How can businesses and marketers adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, such as COVID-19? Seek reassurance and practical advice to move forward when there’s no clear end in sight. Not only survive, but thrive.
Today’s guest is David Schneider, CEO of Shortlist.io, a digital marketing agency. David understands how to handle challenges that affect businesses, marketers, and clients.
“It might seem really difficult to do any sort of networking right now given that meeting people in person safely is very nearly impossible in most circumstances.”
“The impact they could have on your career, and just on you personally, it could be really huge. You never know where those kinds of simple connections might lead.”
“You do want to start to meet some more people, get yourself out there.”
“Marketing is associated with spending and with growth. Those are the types of things that people might be cutting back on.”
“You don't necessarily have to sacrifice a ton of growth by just working more efficiently.”
Ben: Hi, Dave. Welcome to the show.
Dave: Good to be here. Thanks for having me. Thanks, everyone for listening.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself and explain what you do at Shortlist?
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. My name is Dave Schneider. I live in Philadelphia with my wife and newborn child, Leila. I am the CEO of Shortlist. Shortlist is a digital marketing agency. I also formerly ran NinjaOutreach. That was an influencer marketing software that I sold two years ago. As far as business endeavors, those are the two that stand above the rest. As for what I do there because you mentioned, it is my agency. Mostly I interpret the position of CEO to be everybody else's servant. Anything that ever anybody else needs to get done needs to have done. I just fill those gaps.
Ben: Absolutely. Everyone's facing a lot of challenges right now as we continue to work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic. I imagine that being in an agency, you see a lot of changes happening and a lot of challenges that companies are facing, not only for your own company but for your clients as well and maybe even your clients’ customers too. What are some of the top challenges or the most common challenges that you see companies facing right now?
Dave: Yeah, you're absolutely right. We have the benefit (so to speak) of our business being involved in many other businesses. We get to get some line of sight into what's going on COVID-related kinds of activities. There are some businesses that have not seen too many problems at all. Even some that are actually having a spike in their sales–certain ecommerce sites. People are buying more things online now than going into retail, for example.
There is a positive side to this for some, but for the majority, they're definitely struggling with people that are just not really ready to confidently spend money because they are uncertain about the future. When people are uncertain, they don't spend as much money typically.
In particular niches, I've had a client that was in the social networking space, which was about developing confidence, about being better—I wouldn't say public speaker but just kind of socializer. That's the worst place to be right now because nobody's going on being social. They have had to totally reposition the way in which they market themselves, they market their products, and to make it more relevant to what is on everybody's mind—which is uncertainty, my job, money, and things like that.
For example, their approach has been to talk about networking. Networking as a great way to build yourself a bit of a buffer against any issues, if you lose your job or something. So many jobs are found through networking and everything. That's a lot of their course has been how to be a better networker. With that angle, that spin on hey this is going to help you find another job in the event that you lose yours. That's something people are willing to invest in right now.
Ben: That's a really interesting point. I feel like for anybody, networking is something you should be doing anyway. Let's say I'm a marketer, maybe I'm an entrepreneur, or I'm some someone who is working in either marketing or something marketing adjacent (we’ll say). Let’s say that maybe networking is not something that I had ever really proactively thought about. Now I'm finding myself in a position where, hypothetically, of course, I'm really wishing that I would have built that network so I did have those connections to fall back on.
What would you recommend someone start doing in that position? If you're finding yourself in freefall, how could networking help you? And what's the first thing you would recommend that person does?
Dave: Certainly, with networking difficult and I circle with it as well. But definitely, if you're a marketer, and you mentioned being a marketer and being an entrepreneur, I feel like networking is particularly valuable. Because the people that you meet which are business owners, other entrepreneurs are always starting businesses. They're always in need of services. And they're often talking and sharing with other people about the services of people that they've met in need. I feel like the network has to particularly pull in effect in the market entrepreneur niche. As much as we might not all love to go out and check-ins this and that, it is super valuable.
