The only real thing we’ve been able to count on since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is change. The pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, and so people are looking—with hope, and uncertainty—at what may lie ahead. By most objective measures, in the United States, we are either nearing the top of the first proverbial wave of cases or have recently passed it. Health experts, economists, and politicians are now starting to consider how to re-open the economy in the absence of proven highly effective treatments nor a vaccine. Early clinical trials of treatments show promise, but it will take months before we have definitive evidence. Development of a vaccine will take at least a year.
Whatever new guidelines are ultimately developed at the state or federal level, they will undoubtedly aim to open parts of the economy while maintaining the current health best practices of social distancing, consistent hand washing, and wearing protective gear in public places. It’s hard to imagine a boomerang of activity in industries and institutions that rely on or require crowds, such as sporting events, schools, movie theaters, concerts, restaurants, and others. Governments can allow those businesses to re-open but can’t force people to go to them. Until people can feel safe in large crowds, our social and business environment will likely continue to look very much the way they do today.
One of the most interesting developments we’ve seen as a new normal set in is growth in all things digital. We’ve probably jumped five to 10 years into the future in many areas due to the social constraints of distancing. We’ve become more physically atomized and emotionally cohesive at the same time. This is a paradigm shift and many things will look very different during and after this pandemic. I’ve looked into my crystal ball and here are some observations and predictions of what those things will be—related to media, health, and beyond.
In the last few years data privacy has been a hot topic. There has been a push and pull relationship between big tech companies whose business models are based on the monetization of user data collection and regulators attempting to rein in some of the excesses of what could be interpreted as an infringement on privacy or just plainly be referred to as a form of surveillance. The regulators have been ascendant the last few years as users have become savvier and more judicious in what data they share with companies. GDPR in the EU and CCPA in California are just two examples of significant checks on the power of tech firms and website owners. Some in Congress have also called to break up big tech firms or at least further regulate their businesses. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into this debate.
The countries that have been most successful in flattening the COVID-19 curve and start returning to some form of normalcy have done it with heightened surveillance—being able to track those infected and trace interactions to stop the spread. Similar ideas have been floated in the United States, and they are only viable with the help of a large tech firm such as Google or Facebook. I suspect the power of those firms to contribute to pandemic tracking will become a key argument in their defense of data collection and limited regulation. Mark Zuckerberg has already tried to make that case in an April 20th Op-Ed in the Washington Post.
In short, the proverbial pendulum is now swinging towards those advocating for less privacy and regulation of data in the digital space. Big tech will very likely come out of the pandemic feeling vindicated, at least until the next major data breach or a new groundswell of public sentiment supporting increased privacy arises.
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1950 64% of Americans lived in urban areas. Today that number has risen to over 80%. People are migrating to urban centers, along with surrounding suburbs and exurbs, primarily for economic opportunity but also for proximity to social and cultural diversity. American’s largest cities, in particular, have been magnets for highly educated migrants, drawn to fast-growing industries. That trend has significantly increased the demand for housing, which in turn has significantly driven up housing costs and made middle and working class living in some cities nearly impossible. As a result, over the last five to 10 years the largest growing cities, on a percentage basis, have been largely concentrated in Sun Belt cities (Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, etc.), according to the Brookings Institute.
In the wake of COVID-19, ample anecdotal evidence shows that people with significant means are sheltering in place, outside of large cities. People employed in industries that have gone completely virtual during the shutdown are quickly learning that they can do their jobs anywhere in the world. Both of those things seem to be harbingers of slowing urban growth. The prospect of an easily communicable disease makes city living less desirable. I expect to see a ripple effect in marketing and media with less centralized populations and the creation of more cultural nodes of influence.
TV and Video
People are watching more television and video than ever now that many competing forms of entertainment are unavailable. However, traditional broadcast networks continue to see significant declines in live viewing. The lack of live sporting events has put additional pressure on that macro-level trend. Meanwhile, consumption of streamed viewing has skyrocketed during COVID-19 with Netflix and Amazon Prime getting double-digit percentage increases in downloads. European Union authorities considered going so far as to mandate standard-definition-only streaming to free up bandwidth during the early days of the pandemic. Younger generations have always consumed significantly more streaming content than traditional cable or broadcast TV. The migration to on-demand and streamed content has been sped up by the pandemic and this looks like the death knell of traditional TV. It’s hard to see a future for any programming outside of news and sports that can’t be consumed on-demand and within a non-ad supported subscription paywall.
For a long time, telehealth has been a promising technology that industry “thought leaders” have pointed to as a future model for more efficient delivery of some types of healthcare—maintenance, mental health, acute mild conditions, etc. It is now one of the true success stories of the current pandemic. IQVIA reports a more than 3,000% growth in telehealth since the pandemic started and there is no sign it will substantially ebb in the future. Of course, as governments lift restrictions, allow elective procedures, and more free flow of movement, the share of doctor’s visit occurring virtually vs. live will diminish substantially, but the overall volume of virtual doctor’s visits will no doubt continue to remain high after COVID-19.
Sales Representative-Centered Marketing
Our customers have been heavily focused on integrating and optimizing marketing across all touchpoints with more sophisticated and customer-centric solutions. COVID-19 has accelerated the trend. It’s become critical for companies to be able to balance in-person, digital, and other channels with greater speed and agility, ensuring strategies can adapt to any circumstance and channels can be turned on or off at a moment’s notice without significantly impacting business. Reps are adapting by switching to virtual detailing. According to IQVIA, virtual detailing has grown by 376% in the last month. I expect virtual detailing to become a standard part of a rep’s job, accounting for ~50% of all calls post-COVID-19. It has the benefit of being more cost effective and trackable within an omnichannel marketing model.
One of the silver linings of the current pandemic is the beginning of a renewed belief and trust in institutions and science. Government, news media, medical systems, business, experts and expertise, you name it, have suffered from a severe lack of trust for a variety of reasons—some self-inflected, but mostly from outside influences. Of course, in any highly functioning democracy there is a heightened need for rational skepticism and accountability, which operate as a check on the power of institutions, and now is no different.
COVID-19 is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that requires collaboration and coordination between scientists and other leaders. Government management in this pandemic has not been seamless, but most people agree on the value that many institutions can bring. One thing Americans will ultimately learn from this situation is expertise and science matter. There is such a thing as empirical truth and the attainment of that truth is noble. In marketing, I think it means compelling messaging from authoritative sources will increase in value.
In summary, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a lot of change. Many of those changes won’t start to come into focus until we’re further along and the end is in plain sight. That said, it’s important to prepare for a lot of these eventualities now. Being agile or nimble isn’t about being reactive to market changes. If you’re starting to react once something has already happened, then it’s probably too late. Instead, everyone should be thinking about how to be proactive and build in tools and processes for the trends that are only starting to emerge now.