Inside Google Marketing: 5 principles guiding our media teams in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak

Joshua Spanier

VP of Global Media at Google

To say it’s a unique time in the world is an understatement. As we all collectively grapple with what this global pandemic means for us — as humans first, but also as professionals — there are often more questions than answers. There is no playbook for times like these, but what I’ve found is that crisis can provide clarity.

Though we’re uncovering new challenges every day, we’ve worked to codify a set of principles to use internally to evaluate our media campaigns in this altered marketplace. And in keeping with the theme of “five” — as in the “Do the Five” initiative featured on Google homepages around the world, in partnership with the World Health Organization — I want to share five principles that I hope are helpful to other brands undoubtedly navigating the same uncharted territory.

do-the-five

1. Context, always

Though this is a global pandemic, its impact is local. We’ve found it helpful to carry that thinking into the evaluation of our marketing campaigns. Our global teams are providing guidance centrally, but we’ve found it’s best to trust each market to make decisions locally. In other words: direction from the center, but decisions on the ground.

At a very practical level, we have built out a centralized, shared spreadsheet for all paid and owned tactics across markets, so we can capture and learn from what is being decided locally. Every team around the world has access to this worksheet in real time.

One example of what we’ve learned from this shared context: As interest in news surges around the world, there are many more ad impressions being served in the news category. We’re having to ask ourselves, “In what instances are we comfortable putting our brand alongside news content?” This debate, and local nuance, has helped us make choices, especially around the use of paid social media. Local context is key.

Guiding question: Is this campaign right, given the current context in a local market?


2. Constantly reassess

As market dynamics change rapidly, we’re constantly reassessing campaigns, creative, and even our guidelines. What we decided two weeks ago isn’t necessarily appropriate today. The one constant assumption we have in this situation is that things will change. Because of that, we’re reassessing every possible touchpoint for our brand across paid and owned channels, from video ads to the automated emails we’re sending via customer relationship management (CRM) systems.

We’re asking ourselves every day, “Is this creative or ad placement right for this moment and in this context?” And when the answer is no, we pivot. For instance, we’ve had an Android campaign running that referenced being “out and about.” Was that OK in the U.S. market a few weeks ago? Sure. Today? Not so much.

Guiding question: Though we greenlit this campaign last month/last week/yesterday, is it still right for the context and moment?


3. Creative considerations

In the spirit of reassessing campaigns, we’re finding that all kinds of creative elements need scrutiny right now. From tone and visual imagery to copy and keywords, the context of our media buys needs to be carefully assessed. We’re asking ourselves these questions with every campaign, no matter the channel or size of spend behind it.

For instance, we don’t think slapstick humor is appropriate for our brands right now. So we’re holding off on some campaigns that were funnier in nature. We’re reevaluating creative that shows interactions like hand shakes, hugs, and high-fives, since social distancing is an important tactic for slowing the spread of illness. We’ve also reviewed all our Search ad copy to spot phrasing that’s now awkward — “virus checks,” for instance, have taken on a whole new meaning in light of this moment.

Guiding question: Are all of the creative elements — tone, copy, visuals, keywords, placements — appropriate and relevant to this new reality?


4. Changing priorities to navigate uncertainty

As business professionals, we recognize that we have a responsibility to navigate uncertainty. Through it all, we’re evaluating our media budgets through the lens of what’s most relevant to our consumers.

Our guiding principle as a brand, particularly in this moment, is to be helpful. And as people turn to technology for information and connection in these times of need, we’re mindful that some of our products — like Google Search, YouTube, Hangouts, and Google Classroom — can be more helpful today than they were even yesterday. In that spirit, we’re shifting our paid media priorities to brands that help more people get vital information or bridge the gap between what was once “normal” and their current reality.

For instance, our emphasis is moving to products like Search as people need information, YouTube as people need inspiration and know-how, and Hangouts and Chrome as educators turn to live streaming and digital lessons.

Guiding question: What are the most relevant brands, products, or campaigns our media can support right now, and do we need to shift budgets?


5. Contribution, at every opportunity

If there’s ever been a moment for us to come together and help one another, this is it. As our CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, “In this unprecedented moment, we feel a great responsibility to help.” We’re asking ourselves how we can help our consumers, our customers, and our partners — especially when it comes to our owned channels.

Every brand has its “owned media,” whether stores, websites, or even social handles. Across Google, we’re using many of our surfaces to help however we can. Take the YouTube homepage, for instance, that directs users to videos from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other locally relevant public health agencies. We’re also taking a look at our brands’ social handles and evaluating how we can use their reach to amplify the information people need now. As the days go on, we’ll continue to assess our owned touchpoints for new opportunities like this.

Guiding question: What ways can our brand — and even our owned media channels — be helpful to people and businesses in this moment of need?


We certainly don’t have all the answers for navigating these turbulent times. But we’re organizing internally to evaluate our media efforts through the lens of these five principles and guiding questions. Thinking through these has been a helpful exercise in itself for us, bringing a bit of clarity to our teams in a moment of chaos. I hope it’s helpful as you navigate the coming weeks and months with your own teams.

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