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Doing Digital in the Weirdest Economy Ever (Thinks Out Loud Episode 355)

Stylized picture of man at laptop among clouds to illustrate the concept of doing digital in the weirdest economy ever

We are in one of the weirdest economies in history. It’s not that the economy is terrible; it’s that it’s… strange. Some economic indicators suggest that things are awful. Others suggest that we’re doing OK. That’s not normal; it doesn’t usually happen. And it’s enough to make a poor digital marketer or strategist want to pull the blankets over their head and wait for better days. Shame we don’t get to do that, huh?

What can you do? That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s also the topic of this episode of Thinks Out Loud. What is going on in the economy and what does it mean for your business? What strategies, tactics, and techniques can help you manage through the current situation? Do those techniques only work in down markets or can they help you longer term, too? This episode of Thinks Out Loud looks at all these questions and more.

Want to learn more? Here are the show notes for you:

Doing Digital in the Weirdest Economy Ever — Relevant Links and Show Notes

  • The Three Biggest Mysteries About the U.S. Economy – The Atlantic
  • Marketing in Uncertain Times — Rutgers Business School Executive Education
  • Jason Furman on Twitter: "If you’re not a little confused about the economy you’re not paying attention. Three of many historically large disconnects in the data: 1. Jobs growing & GDP contracting 2. Price growth rising & wage growth falling 3. Consumer sentiment plummeting & consumer spending rising" / Twitter
  • Derek Thompson on Twitter: "@jasonfurman is there any way this is a piece of the puzzle" / Twitter
  • Derek Thompson on Twitter: "I wrote about weirdflation—commodity prices are crashing and nominal wage growth is falling, but inflation is up; jobs are booming, but growth is falling; consumer sentiment is the worst in 60 years but restaurants, airplanes, and theaters are full. https://t.co/5WkTkObFWw" / Twitter
  • Derek Thompson on Twitter: "@jasonfurman is there any way this is a piece of the puzzle" / Twitter
  • Nominal Wage vs. Real Wage: What’s the Difference? | Indeed.com
  • AI Won’t Steal Your Job: Smart People Who Put AI to Work Will (Thinks Out Loud Episode 208)
  • The Race You Can’t Win – Tim Peter & Associates
  • Marketing in Uncertain Times (Thinks Out Loud Episode 352)
  • Is a Recession More Likely This Year? Here’s What You Don’t Want to Do (Thinks Out Loud Episode 276)
  • Does Discounting Work in a Recession? (Thinks Out Loud Episode 315)
  • The Lost Art of Value Adds in Marketing (Thinks Out Loud Episode 277)
  • When Will the Recession End? (Thinks Out Loud Episode 289)
  • Is a Recession More Likely This Year? Here’s What You Don’t Want to Do (Thinks Out Loud Episode 276)
  • Quote by J.R.R Tolkien: “So do all who live to see such times. But that …”
  • What Does "Digital" Even Mean Right Now (Thinks Out Loud Episode 343)
  • The Sky is Falling for Digital… or Is It? Big Tech’s Earnings Q2 2022 (Thinks Out Loud Episode 357)
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    We have some free downloads for you to help you navigate the current situation, which you can find right here:

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    Past Insights from Tim Peter Thinks

    You might also want to check out these slides I had the pleasure of presenting recently about the key trends shaping marketing in the next year. Here are the slides for your reference:

    Technical Details for Thinks Out Loud

    Recorded using a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Mic and a Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface into Logic Pro X for the Mac.

    Running time: 27m 01s

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    Transcript: Doing Digital in the Weirdest Economy Ever

    Well, hello again, everyone. And welcome back to Thinks Out Loud, your source for all the digital expertise your business needs. My name is Tim Peter. This is episode 355 of the big show. And thank you so much for joining us. I think we have a really cool show for you today.

    The Weirdest Economy

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the economy is super, super weird right now. It’s not just that the economy is bad though. There are parts of it that very much are it’s that it’s really, really strange. I’m hosting a webinar for Rutgers business school. Executive Education later this week, the week I’m recording this, it’ll be Friday, July 22nd. So join us if you’re able and all about marketing in uncertain times. And as I was putting together my presentation, I noticed all this strange stuff, including a, an exchange on Twitter between Harvard economist and professor Jason Furman and Atlantic writer, Derek Thompson, and they pointed out some strange things that don’t typically happen.

    Nominal wage growth is falling but inflation is up. For instance, nominal wage growth—in other words, the amount of money you get paid in dollar terms, not in purchasing power terms—is falling, but inflation is up. Which doesn’t make sense, right? If the amount of money you’re getting paid is going down, the amount you’re willing to pay for things should also be going down.

