Advertising & Marketing in the Time of COVID

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It would be hard to find a segment of American life that has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic—and sales and marketing are no exception. Influencer Marketing Hub (IMH), a US-based marketing strategy company, recently surveyed 237 brands of all sizes to see how they the coronavirus public health crisis has affected them, and combined those results with additional COVID-related sales and marketing statistics to create an overall snapshot of lessons and trends.

General Findings

• Some industries have been and will continue to be more affected than others. Luxury, travel, and service-related companies are struggling to survive, while business that have been classified as “essential” are struggling to meet demand.
• Companies that rely on “old media” are especially at risk. Prestigious publishers have already ceased publication of well-known, long-running publications, with more likely to come.
• Both small (less than 50 employees) and large companies (more than 1,000 employees) surveyed express significant concern over the coronavirus’s impact, and are strategizing carefully about how to market their way through the economic downturn.

Findings from the IMH Survey:

Ad Spends

• 69% of brands expect they will decrease their ad spend in 2020. Many companies indicated that there is either a high likelihood that they will be decreasing their ad spend this year, the majority from regions still in lockdown.
• 25% indicated they will increase their ad spend during the latter half of 2020.
Whereas the majority of companies indicated that they have switched to survival mode, it was interesting to note that one company out of four indicated that it would increase marketing activities.

COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the media, but this impact has been very uneven. There are clear winners and losers:

• Winners:
o There has been increased interest in news. This sector saw a 52% increase in ad spending from before the global impact.
o Other areas to have seen rises in ad spending in that timeframe include hobbies & interests (31%), technology & computing (14%), and education (13%). Notably, these are all activities that can be consumed at home.
o e-Commerce companies doubled their ad spending in the four weeks between February 17 and March 9—a trend that has continued. Ad spend from e-Commerce sites doubled from $4.8 million for a trailing four-week period starting on February 17 to $9.6 million for the week of March 9. Brands that operate both an online and physical presence have moved their marketing to the web.

• Losers
o Of course, many sectors have cut back on their advertising activity. At 72%, the most significant drop in ad spending is for law, government, and politics
o At a spending slowdown of 65% is the travel sector, making it the most significantly affected private-sector group.
o There were also noticeable drops in ad spending on sports (40%), science (26%), and family & parenting (24%).

Social Media

Especially in places that experienced strict lockdown, people turned to social media in increasing numbers for information. They have also used videoconferencing and messaging apps to remain in contact with families, friends, work colleagues, and clients.

• In March when stay-at-home orders began, nearly three quarters of the firms surveyed reported having slowed down their social media posting after closing or slowing down activities. This number rose significantly after social media managers settled into working from home.

• Early in the pandemic, IMH’s research indicated that 34% of respondents indicated a shift in social network preference from Instagram to Twitter, presumably because of its focus on news. A significant number of respondents reported increasing their Facebook usage, although this may have been more to check in on their family and friends than for work activities.

• Facebook has seen a definite surge in the use of both Messenger and WhatsApp over the last few months, reporting 70% more time spent across their apps and a doubling of live views in a week. They saw messaging increase over 50% and time in group calling (calls with three or more participants) increase by over 1,000% during March. The countries with the strictest lockdowns have seen the highest use in messaging apps.

Email Campaigns

A possibly surprising stat relates to email open rates during the time that consumers stay at home.

• Email open rates have risen by up to 25% week-on-week in retail. Clearly, people have more time on their hands at the moment and can devote more of it to opening and reading their emails.
• Daily email open rates are generally increasing by 5-10% each week.
• Email opens and resulting interactions have increased more on desktop than mobile. Clearly, more people are working at home on their laptops, which they use to check their emails, rather than their smartphones, as they have previously. Reading email communications on the desktop provides a less distracting browsing experience than on mobile devices, and consumers are taking more time to read longer content.

A study by Pattern89 has noticed a shift in the types of imagery used by brands in social media ads during the pandemic. They found 27.4% fewer images showing models hugging or shaking hands in ads on Facebook and Instagram. According to the study, images and videos displaying water splashing, hand/face washing, or cleaning have risen at six times the regular rate.

