How covid changed digital marketing forever
Updated: Sep 14
It is unlikely that Federal and State governments were thinking about digital marketing as they developed plans to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus transmission early last year, but their actions have significantly accelerated a number of key trends that impact businesses’ ability to reach and engage their customers through digital communication. It is also unlikely they believed their actions would trigger the most extreme economic contraction of the last 50 years.
As early as last March according to Advertising Perceptions, businesses were already radically adjusting the way they engaged customers in response to government restrictions including wholesale cancellation of advertising campaigns. In April, Sprout identified key shifts in optimal posting times for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn as well as new industry-specific trends in posting volume. By May, Deloitte’s leadership was engaging its key customers in discussions about how digital marketing was quickly changing the business landscape in 2020. By July, the Public Alliance had documented rapidly changing consumer behavior including a greatly increased reliance on e-commerce. By October, MarketingTech had identified a pronounced trend among consumers to reliance on news and digital marketing content with a local focus.
Today, social media and digital marketing use has accelerated dramatically. Businesses that were quick to adapt to the changing economic and social landscape have reaped the benefits of creating closer relationships with their customers through digital marketing strategies and tactics. Those that have been slower to respond will spend 2021 playing catch-up.
The shift in reliance on digital marketing occurred against the backdrop of the most significant economic dislocation in the last half century. Since 1971, the US economy has grown between 2% and 7% every year but five. During the mid-70s during the middle east oil embargoes, the economy shrank by .5% and .2% in 1974-1975. During the 1980 recession, the economy shrank by 1.8%. In the 1991 pull-back, the economy shrank by .1%. In 2008 during the mortgage crisis, the economy contracted by a whopping 2.5%. By contrast, the 2020 economy shrank by 3.5% including a 31% dip in the second quarter, the largest ever quarterly decline in GDP. At the same time, according to several location-tracking sources, people and businesses engaged in less face-to-face contact than ever before.
Business Reaction According to more than 200 advertising and marketing professionals surveyed by Advertiser Perceptions in March 2020, fewer than one in five had contingency plans in place to manage media investments in the event of a large-scale national event. Faced with just such an unanticipated event, by March, nearly half of those surveyed had stopped or canceled a campaign mid-flight, and more than one-third canceled campaigns outright prior to launch.
Yet more than 60% believed that businesses that maintain advertising during economic downturns will fare better when the economy improves. So, it is not surprising that nearly half indicated they were shifting budget among media types including digital marketing.
In all, 81% surveyed expected to reduce advertising spending in 2020 and 68% expected a further spend reduction in 2021. These businesses, like most, are searching for ways to be both more efficient (lower spend) and more effective (higher impact) with their marketing dollar – a search that increasingly comes to fruition in the digital marketing world. As one respondent noted, “The audience for social media will be increased since many individuals would be indoors most of the time.”
As businesses struggled to react to unexpected restrictions on their customers and businesses, consumer behavior began to change quickly. Perhaps the biggest change was the dramatic reduction in face-to-face exchanges with businesses as time spent online ballooned and videoconferencing (Zoom) replaced face-to-face and phone interaction. A global survey showed that nearly a third of workers expect to increase their use of videoconferencing and permanently increase time worked from home relative to pre-Covid habits. As important, according to the Datareportal.com July Global Digital Snapshot, individuals spent more time online including on social media of all types.
The Snapshot further revealed the acceleration of digital media use. Of the 7.8 billion people in the world, more than 5.2 billion have a mobile phone, 4.6 billion use the internet (for an average of more than 6 hours per day), 4 billion use social media, and 3 billion are active on mobile social media. For the first time, more than half the world's population is regularly using social media! And while many businesses reduced their number of brand posts during the uncertainty of the first half of 2020, according to Sprout Social, the average number of views per brand post increased.
Since the onset of Covid, people are spending more time on their devices including 70% of mobile phone users and half of the laptop users. Of internet users, nearly half are spending more time on social media and a third are spending more time on apps, and half of 16-54 year-olds intend to shop more frequently online even after the Covid restrictions are lifted.
Recent data from the same source suggest that online search is changing dramatically. While search engines remain the leading tool for brand research, social networks are now the second most used vehicle and are first among 16-24 year-olds, while mobile wallets linked to email, according to Deloitte and Salesforce, are an increasingly popular purchase channel. More importantly for marketers, e-commerce transactions continue to accelerate, growing 20% in July relative to pre-Covid levels, with conversion rate up by 20% as well. Purchases through social media are increasing and attitudes among younger buyers indicate future growth.
Riding the Digital Marketing Wave
As the US economy tanked in Q2, businesses, especially small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), sought to exploit the greater reach and engagement with customers available through digital marketing. Many shifted budgets to take advantage of changing consumer behavior that increasingly relies on digital rather than face-to-face interaction.
How do marketing leaders suggest businesses take full advantage of digital marketing opportunities post-Covid? First, if you haven’t already, create a digital market strategy and develop an online presence. Second, do not decrease posting – customers are hungry for more engagement. Shama Hyder of Zen Marketing suggests Increasing your posting and creating free content that is compelling and engaging. Create opportunities for interaction with customers whether through likes and follows, comment interaction, contests that encourage customer engagement, or transparently personalizing your company’s story. Consider hosting virtual events and using video, two new trends, to grow sales and deepen customer relationships.
To graduate to a mature digital capability, Simon Kemp, author of the Datareportal.com Digital Snapshot encourages businesses to take a balanced approach to digital marketing. First, with half the world’s population using social media, think of it as a layer that runs through everything your customers do, not as a series of distinct destinations and standalone activities. Second, avoid binary thinking. While Covid has accelerated digital adoption, this trend remains essentially evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Digital hasn’t replaced TV; home hasn’t replaced the office, and e-commerce hasn’t replaced bricks and mortar. But behavior is changing, and digital offers cost-effective ways to reach and engage customers. Maximizing the potential of digital marketing requires constant monitoring of your customers and their changing behavior and preferences. Fortunately, by virtue of its interactive potential, digital more than any other media offers you the opportunity to do exactly that.
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