Contextual Marketing: Consumers, Commerce, Content & COVID

No, nothing is predestined. None of the “experts” making predictions about a future after this coronavirus can do so with any degree of confidence. It is human nature to want to be told what will occur and how to prepare, but this pandemic is ravaging different parts of the world, and even regions within countries like the United States, in very disparate ways. There are far too many variables at an unprecedented scale that have not been resolved: How many people will fall ill? How will people behave? How do we test them? How do we treat them? When will there be a vaccine?

Some pre-existing individual and social trends have rapidly accelerated since the outbreak of COVID-19, and new behavioral, emotional, economic, and political patterns have quickly emerged. Marketers have long relied on the data and insights from these trends and patterns to inform and make decisions. Over the past two months, brand and agency leaders have discussed, debated, written and webinar-ed about how to prepare for the “new normal, but as Dr. Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor, opined in the New York Times last week, “no one knows what is going to happen.”

Consumers: The Present Now Matters Most.

If we cannot truly predict the future, and the past matters far less than it did, let’s start with the present. Here is what is happening RIGHT NOW. Then, we can think about what to do about it.  Last week, Google listed several key human behavioral trends to pay attention to:

  1. More Consumers Using Multiple Devices: With more people staying home, people are engaging with more content across multiple devices. Americans are watching roughly 12 hours of content a day, according to Nielsen data. Naturally, we are also CREATING more content, and all of that content creates an even fiercer competition for users’ attention.
  2. (Blank) From Home: Many things that previously required leaving home, now no longer do. We’ve adjusted our routines to be at-home-first: work, exercise, shopping, cooking. Exactly how these new at-home routines will impact company policies surrounding remote work, experiences with traditional brick-and-mortar shopping experiences, and even the renewal of gym memberships will be interesting. Our experiences at home are impacting how we behave as both, consumers and professionals, which directly relates to the next point…
  3. Search Behaviors Have Changed: Search interest in “online grocery shopping” and “grocery delivery” grew 23% YOY in the US. We are watching more recipe and cooking-related videos. Telemedicine and virtual pharmacy search is also up 150% YOY. Over the past few months, priorities and patterns in search volumes for different categories of product have either had their times to shine, or maybe not so much. And the food and health industries aren’t the only ones with shifting search-related behavior. In the beauty industry, skincare and hair color-related search volumes saw significant spikes because who wouldn’t want to pamper themselves or experiment with a new hair color while stuck inside?
  4. Virtual Connectivity: You zoom, I zoom, we all zoom. But, we also Meet, Hangout, Webex, Instagram Live and more. Families are FaceTiming more and using Facebook to share local news and updates. Collectivism is competitive with individualism, again (though certainly not everywhere). And the one-to-many creation trend is also proliferating. On YouTube, “with me” videos have blown up, where people film themselves going about ordinary tasks like cleaning, shopping, or cooking. Right now, people are the most in-touch with their own personal passions and interests than they ever were because they have the time to exercise and explore them. Consuming and creating content that connects them to these passions and interests is a true movement experienced in these past few months.
  5. Health and Wellness: And with more time on our hands, we’ve had more time to not only consume content that connects us to our passions and interests, but to connect ourselves to health and wellness. This has included riding bikes, going for walks and focusing on physical and psychological health. But more than just self-care, we’re also looking after neighbors, reconnecting with old friends and spending time and playing games with family.

Commerce: Rise, Risk and Resurgence.

What we buy, how we buy, where we buy and why we buy have all shifted significantly at micro- and macro-levels. Some shifts, like the ones above, may be permanent, whereas others may revert back to pre-COVID levels.

  • Rise: Physical stores and restaurants shut down, and some are reopening faster than others. But past shopping behaviors are being rethought. The immediacy of online shopping and the anxieties about public interaction has driven ecommerce to even greater heights. In fact, ecommerce growth in sales over the past eight weeks are greater than the past eight years (see chart below). Simply put, those that can reach, engage and convince consumers… and then deliver (literally and figuratively) are prospering.
  • Risk: Some of the figures are staggering, but not everyone can or will succeed in a reimagined digital marketplace. Brands and retailers that were previously well-established for ecommerce have capitalized on these consumer needs. Others are adapting and building capabilities quickly, and many are pivoting to a direct-to-consumer (D2C) business model. But if there are even more ways and places to buy, marketing will matter more than ever. Retailers will be pitted against brands for user attention and a share of their business. It is impossible to know just how that increasing competition between partners will change the way they work together, or who will be the winners and losers, or which challengers will come out of the wings to topple the incumbents.
  • Resurgence: Let’s also not count out the brick-and-mortar establishments just yet. Ecommerce trends may continue, but we may see a flattening of the commercial curve. Consumers are already showing a borderline irresponsible need to return to physical IRL presences and experiences. And given the challenging experiences and massive delivery delays in many products (some things I ordered in March and April still have not yet arrived), consumers are also growing frustrated with many of their ecommerce experiences. If the big crowds in some areas are any indication, the pent-up energy will be released in a real-life retail resurgence.

Content: Character and the Value Exchange

Even before the pandemic, marketers and brand leaders were deep in thought and conversation about things like values, purpose and priorities. The meaning of each of these ideas were often inconsistent and interchangeable within and across teams, but all of these are components of who and what you are as a brand. Adaptation can be challenging, especially with so many moving parts that are constantly shifting right now, but the key to successful adaptation is staying true to, and not deviating away from, who your brand is and what it represents. This is the very foundation and core of your brand and should be used a blueprint for bouncing your strategies and thoughts off of.

  • Character is the aggregate of moral qualities, traits and values that are distinctive to each individual, group, consumer or brand. We often use human attributes – or characteristics – that give each brand a unique identity. Character is the “who.” Who are you? Who are your consumers?
  • Values are the personalized standards and rules that guide decisions. Values encapsulate the “why” consumers buy and the “what” you stand for as a brand. Core values can evolve slowly, but the priority of messaging should be adapted on a regular basis, and those changes become the basis for all objectives, strategies, messaging or tactics.
  • Value exchange is the fundamental equation that drives commerce. Consumers have values, brands have values. The current situation has made consumers more sensitive to how their values translate to their actions, and marketing that is aligned with these values is more likely to break through the noise and create a more meaningful relationship between the brand and the consumer.
  • Content: Branded content must clearly articulate this value exchange for target consumer personas at various stages and touchpoints across the marketing funnel. What can the brand offer the consumer — information, access, security, entertainment, diversion, comfort – and what can the consumer offer the brand in return – engagement, conversion, advocacy, loyalty, credibility, etc.

 So What? Now What?

This greater understanding of what is driving marketing decisions right now means adapting accordingly. Some of the same basic rules still apply: optimizing your website, SEO content and formatting for various platforms are incredibly important. Pushing content out without a plan for how to bring consumers back into your owned or operated platforms is incredibly inefficient and wasteful.

But the playbook for specific content plans from pre-March is obsolete. Some brands have seen tremendous success replacing traditional advertising spends with advocate, influencer and customer-created assets that perform best at the point of consideration. Personalized content doesn’t have to be individualized content. And look at the content that consumers are creating to inspire what and how the brand can be doing better. Consumers will look for brands, products and services they can trust and to which they can relate.

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