As marketers, we have all felt pressure over the past year to appear in a world that COVID-19 shocked.

Marketing has grown by leaps and bounds in just a short amount of time to respond to this new “remote-first” environment.

So what works and what should you do?

On July 28, I moderated sponsored Search Engine Journal webinar Madelyn Wing, Partnership Manager at CallRail.

He shared his views on his recent survey of 600 small businesses and agencies to find out how COVID affected their marketing and performance.

Here is a summary of the webinar presentation.

How companies return to the new normal

We all know that 2020 was a wild ride, especially for small businesses. Many companies struggled, while others succeeded.

The CallRail team was curious about what marketing strategies helped successful companies survive the pandemic and where marketers invested heavily in this remote-first landscape.

They conducted a survey of 600 U.S.-based entrepreneurs with less than 200 employees in a variety of industries, including legal, healthcare, automotive, real estate, home services, financial services, and advertising.

Total respondents:

  • 65% were men, 35% women.
  • He has an average age of 39 years.
  • Represented 46 of the 50 states.

Here’s what they found.

On the mend

Although the annual turnover of SMEs fell by an average of 38% in 2020, the future is bright: 80% report that their business has now fully recovered the economic challenges posed by the pandemic.

What affected this recovery?

Marketing was critical to the success of SMEs

81% of companies had their marketing strategy critical to their success during a pandemic.

And even more, 71% of companies believe that implementing a marketing strategy was critical to the survival of their business.

What works

When it comes to marketing tactics and channels, here’s what SMEs do.

Marketing tactics and channels

  • 57% use social media.
  • 49% have a website.
  • 43% use email marketing.
  • 17% use paid search or PPC.
  • 15% participate in search engine optimization or local search.
  • 6% do no marketing at all.

After comparing the tactics used by SMEs with those that were most successful during the pandemic, CallRail found the most effective channels.

The companies that succeeded during the pandemic were:

  • 23% more likely to use social media.
  • 56% more likely to collect customer reviews and recommendations.
  • 70% more likely to use CRM software.
  • 108% more likely to use a marketing agency.

In addition, most small businesses that engage in marketing say they have a strategy that spans at least the next three months.

They also feel that marketing will be crucial in the future as well, and therefore they plan to invest more time and energy in developing their strategy than they do now.

Small business owners who say their business does not engage in any marketing activities said they were 125 percent more likely than average to feel their business was failing.


A marketing strategy and function focused on the digital footprint are the key to success at this remote first in a new normal situation.

You can always start small. Most successful companies do things with a low access point, such as social media, or use a CRM solution.

Which doesn’t work

Business owners are confused.

  • 57% of SME owners find their work stressful.
  • 59% of business owners do not have enough time in a day to complete all their work tasks.

Most of them don’t find the time to focus on marketing or are doing everything alone.

  • Half of SME owners who do not have a marketing strategy say they have no plans to develop one.
  • 44% of respondents said they just have too much time and / or overload to run a business to focus on marketing strategy.
  • 49% of small business owners say they do all their own marketing.

This makes them spend valuable time without clarity about what really works, and prefer to do other things.

  • Small business owners who make their own marketing report spend 20 hours a week on marketing tasks.
  • 23% of DIY marketers do not invest money in determining whether their strategies are effective.
  • 74% of small business owners who do their own marketing say they prefer to spend their time on priority business tasks.


Entrepreneurs who go alone burn out and cannot be sure of the effectiveness of their marketing.

How can they find more time and resources for marketing?

One obvious solution is to partner with a marketing agency.

However, some do not work with the Agency due to budgetary constraints:

  • 35% of SME owners who do their own marketing say they didn’t have the budget to hire an outside office.
  • 37% were not sure they would be able to get an accurate picture of the ROI of hiring a marketing agency.

Many have used the agency before and no longer (largely due to financial burden).

Financial burden

The agencies have good news

It is clear that SME owners understand the value of marketing strategies, but would rather run a business than spend time implementing marketing campaigns.

