The New “Normal” in Social: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Changed The Social Media Landscape
Life in 2020 is a life lived online.
Many of us are stuck at home as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and with movie theaters closed and no restaurants doing indoor seating in many places, Americans have been spending more and more of their lives online. With nearly all public gatherings called off in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Americans are seeking out entertainment on streaming services like Netflix and YouTube and looking to connect with one another via social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
This “new normal” seems anything but. However, it’s the reality we must face on a day to day basis while we combat the spread of the virus. Let’s discuss how COVID-19 has changed the social media landscape. Which behavioral changes will be short-lived? And which will become long-term?
How Are Behaviors Changing During The Pandemic?
A New York Times analysis of internet usage in the United States from two respected online data providers, SimilarWeb and Apptopia, discovered some interesting revelations around how our behaviors have shifted as the virus has spread and pushed us all to our devices for our work, play, and social connection.
In the past few years, users of these services have been increasingly moving to their smartphones, helping to catalyze an industrywide focus on mobile. And with the vast majority of us spending our days at home with our computers close by, Americans appear to be reinvigorating their passion for their PC, likely remembering just how inconvenient it can be to squint at the small screens of our smartphones day in and day out.
According to data from SimilarWeb and Apptopia, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix have all seen user numbers stagnate or even fall off on their phone apps, while their website user base has grown. SimilarWeb and Apptopia both source their traffic numbers from several independent sources in order to create data that can be compared across the internet.
In light of the pandemic, we have also grown much more interested in our immediate environment, oftentimes becoming a more tight-knit community as a result. We all want to monitor how things are changing and how we respond to COVID and quarantine measures. This has created a renewed interest in platforms like Nextdoor, the social media site focused on connecting people within local neighborhoods.
And let’s be honest, being holed up in the house in relative isolation leaves us craving human connection. We want to do more than just connect with one another through messaging and text — we want to see each other. Zoom has seen its user rates skyrocket since the beginning of the epidemic, and this has had a ripple effect on similar platforms. Apps that have been basically hanging around in general obscurity (like Google’s video chatting application, Duo) have seen a huge surge in usage. Even apps like Houseparty, which allows groups of friends to join a single video chat and play games together, have risen with the tide and seen its user base increase.
Brand Safety Is Shifting
In the modern world, brand safety moves at a rapid rate, instantly creating a slew of new challenges as new topics arise. The challenges surrounding the Coronavirus are no exception, representing just one of the many examples of brand safety challenges the whole media industry is faced with today.
Here are 3 primary challenges that brands face with brand safety in 2020.
1. Information integrity
During this challenging time, consumers are constantly searching for information online. All the major platforms have worked with both national and global health organizations to feature authoritative, informational content in key placements throughout the consumer content experience. Platforms have risen to the occasion to keep incendiary characters at bay and display authoritative information by prohibiting targeting based on terms and themes around the Coronavirus.
In fact, many of the major platforms are even donating ad space to local health authorities to help communicate preventative measures surrounding COVID-19.
2. Commerce integrity
Platforms have put a strong emphasis on combating spam and scams in recent years, and its application to COVID-19 is no different. Platforms are quickly looking for, discovering, and removing fraudulent sellers and price gougers in product areas associated with the Coronavirus – like PPE, household supplies, hand sanitizer, and disinfectants. This often translates into the removal of tens of thousands of listings and ads on their platforms, followed by an adjustment to their ad policies.
3. Content integrity
Content integrity is more in focus today than it likely ever has been. Platforms commonly see hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of content and comments posted within minutes and, in turn, have teams and technology in place to scan this content for its integrity. This is a daunting task under normal circumstances, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic and the most consequential election in recent memory. In light of this, platforms have also had to make adjustments to their teams and how they are structured around specific issues (such as working from home) while simultaneously exploring how technologies like machine learning can help the process. This has led many platforms to exhibit increased caution in the content they allow to be posted.
Brand safety also extends to the dialogue surrounding political issues and civil unrest. With fundamental human rights and public health at the center of cultural dialogue, marketers have to evolve from avoiding political issues and recognize that influencers and brands with a point of view have the most power today, and therefore the integrity of their content is paramount.
Gen-Z’s Purchasing Decisions Are Based On Values And Purpose
The next wave of consumers is different from their millennial predecessors, and they believe brands have the power to drive real change. Their childhoods were marked by the 2008 recession and the resulting growth in economic inequality. As they enter adulthood, they’re more focused on progressive values, purpose, and equity in their brand loyalty and purchase decisions.
There’s a genuine authenticity to the Gen-Z generation. It’s safe to say that this generation wants to breathe new life into what corporate responsibility looks like in the modern world. Research over the past few years has seen an increased focus on values, looking beyond tangible products and actually diving in to understand a company at its core. What is its purpose? What is its brand mission? This train of thought seems to drive Gen-Z’ers, and it has shown a profound influence on their purchasing decisions in recent years.
This demographic continues to place an increased emphasis on identifying and connecting with a brand’s values. For example, 43% of all consumers say they are more likely to buy products from companies whose values match their own. But this is even more magnified amongst the younger generations, where 55% of millennials and 47% of Gen Z consumers follow this approach.
As the younger generations – particularly Gen Z – continue to garner more or more buying power, brands and marketers must prioritize creating impactful engagements in order to build lasting relationships with consumers.
We only do marketing that works.
