time left in the year to do it. Panicking and
getting really upset and concerned will also make other people in your organization fearful that
something truly bad is happening and will get people focused in the wrong area. So you need to
make sure that everybody focuses around what the appropriate next steps are. The appropriate
next steps are: determine if it’s a trend or a cycle, doing a deeper dive into your current content
and findability and what that really looks like, and seeing what’s working and what’s not. Then
doing some exploration, a look at the competitor marketplace will get your current brand
marketplace and determine where you can actually make some trial adjustments.
This goes back to something we talked about a couple of months ago: the idea of pilot
programs. Try changes in certain areas first without suggesting broad, sweeping changes,
especially not a knee-jerk reaction to something like the summer doldrums.
Karen: What happens for marketers a lot times, to [14:00 inaudible] at an even level especially
in B2B throughout the year. Then they hit a down cycle like this, but they’re held to the same
metrics. Is there a way for them to maybe set expectations?
Erin: Yeah. This is a question that we get a lot or a concern that folks bring to us regularly.
What’s really complicated about this is you can’t say, “We get X number of page views over a
year and we average 100,000 views a month,” and if somebody doesn’t get to 100,000 views
every month, you say you didn’t meet certain goals or whatever the goal is, whether it’s page
views or clicks or something else.
One of the things that you know I’m a really big proponent of is better analytics for marketers,
better measurement for marketers. Right now I think that we are measuring a lot of things
incorrectly and we’re doing ourselves a disservice because we’re held to things like
unreasonable goals or demands or the numbers that we’re showing don’t actually map back to
things that the company necessarily really is concerned with, which at the end of the day is
I don’t necessarily think that flat averages as general benchmarks or metrics are an appropriate
thing. I think that it’s good to have guidelines for things such as, “We need 100,000 page views
because that typically yields X number of form filled which yields X number of sales calls which
yields X number of sales at the end of the quarter.” But if you do watch and pay attention and if
you haven’t done this previously, see if you can dig up some historic data if you can’t start now
so that you don’t face this again next year. And then plot black and say, “Hey, this does happen
all the time.” Let’s say January, February, and March, we have really strong Q1 and a good Q2.
But Q3 is always a little bit difficult and then another strong Q4. If you start to recognize this,
you need to have the conversations internally to set expectations. While these may average out
to a certain amount of revenue, a certain amount of leads, a certain amount of page views, a
certain amount of content or whatever that these things are buck it out quarterly and monthly,
however you want to parse out based on whatever trend you’re seeking.
Karen: For some people tuning into maybe summer doldrums, what is that exactly? What are
you guys talking about? If it is a thing, what do we do to combat them?
Erin: Summer doldrums are the times during the summer when typically both B2B and retail
will see a little bit of a slack off because schools are out of session, people are taking vacations,
people have gotten fatigued throughout the year, people have already expended their fiscal
year budget a lot of times and had already chosen tools or bought what they were going to buy
during and immediately after the holidays. So a lot of folks will experience what we call summer
Ways to combat that is, one, use it to your advantage. Take the time to actually get in there and
do some of the brand work that you wouldn’t normally do. Create some of the content that you
wouldn’t normally have time to create. Go back and really reexamine messaging and possibly
update and refresh the messaging strategies or some competitor strategies and really use that
Another way to do it is: be prepared. Go on the offensive in the spring. Be prepared to attack
and build up some stuff so that you can actually continue to close business, continue to make
sales, and continue to have revenue coming in during that summer doldrums time.
This is also a really good time to use some message testing. Let’s say that you have two or three
different messages that you really want to hit the ground running with in that busier
September, October, November timeframe. This is a really great time to test it with a smaller
possibility of any sort of issues because the markets are slower, fewer people are looking at this
kind of stuff. This is a really good time to check and see, “What should we actually run with in
Karen: I think it’s important when you’re looking at messaging and maybe even looking at your
e-mail sends that when you’re looking at your open rates, click-through rates, also look at your
out-of-office rates. Your out-of-office rates are probably going to be higher. So it’s really
important to balance a lot of what you’re seeing.
Erin: That’s a really good point though. Out-of-office rates typically do go up. When we say
summer doldrums, we’re talking about a general dip for a lot of people across a lot of different
areas. We’re not just saying you’re going to close less business. You’re probably going to get
more out-of-office replies. There’s Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and all these other things that
all happen. People take three-day weekends. People come back from three-day weekends a
little bit tired or whatever, and they don’t want to get on these calls. They don’t necessarily
want to do these things.
For people on retail, a lot of people have spent a lot of money over the holidays and then doing
maybe back-to-school stuff for their kids or on spring and summer vacation so they may want
to spend less money before the new back-to-school year. Or they may want to spend less
money because they’ve already committed their budget somewhere during the earlier months
in the year. This goes back to saying either try to use this time wisely and get your ducks in a
row so that you can really go after things the best and most optimized way once the summer
doldrums are over. Or really plan on doing some work up front so that you actually have a
continual trickling effect.
I actually really advocate the first strategy more. This is a great time because we as people need
a breather, too. I think that it’s a really good time to just use this to build up your assets, do the
reviews you need to do, and figure out how to optimally attack the last half of the year.