What do baby pandas, breath mints, and AI all have in common? They’re all things that have been massively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. As the health crisis abates we’re starting to understand the full effects of the last 18 months.
Some of the quirkier impacts of COVID-19 include a rise in zoo births as animals enjoy quieter enclosures in the absence of humans and a fall in sales of products that freshen breath as people aren’t meeting up as much.
It’s also been an incredibly turbulent time for AI, with automated systems facing unparalleled challenges.
The pandemic has changed how we live, shop and work and it’s changed our content needs. It’s given a short, sharp shock to a digital environment that was already changing at pace.
Some content and technology trends have accelerated; other trends that have emerged were barely a consideration for most content marketers at the start of 2020. The effects of COVID-19 may be longer-lasting than anyone could have predicted.
In modern times, brands have to learn how to live in a constantly changing environment. It’s a consequence of technological, economic and social change and a changing commercial landscape.
But the advent of the pandemic heralded change at unprecedented speed. To use just one example, Amazon’s top ten most popular items changed in a heartbeat, knocking old favourites such as phone chargers out of the list. Suddenly people were searching for face masks, antibacterial gel, and toilet paper. Their concerns, needs and focus changed very rapidly and as a result, their content needs also changed.
Buckling under pressure
AI is meant to be able to spot patterns and help decision-makers respond to emerging change. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, the changes being seen were so rapid and at such scale that even AI struggled to cope.
Systems that were trained to spot faint patterns too subtle for human analysts to see were suddenly faced with high volume changes. The difficulty is that machine learning algorithms are trained on ‘ordinary’ human behaviour, yet these were not ordinary times or behaviours.
These programs often behave poorly when they’re suddenly faced with different data than the data used to train them. This included things such as sudden high volumes of bulk orders in a system that normally deals with much lower and smaller ordering.
With buyers suddenly switching behaviours to order more DIY and home improvement goods, activity was often being erroneously flagged as anomalous purchases that AI considered to be fraudulent.
In some cases, intervention was necessary to get inventory ordering back on track. Whilst AI can often operate independently of human workers in tasks such as fraud detection or stock management, it’s important for humans to remain involved.
The problem is, many businesses have bought in AI systems that they don’t necessarily have the skills to retrain. In these extraordinary circumstances, it was vital to have people with specialist knowledge who could get these systems back on track. The entire system creaked under the new pressures of ordering spikes and the sudden change in data.
With consumers across many different markets suddenly spending a lot more time at home, their needs changed rapidly. Streaming platforms and home entertainment options suddenly became a lot more popular. People bought home exercise equipment and spruced up their homes and gardens. There’s even been a boom of at-home haircare visits facilitated by third-party platforms like Booksy.
For marketers who could keep pace with this change, there were real opportunities to cater to a consumer with a changed lifestyle and needs. Their efforts were dubbed ‘crib marketing’ – reaching consumers in their homes and providing what they need there.
It encompasses food delivery, eCommerce, entertainment and catering to their need for exercise and socialisation. Even services such as at-home haircare visits Crib marketing also tries to answer the question of how you reach a consumer that’s far more home-based than ever before. What use are cinema adverts and billboards if people don’t go out anymore?
The question is whether this new focus will continue. Consumers continue to report anxiety about returning to the office, gym, and places such as cinemas and restaurants. Many of them now have hot tubs! We’ve got a lot more used to having food delivered to us, to socialising via video call and to entertaining ourselves at home.
Now that people have got used to these new patterns over the past 15 months of agoraphobic living, will they ever return to their old ways? We may not see people commuting in such large numbers, so they’ll use suburban shops rather than ones in the centre of towns.
If they’ve invested in a bigger TV over lockdown, they may not go to the cinema as much. And if their favourite boozer didn’t survive the last year, they may drink more at home in future. Old patterns of behaviour may be permanently changed.
A change in tone
During the pandemic, content marketers had to respond rapidly to a change in tone that was occurring on a global level. Some algorithms are designed to serve news stories to users based on their prior areas of interest and what was most topical or most read.
In early 2020, the news feed data was suddenly dominated by a sole topic and the global mood turned gloomy. Many more people started signing up for news feeds than was normal to be expected and subscriber data changed very quickly – which also challenged news algorithms.
There was a fresh influx of subscribers who were mostly interested in one sole topic, the unfolding pandemic, joining an existing base of subscribers that had a broader stated range of interests.
News algorithms struggled to know what to serve to its new mixed audience. Did they serve 100% pandemic news or a broader mix of topics? For news algorithms intended to influence investment activity, there was suddenly a need for correction. The gloomy news was starting to skew the input AI was making.