Influencer Marketing Is Becoming Less Transactional
The economic consequences of COVID-19 are far-reaching, and both advertising and marketing budgets are among the first things businesses look to cut back on as they try to weather the storm. Businesses and online creators in the influencer marketing industry are adapting to the best of their ability.
When the pandemic first hit, influencers saw many of their brand sponsorship deals shut down indefinitely, and events were canceled across the globe. As the weeks and months went on, many influencers had to shift their focus to alternative revenue streams that allowed them to continue to earn a living without having to leave their house.
Brands postponed campaigns, even while engagement on social-media posts was higher than normal, as more consumers spent time in self-quarantine during shelter-in-place orders. Advertisers quickly discovered that influencer marketing presented increased value during a time when DIY ad content filmed in the comfort of our homes remains both effective and viable.
But on many occasions, a brand’s first approach to influencer marketing falls in the purely transactional bucket. A company has a new product about to launch, influencers are researched and discovered, and the brand offers financial incentives to the influencer in exchange for promotion. It’s a simple-yet-effective partnership. And while this type of initiative may create a boost in awareness, traffic and sales, the results are often short-lived.
With values-alignment becoming more central, partnerships between brands and influencers benefit from longer-term contracts and deeper collaboration. Brands then have a chance to gain the trust of influencers’ followers and build loyalty over time, while also being able to pivot messaging quickly to navigate through volatile periods, such as the one we are living in now.
Niche Communities Are Growing Across Platforms
As we have touched on numerous times throughout this piece, people are spending more and more time on social media due to social distancing. And while we often see traditional social media models look to reach as broad an audience as possible, niche communities are far more user-centric and built around the specific interests of its users.
Whether driven by particular interests or a desire to escape the more “mass” platforms like Instagram and Facebook, people are increasingly spending time on other apps and networks. We’re seeing people debunking mainstream history on TikTok, tapping into everything from chess and sports streams to sewing tutorials on Twitch, and building new professional brands on LinkedIn. Influencers are busy building community on new and various platforms, and brands have an opportunity to expand their view of what brand advocacy can look like.
It’s likely we will see continue to see niche communities syncretize during this time, creating countless opportunities for both businesses and individuals. By owning the channel of communication, brands and content creators can reduce costs and increase efficiency while still preserving their control over the privacy and security of the brand.
Distinguished by the value they place on community, niche communities are on the rise, and likely not leaving anytime soon.
Influencer And Brand Collaborations Are Experiencing Increased Accountability
As social media use has sustained its rapid rise and the digital economy has continued its expansion over the past decade, we know that influencers and social media creators have become the change agents of the modern world. Brands and consumers increasingly look to these individuals for guidance on the newest trends and movements. And while the relationship between brand and influencer is a mutually-beneficial partnership, current events like the Black Lives Matter protests and the #StopHateForProfit campaign, have created a gray area for expectations and accountability for both parties.
The first step in navigating this potential quandary from the brands’ perspective is taking the time to ensure that your brand values align with those of the influencers you choose to partner with. It not only creates harmony between both parties but more importantly, it conveys to today’s consumers that your brand is serious about contributing to positive social change.
From the influencer’s perspective, there are also considerations to keep top of mind when partnering with a brand. Influencers should feel equally empowered to hold brands accountable for the values they are projecting as well. Some creators have drawn attention to disparities that exist in working with people of color. Some have even gone public and been transparent about inequalities in compensation, as recent reports have surfaced on racial pay gaps within the industry.
This “new normal” should motivate brands to revisit their overarching strategy, and force them to take a hard look at who they choose to work with.
Accountability Is Becoming More Industry-Wide
Accountability in today’s social climate is not limited to brands and influencers by any means. Industry accountability as a whole, it can be argued, is of equal importance. And don’t worry, brands and influencers are not doomed to be ‘canceled’ if they have a misstep. In fact, most marketers would be relieved to know that 82% of consumers would forgive a company for at least trying to help, even if they don’t get the response they hoped for to an important social issue. In the long run, sticking to promises and being authentic presents the best opportunity to exercise this accountability.
Blackout Tuesday is a great example of this. The black square that appeared on many influencers’ and companies’ social media pages was a show of unity in the midst of social unrest. Many brands and influencers got caught up in the virality of the campaign, where on Instagram, there are currently over 21 million posts that have the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. But the real work is what comes after, and consumers in 2020 expect much more than words on a screen in response to social injustice.
“Brands need to convince audiences that they are serious about [catering to] a diverse customer base.” says Natasha Ndlovu, a fashion influencer based in London, “You can’t do that by using a Black influencer once a year and calling it a day.” Both brands and influencers need to work together to see to it that this change is not just a temporary response to a serious issue.
A July 2020 survey found that 58% of consumers said they will boycott brands that don’t stand for racial equality. Another survey found that 40% of Americans support the brands who participated and continue to participate in the #StopHateForProfit movement. This data speaks directly to the importance of going all-in on your company values and use their influence to take a stance.
We all know the new normal is anything but. However, while the globe continues to face the ongoing threat of a virus that has long overstayed its welcome, we must be aware of the changes taking place in the world around us. With these changes come shifts in behavior, and these changes can produce long-lasting trends that will extend far beyond the duration of the pandemic. Much like the rest of the world, the social media landscape is changing, and as a brand or marketer, you must change with it. Your ability to adapt may prove to be the difference between failing and flourishing.