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Why feedback gets worse in a recession and how to handle it


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If the stakes feel impossibly high right now, it’s because they are. When times get tough, every marketing move is scrutinized to within an inch of its life by nervy stakeholders scared of sending the wrong signal. Even if you’re the type of marketer that gets all your work signed off with nothing but a “good to go” (I mean, congratulations), chances are you’re probably experiencing a little more pushback than usual. 

Maybe you’re seeing more “I’m not sure it’s there yet…” or “Let’s make this more punchy” comments than a few months ago. Maybe you’ve been ambushed by fussy new stakeholders moments before sign-off. Maybe you’ve inadvertently pissed someone off and they’re walking to your desk right now and oh-god-hide-under-some-coats.

The problem isn’t negative feedback. That happens. The problem is that challenging times are a breeding ground for bad feedback—wooly, subjective, unactionable flapping that makes work worse instead of better.

Why bad feedback happens

Here’s the thing. While bad feedback can feel rude, unfair and dispiriting, under the surface, it’s usually a cry for help from someone trying to resolve a problem they don’t know how to fix. 

And it’s your job, dear marketer, to take a breath, turn the other cheek, and help them figure out why they’ve reacted so strongly.

The good news is that the root cause of bad feedback is almost always the same: misalignment. Somewhere in the rush to launch punchy, urgent messaging that cuts through yet another once-in-a-lifetime recession, the two of you drifted apart. 

Likewise, there’s a common solution to resolving bad feedback: accountability. You and your stakeholders owe each other a clear rationale behind every decision and reaction. You don’t have to show up to the conversation with one, but you do have to leave with one. 

How to handle it

Taken together, that means there are two ways to handle bad feedback (instead of just apologetically implementing all the requested changes):

  1. Preemptive – build strong, early alignment with stakeholders to set the project up for success, and manage the feedback mechanism carefully.
  2. Corrective – have honest, clear, critical conversations to surface the real issues and find the best creative solutions

Let’s take a look at some specific situational examples of preemptive and corrective moves you can make to prevent and handle bad feedback. 

Prioritize the right things 

You can read the room. You know that budgets are getting smaller and hiring in tech is entering a new, low-growth phase and that things just generally feel like they’re on fire. So you’re not going to propose launching a nice-to-have brand awareness campaign or a flashy rebrand. 

Now’s the time for quick-win tactics that ask for very little but give a lot. Have an honest conversation about how all that pressure is going to reframe your campaigns, copy and content. Then, agree on clear (and measurable) outcomes for every brief.

Our Managing Director Jessie Tracy has more to say about urgency messaging here.

Agree on the context early and often

Sometimes bad feedback is just a context issue – someone is responding in good faith based on a faulty set of assumptions.

So, your job here is to frame the context. And that starts with getting the briefing process right very early on. A minute spent here will save you an hour of reworking unfocused content later.

Think about what the campaign was made to do. Is it a thought leadership piece or a product piece? Think about who the audience is. Is it C-suite or enterprise architects? Think about where it will live in the user journey. Is it where prospective buyers will first learn about the product or at the very end when they’re just about to make a big financial decision?

Engrave those choices into stone. Use that stone as your briefing doc and protect those intentions by signposting it in all the copy that follows. It will show the reviewer how you’ve captured all those important details.

Ask for help, not feedback

Don’t do it. Don’t share that Google Doc link on Slack without any context about what the piece is or what kind of feedback you’re looking for. For feedback to be constructive, your reviewer needs to know what you’re still wrestling with. 

Are you looking to verify the accuracy of your technical description of a solar panel? Do you need more details to describe your case study on how your SaaS software helped make customers happier? Maybe you need more examples of how the data analytics platform actually helps supply chain managers? 

Refocusing stakeholders on where their attention is needed will give you the most constructive feedback and you won’t get stuck in the weeds, managing minor things like word choices or whether an em dash really belongs there. Unless, of course, you’ve asked to have that exciting grammar debate.

Focus around KPIs

Make sure you have a clear set of measurable goals by getting all stakeholders to agree on the KPIs that matter.

Ask: “What do we want this activity to achieve?”, “What assumptions is this campaign based on?”, “How’s it going to contribute to the overall success of the business?”. Then, crucially: refer to these KPIs during the feedback process. It’ll help you differentiate between what’s going to help and what’s going to get in the way. 

Another benefit of leaning hard on the data is that it will encourage your team to take a test-and-learn approach. We call it an “always on” campaign at Velocity. That means prioritizing continuous improvement by starting small, A/B testing one or two parts of a campaign and paying attention to what the data reveals. 

Data is the strongest justification for your creative and strategic decisions. Saying “we can see in the last 10 blogs that people stopped reading after the 821st word” is more convincing than “people like to read shorter, snappier blogs that get right to the point”. Even if both statements are absolutely true.

Say it out loud “we want the same things” 

So often in these discussions, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re on the same team. But all of those comments (even the unconstructive ones) come from the right place. You all want to see your business get through this difficult time. 

Walking into these encounters like they’re worthy, important conversations to be had and not a battle will make all the difference. You’ll start finding mistakes that could have been costly and coming up with solutions you’d have never thought of on your own. And when we eventually come out the other side, you won’t hate each other for being fanatical about the very same thing.

Be the mediator

Getting to the other side of whatever iteration of these unprecedented times we’re up to will take some deliberate, concerted effort. 

That might mean choosing your battles or standing your ground. But whatever path you choose, we’re finding the best outcomes happen when you fight fire with empathy.

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