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13 Chicago Startup Marketers Share How They Adapted to COVID-19


Chicago_FlagIt’s been a bit over a month since COVID-19 reared its ugly head, and much has changed, big and small.

We reached out to some of our favorite Chicago startup marketing leaders to see how they’ve adapted.

The common theme? Help people. Trust your customers to know what’s right. Leave the physical world behind. Condense the sales cycle. Find a new service to sell.

Read on for details.




“Build Strategy from First Principles”
Shawn Gaines, VP of Marketing, Relativity

The most important thing we've done so far during the crisis is thoughtfully assemble a list of "First Principles" for the marketing team to follow, so we can make good decisions that are in the best interest of our customers.

For example, our #1 priority became "listen" to learn from our customers and evolve our approach daily. With that, #2 became "help our community skill up and stay connected."

We have a ton of educational content, trainings, certifications, etc., that the community can really use right now, as many are looking to make the best out of the current situation and others who may not be as fortunate to be in a stable position want to learn more in-demand skills.

Within 24 hours of launching hundreds of free training seats, they were scooped up by customers across the globe, so we knew we were able to deliver something meaningful.

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“Turn Campus Ambassadors into Social Influencers”
Jose Duarte, Head of Marketing and Growth at Boro

Since our target market is college students, we are very active on campuses. But “learn from home” meant the summer session essentially started early for us.

We had to adjust to completely different customer spending habits (on top of the change in spending due to coronavirus) and to students – our customers – no longer being physically on campus, where we had traditionally marketed to them.

We have a very successful Campus Ambassador program, so we quickly moved to keep those students engaged by creating online influencer activities they could do for us, including posting about Boro and sharing our social media content.

This tweaking ended up retooling our entire Campus outreach program. We've added a new "Influencer" tier to accommodate the remote situation.

And in the week since we started advertising this new position, we've received over 500 applications, as well as new downloads and loan applications on our app.

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“Trust Customers to Be Smart”
Bob Armour, CMO at M1 Finance

M1 Finance is a money management platform. With what was happening in the markets, there were two ways of predicting consumer behavior related to their money.

One would be that they would just batten down the hatches and weather the storm before making any new financial decisions.

The other approach, which we took, was to trust our customers to make the right decision – that now more than ever they would want to be very smart about their money.

We first updated our offering, lowering borrowing costs and holding interest paid on cash balances at higher rates relative to competitors, to make the M1 value prop especially strong. And then we leaned into marketing, using email, our own app, and social.

  1. For our Borrow product, we focused April on 0 percent interest for up to $5,000 for up to three months in order to get people to try it, with a new low rate in effect after that. This tripled our new user add rate.
  2. For our Spend product (a checking account), we changed site messaging to highlight the higher rate paid on balances. This has been huge, as we’ve seen a 50 percent acceleration in dollars added this month as compared to last month.
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“Move Internal Comms to People Ops”
Chris Rechsteiner, VP of Marketing at ServerCentral Turing Group

We have a formal and experienced People Ops team that focuses on keeping employees informed of policies, procedures, etc. at all times, and these days that’s very often.

So we transitioned our internal communications – which marketing had previously “owned” – to People Ops because we believe it is the best place for our team members to hear from the company.

The consolidation of communications through our People Ops team delivers two key benefits:

  1. All team members know when they receive a communication from People Ops that they need to pay attention – that it will very likely reflect policy and / or procedural updates.
  2. Communications can be quickly and clearly recognized based upon their point of distribution (i.e., the sender). When you have very dynamic operating environments with widely dispersed team members, this is a critical requirement.

Knowing who employees should expect to hear from minimizes confusion and helps direct questions, comments, or concerns to the appropriate party(s) for the fastest response times. It’s been a great move for everyone.

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“Prioritize Demand Gen Over Lead Gen”
Isabelle Papoulias, CMO at Mediafly

Mediafly is a Sales Enablement Platform that our clients find particularly effective in the current remote selling environment.

To acquire new customers, in anticipation of a decrease in leads, we want to drive an even higher quality of new leads as well as ensure movement of existing opportunities through the buying cycle.

