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The Societal Expectations of Current Content Marketing Amidst a Pandemic

In 2019, the global advertising market grew to US$646 billion, and then the COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through the world as we know it. The pandemic changed consumer habits, from what they purchase to how they purchase, and even to what they expect from content marketing.

Businesses and service providers had no choice but to respond, and for many, the initial reaction was something of a knee-jerk pause on advertising spending.

According to Publicis’ data for the first quarter, advertising spending dropped by 12% in France, 7% in Germany, and as much as 15% in China. The Interactive Advertising Bureau revealed that 24% of brands, media buyers, and planners put their content marketing on pause until the end of the second quarter. 46% adjusted their spend instead of pausing it.

The decision to pause or adjust advertising spend during the height of a global lockdown was made by business people for brands either unable to trade or faced with severely constrained revenues. Interestingly, the move was not entirely in line with consumer or societal expectations.

A Captive Audience

The decrease in cinema, out-of-home and print advertising during the strictest lockdown periods was understandable. There was little to no audience for adverts and other marketing in those contexts. However, the use of in-home media such as streaming services, social platforms and TV skyrocketed.

Brands suddenly had perhaps the closest thing to a captive audience. If they didn’t engage that audience with digital advertising, they missed a golden opportunity. According to reports, many brands took advantage of digital content marketing, especially when it came to direct response campaigns. Both Google and Facebook said advertising revenue during the first quarter far surpassed expectations.

Adweek reported that, according to the survey that consulting, and data company Kantar Insights based its COVID-19 Barometer on, the vast majority of the public expected content marketing to continue during the pandemic. Only 8% of survey respondents felt that brands should have stopped advertising. While the majority of respondents said they expected marketing to continue during the pandemic, they also made it clear that they did not expect it to be business as usual.

What Society Wants To See

The Kantar survey found that the larger part of society expects brands to continue content marketing during a pandemic. It also expects them to do so in ways that are informative, relevant, reassuring and responsible.

According to the survey, 77% of respondents want brands to communicate how they or their products are helpful in everyday life, during and after the pandemic. 75% of respondents said that brands should advertise what they are doing to face the circumstances, and 70% expect brands’ content marketing to offer reassurance.

The majority of respondents also made it clear that the societal expectation of continued content marketing during a pandemic was not licensed for a free-for-all. Instead, 75% expect brands not to exploit the situation for self-promotion. 45% said marketing should assure consumers that brands had taken steps to protect the supply of products and services.

More than 40% want to know that companies are donating personal protective equipment and sanitiser as a way of getting involved in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 40% said they were opposed to brands using a humorous tone in their marketing.

Arguably one of the most interesting findings was that only 30% of the more than 35,000 consumers that were surveyed globally thought content marketing should include promotions or discounts.

Kantar’s chief innovation officer, Rosie Hawkins, said that societal expectations meant brands had to pull off a fine balancing act with their content marketing. Hawkins explained that brands need to be spoken of in a way that supports consumers as well as governments.

A Morning Consult poll found that the majority of consumers expect brands to join society in taking steps to combat the virus. Respondents said that brands that said or did nothing during a pandemic implied they were unconcerned and insensitive.

The poll found that the majority of respondents said brands’ content marketing should reflect reality. Marketing should identify links between the products or services offered at the moment, and that those products and services should be accessible during pandemic-related circumstances such as a lockdown.

How Brands Are Responding

Kantar’s global media head, Jane Ostler, said that advertising was essential for brand health. She explained that, during a pandemic, brands should make the necessary changes to ensure consumers receive the communications they’re interested in.

Ostler added that, if brands need to reduce their advertising spend, their marketers should find ways to use budgets effectively to maintain a presence. Redirecting funds from pre-pandemic marketing campaigns into new campaigns that targeted consumers at home was first prize. SMS marketing, email and social media all offer cost-effective advertising opportunities that allow for excellent exposure.

While some brands paused their content marketing for several months in 2020, others took heed of societal expectations and began changing their approach accordingly. An IAB survey conducted in March showed that 42% of buy-side decision-makers intended to spend more on mission-based marketing for the period from March through June. 41% intended to increase their spend on cause-related marketing.

According to the New York Times, the Pattern89 AI platform showed that depictions of crowds in adverts on social media decreased by 54% earlier this year. Conversely, images that depicted handwashing increased by 600%. The use of images or video content related to cleanliness increased by 200%.

Other examples of how brands are taking note of societal expectations of content marketing during a pandemic include Spotify’s introduction of fundraising features on its platform, and McDonald’s Brazil and Volkswagen’s use of logos that encourage social distancing. In a show of solidarity with the creative community, Netflix created a $100 million COVID-19 relief fund for creatives who became unemployed. During the lockdown, content marketing by Ikea and Nike emphasised the need to stay indoors.

America’s NBA and NFL showed they were in touch with the reality faced by many sports fans. The leagues offered free access to their direct-to-consumer streaming services as a way of making staying at home a more attractive prospect.

To summarise, society expects content marketing during a pandemic to demonstrate that brands are what they’ve always claimed to be, on the consumer’s side.


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