    Jobs are booming but growth is shrinking. Jobs are booming. We’re seeing it being hiring boom, but growth is falling. Again, that doesn’t make sense. If lots of people are getting hired, you would think GDP was also going up.

    Consumer sentiment is down, but services are growing. Consumer sentiment is the worst in 60 years—this is from Derek Thompson, specifically. Consumer sentiment is the worst in 60 years, but restaurants, airplanes, and theaters are full.

    Again. If people don’t feel good about the economy, you wouldn’t think they’d be going out to dinner. You wouldn’t think they’d be flying places. You wouldn’t think that, you know, they’d be going out to the movies and things along those lines.

    Nobody Knows Why the Economy is So Weird

    Now there’s a lot of reasons why this could be, and I’m not an economist and you are not listening to an economics podcast. So I’m not gonna spend much time trying to understand why too much. I am going to talk more about if this is the reality, what do you do about it now?

    Your Customers May Have Different Experiences of the Economy

    One possible reason that you do care about is that different customers, different consumers, different people are experiencing the economy very differently. Some people are making a lot of money. Some people aren’t making very much money at all. Some people are feeling fine about the economy. Some people are not feeling at all good about the economy. So you wanna remember as we talk about what you do, that you may have more than one customer you need to account for, but we’ll come to that. I will tell you, regardless of what the data says, I’m hearing the same thing from clients of mine. You know, I have clients who are complaining where many areas of their business are struggling while they’re also complaining about not being able to find talent, for instance, you know, and normally when people says, my people say my business is struggling. They’re not looking to actively hire in big ways, but we’re definitely seeing a case where people are saying, well, part of my business is struggling, but in particular and say it with me now, the digital aspect is going nuts and they can’t find people to fill those roles, which stick a pin in that. Cuz we’re gonna come back to that as well.

    This is the Weirdest Economy, Not the Worst Economy

    The thing about it is this is not the worst economy ever. I, I recognize some of you may be having some challenges right now. And I fully acknowledge that. I don’t mean to diminish that, but if we compare the today’s economy to 2002 or 2008, or even in some cases, 1991, things are not spectacular, but they’re not as bad as they were or even 2020, by the way.

    I mean, the, the downturn that we saw during the pandemic was horrible for some businesses to the point where some didn’t make it. So this is not the worst economy ever. It might be the weirdest, but it’s probably not the worst.

    Be a Possibilist

    I happen to be somebody who tends to look on the bright side of things. Not because I’m not a realist and not because I’m an optimist in the extreme sense, but I am what, um, Hans Rosaly refers to in the book, thoughtfulness a possible list.
    I try to see the possibilities of what exist right now while also acknowledging the reality of where we are. And one big possibility of where we are right now is that times like these are when you get good at what you do.

    I have joked for a long time that I used to be the best digital marketer in history. It’s true. Everything I did worked, worked spectacularly. When was this? Oh, it was 2002 to 2008… when, of course everything I did worked. right. It’s easy to have everything work when everything’s going spectacularly well, right? It’s not that hard. Times like these are when you actually learn how to get good at what you do because times like these are when it’s actually hard.

    Weird Economies Are When You Get Good at Marketing and Digital

    If you are a bodybuilder and you’re only lifting very, very, very light weights, every time you lift, you’re probably not getting build a whole lot of muscle. You’re probably not going to get stronger. But if you have to lift really heavy weights, at least some of the time, that’s going to make you stronger than when you’re just lifting a very light weight all of the time. In the immortal words of "The Lord of the Rings," Frodo says that I wish it need not have happened in my time. To which Gandalf, of course replies, "So do I. And so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has given us."

    Why, yes, I did just talk about body building and "The Lord of the Rings" in the same sentence. So what? That’s OK. This is how my brain works some days. The point is now is when you get good at it. Now is when you build muscle. Now is when you decide what to do with the time that is given to you.

    How to Deal With a Weird Economy

    And the question you might wanna ask is not when is the economy going to get better? Or when is my business going to turn around? Instead it’s to say, "What can I do that works regardless of what’s going to happen in the economy? What can I do that will set me up for success in good times and bad?"

    There are things that you can do now that will help you. If times get better. There are things that you can do that will help you. If things get worse, there are things that you can do that will help you no matter what happens and are the things that I would encourage you to pay attention to. Those are the areas I would encourage. I’d encourage you to put your efforts.

    Stay in business first. Before I get into them. I want to start by saying, the first rule always is stay in business. You’re going to face some challenges, probably over the next bunch of months, maybe the next year who’s to say, you wanna make sure that you’re around for whatever happens. So if anything that I’m saying right now, you say, well, that’s not gonna work for my business because, and you’ve interrogated your data and you’ve listened to your customers and you know that you know what you are right? And I’m wrong. Do what you’re going to do because the only way you get better in the long run is if you learn from this and if you’re around to put what you learned into practice. So stay in business first.

