In normal times, strategies are the plans that allow you to advance projects and initiatives along predetermined milestones.

They’re designed to enable progress over time, usually evaluated at periodic intervals measured in quarters or years. But what happens when your best-laid strategies are upended by a barrage of external factors, such as the COVID-19 crisis, that are well beyond our ability to control?

Businesses at the cutting edge of data transformation are adapting their plans by revisiting strategies that extend over annual or multi-year time spans and cutting them down to months or weeks. If you have anything to do with the sustainability of your company, you should be looking to revisit your strategies for the near-term, too. Here are three things that every strategist should do right now to ensure that your strategic vision doesn’t impede your ability to execute in times of crisis.

Reevaluate your strategic objectives

This may sound straightforward, but the plans that you made during normal times may no longer be what you need to focus on in a time of crisis. Times of sweeping change necessitate critical reevaluation of what is important to your customers, your organization, and your stakeholders.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, we saw this reevaluation playing out in the different ways companies chose to communicate. According to the IAB, nearly 25% of businesses went dark and paused their advertising in the 2nd quarter of 2020, yet others stepped up and shifted their objectives and their messaging to address the crisis.

Communicating with customers to let them know the status of your business and your operations is an essential first step in a crisis communication strategy, whether your company aims to hold on to the customers you have or whether you’re trying to reach out and acquire new customers. But messaging needs to be thoughtful, because customers today are savvy and they can quickly spot brands that are looking to capitalize on the pandemic versus those that are genuinely trying to make a difference.

Brands like Walmart rapidly pivoted their brand messaging to focus on community health and well being. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and private employer, messaged its customers in early March to communicate its commitment to clean stores, stocked shelves with fair prices, and contactless ways of shopping that included store pickup and online delivery. Walmart also partnered with the federal government to create drive-through testing sites on the “far edges” of some of their store parking lots.

Other retail giants like
Apple leveraged their supply chain infrastructure to source protective equipment, which was in short supply to support frontline healthcare workers. Early on during the pandemic, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, pledged to donate 10 million N95 masks to US medical facilities. Additionally, Apple also developed its own COVID-19 screening tool and began working with Google on a contact tracing solution to help track people’s exposure to the virus.

These efforts demonstrated each of these mega-brands ability to reevaluate what was both needed and important during the crisis and they responded. Like these retail giants, in a crisis, companies of all sizes must be prepared to move faster than ever before and respond by mobilizing their workers and clearly communicating to customers.

Reprioritize your data initiatives and resources

Once you’ve reevaluated the objectives that align with your company goals, it’s time to reprioritize your data initiatives and resources. One thing that’s certain coming out of this crisis is the fact that organizations are faced with more data to interpret, understand, and absorb than ever before. Yet, experts from Forrester Research and Gartner warn that your data models and predictive algorithms may be flat out wrong. Customer behaviors have changed, operational functions have been altered, and uncertainty is at an all time high.

Make use of small data

Most data models rely on historical data to forecast what might happen, but that all goes out the window when history is being rewritten. By focusing on small data during turbulent times, companies can gain a perspective on shifting patterns and behaviors. Pay close attention to customer journeys and how your customer base may be shifting behaviors to digital purchases or simply cutting back on spending during the pandemic. Email marketers should be acutely aware of open rates and click throughs to determine how well their messages are resonating. Companies that focus on segmenting customers based on lifetime value and current behaviors will be in a stronger position to understand where customers are most active and where customer churn is a looming potential problem.

Double down on data governance

As businesses across the globe shuttered their physical offices and sent their workers home to ensure their safety, IT organizations braced for the impact of remote work as a way of life. Organizations that previously focused on data delivery and analysis pipelines that relied on data lakes and on premise infrastructure were forced to reprioritize their efforts to a new distributed environment.

There was a shift from an office environment where infrastructure, storage, bandwidth, and security are all controlled (a mix of powerful local storage and processing connected through high-bandwidth, secure networking) to a work from home (WFH) environment, where laptops and smartphones (accessing data stores with wildly variable access speeds and multi-user households competing for bandwidth) are the new devices used for work. IT teams that weren’t prepared with cloud-based infrastructure are scrambling to manage their data privacy, security, timeliness, and consistency of their data.

The flipside of the data governance issues facing many organizations is how to empower employees to interpret and accurately report on data. Across the globe, we’re seeing this show up in the way data about the COVID-19 crisis is reported across media outlets. As exemplified by reporting on metrics like confirmed cases and active cases, data standards are inconsistent: You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. This becomes a significant data governance issue, because different conclusions can be drawn from the same data depending on who’s reporting it. This problem extends to businesses–who could have data integrity issues that they aren’t even aware of yet–as they report on their own metrics.

To combat this problem, Datanami published some basic principles of data governance to assure effective communication and understanding of data:


  1. Document your data sources and key concepts: This task requires standardized definitions for your key concepts and metrics, which should be communicated with clearly defined references as to where the data originated. Doing so will prevent misinterpretation and help users who want to dig deeper into the data.
  2. Verify data quality: Building trust in data stems from providing accurate reporting. This also includes being complete in your data sourcing to assure that your data is representative of the entire context and not just the numbers that support your story.
  3. Know where your data comes from: In an age where data is prevalent, clarifying whether data is acquired from 1st party sources or 3rd party vendors will go a long way in determining how to protect and communicate that data. If your audience doesn’t trust your source data, they will have a hard time buying into your analysis.
  4. Communicate data clearly and concisely: No one wants to be confused by data, despite that it happens all the time. Make sure that you understand your audience and report data in a way that is clear and resonant. This may mean having simplified visualizations or supporting appendices, but doing this will help ensure that data audiences get the right information and interpret it correctly.

Accelerate the pace of your data transformation

Crisis is the time to identify what’s important and focus on activities that will enable your business to scale faster and more effectively than ever before. Moving faster in a time of crisis may be daunting, because it may already feel like things are spiraling out of control, but keep in mind that everyone is in uncharted territory. This environment of crisis demands a test-and-learn mentality that explores ideas quickly to implement programs that work and jettison those that don’t.

Most experts agree that now is the time to accelerate. McKinsey even went so far as to issue a mandate to “be bold” during times of crisis. Boldness refers to the ability to break free of “deeply grooved silos” that impact company culture and to adopt a new mentality of test and learn.

Leading organizations are doing this by accelerating the speed of their data-related activities. They’re doing this by utilizing multiple sources of customer data, dedicating time to learn about digital technologies, and sharing test-and-learn findings across their organizations.. McKinsey’s report,“Digital Strategy in a Time of Crisis” illustrates that activities that were previously conducted in years should now be conducted quarterly, monthly, or even weekly (see below).

Screen Shot 2020 06 15 at 2.47.56 PM Source: McKinsey, Digital Strategy in a Time of Crisis

So, as you ponder how to revisit your strategy during these trying times, the best advice is not to linger too long. Embrace new work from home scenarios and plan for reentry into a new normal mode of operations that includes less human interaction, social distancing, and increased expectations for digital enablement.

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