Step one is recognizing the importance of it because if we don't actually internally believe it, we're never actually going to excel or commit ourselves to it. But then, beyond the belief mindset aspect of things, the first thing before trying to meet somebody totally new is to cultivate the relationships that you currently have because I think we all have them. We just often have not reached out to Craig who we met at the podcast convention last year or whoever it was.
Making that list of people saying hey there are 10, 20, 30, or whatever people that I think would be good to check in with. Say hey, say how they're doing, what are you working on these days, do you need help with anything, or that type of stuff. Certainly, the ice is broken because with everything going on with the pandemic, it’s so easy to be like hey how are you holding up? Because there's this natural conversation icebreaker into why you might be reaching out and saying hey and stuff like that. Hey, I'm just checking in with my friends. I’m making sure everybody's happy and healthy and stuff like that.
That would be my step one. At some point, you do want to start to meet some more people, get yourself out there. If it's online—Zoom calls, conferences, and stuff like that.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Bringing things up to a company level. That's a great tip for individuals and entrepreneurs in particular. This is going to be a little bit of a vague question. I feel like the challenges that different companies are facing, as a result of COVID-19, can be wildly different just depending on what type of business they are and what their circumstances are like you had touched on earlier.
In general, let's say that my company is facing some sort of negative consequence as a result of people just not going out as often or people just having less disposable income and things of that nature. What would be the first thing that you would recommend that I do to diagnose that situation and then start devising solutions or start finding ways to pivot in order to ride out the storm (so to speak)?
Dave: It's super tough, obviously. For some businesses, in particular, more than others. If you run a restaurant or something like that, to some extent, I hate to say you're along for the ride but there are certain cases where it's just going to be hard no matter what you do. That said, in terms of basically how to approach this, the first thing would be if you really are in some serious situation where you're worried about not being able to pay the bills and stuff like that, then top of mind needs to be getting the financial aid or the loans that have been made available.
For example, in the US in the government—I know that not everyone listening is American and stuff like that, but if you are or [inaudible 00:13:38] in your country, there are those types of things available. Definitely take advantage of them. That's just keeping lights and food on the table type of priority number one stuff. After that, increasing your runway—cutting spending and things like that, where it's necessary. I don't like to cut spending. I don't think anybody likes to cut spending.
Depending on your situation, I wouldn't slash everything. I wouldn't slash everything that would be growth-oriented because if and when we do come out of this some months from now—and things are starting to look a little better. It's hard to tell which direction they're going to go from here, but I do feel it's better than one or two months ago right now. You don't want to have just halted all of your growth projects and then you’re not really in a good space there.
That doesn't mean that you can't go through your accounting. Take a look at what you're spending money on. Surely, there are some things. Usually, there's a couple of corners that we can cut off. That's important as well.
But more longer-term, it's always the responsibility of the business owner to provide their target audience with products and services that they're interested in, whether you're in COVID or not. If COVID just happens to be like a large situation that needs to be addressed, but it doesn't really change the fact that people's minds change, trends and fads change as well.
You need to be communicating with your target audience. You need to create that circle where feedback is coming to you so that what is important to them right now. I give the example of the company that I have as a client who is trying to focus more on networking as a means of being more recession-proof versus being a more confident socializer or something like that.
Just changing the angle. That might mean changing the angle and current of services and products. It might mean creating something totally new that just the other stuff doesn't offer. There are so many different scenarios with where the business is at. Like I said, it's a big question because it’s generally things that could be used here. But those are the types of things that we should be thinking about.
Ben: When it comes to talking about cutting spending and the belt-tightening that just happens as a natural byproduct of the type of situation we're in right now, I imagine that something that marketers are going to be really concerned about is their budgets getting cut or potentially losing their jobs. Because as we all know, a lot of times when things get tough, a lot of companies will start going after the marketing budgets first because they see it as a cost center and not a revenue driver.
