Media Data Science under COVID-19

Media Data Science under COVID-19

Tom Weiss, Sat 02 May 2020

We all know that data provides the key to understanding the seismic changes currently occurring across the country and worldwide due to COVID-19. While there is no industry which doesn't urgently require the unique insights that data can provide, my focus is on media corporations, who urgently need to understand how the behavior of both consumer and advertisers are changing, both during and after lockdown. We all know that ad-spending is down, and demand for TV is sky-rocketing as many people remain at home on lockdown. Data, accurately measured and understood using already-established data science techniques, can give a much more precise and detailed picture of what is happening currently and what is likely to occur in the future.

It is marketers within a media company who are communicating with advertisers and brands, including those who are choosing not to advertise during the pandemic. Can we give them insights into the changing consumption patterns of viewers, both in terms of what they watch and of what they are purchasing now and will likely want to buy as we overcome COVID-19? As data science teams, we need to comprehend and convey the current and future trends to the marketing teams, and the high-level executives who will make critical decisions about the business and its future.

Marketers need to retain and keep building relationships with advertising brands, and if they can give them positive but realistic messages about consumer behavior. Based not on wishful thinking but measurable data trends, they can strengthen the broadcaster/advertiser relationship and help brands who are still advertising to tailor and target their ads for the best possible outcome in terms of positive consumer response.

With first China and then Europe becoming the primary hotspots for the pandemic, data about how brands and consumers behave in those regions while adjusting for cultural differences can be an excellent place to start, as can historical data about pandemics and how they pan out. People did not have televisions during the Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago, but they certainly did make purchases, and advertising did exist.

Data concerning coming out of quarantine is as vital as data about behavior during lockdowns as these two phases see a very different response from both brands and consumers. Part of the challenge is to determine which lockdown behaviors consumers will keep adopting in a post-corona-crisis world and which won't?

Media Winners and Losers
If there is any upside, it is that people are trying new things, such as higher rates of digital adoption. While this is better news for some media corporations than for others, those more negatively affected need to change their way of doing things, and the sooner, the better. A good data science team can save those companies from going under, particularly when the data insights are rapidly taken on board by the high-level executives. This need for accurate insights also puts even more pressure than usual on data science teams to get things right.

With many people stuck at home self-isolating, daytime TV is the big clear winner, whether this is Pay TV or OTT. And while the popularity of both streaming and free content is increasing, the data indicates that cable TV services can also benefit due to people's desire for reliable news sources, with some brands now choosing to advertise on news shows where they were reluctant to do so before

News viewership is up 25%, while consumers are focusing mainly on local news, according to Nielsen, unquestionably a useful source of data insights to add to the mix of datasets.

Another winner is children's TV, with many kids off school and stuck at home. OTT seems to be the big winner, with data indicating that cord-cutting is accelerating. However, subscription fatigue is also a reality, especially within the streaming wars. Subscribing to several of these may not be an option for people for whom money has suddenly become very tight, making ad-supported OTT services appear a better option than before the pandemic.

A big issue for all broadcasters is content itself. There are no live sports, though esports and gaming are becoming a popular alternative. Typically the process of producing original content begins with a new script appearing months before filming begins. More importantly, viewers want relevant content, and a lot of content commissioned before the crisis may feel stale to consumers who might, for instance, prefer documentaries about health care rather than dramas about fictional events that feel irrelevant to them.

Changing Consumer Behavior
One significant indicator of changes in consumer behavior is that consumers want to support companies that do their bit fighting this virus. Consumers feel tempted to boycott companies that display selfish behavior and appear indifferent to the plight of said consumers on lockdown. So viewers will probably respond better to a brand reinforcing the message to stay at home rather than one whose only interest appears to be in selling the brand's products.

While the demand for some products is increasing, others have dwindled. It's not because of a lack of demand, but because lockdown has shut down retail. While online shopping is working flat out without fully meeting all customer needs, we may find demand super-charged for certain items when lockdowns end. If a media corporation can reassure brands with robust data that the demand for their products has only dwindled temporarily, this can help these brands prepare for future demand as well as encouraging them to keep advertising, either now or when lockdown finishes.

Other shifts in consumer purchasing patterns that currently available data are indicating include a keen interest in products that promote health and wellbeing, a tendency to buy more groceries, especially ones which aren't perishable. Purchases are going to be lower overall because of temporary layoffs, unemployment, and a feeling of insecurity as well as the sheer difficulty of buying products when online shopping is overwhelmed with orders, and consumers fear the health risks of entering stores. All are likely to result in more competitive markets, where the likely winners will be those firms that understand changed consumer behavior and reach out to consumers.

Another dramatic shift that currently available data indicates is happening already is higher rates of technology adoption as people look to technology to solve their problems, with online shopping and teleworking being the two most notable examples. There is an opportunity for companies to leverage technologies to meet changing consumer demand and to give customers a positive experience. In an environment where people miss many aspects of their old lives, they crave positive experiences and seamless interactions. They do not want negative experiences.

Those companies which perform best are likely to gain loyal customer long after we have beaten COVID-19. Many companies are aware of the need to make investments to meet the new demands, especially in cases like online shopping where adoption of new habits is likely to be permanent.

Changing brand behavior
It is essential for media companies to understand how different types of brands are changing their behavior, even if they don't share said data insights with the brands themselves. Some brands are benefiting from increased demand: online shopping, supermarkets, and the brands that sell their products there, telecommunications, and anything connected to telework (such as the unstoppable rise of Zoom) and all those providing the products and services which people continue to consume in quarantine. These fortunate brands are likely to continue advertising. However, data indicates that avoiding advertising over-exposure (churn) is very important to successful advertising.

If before COVID-19, a household watched a couple of hours of TV a night and typically saw a particular ad every day, now they might be watching eight hours of telly a day and be exposed to this same ad four times a day. High frequency always results in boredom and even distaste towards the brand. Churn is a relevant example of why measuring such factors as how much typical television households are watching in lockdown and the ads they are seeing is so important for media companies to understand.

Showing solidarity with the COVID-19 crisis and those suffering is becoming increasingly important to brands. For instance, Coco-Cola has stopped all advertising and instead committed the money they would have spent on helping overcome the crisis. Media companies that survive through advertising also need to display their commitment to helping make things better during the crisis while reinforcing advertising as a positive and not a harmful, greed-based activity.

Media companies collaborate with advertisers to ensure that ads engage with consumers as they are right now on lockdown. Keep the tone helpful and informative, and as we come out of lockdown - in what we hope will be the near future - this will only benefit the ad industry's long-term reputation.

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