What we’re doing:

  • ABM on Steroids: While we are typically industry agnostic, we have opted to target two main industries that are doing well in this time of crisis and that match best with our use case. We layer these industry accounts with the in-market digital signals we receive from our ABM technology. This helps us reach the true hand-raisers and not waste effort. We apply this ABM approach across both inbound and outbound efforts.
  • Elevated Outbound Efforts: We have a strong digital inbound engine that we rely on most. While we still see healthy levels of inbounds, there’s been a drop in volume and quality, which was to be expected, so we quickly made outbound a bigger priority than usual.
  • Un-stalling the Stalled: Going after our stalled pipeline more consistently and aggressively both with marketing nurtures and sales outreach.
  • Sales Collaboration: More knowledge-sharing is organically occurring between our three sales teams (we have three products) on what they are trying, what works, and what doesn't.
  • Customer Marketing: We have broadened and accelerated efforts to drive growth from our existing customer base.
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“Offer New Ways into Your Funnel”
Marc Uible, VP of Marketing at Threekit

Threekit creates 3D virtual images, usable in augmented reality for brands. COVID-19 is pushing people to a solution like ours. Ecommerce has grown a ton, in-person sales have become a no-go, photoshoots are being canceled, etc. Because we offer a more interactive way to show products online, close sales deals faster and improve conversion rates, we’ve seen a lot of growth.

The first major indicator was web traffic – our new users are up almost 50 percent this month – but pipeline growth from that traffic hasn’t been 50 percent. So while we’re attracting more upper funnel interest than usual we need to do more to bring those users into the funnel (before asking for a demo).

We’re doing that by…

  • Creating a type-form “Discover your fit with Threekit” that asks users questions and then shows them how we would best work together.
  • Hosting weekly open demos that anyone can join.
  • Doing more partner webinars.

Certain core verticals of ours are doing really well right now so we have directed our outbound BDRs to focus on them with specific relevant messages. To make them extra personalized, a lot of their outreach has video of the BDR navigating their site and showing the customer all the ways their buying experience could be better. 

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“Keep Conference Commitments but Get More from Them”
Katy De Leon, Chief Revenue Officer at Snap36

Lead generation is just plain hard right now. COVID-19 hit us right at the beginning of the 2020 trade show season, which is our most important marketing channel since our product photography and equipment services are highly visual.

Historically, we have generated most of our pipeline and 70 percent of new business for the year from in-person conferences. We’ve even proven that bringing new prospects into our Chicago studio as part of the sales process accelerates a deal close!

Here are two key ways we’ve adjusted:

  1. We are taking advantage of conferences moving online by agreeing to continue our sponsorships, only if we can secure additional benefits. This includes speaking sessions and new digital activities throughout the rest of 2020, such as video interviews, co-hosting positions for podcasts, feature articles in newsletters, and free advertising.
  2. We have added our own virtual events but are NOT going it alone. Partners are the best way to broaden our reach, and we’ve engaged several of them to co-present on webinars and co-write blog posts in April, May, and June. For example, by tracking registration completion sources, we know one of our partners helped us double attendees for a recent webinar focused on helping businesses prepare and optimize their eCommerce product experiences on different channels.
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“Make Noise with Purpose”
Aana Leech, VP of Marketing & Customers at Popular Pays

During this time, we've taken a step back and asked ourselves how we can make noise with purpose.

In the early days of this crisis, we focused on ways that our product and people could help others amplify their message to aid in the movement to slow the spread, raise awareness for resources, or fight the sharing of misinformation. That's where we spent all of our time.

As the situation stabilized, we switched gears to focus on helping our existing customers adapt their processes. When this is all over, there will be new ways of working and we want to help our customers make as smooth a transition as possible. With this in mind, we've focused on a couple of key areas:

  1. Content creation: We want to provide our customers with useful and actionable content. If they're going to take the time to read and engage with it, we want to be sure that the value is incredibly high.
  2. Partnerships: We are focused on developing and taking to market partnerships that solve new pain points for our customers brought on by COVID-19. For example, many of our CPG customers are adapting their operations to go from in-store to online. We're leaning into partnerships with tech and ecommerce partners to offer integrated solutions.
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“Go Virtual for Real Results”
Mike Harmon, Director of Marketing and Communications at NuCurrent

Historically we have invested a great deal of time and money traveling to visit customers, but as that became impossible, we had to shift to online tactics. So our webinar program was born.

Our webinar program was conceived and launched in the span of just nine business days with the objective of producing near-term opportunities for programs featuring a new technology (NFC Charging).

Total out-of-pocket costs for the program planning, content creation, promotion, and execution were under $250 (webinar platform, graphic design, email blasts). We had 97 registrants and 69 attendees (70 percent!) and we generated six new opportunities as a result.