If a marketer finds themselves in that situation or if they think that they might find themselves in that situation, how would you recommend that they make the case for marketing as really being a growth driver that you don't want to lose right now?
Dave: Totally right. Marketing is associated with spending and with growth (so to speak). Those are the types of things that people might be cutting back on because they said what are we doing marketing for?
First of all, marketing could be tied to something like retention. In that sense, you may want to position your job or your role as maintaining the current customers that you have, for example. That's just one way to think about it. In other cases, just making the point that if we stop on the different activities that we're working on, that the long-term effect that that's going to have if we're not constantly producing whether it's content, the newsletter, or things like that. That's going to kind of hurt the company long-term if we don't pursue that.
Positioning towards what the business might need at the very moment, which may be retaining customers depending on the business model. If it's a software subscription or something like that. Just also finding the middle ground between okay look, we think of marketing as this whole big thing, but within marketing, there are activities that are extremely growth-oriented.
They're like something we don't really know how it's going to do, but we have some spare money, so we're going to spend money and see what happens. That's a project that maybe we're going to cut versus these types of things really need to be done. They're just part of the business operations—constant production of content, putting on a newsletter, social media, or whatever it is.
Just distinguishing that marketing is not all the same, that not all marketing activities are the same. Just reminding the internal team that okay let's make sure that these are the core functionalities that we never stop.
Ben: I love that advice to really make sure you're focusing on your most profitable activities, projects, campaigns, and things that you can be working on. That's excellent advice. To get a little bit more granular and a little bit more tactical as it pertains to messaging right now, anybody who has turned on a TV in the last three months has seen an ad for a car company or something saying in these uncertain times…
That's the clichéd tagline that just seems to keep coming up, and it comes up for good reason. These are uncertain times, but it does start to feel as though the messaging is playing it safe in some ways and maybe getting a little bit tired or just looking at what other brands are doing and parroting the same talking points.
I'm curious then, do you have any advice for our listeners around how you can pivot your messaging toward something that is authentic and that does speak genuinely to the struggles that people are going through right now without relying on those safe yet tired clichés that we see so often?
Dave: Copy is so delicate because one of my experiences as a marketer is just that sometimes you never know what copy is going to work and what copy is going to convert. Sometimes it can be something that you want to really just blatantly spell it out there. Something a little bit more (I wouldn’t say) alarmist but very clear, I guess. Other times you want a more nuanced approach and either/or could potentially provide some benefits to the extent that anybody can.
Always testing copies—split testing and things like that—is going to be your friend because it allows you to take multiple approaches and then know statistically which one is actually providing better results. But I realize that split testing is not practical for every single business out there.
When it comes to addressing the situation currently, certainly nowadays, maybe airing a bit more on the side of subtlety and nuance because obviously, there's a lot of negative association with COVID. Immediately arising that negative feeling with someone when they're on your brand and looking at your products and services might not be ideal for creating a sale. Also, things are a little bit farther removed from where they were on day one or day two. We can also dial it back. It's fair to talk about networking being great for recession proofing, finding work, and things like that without saying hey you're probably going to lose your job in the next two weeks or something like that. You don't need to be so blatant about it.
People can fill in the gaps. Or hey this is the perfect equipment for the person who wants to work out at home. We don't need to say hey all gyms are closed, so why don't you try this. The implied is there so we just want to write the copy that addresses the current situation people are in without reminding them of all the negativity that's around.
Ben: The last question I'd like to throw your way—this is getting back to a point we made earlier about budget constraints. But maybe bringing it down closer to the level of a marketing practitioner who has to get their work done maybe with a smaller budget than what they thought they were going to have going into the year. If they're like most marketers, they probably started 2020 with their goals, metrics, KPIs, and things that they had laid out.
Now that that's all up in the air, if I'm just a marketer working within the purview of whatever discipline I'm in or whatever things I'm responsible for, how would you advise that person really manage to find ways to make the most out of what they do have?