So what prevents them from hiring offices to take some of the burden off their shoulders?

When asked whether they will re-use the marketing office in the future, the respondents replied as follows:

  • Very likely: 35%
  • Somewhat probable: 58%
  • Unlikely: 7%

Small business owners who hire a marketing agency said 20% less than the average that the pandemic had a negative impact on their business.

Although 79% of respondents saw a significant increase in leads after working with the agency.

A full 100% of those surveyed who employ a marketing agency said that:

  • The investment has paid off.
  • None of this group of respondents rated their business as “inefficient” in generating new leads.

SME owners who use a marketing agency report producing an average of 13 more leads per week than those who do their own marketing – and 21 more per week than those who hired an internal role to do the job.

Where is the opportunity for agencies and SMEs to work together more strategically?

The first three complaints from SME owners who were dissatisfied with the previous office are:

  • The Agency was not able to provide additional assistance in addition to lead production (48%).
  • The agency was not a strategic business partner (46%).
  • The program did not seem to be tailored to its brand (43%).

SME owners want their offices to offer more value and are willing to pay for it.

In fact, 96% of respondents said they were willing to pay the agency for additional services to improve their business outside of marketing – such as customer service / sales training or brand coaching.

SMEs that previously worked with agencies wanted their office to:

  • Helped the company improve customer service: 55%
  • Recommended new technology to grow the customer’s business: 51%
  • Improved workflow between marketing and sales teams: 43%
  • Helped refine value propositions: 40%
  • The company better monitored leads: 38%


SME owners are looking for advisory partners who truly understand their business and make data-based recommendations to improve their operations.

They are looking for more than just leads – they want agencies to help them promote real understanding (and connection) with their target audience.

By recommending key software and helping to improve business processes, agencies can not only add services to their SOW companies but also establish themselves as reliable partners who have invested in all areas of their clients ’business.

For example, one office using CallRail was able to identify the need for sales training for its client’s receptionist.

What’s next for SME owners?

When asked what their future plans are for their business:

  • 77% of SME owners plan to invest more time and energy in developing marketing strategies over the next year.
  • 43% plan to invest more money in developing marketing strategies over the next year.

They invest time and money in the following areas:

Future investments

See all CallRail data in the report: Customers Tell You Everything: What Small Businesses Need From Marketing Agencies Today.


The pandemic has accelerated the transition to digital – companies had to either introduce a digital presence or have to disappear.

Companies that focus on digital strategies rely on their ability to succeed.

SMEs and agencies fit together perfectly, and there are many opportunities to deepen the partnership.

As companies increase their investment in marketing strategies, focusing on the most effective channels and campaigns maximizes the investment.

Take advantage of call tracking to determine the most effective marketing efforts.

You assign a tracking number to all your activities to better understand what makes your phone ring and help optimize your return on investment for marketing.

Focus on calls that open up opportunities. Local or toll free numbers can be used according to the needs of your business.

For example, some companies may have a nationwide or nationwide presence, but they want to appear locally or even assign a local number to each of their field offices.

Others may want to offer a free alternative depending on their geographic location and perhaps even the demographics of their target customers.

CallRail offers both options, so online and offline activities can be tracked. This is a big deal because without call tracking, you really can’t tell which offline tactics work at all.

The network can be measured to some extent using Google Analytics, but without call tracking, there is no connection between a click or visit and the actual call. CallRail combines all of these together.

More resources:

[Slides] Do this, not it: A guide to successful marketing in 2021

See SlideShare below.

Come to our next webinar!

Increasing Traffic and Results: 3 Secrets Amazon Doesn’t Want You to Know

Do you want more organic traffic and higher conversion rates for your ecommerce site? Do you want to be the dominant player in your space? Join the next webinar and learn how Amazon leverages the UGC Trust Stack to drive huge conversion rates while getting tons of organic traffic – and how to apply it to your own site.

Image credits

All screenshots taken by the author, August 2021


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