    Pay attention to your customers. What you also wanna do is what I said a moment ago, pay attention to your customers. Remember how I said at the beginning that the data’s really weird right now. And probably there’s more than one type of person out there. You may have multiple customer types who are experiencing the current economy very differently from one another. You may have folks who are really struggling. And so you need to address their needs in a very particular way. You may have other customers who are actually doing pretty well, but maybe they’re not entirely sure when they’re going to be three months down the road, six months down the road, 12 months down the road, and you need to address their concerns differently. You need to reassure them. Maybe you have some folks who are doing spectacularly and are just oblivious to what’s going on because it’s all sunshine and rainbows for them. Great! Don’t bring them down, address their needs specifically. You always, always, always, regardless of whether the economy’s good, bad, sideways, upside down, twisted, turned into a cork screw. It doesn’t matter. There are always going to be customers who experiencing it the way they do and paying attention to your customers is always the right answer.

    Pay attention to your numbers. You’ve also heard me say many times on this show that, "Content is King, Customer Experience is Queen, and Data is the Crown Jewels;" well, pay close attention to your data, to your numbers. You know, if you’re only doing a monthly report and looking at how things are going, you may wanna look at something weekly or I don’t know daily, depending on the nature of your business, but make sure that you’re listening to the numbers, you’re paying attention to the numbers and that you’re adding to those numbers with the context of what you’re hearing from customers.

    If you see a disconnect between what the numbers say and what people are telling you, that’s a spot you wanna dive into. It’s literally what I was talking about. At the beginning of this episode, we are seeing weird data. So that’s where you wanna start to listen to people to say, does that help me understand what’s going on in this data? Or if people are telling you X, but the numbers don’t show it, they may be expressing how they feel and your messaging needs to think about that. But what you’re doing in terms of your products and your prices or your solutions probably don’t need to change just how you message them might your content needs to be influenced by your data and by your customer’s experience to reflect where they happen to be.

    "Core and Explore." One last point on paying attention to your numbers and your customer is, think about using a model, we’ve talked about many times on this show before that’s called core and Explorer. I’ve heard lots of businesses in lots of bad economies over the years. Talk about, we are going to "stick to our knitting." You know, we’re gonna do the things that we know we’re good at. And that is a good idea.

    Where it’s not the perfect idea is that now could be an excellent opportunity to find places to expand your business, to serve customers you’ve never served before, to enter markets you’ve never entered before, to introduce products or services you’ve never introduced before. I might add this idea of "Core and Explore" to your stick to your knitting. By which I mean, 80% of your time, stick to your knitting; that’s the core. Do the things that you know work. Use the marketing channels that you know work. Use the messages that you know work. Sell the products and services that you know sell. Spend 80% of your time there.

    Definitely stick to your knitting most of the time, maybe 90% of the time for some businesses. But with the leftover time, the leftover 10% to 20%, explore, try something new. This is a great opportunity to introduce new ideas and test new concepts. You don’t want to spend most of your time doing that. I mean, unless everything’s failing, in which case you wanna spend all of your time trying to find what works. Remember, stay in business first.

    You also want to add to that by exploring the areas where you might have new opportunities. So that’s what I mean by "Core and Explore." And this is a great time to try "Core and Explore" for your business.

    "Value-Adds" and "Value-Minuses." Next, and I wanna be very careful about this, but be very careful about your pricing. You have heard me say many times on this show that slashing prices is usually a losing strategy, right? It’s this idea of the race you can’t win. I will link to that blog post in the show notes. I will link to other podcast episodes where I have explored this topic; I’m not gonna go too deep into the weeds on it here. But the idea is when you cut prices, it makes it harder for you to deliver the kinds of products and services that your customers expect. And it makes it harder to raise prices later.

    So instead of just slashing prices, look for opportunities to provide value ads. Can you include something additional for what people are paying? You might also want to consider? Are there any, what I’d like to think of as value minuses you can offer? Think about things like McDonald’s Dollar Menu, right? They came up with this idea of here’s the stuff we can sell for a buck. So we didn’t have to lower prices. We simply promoted the fact that we have lower cost offerings. What can you do that’s like the dollar menu? Things that can help you attract new customers.

    "Sell the destination first." Another area I would consider comes from the hospitality industry. There’s this long standing idea that you sell the destination. First. If I want people to come and stay at my hotel, I can’t just sell them the hotel. I have to get them to want to come to where my hotel is first, before they’ll ever consider whether or not to choose my hotel while they’re there. You know, if I have a choice between going to the beach or going skiing and I’m selling a beach resort and I haven’t explained to them why they wanna go to the beach instead of going skiing, I’m gonna lose that sale. Now, if you’re not in the hospitality industry, if you’re not a restaurant, if you’re not a hotel, if you’re not a bed and breakfast, if you are some other kind of business, you can still sell the destination.