Based on those exciting results, the race is on to create more of these sessions and continue to drive opportunities for the business.

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“Being Helpful Is Everything”
Lori McInerney, VP of Marketing at Hunt Club

As a tech-enabled recruiting startup, we immediately pivoted our go-to-market strategy, updating the channels we use, products we focus on, and messaging with customers, prospects, and candidates – with a focus less on placement and more on simply being a helpful resource for clients and candidates.

Here’s what our team accomplished (in less than two weeks!):

For clients, both those who have stopped or paused hiring and those who are currently still hiring, we are providing resources to get them through this time, moving forward in a virtual environment. You can see our efforts here.

We also shifted an even bigger focus to webinars to offer resources, guidance, and support. Aaron Ross, former Salesforce leader and current CEO of PredictableRevenue.com, shared sales secrets for an unpredictable environment. The webinar received 800 registrations!

For candidates who have been let go or furloughed due to COVID-19, we pivoted our recruiters away from sourcing and screening to community building and support. In less than a week, we launched a new program – the Hunt Club Candidate Intake Initiative – to make our talent team available to job seekers for résumé review, introductions, general coaching, and support.

We also tapped into our deep expert network to connect these job seekers with mentors to provide guidance as they explore the next steps in their careers.

This is a people-centered industry, and being helpful is everything – one of our organizational values is to always care, and offering care in our people-centered industry is what matters most right now.

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“Watch What You Say and How You Say It”
Elizabeth Ress, Marketing Director at CityBase

Our aim at CityBase has always been to make government easier for everyone — for the public servants who work in local and state government and for the people who rely on public services, i.e., everyone.

COVID-19 has made it ever more important to digitize in-person processes and increase access to benefits. Our audience is the public sector, which is rightfully concerned with the urgent issues at hand.

In our marketing efforts, we’ve been mindful of tone, message, and timing. Early on, our team aligned on messaging that showcases the success stories of our client-partners, so that cities can learn from one another.

We also evaluated our content pipeline. We put some content pieces on hold until they’ll be more topical, so that we’re not adding noise. And we repackaged other content to apply to the issues at hand, such as…

  • Updating videos with timely use cases.
  • Adding links in old blogs to new case studies surrounding COVID-19.
  • Creating new resources that address how our technology can be used to solve immediate challenges.
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“Helping Customers and the Community”
Sachin Gadhvi, Head of Marketing at Sittercity

We turned our attention first and foremost on helping the community we live in and then helping our customers. 

We had to do something to help first responders in our own backyard. We built an extension of our platform that allows City of Chicago first responders to access our platform for free for three months and enables volunteers to offer their time to watch first responders’ children while they are helping the rest of us. 

And as our users’ needs changed as a result of stay-at-home orders, we quickly built and launched a virtual sitting product. We help our customers find a sitter who can engage their kid(s) for an hour or two over video, helping with homework or just keeping them occupied. 

This is helping parents in an entirely new way, solidifying our position in our customers’ lives, and positioning us well for when the situation goes back to “normal.”



“Seize the Opportunity”
Challin Meink, Marketing Director at Avionos

Prior to COVID-19, events like Adobe Summit and Salesforce Connections would have occupied the majority of my time, attention, and budget for Q1 and Q2. On March 2, we found out that Adobe Summit was "digital only" and, as everybody saw, all other planned in-person events ended up following suit.

My team stopped, felt sorry for ourselves, and had a moment of silence for all the hard work we'd already invested into those events. For about 30 minutes.

Then we rolled up our sleeves and got busy pivoting to true digital marketing – we refined our account-based marketing, created relevant webinars with SMEs, repackaged and marketed our services for today's market appetite, and really leveraged Google and LinkedIn ads to target our prospects where they already are.

We've already seen great results:

  • By pivoting our Google ads to address the market changes, we earned the absolute top spot 50 percent of the time for the first two weeks and increased impressions by 1,227 percent.
  • We launched a new service – Avionos Operate – that enables consistent, lower-cost service that our clients need during this uncertain time.
  • We generated new leads with partners through syndication of relevant content.
  • We increased overall form submissions through targeted email outreach.

We haven't taken our foot off the gas because we know that what we deliver helps clients stay in business. Digital commerce and marketing may have been a nice-to-have prior to COVID-19, but now it's necessary for companies to answer the influx of customer service questions, sell their products online, and communicate effectively with their customers. We're here to help.

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