Changes in where people go for content is likely to outlast the pandemic

The pandemic has accelerated major changes in media consumption and revealed sharp differences among the various generations when it comes to the type of content they like — and where they find it. But while traditional media vehicles such as broadcast TV may be on the wane, they still command the biggest audiences.

Among the many disruptions in marketing strategy CMOs are facing due to COVID-19, one change is coming into much sharper focus. The pandemic has significantly altered consumer media consumption habits, and probably for good.

According to two separate surveys from the market research firm Global Web Index (GWI) — the first in April 2020 and the second in December 2020 — the pandemic has accelerated consumers' shift away from traditional marketing channels, such as print outlets and broadcast TV, and toward social and other digital channels.

The GWI report found online video consumption grew 7 percent among gen Zers, while time on video game platforms rose 12 percent.

Perhaps more important for brand marketers, the GWI survey found that, in 2020, ads viewed on social media among 16- to 24-year-olds surpassed the level of TV commercials viewed by the same group.

By contrast, media consumption among millennials between April 2020 and December 2020 declined in virtually every media category, save for podcasts, with broadcast TV down 11 percent.

"The pandemic is really supercharging the trends that were already on their way" before the outbreak, says Chris Beer, market intelligence manager at GWI, adding most of these trends are global in nature. "Adoption of online television is growing among younger audiences, while digital audio such as podcasts are seeing growth across all demographics."

Broader Media Canvas

The pandemic forced many brands not just to adjust their messaging, but to pivot when it comes to engaging their target audiences.

"We used to get feedback from two main sources: our website and Facebook," says Liz Bazner, senior director of marketing at A&W Restaurants. "Now that's expanded to more social networks, review sites, and messaging apps. Even when we weren't running media, we saw traffic to our website more than double in 2020 as users looked to find operating hours, menus, and ordering information online."

The restaurant chain's shift to digital channels exclusively is happening as the A&W brand — long a nostalgic favorite among baby boomers and gen Xers — is being discovered and embraced by both millennials and gen Zers.

These younger audiences are touting the brand through user generated content, especially via Instagram and TikTok, Bazner says.

"A lot of our creative content is pretty universal," she adds, "but we do find ourselves taking some chances with a more playful approach on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, including a campaign to get our mascot, a 6-foot-tall bear in an orange sweater, verified on LinkedIn."

Gen Z Splits from the Pack

The pandemic is a stark reminder that gen Z is genuinely different from previous generations and doesn't relate to traditional channels, such as broadcast TV and print, says Mark Beal, assistant professor of professional practice, public relations, at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

"Gen Z is turning to the big three — Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok — not only for engaging content but also for news and information," says Beal, the author of Decoding Gen Z: 101 Lessons Generation Z Will Teach Corporate America, Marketers & Media.

He adds both marketers and traditional media brands are reacting to changes in media consumption by creating original content that fits these formats.

Sarah Shevenock, an entertainment reporter at data intelligence firm and ANA member Morning Consult, says some trends, including the adoption of streaming services, continue to grow as people start to slowly shift away from lockdown mode.

"There was the assumption that as we took steps toward normalcy, we'd see a backlash against screens, but that hasn't been the case," Shevenock says. "Since January 2021 the number of people who report streaming a movie from home at least once a week has stayed fairly consistent and we also found in a summer survey that 64 percent of people said they plan to have as many streaming services in 2022 as they do now."

Some of these services are ad-free, but Shevenock says platforms such as NBCUniversal's Peacock and ViacomCBS's Paramount+ continue to broaden their appeal with both ad-supported and ad-free options. "Consumers from all ages, from gen Z to baby boomers, say they're actually more interested in an ad-supported service if it's less expensive than the ad-free option," she adds.

However, predictions that traditional TV is either dead or dying may be premature. Nearly half of U.S. adults 18 years old or older watch linear TV every day, according to a recent online survey of 1,000 consumers by media and marketing services firm ENGINE. The survey also found that 40 percent of consumers continue to subscribe to a traditional cable service.

"Consumers are still watching linear TV in large numbers," says Scott Schiller, chief commercial officer at ENGINE. "Precise targeting makes it possible to reach specific segments, like an older/30-plus audience, on platforms like connected TV."

Peer-to-Peer Play

Dan Gliatta, founder and chief strategy officer at marketing agency and ANA member Cargo, says the pandemic-induced shift toward remote work has led small-business owners to actively look to virtual communities for both information and inspiration.

"Some of the bigger changes we're seeing is where audiences are going, including not just brand communities, but peer communities such as Startup Club, as well as social media and on-demand virtual events," Gliatta says.

He stresses that small-business owners now want the same control regarding how they consume B2B information as they have at home choosing their entertainment and other personalized options for content.

"B2B brands need to be mentally available if they want to grow," he says. "That means much shorter flighting and planning given the fluidity of change. It's not about constant change of plans, but rather constant adjustments and optimization."

Bazner, from A&W Restaurants, says the pandemic forced many marketers to prioritize their ad targeting and follow their audiences into digital and social channels. "If any brand was hesitant to embrace digital prior to last year, 2020 certainly accelerated that timeline," she says.