    What I mean by this is a couple things:

    1. Educate customers on why now is a good time to consider what it is your industry does, your types of products and services do. Because if the alternative is if they’re gonna keep the money in their pocket, you need to convince them why they need what it is you offer before they ever consider you as the thing to buy,
    2. You can also collaborate with others in your industry or your geographic area to "sell the destination first." You know, are there complimentary products? Are there complimentary services? Those might give you the opportunity to introduce value-adds where, "Buy this thing that we make or buy this thing that our competitor makes and you get a discount on the other offering."

    These can be great opportunities with others in your community or your industry or your network to grow the pie for everybody.

    Invest in yourself. Another thing worth considering right now is to invest in yourself. Part of the problem in the economy, according to Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, who I referenced at the top of the show, might be related to what one CEO calls "a training and experience bubble." You know, places like airlines, places like digital are facing a talent shortage and might be having the labor problems that they’re having because not enough people have these needed skills. And sad though it is to say, companies don’t seem to be investing enough—don’t seem to be eager to invest enough—in training, in people.

    It’s it’s like the old joke got turned around. There’s an old joke in training that says, you know, the CFO says to the CEO, "What if we train our people and they leave?" And the CEO replies, "What if we don’t train them and they stay?" Right? Like, that’s just equally bad, if not worse. But right now it seems like the CFO in that joke is winning.

    If they’re not gonna train you, make sure you’re training yourself. Make sure you are continuing to grow your skills. I do think we are seeing a reality where people are experiencing the economy very, very differently. And the people who have digital skills seem to be doing just fine. They seem to be the ones who are weathering the economy just fine, just perfectly, right now. Some of them got training. Some of them got support. Some of them got supported by their companies. And many of them went out and invested in themselves and continued to learn.

    I would encourage you to do that as well, because no matter what happens in the economy, you’ll be set up for success in the longer term. There are so many great resources out there, whether it’s things like Coursera or YouTube videos, or, oh, I don’t know, blog posts and podcasts at places like TimPeter.com. There’s a ton of great resources out there. Find a great group of people on Twitter, create a Twitter list with those folks and engage with them to grow your skills and get pointed to excellent resources all the time so that you can keep growing no matter what happens in the economy.

    Don’t despair. And last, but by no means, least don’t despair. I said this before, but this is not the worst economy we will ever face. Even if this turns out to be the new normal, it’s not the worst. You know, 2008 was terrible. 2020 was terrible. 2002 wasn’t great. This is kind of annoying, but it’s gonna be okay. There’s a guy named Jonathan Edward Durham on Twitter who had a great line. He said, "Hey, if tacos can totally fall apart and still be amazing, so can you."

    And I think that’s a great place to wrap up today because you are amazing. You can do this stuff.

    • Stay in business
    • Pay attention to your customers
    • Pay attention to your numbers
    • Think core and explore
    • Sell the destination first
    • Invest in value-adds and value-minuses
    • Invest in yourself
    • And, above all else, don’t despair

    If you keep your focus there, I’m confident you can succeed no matter how weird the economy gets.

    Show Wrap-Up and Credits

    Now looking at the clock on the wall, we are out of time for this week as always. I wanna remind you that you can find the show notes for today’s episode, as well as an archive of all episodes by going to TimPeter.com/podcast. Again, that’s TimPeter.com/podcast. Just look for episode 355.

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    I’d also like to thank our sponsor. Thinks Out Loud is brought to you by SoloSegment. SoloSegment provides search as a service to help customers of large enterprises find the content they need. SoloSegment powers, content experiences with a focus on business results to help customers find the content that matters to them and directs the customer towards business results for you. SoloSegment uses machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language processing, plus a whole host of other incredibly cool technology, but does all of this while protecting customer privacy and driving business results for you, you can learn more about solo segment and all the wonderful work that they do by going to SoloSegment.com. Again, that’s SoloSegment.com.

    Show Outro

    Finally, I want to say thank you so much for tuning in. I know I say this just about every episode, but your support means the world to me. I, I said towards the end of this episode, you know, don’t despair the fact that we’re building a cool community here, that you choose to be part of it and that you pay attention and join in and email and tweet and text and contact me and the like is part of the reason that I don’t despair with people like you out there doing the great things that you’re doing. I know we’re all gonna be okay in the long run. So thank you so much for tuning in. It means more than I could possibly say with that said, I hope you have a great rest of the week. I hope you have a wonderful weekend ahead and I will look forward to speaking with you here on Thinks Out Loud next time until then please be faith. Be well. And as always take care, everybody.

    Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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