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The Changing Consumer- Planning for Uncharted Territory

The Changing Consumer: Planning for Uncharted Territory

An overview of the seismic media consumption shifts due to coronavirus

Ashish Williams




During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first address on the lockdown, there was a general sense that South Africa got roped into a global pandemic and that staying at home is a required action that would slow but unfortunately not stop the spread of the virus. There is a long road ahead of us as we move from the acute to the recovery phase of the outbreak, and therefore, it is important that we separate real media opportunities from media hyperbole — and plan correctly in a time of unprecedented consumer disruption. As we start the slow process of unravelling the lockdown measures, let’s examine this through two distinct lenses:

  • Understanding which changes in media behavior have become sustainable and essential to campaign planning
  • Analyzing the attention gap and the continued advantage for advertisers that are reactive and relevant to the current climate

Sustained versus spikes

One of the key questions that is yet to be answered is what behavioral changes will stick around once the world gets control of the pandemic. While we don’t have a crystal ball, we are starting to see some early signs of what will be durable changes rather than transient shifts.

Starting with connectivity, people seem to be settling into their preferred amount and method of virtual socialization. For example, ownership of the Houseparty app declined last month and weekly app usage dropped to pre-lockdown levels. Likewise, both Google Hangouts and Skypes user bases have both remained flat, while their weekly usage has returned to pre-lockdown levels. However, the real winner has been Zoom, whose weekly app usage has doubled post-lockdown and app ownership has continued to grow across April. The contraction across most of the video communications platforms corresponds perfectly with the fact that there has been a 40 percent drop in searches for online quizzes on Google, as people begin to tire of organized family and work fun.

Beyond quizzes, there are signs of shifts across all content categories. For example, Google Trends data shows that online searches around shopping and home entertainment are still above pre-lockdown norms, whereas interest in health-related searches, which spiked in March and April with a 100 percent rise above pre-lockdown norms, have since fallen, which indicates a shift towards acceptance of the new normal. Indeed, as South Africans have found a rhythm to their weeks, we are starting to see fewer people panic and more look forward to the future with home delivery and essential food related searches falling, while searches for “when will ___ reopen” rising.

Lastly, we are seeing signs of digital fatigue. Interestingly, people who work from home are showing signs of reduced online searches post-5pm, indicating a desire to switch off at the end of their tech-heavy nine-to-five.

MediaCom POV: As the government eases lockdown levels, we will likely see further developments and changes in the media behavior of South Africans. It is too early to predict which changes will fully embed versus those that are a mere flash in the pandemic pan. As a result, it is vitally important that advertisers continue to plan for the moment and reflect the latest content, contexts, and circumstances of their audiences when they come to market.

An attention deficit disorder?

Over the past few weeks, the balancing act between the nation's increased appetite for news and brand safety have created a unique market tension. Our perspective has remained consistent that any risk tolerance needs to be balanced with the fact that the news has never been as important to the nation as it is now, and that a blanket block on association with coronavirus terms and content risks harming the ability of advertisers to reach their customers.

Research from Lumen, the attention technology and eye-tracking research agency, now substantiates this perspective with additional data. Their viewpoint is simple: when we operate in an attention economy, shying away from the content that is garnering attention is counterintuitive.

Currently, digital ads are 20 percent more likely to be noticed when compared to the 6-month average. But, in general, advertisers are running away from COVID-19 content even though attention has seen a dramatic increase of 21 percent. Digging deeper, ads that appeared next to coronavirus-related content outperformed those that didn't.

When advertisers have gone a step further and adapted ads to respond to COVID-19, the effort has paid off. Lumens eye tracking shows that adapted ads are getting 10 percent more attention than the pre-crisis norm. Interestingly, ads that don' t respond to the current situation are getting nearly 5 percent less attention.

Is this good attention? In a nutshell, yes. The majority of people have no qualms about ads appearing next to coronavirus-related content, with 41 percent of respondents claiming that such positioning makes them feel better about the brands and only 4 percent claiming it makes them feel worse. In short, brands that actively embrace the COVID-19 context are seeing a big uptick in attention and positivity.

MediaCom POV: An abundance of caution has led to an abundance of missed opportunity, with many advertisers directing media budgets to less attentive, non-corona-related inventory. In time, we predict this will show a poorer return on investment, while the braver brands that have leaned into crisis content will see some of their hardest working advertising of the year. Which would you rather have?