Retail, Performance Marketing

The Cost of Going Dark: Why Now Isn’t the Time to “Ghost” Your Audience

The MERGE team provides insights on the importance of advertising during a potential slowdown

BY: Stacey Hawes | Chief Performance and Data Officer

PUBLISHED: 8/17/2023

As the holiday season rapidly approaches, only one thing is certain: we are in uncertain times. And with it comes endless questions for brands, such as, “Will shoppers be seeking steeper discounts or can I charge full price?” “Which social platforms will be the winners this holiday?” Or, “should we pull back on media spending in fear of a recession?”


If the buzz from retailers and ecommerce companies is to be believed, it appears that media budgets are on the chopping block. And while on the surface it may make sense to pause or turn off media entirely, history tells us that it’s actually beneficial for brands to avoid “going dark” and continue advertising during these times. Brands can make short and long term gains by leaning into what works, testing new opportunities, and letting data/performance guide decisions rather than speculation. Below, we outline a handful of reasons to advertise during a potential slowdown.


Stand Out From the Crowd


The “noise level” in a brand’s product category can drop when competitors cut back on their ad spend, thus creating an opportunity for savvy advertisers to reposition their brand in the market. This can be accomplished through creative messaging geared towards branding vs. sales or lead generation. To successfully convey this branding message, we recommend maintaining a full funnel media approach and utilizing high impact mediums like CTV and programmatic video to engage user sentiment.

Consider too that it may be time to pivot. Market events that lead organizations to act more conservatively with ad spend are oftentimes periods of unrest or unease for everyone - including your audience. To resonate with consumers during uncertain times, shifting the theme of your messaging and how you approach customers could make all the difference when it comes to standing out and gaining audience trust. Ultimately, it’s on brands to consider the landscape and understand the climate their audiences are living in.


Increase Share Of Voice


When marketers cut back on their ad spending, brands risk losing “share of mind” with consumers, with the potential of losing current and future sales and a longer lead time to ramp back up when spending does resume. An increase in share of voice typically leads to an increase in share of market. During times of uncertainty, relinquishing advertising efforts can seem like an easy way to spare your wallet. In the long run, the opposite has proven true. 

Whether they know it or not, customers form relationships with the businesses they shop from. They enjoy subscribing and seeing brands they trust permeate their line of sight. When you let off the gas, the customer can either forget you, or feel a lack of energy - similar to feeling “left on read” or “ghosted.” Per GWI, after just six months without advertising, brand awareness has been shown to decrease by as much as 24%. The answer is to take a deep breath and be analytical - don’t be a prisoner of the moment. Keeping your ad spend and calculated marketing decisions at the forefront while minimizing emotion will ultimately prove to be a better approach.

MERGE data has also shown that brands that invest in marketing and advertising during uncertain times are likely to be rewarded for their commitment. In the first days of the global pandemic, MERGE had brands that stayed live and leaned into what worked for them, while others quickly made decisions to pause advertising. We saw that brands who maintained their advertising programs experienced up to a 59% increase in sitewide revenue during the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Conversely, brands that withdrew budget dedicated to marketing and ad spend saw up to a 54% reduction in sitewide revenue through their websites. 

Build Trust With Loyal Customers


The longer consumers are faced with inflation and price hikes, the more likely they will be to set aside brand loyalty and opt for more affordable alternatives. Therefore, holding onto that customer loyalty and avoiding the trade-down should be every marketer’s goal during these times.


Price is no doubt one of the many factors that consumers consider when making purchasing decisions, but trust is equally important. Brand trust plays a crucial role in a consumer's purchase journey. According to data from GWI, beyond quality and cost, which are arguably the biggest influences on a purchase, brand confidence (32%), brands with positive reviews (31%), and good brand reputation (31%) are the next leading influences for consumers when deciding who to buy from.


It’s also important to understand what brand loyalty looks like today. Factors such as online data security, misinformation, social activism, and employee diversity are baked into the brand loyalty equation. So, how do brands gain trust in this current age? Consumer data shows that product quality, security of user data, positive customer experience, employee treatment, level of process transparency, reaction to customer feedback, and support of societal issues all lead to higher levels of brand trust, which in turn leads to higher levels of customer loyalty.


One way brands can connect and support their audience is through the implementation of customer loyalty programs, such as sign-up incentives, point-system based rewards, and referral incentives. A loyalty program that communicates your appreciation can strengthen consumers’ connection to the organization, while encouraging them to spend more over time. Baby Boomers are measurably more committed to brands they’ve known and loved for years. Similarly, rewards programs have also proven to be effective luring tactics with the younger Millennial and Gen Z generations, who are generally more open to trying different brands for the first time.


For brands that may not have this avenue developed, fine tuning your email and CRM programs can also be an effective way to promote engagement with customers who are loyal to your brand.


Ensure Short-Term Survival for Long-Term Growth


Understanding where your audience is and using the appropriate creative messaging will help brands protect mind share and revenue in the short-term. Marketers who think long-term should maintain an “always-on” approach that ensures their brand is putting consistent messaging into the market while garnering engagement.  

With ever-shifting consumer buying behavior, marketers must adopt a mentality of testing and flexibility. Now more than ever, having an agile approach to your ecommerce strategy is essential. Take small risks, test new approaches, fail fast, and look for small wins. But most importantly, remain visible to your current and prospective customers!


*Tim Blakemore, MERGE VP and Client Service Leader, also contributed to this article.