The Pandemic Growth Marketing Playbook: A Guide by Nelio Leone

Want To Learn About Survival? Join a Startup  

In the last 6 years, I’ve been working with a significant number of startups, from L.A and Dubai, to Oslo and Nairobi.

Some failed. Some became multi-million dollar businesses and I was lucky enough to join a startup that became a $3 Billion Unicorn.

Being in the startup phase of a company has more to do with survival than anything else. You lack resources, you lack people, you lack cash, you lack tools, you lack knowledge… no matter which way you turn it, the blanket is always too short.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s how to help companies build battle-tested growth engines optimized for environmental scarcity.

If you want to learn the art of survival, join a startup. That’s where I was exposed - overtime - to the 5 Survival Growth Marketing Principles:

Principle #1: Make Sure Your Brand Is Browsable

Companies who will win BIG out of this crisis are those focusing all their efforts on building a “browsable” BRAND. During a crisis, people tend to stick to basic needs like food and health, so it’s not the right time to “sell”, but the perfect moment to “tell”.

Why? Because people are in “browsing mode”, not “buying mode”.

What you should be doing now, is having a clear content marketing strategy. Don’t be obsessed with monetizing. 

Principle #2: Get Your Users Into Building Habits

There is a common principle stating that it takes between 21 and 66 days to develop a habit. After 21, 35, or 66 days, users will start getting into the habit of being exposed to your brand IF you are consistently providing a ton of value.

Habits are a marketer’s dream:

- They override rational and conscious decision-making
- They build retention and life-time value
- They are hard to break

If you are a marketer or founder, I want you to ask you this crucial question: How can I induce my target audience to get into a habit centered around my brand or product?

An example could be a live stream a day where you are reviewing all sort of products within your category, including your fiercest competitors.

Principle #3: Build Targeted Audiences

Modern marketers are well aware of the importance of building targeted audiences. In some cases, it becomes strategically relevant to focus on how to optimize and scale organic audiences vs monetizing them (e.g. Facebook).

First, you build an audience, then you start selling.

CPMs (Cost per Thousand Impressions on Social Media Platforms or Display Networks) have decreased by 29%.

Building an audience today, during the COVID-19 pandemic when people are bored at home, is easier and cheaper because of lower CPMs.

Provide free value to your target audience, get them to subscribe to your email list… then in 3-6 months, you go for the ask. Ideally, the more you delay the ask, the better it is (if you can afford it).

This has a tangible outcome. Build an excel sheet with potential customers:

- First Name
- Last Name
- Phone Number
- Email

The more you grow the list now, the bigger the potential buying audience will be in the future. We call this list an “asset”.

Then you can start “segmenting” different lists based on the behaviors of subgroups (behavioral clustering).

Principle #4: Be Obsessed With Churn.

By now, some might ask: “I’ve got 3 months runway. If I don’t get cash in, my business will shut its doors down. Why are we even talking about audiences and content?”

I agree. Retention is the new acquisition and high churn will bleed you out, but think about it for just one second...

What does managing churn really mean? Managing churn means getting very close to your customers. It means calling them.

So, make a list of VIP customers and call 10–50 customers a day and ask them a simple question: How is this crisis impacting you and your family?

This is the what being customer-centric really comes down to.

If you’re the founder or head of growth, your mission now is to gather significant insights to understand if/how their pains have shifted, and how you can keep being relevant while addressing those pains.

You’ll get valuable insights from these calls. They will help you:

- Get a pulse of how the market is shifting
- Have a clear understanding of the “pain shift”
- Find alternative billable solutions for additional streams of revenue
- Gather insights to build customer-centric content and communication

You should spend hours, even days on the phone with customers. You need to become your customers’ best friend. Ask them for insights. I’ve been repeating this for many years now… there is no “growth hacking”.

Your customers hold the key to your survival.

Call them. Gather data. Thank them, send them cookies, bear jellies, love letters if needed. Follow up with automated messages… then start drafting new offers.

It’s time to be considerate, empathetic and inquisitive like Will Smith in the “Pursuit of Happiness”.

Principle #5: Time To Partner Up

Entrepreneurs tend to be insular, and let’s be honest, we all make this same mistake. So it’s time to break the silo. This crisis is unprecedented, so reach out to other founders, partner up and find common solutions.

The “churn calls” should give you a clarity on your customers pains. If you are unable to alleviate or address those pains, other companies can. Find a partner that can solve your customers’ pain.

If you had a dream partner that was inaccessible in the past, it now might not seem like a forbidden dream. You might not have another chance to gain a key partnership for so cheap in the future… the time is now!


In Mandarin, the word for crisis is a synonym for opportunity. The COVID-19 crisis is presenting a lot of marketing opportunities (if you follow The Growth Marketing Survival Principles!):

- Capitalize on under-priced attention
- Build targeted audiences
- Get closer to your customers
- Build key partnerships

You can either surf or get wiped out… either way, the wave is coming. It's time to ride this Tsunami!

Nelio Leone is Founder and CEO of Urban Monks. He recently appeared on one of our webinars to discuss whether companies should look to grow or survive right now, the significance of original content creation, how should companies be looking to plan their advertising budgets in these times and more. You can always catch up on the webinar if you missed it