Digital Antidote to Marketing Woes during COVID-19

Author: Vivek Pandey, VP, Revenue Strategy & Analytics – Times Internet.

COVID-19 has been an unexpected wind in the sails for digital marketing platforms that were projecting solid growth over the last few years. Market uncertainty and the resulting economic toll is driving most marketers to capital conservation, thereby rerouting most conventional ad-expenses into the digital media.

Marketing Woes During COVID-19

Impact of COVID-19 on the advertising expenses

Marketing is still perceived as a cost centre at many companies and hence is also the first function to face the guillotine during a sudden shift to cost reduction. The current atmosphere of business inactivity and a crumbling market morale therefore, is fanning the embers for frugal marketing, with corporate frugalism at its highest in decades.

While most of the world reels under the severe impacts of multi-month lockdowns, many advertising initiatives and major live events such as IPL, Tokyo Olympics, Dubai Expo 2020 and others, have either been postponed or cancelled altogether. OOH (Out-of-Home) media spends have spiralled down as most of the people are advised to stay inside their homes and resulting in eroding ROIs.(Ref 1.)

Even marketing giants such as Coca-Cola have suspended all non-digital outreach activities due to the abject lack of returns. (Ref 2.)

The silver lining however,  is an increasing shift towards digital, e-commerce and live streaming media. Of 155 clients and client leaders surveyed by the Dentsu Aegis Network,  14% said they were migrating offline marketing spends  into online marketing channels.(Ref 3.) For the digital advertising industry, this is a watershed moment.

Changes in consumer behaviour that marketers should keep tabs on

COVID-19 has resulted in consumers spending more time indoors. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones have replaced shops, malls, cinema halls and gyms as the primary hubs of entertainment, information, and social contact thereby bolstering digital media’s appeal.

For instance, the number of unique visitors on the premium news platforms grew 1.2x in March 2020 against the previous month across categories, confirming an increasing proclivity towards searching news online. In terms of digital disruption Covid-19 has mimicked the  SARS crisis of 2003 in China that led to the rapid penetration of online delivery and laid the foundation for the Chinese e-commerce platforms of today. Today digital metamorphosis too, demands adaptation and an acute revaluation of  marketing competencies and  content.

Consumer biases have taken a sharp turn towards personal & family health, hygiene, and safety concerns while leisure expenses have taken a backseat. Business models have also been tweaked as a result to facilitate consumer concerns with many exploring commoditized expansions that would solve the need of the hour.

This also opens the opportunity-window for premiumization of certain services over the others. Recently, Milkbasket, a hyper-delivery app for groceries, levied additional charges on deliveries amidst increased demand to offset additional costs required to establish redefined hygiene standards such as temperature checks for delivery personnel.(Source)

Marketing in times of quarantine

Constant vigilance is the need of the hour for marketers as changing consumer behaviours also induce multiple instantaneous change in the brand perceptions. With an increased skepticism towards genuine efforts that are being deemed as profiteering off a crisis, marketing vigilance is even more pertinent to build lasting yet meaningful relations with consumers, who might otherwise lose interest in a brand that forfeits communications with its customers in this period. 

That being said, marketing, especially now should also be a humanitarian and compassionate function. Communication content should be revisited and re-evaluated regularly to reflect the latest biases, considerations and interests of the audience, and make the entire process relevant. From a media mix investment perspective, directing budgets to digital platforms with contextual targeting might yield better conversions. Some digital marketing functions such as blanket email newsletters should be avoided for more engaging & relevant advertising products should instead be employed. Some brands have effectively capitalized on the minute opportunities that have presented themselves. A strong example would be HDFC Bank’s “Hum Nahi Harengey” digital campaign that communicated strength and hope while backing the sentiment with tangible CSR against the pandemic, thereby garnering many eyeballs while building the image of a benevolent society-centric brand.(Source)

Empathy, care, and consideration do not only serve strategic marketing campaigns but also build a community out of genuine consumer relationships that help organically drive image-building efforts in the long-run. Supermarkets globally have instated exclusive timings for senior citizens and restaurant chains in the U.S. such as Subway and Nandos are providing free food for the medical workers in an attempt to give back to the community they were meant to cater to. (Ref 4.)

