Commentary

Should My Brand Proceed With Paid Social In Face Of Pandemic?

As the global community descends into the health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact will be felt across the entire economy, and the digital media and marketing industry will be no exception.

The sudden shift in content consumption and social climate calls for a dramatic re-examination of media and messaging strategy. For certain brands, it may prove to be a matter of survival.

Should my brand proceed with paid social?

Unfortunately, the environment is highly fluid and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

With the steady progression of the COVID pandemic, I felt my personal media habits shift dramatically. Simultaneously, discussions began across my portfolio of clients (spanning a broad range of verticals) on how to proceed with social campaigns.

So I set out to survey* 150 people and get the pulse on social media usage and advertising sentiment amid the COVID-crisis. The main takeaways, while not firm conclusions, shed light on how paid social advertising is being perceived in this tense social climate and on how consumption habits have shifted, fast.

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People are spending more time on social now than ever.

While anecdotally, key social players like Facebook are citing huge spikes in engagement, they’ve yet to share formal reporting on the upsurge and consumer shifts. 

Our survey seemed to reinforce these claims, with over half of respondents citing they were spending “A lot” or “some” more time with social media. Only 14% of people cited no change at all in their social media consumption levels.

Online shopping behavior hasn’t changed as much as you might think.

Despite the near-immediate economic impact resulting from the pandemic, a third of respondents reported no change in their online shopping behavior.

The survey also shed light on the substantial increase in browsing behavior, as people find themselves with more free time shut in at home. Forty-six percent  revealed that they were browsing online more in the last week, though most admitted that despite increased browsing, they weren’t "pulling the trigger" on non-essentials as frequently as they had pre-pandemic.

Snapshot of consumer sentiment & perspective on paid social 

One of the beliefs I was curious to validate (or refute) in the survey was that my social ads experience had not changed much, even after a week of COVID-19 crisis escalation -- and that this lack of change didn’t bother me as a consumer. Any continuity in a time when all else changed so drastically overnight, even in something as small as my social media feeds, was a welcome element of consistency. 

Just under 40% of people slightly agreed/agreed that they hadn’t noticed a big change in the ads they were seeing on social, in line with my personal observations over the last week. 

Of those who had seen retail or ecommerce ads in the last four days (85% of those surveyed) 55% didn’t feel that that advertiser was inappropriate in running ads during this time, while another 18% were neutral on the matter. In the same vein, of those who had seen a pharmaceutical social ad in the last four days, 85% did not feel  the ad was inappropriate.

In short, of the surveyed population, sentiment towards social advertisements has remained generally neutral despite the rapidly escalating health crisis. As of now, no one is up-in-arms about brands keeping typical messaging in-market.

Revisiting our earlier question (Should my brand proceed with paid social?)

While maybe not offering a clear answer, the insights provide a lot to consider. How brands decide to navigate will depend on many things, including (but not limited to) vertical, campaign objectives and goals.

This crisis is fluid and ever-evolving. As it plays out, the risk of keeping campaigns live might outweigh the reward, which is the perspective of some. Many bigger firms are pausing social efforts for at least the next 10+ days to see how consumer attitudes shift, while some smaller brands are pausing simply to conserve cash. In times like these, pausing for either reason is never a bad idea. 

This said, there are still many brands choosing to continue with campaigns as usual as of this post's publication. If you do plan to keep social campaigns in market during this unstable time, here are some suggestions:

-- Proceed with caution, and be conscious of how your message might be received. 

-- Take stock of your social creative by conducting an audit. Avoid anything that might be misconstrued as tone-deaf or inappropriate (for example, “it’s your lucky day!”)

-- Avoid being opportunistic . For example, avoid creative featuring high-demand products that are quick to run out of stock.

-- Some retailers have been making not-so-subtle hints to quarantine/working from home when plugging products. Be careful with this strategy.

-- Don’t use calls-to-action that encourage visiting a business location, going to your doctor, etc. to adhere to social distancing policies.

-- Consider putting your paid dollars behind content focused on education, social good, or the human connection.

While we can’t all be as innovative and inspiring as  Guinness -- which released a Patrick's Day ad noting that "We'll march again" -- brands big and small are doing some amazing things right now to support the global community during this fight, and that goes a long way in the eyes and minds of the consumer.

When the dust settles, people will remember.

*Note: Surveyed population represents a variety of age and gender demographics. Respondents primarily reside in the tristate area (NY/CT/NJ), Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Respondents are primarily college-educated and above.

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