AI used for cash flow forecasting also struggled to make accurate predictions, unfortunately at a time when accurate cash flow modelling was most needed by businesses feeling the strain. The data the systems had been trained on just wasn’t representative during the pandemic.
There were similar issues with AI used to manage staffing levels. With many workers at risk of needing to self-isolate all of a sudden, it became harder for automation to predict the number of staff that might be needed for any given period.
These strange times exposed a key weakness in automation technology; AI relies on data from the past. That’s sufficient if the data only changes within small and gradual parameters but the system is vulnerable to sudden changes in behaviour on a large scale.
Reaching the customer
Personalisation and localisation reached a new level of importance in 2020. In periods of lockdown or just from caution, many consumers stayed within a limited geographical area. Some consumers moved from urban to suburban or rural areas, buying locally and from smaller neighbourhood shops.
Consumers tend to respond better to personalised, targeted content and that’s been particularly striking during a period when consumers may have seen their local area become more important to them.
The evidence is really strongly in favour of personalisation. Gartner data suggests that companies that invest in personalisation technology sell 30% more of their products compared to competitors that don’t. Another study showed that Fortune 500 companies that localised their content were more likely to increase profit and earnings.
It’s particularly important if you’re a multinational company, as localisation helps your customer see how your offering is relevant to them.
Video is vital
At the start of the pandemic, many people got a crash course in video calling technology. Whether it was mastering Teams for work calls or arranging family chats via Zoom, a large number of people either started using a new video platform for the first time or found themselves using them a lot more regularly.
With in-person events cancelled, a lot of people were motivated to join by video instead. This includes work conferences, college lectures, music events and exercise classes.
In 2020, 68% of consumers reported that COVID-19 had influenced how much video content they watched online and an astonishing 96% said they were watching more as a result. In actual fact, the data shows that people watched an average of 2.5 hours of online video per day in 2021 compared to 1.5 hours per day in 2018.
This boom in live video is likely to have a lasting effect on content consumption. Marketers already know that video is an effective way to get your message out and it’s generally very popular with audiences.
Most brands report a positive ROI from video marketing and in 2020 most surveyed expected to increase their video budget. There seem to be other positive benefits to using video. Over 40% of brands using video claim that it reduces the number of support calls they get.
It’s one of the most shared forms of content and posts with video get higher rates on engagement on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
From a marketer’s perspective, it’s a good time to be doing video. Not only is the channel less costly to create content for than ever before, but it’s also less time-consuming to produce. It’s also clear how beneficial video is in terms of ROI. Perhaps most crucially for some organisations, 2020 was the year that it became easier to make a case for video to decision-makers and those that control the budgets.
No surprise then that around a quarter of video marketers in 2020 claimed to be using the channel for the first time. A survey at the end of 2020 by Wyzowl found that 36% of marketers reported it had become easier to convince others in their business of the value of video content. The vast majority intend to continue using video in the future with two-thirds planning to raise their spending.
What kind of video are brands making? Well, it seems webinars are the stand-out type of video content planned for 2021. That’s perhaps to be expected for the foreseeable future, while vaccinations are still underway and few events have resumed their regular schedule.
Interactive video is emerging as a strong trend. People aren’t as interested in sitting politely through a slide deck and absorbing video content passively. We’re likely to see small interactive sessions become more normal for brands trying to ace engagement through video events.
Building content communities
While it’s very exciting that video is now a higher priority for most brands, marketing team resources remain finite. There’s still a limit to how much content a marketing team can produce.
One new trend is for brands to move towards building content communities rather than trying to produce it all in-house. This type of approach also brings benefits for engagement and SEO.
Brands can leverage experts in their field and influencers with their own following. It creates a buzz and a sense of belonging by making your audience feel valued and listened to. Brands may just need to provide the platform on which content happens.
Beauty retailer Sephora has managed to create a successful community where users can create their own content in an online forum. Many users share tips and upload make-up looks they’ve created, and it’s all linked to product pages.
Lego leveraged fan enthusiasm for the popular building toy by creating the Lego ideas platform. This lets fans upload their own creations using the building blocks, suggest new product ideas and enter contests.
Brands like these have managed to recreate elements of social interaction that have been lacking for many people over the last year. It’s likely these kinds of community-building will continue to thrive even as we emerge from virus restrictions. Furthermore, it won’t be surprising if many of the new content and technology trends we’ve seen unfold over the last year and a half continue to endure.