Traditional vs Digital mediums during Lockdown

Traditional mediums such as events sponsorships and OOH advertising have hit rock bottom in terms of interest. The postponement or cancellation of many live events are also robbing TV off a sizable and periodic sponsorship revenue. However, the restructuring of livelihoods and daily schedules has also boosted the viewership of non-peak time slots in linear broadcast. Reruns of old classics like Ramayana and Mahabharat broke all past records of Indian television viewership and stood as a testament to changing times, media experimentation, and the success of truly timeless content.(Source)

People are investing more time on their phones and are using engaging content as an escape against lockdown-generated boredom or anxiety. This is also an opportunity for OTT platforms such as MX Player and audio platforms such as Gaana to accelerate the growth of their adoption and acclimatize non-adaptors with the shifting digital realities of India.

Premium digital news platforms have also seen considerable increase in viewership and thereby provide greater ROI for advertising content centred around health, hygiene and safety. However, with limited studios and a restricted content production bandwidth, influencer marketing also looks like a lucrative opportunity for marketers who want to target a highly specialized  audience segment under constrained budgets.

Advice to New-Age Marketers To Use Adversity For Advantage

Disruptions as rare as Covid-19 provide a plethora of live case studies for the new-age marketers to learn from. Budding marketers must therefore learn from the reactions (and actions) of successful brands that have efficiently turned this adversity into an opportunity. Other key takeaways include the importance of being  sensitive in brand messaging, the dynamicity of contemporary marketing mix, the thoughtful and efficient use of data as an optimizer for marketing decisions, and contextual placements to multiply the effective reach of the brand at minimal added costs..

New-age marketers should also understand the contextual implementation of basic marketing concepts in modern platforms. E.g.- word-of-mouth is an erstwhile marketing strategy implemented and leveraged by brands across the globe. Influencer marketing, an undeniable derivative of word of mouth strategy is a powerful tool in today’s context and must be used to drive greater ROI by marketers.

Another tool for brands to stay relevant and achieve better customer engagements during these times are digital podcasts and webinars. Midea, an air treatment company, held a series of live streams with key opinion leaders (KOLs) to cover topics like healthy cooking at home and also engaged with doctors asking pertinent questions about  preventive measures against infections.(Ref 5.)

A better focus on content will also enable companies to create the right brand resonance and drive relevance even on lackluster mediums. Coca-Cola’s ‘social distancing’ Times Square billboard creative is a testament that confirms this hypothesis.(Source)

Marketing Advice to Businesses

Marketers must develop a habit to build plans, monitor consumer behavior, prepare teams for challenges and review potential impact of campaigns, on repeat. During the crisis, the time taken for the process must be shortened considerably.

Most transformed consumer habits are here to stay even after we are through with the Covid-19 pandemic, hence marketers who have been forced to undergo digital transformation, should not make the mistake of unwinding back to their  older approaches when the world overcomes this crisis. In fact, marketers can instead  employ the shifting patterns and their learnings from this transitory period such as real time search trends and online behavior reports of digital platforms to build a comprehensive vision to define the future of the sector.

Even in a post-pandemic era,  customer engagement and relationship management would retain their importance. Engagement through relevant content would also lead to nuanced consumption patterns that would further determine future marketing approaches. OTT platforms such as Youtube and MX player with their broad audience and premium content inventories provide adequate solutions for integrated campaigns and generate new trends.    

Customer relationship management might be relatively tougher for marketers during crisis periods due to audience skepticism. The problem further complicates when CRM executives are working from home and may be unable to provide uniform quality service. Chatbots and AI-led response systems thus form quick remedial measures for when manpower is inadequate.

Lastly, global lockdowns have also fragmented audiences in terms of their specific geographies and the quantum of disease contagiousness. While the duration of both the crisis and the resulting containment zones across the country is still undefined,marketers for the time-being should not shy away from adopting region specific digital campaigns such as paid ads and influencer marketing to retain brand message continuity and keep in periodic contact with their customers.

Vivek Pandey

Vivek Pandey heads Growth and Analytics in addition to Sales Strategy & B2B marketing at Times Internet and has more than 15 years’ experience in the Indian IT and Consumer internet space. In his earlier role at Times Internet, he was Head of Product, Marketing & Analytics for the company’s e-commerce platform branded as Indiatimes Shopping, after which he went on to oversee Growth & Analytics for all TIL verticals.

Vivek has earned an MBA from the Indian School of Business and a B.Tech from IIT Kanpur.