Dave: Firstly, I just want to mention that if you're talking about, for example, marketers who are servicing clients or have a boss, then probably the first thing you can do is try to set some expectations. I know not everybody wants to hear about hey this might not be as big of a growth year as we were expecting or something like that, but it's better to bring it up now than to wait until the end of the year when everybody reviews KPIs. Then to say oh but then we had COVID and this and that.
Be proactive and put it upfront. That's in the event that you're a marketer and you’re maybe servicing some clients and stuff like that. The budget has become smaller and you had promised some results earlier that may not be applicable now.
In the event that it’s just you and you are your own entrepreneur or something like that, you're just thinking about how to get the most out of the least that I have. First of all, (I would say) it's probably a little bit of a fallacy to assume that when we have more budget (or things like that) that we're going to grow more because we're likely to be less efficient. We’ve mentioned earlier on the call focusing on the activities that are going to be the most profitable, which is going to provide you with the most ROI.
The more budget, the more available resources we have, we tend to throw out things that we might not think are going to be as good. But we said well we might as well try it because we have the time we have the money. Now is not that time. It's really looking at the activities and saying is this really going to move the needle? This is a simple question but I ask it all the time when I think about the quarterly tasks.
In the agency, we have a 90-day plan. This is like what in each department do people want to get done in the next 90 days? It's usually a long list. That's usually fine because hey why not? Why not throw a bunch of stuff in there? But in today's day, when we have to really cut down in terms of what we are going to put on our plate in the next quarter, we can ask ourselves, is this really going to move the needle?
You'll find that many things won't. If you actually ask that question, you'll probably find that actually this really isn't going to do what I really need to happen. This is just some work that I'm going to do. Those are the ones that should be on the chopping block to really get rid of. As an example, when I used to run NinjaOutreach, we had a problem with customer retention and engagement. We were thinking about all these little tweaks, these little features, and stuff like that.
The more I looked at those the more I realized that this wasn't going to change anything at all. The fact that this little navigation menu was now vertical instead of horizontal or something like that, that was not going to change somebody's mind about whether or not they wanted to continue to use the software. We had to get at the heart of the issue about the usage and what they were trying to get out of it. Think about that, 80-20 and those types of things. You'll find that you don't necessarily have to sacrifice a ton of growth by just working more efficiently.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. If people are able to find ways to work more efficiently and more effectively, then maybe that's at least one upside as they're going through this entire experience. That's fantastic advice. That does it for all the questions that I had. But before I let you go, I would just like to ask, pertaining to this topic, that you think is really important to throw out there that we haven't touched on yet.
Dave: The couple of times I've had on podcasts I’ve talked about this topic. I always like to try to end with a little bit of optimism because I know it's a downer. Personally, I haven't run a business in a recession. At least when I think 2008, 2009, those [inaudible 00:28:32] years. I wasn't running a business at the time. I started NinjaOutreach in 2014.
For me and many other people, this is new territory. I know it's not for sure that we're in a recession or who knows. We don't know what we're in but we know it's a little bit shaky. I do think that if you take the advice that you hear on this show, from other guests and myself talking about being more efficient, being a bit more budget-minded, and thinking about what the target audience wants, that you'll be prepared.
That combined with maybe a little bit of extra work is going to get you through this and then you're going to come out even better on the other end because you're going to have a better understanding of your target market. You might have improved products and services. You'll have an improved balance sheet from having cut out useless junk that you were spending money on. You might end up in a better spot. You got to get through it obviously to make it worth it, but I think there's something waiting on the other end that would be better.
Ben: Absolutely. I really appreciate you leaving us on a hopeful note.
Dave: That’s the least I could do.
Ben: Genuinely though, that's fantastic advice. I imagine a lot of folks out in our audience will really benefit from hearing at least a little bit of positivity right now. All right. Cool. Thanks again, Dave, for coming on the show. I wish you and your team the best of luck over at Shortlist.
Dave: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.