As personal finance remains a critical topic of discussion amid the third wave of COVID, we spoke with Kelly Gillease, chief marketing officer at NerdWallet, to understand where the brand stands since she spoke on “Marketing Today” back in May.

Ahead, Gillease shares the lessons she gleaned from the pandemic, including how vignette-style ads were a coincidental saving grace for the company, and her 2021 trend predictions on marketing budgets, out-of-home advertising and first-party data. And perhaps most importantly, the strategy she thinks marketers underutilized most this year. 

Tell us about how and why NerdWallet embraced vignette-style ads during the pandemic?

Our key 2020 brand campaign was called Money Questions, a vignette-style ad that was not necessarily intentional. We weren’t really building it because we thought, oh, this will be really flexible to change later. I just like how it evolved because as everyone’s money questions changed a ton, we could easily change the ad. So while some of the questions in the vignette were still very relevant, some of them weren’t relevant anymore. For example, there’s someone in a restaurant thinking about what credit card points are right for eating in a restaurant with their friends. Not so relevant anymore. A lot of people were thinking about refinancing their house or getting into investing. And so we could add in vignettes for those things because we actually shot a lot of footage that we didn’t use. So it was relatively easy to edit. 

What we realized from this exercise around COVID is that vignette-style ads are really flexible for certain environments. As we went into planning for the new year, we wanted to film a spot for Q1 2021, so we shot hours of footage of people talking about different personal finance topics so that we would have the flexibility to recut or choose a different ad over the course of 2021. So that if suddenly travel comes back and everyone’s traveling, we’re prepared for that because we have footage for it, and we can update our vignette-style ad. But we’re not going out the door with that because that’s not where we are right now culturally. So I think for us, the vignette style ads really helped us to realize that we value flexibility and the better performance that comes with being more relevant in the moment.

Is there anything else NerdWallet has embraced since the pandemic, and if so, what have you and your team learned as a result?

It’s really vital for us to be nimble and responsive to what’s going on outside of NerdWallet, so a key learning that I took away from the experiences of the past year is that if there’s a really dramatic cultural event that happens, I’d like to be able to act on it really quickly as an opportunity. To that end, I’m thinking about how to have a view of future events and where it would make sense for NerdWallet to jump into a cultural conversation and what would we want to say, so that we’re not spending time working through that in the moment. Knowing if we don’t have a place in that conversation or if we have a very strong place in that conversation, and here’s what we want to say about it. But now let’s go execute on doing that and then do that as quickly as possible. In some of the things that have happened over the past year, it took us a while to figure out what being responsive meant for us. We can cut down on that time.

Is there one process or strategy that NerdWallet successfully adopted during the pandemic that it will continue to utilize in the new year?

The accidental vignette-style ad approach. We really have embraced shooting ads this way moving forward so that we can be really flexible and we can recut them and pivot in other directions quickly. Larger companies, particularly big P&G type companies that are selling a lot of consumer goods, can shoot a lot of ads quickly. We’re a mid-sized startup, so we don’t have the luxury of being able to reshoot an ad all the time. For NerdWallet, having a flexible style to adapt quickly and change mid-campaign or for a new campaign is really valuable and it gives us a lot of message optioning. We’re trying to have good check-ins ahead of all of our deadlines for campaigns to decide, are we going to move forward or are we not going to move forward? 

NerdWallet upped spending in Q2. Has the company’s budget increased, decreased, or remained the same since then?

In Q2, we upped our budget because we exceeded our Q1 benchmarks. Our CEO and my boss, Tim Chen, was like, ‘“Hey, what more can you do? This seems to be a great lever for our business.” In Q2, we committed to doing a bigger budget, then COVID hit and took some wind out of our sales. But we found that we still wanted to spend a little bit more than we’d spent in Q1 and maybe not as aggressively as we could. Knowing that many Americans’ financial concerns changed a lot with COVID, we made some adjustments to that campaign to reflect the more relevant questions. But with so many people looking for financial guidance and searches for financial help at an all-time high, we felt it was important that people knew we could be a resource for them in both good times and bad times.

So we made a decision, unlike many brand advertisers, that we didn’t want to totally turn off or substantially decrease our brand effort, but channel it in a different way. So for 2021, our brand budget is larger in part because we scaled something back in light of COVID and we’re coming back with a lot of those things. But we do plan to do more brand spending because we’re seeing a lot of opportunity there and a lot of business results from those investments. As long as we’re seeing that they’re really paying off in moving our business and brand forward, we’re going to keep investing in them.

What’s been working at NerdWallet in terms of pandemic messaging?

One thing we didn’t talk about that’s not the [vignette-style] ads is our vision is to answer all consumers’ money questions. With so many people looking for financial guidance, we felt it was really important that people knew we could be a resource for them. At the start of the pandemic, we made adjustments to the ads, but we also changed our content strategy to reflect these current needs. We offered new resources that were tailored to specific concerns people were having. So we launched a guide to COVID-19 that’s been updated daily since the start of the outbreak to reflect new developments. It did stuff like analyze the CARES Act and provide answers to all of the front burner questions people now had, like when am I going to get my stimulus check? 

