It's official. We've been in a recession for more than a year now, and it does not look like things will improve in the short term.

As the macroeconomic situation worsens, marketers find themselves increasingly squeezed between a big rock and a very hard place: Their mandate is to demonstrably improve ROI, with reduced budgets, while communicating with skittish audiences that are less inclined to make purchases.

Not surprisingly, people are looking for ways to change the game altogether. And, as the market drops, the references to leapfrogging increase.

Leapfrogging—the idea of doing something so amazingly different and innovative that it transcends the best-in-class of a given industry—does not have to cost a fortune or require years to conceptualize and execute.

This article will explore how a marketing team can set the stage for low-cost, high-impact innovation. We'll review some examples of game-changing strategies and explore the requisite ingredients for building the successes that engage customers in a down economy. It comes down to three key steps:

  • First, learn what the brand is doing well and where there is room for exploration in the digital channel.
  • Second, understand how consumers are behaving, both in the context of a recession as well as increasing digital sophistication.
  • Finally, explore how to take these learnings and apply them to the materials already in play. Sometimes it's not about wholesale change but about taking the pieces people already have and refitting them together.

Marketer, know thyself and thy brand

The bad news is that it is certainly not easy to change the game on a shoestring budget; moreover, as the economy continues to falters, the dollars dry up. The good news is that it's not impossible; most everything that is needed will be within easy grasp. The key is to rely on tools that the organization already possesses or can inexpensively obtain.

The first step is to find the pieces that can be reassembled for success. For example, understand the key elements of the digital strategy: In the highly measurable, relatively inexpensive online world, it can be simple to identify the successful, resonant elements of a brand campaign or product offering. There are ample free tools out there to help measure what to focus on.

Understanding one's own site is an essential start. Google Analytics enables site owners to tag content and gauge traffic through the site, as well as look at traffic referrals and segmentation data. Of course it is always good to keep an eye on competitors as well. Alexa, a Web-traffic reporting company, provides vast quantities of demographic information for any site that you enter or enables you to compare. To gather data on buzz and what is being discussed, many brands turn to tools like Tweet Scan or Summize to gauge performance on Twitter.

Keep in mind, however, that in many cases, one gets what one pays for. Google Analytics, while a great tool, has some built-in flaws that impair accuracy. Because Alexa's dataset is incomplete, it provides a skewed results set. Still, something is better than nothing, and if it's free it's worth the time to check it out.

Some major brands have found great success relying on these low-cost/no-cost solutions. JetBlue, for example, constantly monitors Tweet Scan to see when its name is popping up and responds quickly and efficiently to challenges. By expanding one person's scope of duties to a limited degree, JetBlue is embracing a new channel and creating a positive brand experience for new constituents. More importantly, in the context of leapfrogging, JetBlue is able to learn about what is working for it and where to focus.

Evolve with your consumers

Understanding the focal point within a consumer relationship necessitates understanding marketing goals not only from a business perspective but also from the customer's standpoint. Consumer behavior is always changing, especially rapidly in light of the doom-and-gloom mentality that consumers are exposed to; also, change comes quickly to the digital arena.

Fortunately, there are many free tools at the savvy digital marketer's fingertips. Cursory research should reveal trends, such as the adoption of new technologies or increasing comfort level with old ones.

For example, Netflix's service—streaming video on demand to users—required a certain number of users who had access to broadband networks. Researching where the highest concentration of users is against data consumption and planned broadband-network refinement would provide valuable insight into how to craft and offer that service.

In addition to high-level trend research, careful searching for a technological vanguard should help craft ideas for leapfrogging. Finding the services that users are consuming, such as social networking and the mobile Web, may provide a great, low-cost opportunity for involvement.

Some brands, such as Yadda, have created profiles on MySpace and put their products out there for consumption. Look at the free music offered by Radiohead or Girl Talk, and the amount of traffic that they generate. Or, depending on how a website is created and maintained, offering a mobile-friendly version is inexpensive and provides new value for clients.

It is critical that a brand identify opportunities in the digital space, and choose the right ones carefully: They are low-cost but still require significant thought and planning to succeed.

Don't start from scratch, tweak what you have

Once a brand has identified its key strengths and opportunities from both a business and a user perspective, it's time to start doing the real work.

Creative thought is not always simple; engaging people in what can be a stressful and high-paced environment takes time and resources.

An offsite workshop is great way to get the juices flowing and have a little fun. For a small investment, it's possible to find a creative space beyond the pale of the ordinary, drab work environment. Look for a small art museum in which to rent a room, and show up with a few pens, some sticky pads, and an agenda to foster thought. Start the meeting by asking some very high-level questions—for example, getting people to share ideas on what makes something great. Introduce stakeholders to the key business and user components, and use exercises to get them thinking about where the brand is and where the brand could be with the components that are available.

Drew Breunig, a senior account planner at PHD Media in San Francisco, points out that people do best with things they already know; it's not about creating new things altogether but about figuring out how the old things can be improved. For low-cost innovation, this is a godsend. Brand managers don't have to reinvent the wheel to succeed—they just have to think about a new twist to put on it.

One particularly good example is how Nintendo fared with its Wii, versus Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox. All three corporations are fighting in the highly competitive gaming industry for what is perceived to be a fixed audience (male and young). By marketing games toward a more family-oriented constituency, however, Nintendo not only opened up a whole new audience for itself but also forced Sony and Microsoft into a reactive position.

Changing the game is hard, especially in a recessionary environment. But the stakes are raised, and it's more important than ever that brands can respond to challenges in an agile, cost-efficient manner. It's not hard to do, as long as the team subscribes to these three crucial tenets:

  1. Research digital channels to identify key strengths to leverage and new venues to explore.
  2. Understand how consumer behavior is evolving in the face of a declining economy and technical change.
  3. Foster ideas that apply these learnings to the current state. Subtle tweaks are less expensive than wholesale change and make it easier for users to adopt and adapt.

It might take a lot of time and thought, but the materials for success are out there; with some diligence and creativity, marketers can succeed with the pieces they already have. 

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Evan Gerber is the principal experience design consultant at Molecular(, a member of the Isobar network of agencies (