Last week, despite the prediction that the global ad market would shrink by 7%, or $42 billion, a new study from Viamedia shows marketers are quickly adapting. According to the study, 83% of US businesses have overhauled their marketing strategies for a post-pandemic world. (Viamedia’s findings are based on a survey among business owners [59%] and advertising agencies on behalf of businesses [29%], conducted between May 15 and May 27.)

The study found that despite the economic downturn, there remains a strong need for advertising—45% of business owners from various industries say they’re seeking creative incentives for advertising. 40% of respondents also reported an annual marketing budget of at least $75,000—over half of which was allotted to advertising.
More than 46% of respondents say they’re offering incentives and promotions to drive sales and continue operating during the downturn, while 10% have shifted to digital operations, and 9% plan to expand. Still, 28% report that they are looking for guidance on how to change their marketing strategy to weather the pandemic.

This latest study reports that many respondents expressed optimism over their post-pandemic futures, with 36% saying they felt their business would be the same as it was pre-pandemic.

Marketing in the Post-COVID Era

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During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, most state and local governments created and enforced stay-at-home orders to help slow the transmission of the novel coronavirus. With movie theaters, swimming pools, bowling alleys, churches, and other large venues locked down, people turned to other activities to fill their hours—and much of those involved screens.

According to the first edition of Zenith’s Communication’s Media Consumption Forecasts published in 2015, the typical adult spent 80-130 minutes per day online. By 2021, says Zenith’s Head of Forecasting Jonathan Barnard—spurred on by fewer outside entertainment options, faster connections, and more live-streaming events—the average consumer is expected to spend 479 minutes per day consuming media online.

If this sounds outlandish, check your own recent mobile Internet usage on your smartphone or tablet. Now compare that with your usage from earlier this year. Surprised? Most people are.

If you’re in business, let’s talk about how this increased usage impacts data collection, and what you need to be aware of to leverage this new information in a way that benefits your bottom line.

So many consumers at home and online during the coronavirus pandemic has caused a spike in data collection. But more is not always better. While this vast increase in data may seem beneficial, without a baseline, relying on it too heavily to predict future behavior would be a mistake. At least a moderate level of historical data is critical to understand the meaning behind the new data.

In the future, entrepreneurs and/or business leaders should take care to avoid relying too heavily on information from this recent data windfall. According to Gartner, Inc, a leading research and advisory company in the global marketplace, bad data can cost a business an average of $15 million per year in losses. Instead, use your intuition and the insight you have gained from past experience to drive future decisions pending a more thorough, comparative understanding of what new data appears to indicate.

Consider the following points as you move forward:
• Continue building your brand and communicating your values in clear, robust ways.
• Take advantage of the average consumer’s skyrocketing screen time to leverage digital marketing fully. Enlist the help of digital marketers with a thorough understanding of data analytics to help sort and interpret data and convert it into helpful information for you and your team to consider when making business decisions.
• Inbound marketing remains the best way to convert leads into loyal customers. Pay special attention to it so you can build relationships online in the absence of more frequent in-person meetings and encounters. According to HubSpot, 61% of marketers say improving SEO and growing their organic presence is their top inbound marketing priority. A recent study from think-tank Forrester Research would seem to indicate that companies can generate 50% more sales-ready leads at 33% lower costs through creative, effective inbound marketing.
• Content remains king. Emphasize its creation and quality as a key portion of your inbound marketing efforts, positioning it strategically with your other online products and solutions. A survey by HubSpot also revealed that 55% of marketing professionals surveyed said blog content creation is their top inbound marketing priority.
• Revisit your marketing personas. Have they changed in light of the pandemic in any way? If so, modify your marketing messaging to be sure you are continuing to reach them.

Your business should never be static, even under stable, normal conditions. How you respond to the pandemic will ignite even greater changes in the way you do business. Be intentional and use your intuition and industry knowledge to keep driving leads, closing sales, and increasing revenue.

Few people anticipated the sweeping impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet here we are, like it or not, living through historic times. Some companies have chosen to draw inward and wait out the storm; others are modifying everything but their core values on the fly. How a company markets itself during the pandemic is a powerful indicator of how well they will be able to re-enter the post-COVID business arena.

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