Then we updated our content marketing strategy to highlight the topics that are most impactful versus doing what we originally planned. We had a whole slate of content marketing on our calendar, but we basically threw it away and we were like, all right, what does everybody really care about right now? And as a result of that, we had some of the highest engagement rates we’ve ever seen across social, email and all those places where content marketing is really important. Taking a step back and redoing that plan was really smart of our teams to do. It ended up being much more impactful.

Looking ahead, what processes should marketers implement to ensure greater flexibility amid disruption?

Expecting unexpectedness is something to think about in 2021. Being ready to capitalize on opportunities or pivot when they arise is important to build into the process too. And some risk-taking.  

The other thing is that in this kind of environment, part of it is process and part of it is perspective. Marketing can feel very tricky because the short-term payback might be down or it might be harder to see. But the long-term payback is probably like showing up at a time that’s difficult for people because being really helpful builds a lot of trust in your brand. We decided at NerdWallet that if we can get a long term payback around the marketing we’re doing now in two years, then it’s worth doing. If we think that our business is going to be fully recovered and that people are going to be back to doing what they were doing a couple of years from now, then it’s probably worth us not stopping everything in the short term and grinding to a halt, but continuing to plow on through. We’re fortunate that we’re in a good position as a profitable startup and that we don’t have to be that extreme in some of our cost-cutting.

How do you see marketing budgets changing in the new year?

It’ll be interesting to see if engaging people in person, like at Coachella or through airport billboards, will come back in 2021 or maybe the second half of the year. And whether trends like consumption of streaming media, which was up about 80 percent at one point, will persist as people get back to being out in real life again.

There’s been a lot of change in travel, rewards-based credit cards and travel adjacent marketing. On the flip side, there’s a lot of increased interest in things that aren’t related to travel, like cashback cards or getting free food delivery and having DoorDash pass or things like that. And we can all expect to see a lot of marketing related to pharmaceuticals and the vaccine. So I think that there are ebbs and flows into different areas and whether or not those areas will persist and really be a new consumer behavior or not, is the open question for me. Marketing budgets need to be able to ebb and flow into that as well.

I anticipate 2021 is going to be a different situation for a lot of the year, so continuing to think about how to either take advantage of behaviors that are coming back or new behaviors that are going to be persistent, will be important.

With people stuck at home for most of the year and a third wave of COVID-19 upon us, how does NerdWallet view out-of-home (OOH)?

We’ve run OOH advertising in the past, and it’s something we really pulled back on given the change in commutes. As offices reopen and commuting returns, OOH is going to come back. What I think about right now is that if we want OOH as part of our mix here at NerdWallet, is this a great time for us to jump on potentially cheaper inventory and lock things up for later in 2021 when other people are hesitant? To me, it’s a ‘when,’ not an ‘if.’

There has been a change to work life, but I don’t think it’s large enough that people are going to be coming back to offices in large numbers where OOH would be worth it. When they ride public transportation and are out and about a lot like before, how do we want to show for that?

How can advertisers acknowledge the pandemic in the new year without stirring fatigue?

Advertisers are probably going to look to give a nod to the new normal without necessarily speaking about COVID directly. You don’t want to be tone-deaf or pretend like nothing’s ever happened on the one hand. But on the other hand, nobody wants to hear anything else about COVID. For our ads, we’re thinking about how things are different in terms of behavior without having to dredge up the whole situation we’ve all been through.

What’s one tactic or thought process you think marketers have been underutilizing in the pandemic that will be critical in the new year?

I love this question because I got really excited about my answer to it, which is positivity and optimism. I think we’re all over 2020. It was a really tough year even for people maybe not as financially impacted and for people who didn’t lose their jobs or have a lot of struggles. No one wants to hear the word “unprecedented” ever again. We’re just over it. We’re ready to take things back and reclaim the things we love. As the new year commences and our return to normalcy happens slowly over the course of this year, having positivity and optimism about our futures, taking good things we learned from the tough times with us and saying, you know what? I learned this about myself. I learned this about consumers, or it was really good that I figured this out about my friends, my family, my job or whatever. That will be really important.

So I’m thinking about how we go into this year with those feelings of optimism and the right spirit around our futures. For other marketers, optimism is a very powerful tool versus dwelling on the past or going back to business as usual. So it’s about how you encompass that feeling.

Any thoughts on first-party data needs and challenges in 2021?

I actually think about this a lot. Given the future of third-party cookies being uncertain, I think it’s a really critical time for businesses and especially people who work in marketing those businesses to have a proactive first-party data strategy. If it wasn’t a big priority for you, you got to really start thinking about it. For us at NerdWallet, first-party data really helps us to help consumers make informed decisions about how to improve their finances and personalize things because personal finance is really personal. So the more we can do that, the better off we are.

There are legit sensitivities around personal data and we always want to be very careful about it, not only about what’s legally right, which is of course, the minimum standard we all need to comply with. But what’s ethically right for us as a business. 

We actually have privacy governance around that internally. It’s a big area for companies to be thinking about. If you put it off, 2021 is a year where you need to start getting serious about making plans to increase your first-party information because 2022 is going to be on you before you know it. And you’re not going to be able to rely on third-party cookies anymore, potentially.