Audience Engagement Digital Innovation
8 mins read

“There’s more attention online than ever before”: The future contains 3 big waves of shifting activity

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Over the last couple weeks, I’ve talked to dozens of startup founders, small business owners, and web marketers of all kinds. Folks are scared, and rightfully so. Staring into the face of an uncertain period of quarantining followed by what most estimate will be the worst economic downturn of the last 50 years, and maybe 100, is sobering.

The most informed people & sources I follow generally agree on three things about the pandemic we’re in now and the future that follows:

1) Given a choice between spreading the virus to “protect the economy” and destroying the economy to slow down the rate of infections, we absolutely must choose the latter. Millions of deaths are an unacceptable price, and historically, while recessions are stressful, difficult times, ironically, they save lives and improve health.

2) It is possible for the US government to follow in the path of countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Denmark, Germany, France, and many others to protect our health and economic future but, for reasons unique to the America’s politics, culture, & existing safety net, we will likely fail (at least comparatively) on both counts.

3) Unemployment will hit 20-30% of Americans, dramatically reducing spending, demand, and productivity across economic sectors for 6-18 months following the end of the virus’ direct impact. The V-shaped rebound is, at this point, nearly impossible.

Via David Mihm on Twitter

That’s the bad news.

In the face of all this, it’s no surprise that many of us are hesitant to do “marketing.” It can feel wrong — like we’re taking advantage of all this attention people are spending online in a time of crisis. But I think that feeling, while real, comes from an incomplete picture of empathy.

For me, personally, these past three weeks have meant more time consuming online content than any other in my life. Yeah, I’m probably overdosing on information, but that’s part of how I stave off anxiety. I read. Endlessly. Not just about the virus.

I read about how to poop in the new video game Geraldine and I have been playing, a security guard in Oklahoma who took over the cowboy museum’s Twitter account, the best ways to shoot video from home, using baking steel in our oven to make better pizza, the weird fossil found in Australia that might be the ancestor of all animals, why it might pay to ban targeted advertising, and yeah, how to make D&D more fun… Among hundreds of others.

I’m, of course, visiting my social feeds far more than ever before. And, weirdly, I’m looking through the promotions tab in Gmail… Who knew a global pandemic would bring out the e-commerce consumer in me?

I’m not alone.

There’s more attention online than ever before. And it’s not going anywhere else for 6-18 months. Meanwhile, brands are cutting spend, because consumers aren’t going out and spending… Online, however, they are.

My guess is the economic outlook, while bleak, will have bright spots. And those who invest while others pull back will have advantages now and in the future. In the short term, I think that future contains three big “waves” of shifting activity.

The First Wave: Nothing But Covid

For the next 4-12 weeks, content related to the pandemic and first-order-linked trends will dominate online attention. There’s not a lot of room for anything else. Anxiety is up. Productivity is down. Spending booms in a few sectors (groceries, food delivery, remote work) and plummets everywhere else. Many marketing campaigns will be paused, shut down, cancelled, or minimized unless they’re directly relevant to the world’s changing landscape.

But, even right now, there’s opportunity to do marketing AND help people.

I’ve seen conflicting advice from marketers and executives about whether marketing that talks about or focuses on the virus is exploitative and wrong. In my opinion, if your content and marketing are helping people, even just a few of them, even in small ways, you have nothing to feel ashamed about. Patrick Stewart reading us Shakespeare or CBS giving us free episodes of Picard or Wirecutter putting a Coronavirus coping message at the top of their content are all *helpful* in varying degrees.

Smart content sites are recognizing the reality that these first few weeks of Covid create a massive amount of anxiety and uncertainty, and that by serving people with the information they want, they’re helping us cope. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that, you should feel proud. The best marketing helps people first, and earns their business as a result.

SeriousEats made their Coronavirus section a top-level menu item in their navigation

There’s a huge number of businesses of all kinds — in B2B and B2C — that could benefit from helping people focused on Covid (I.E. almost all of us) in the short term. For example…

  • If I were SimilarWeb, I’d feature that excellent Covid Impact Report they’ve created right on the homepage. I guarantee they’d get a lot of new leads from it (I gave them all my contact info as soon as I saw they had it!)
  • The Infatuation launched a superb guide to takeout & delivery in a dozen cities… Y’all can detect where my browser is — show me the Seattle guide on the homepage!
  • Yesterday, I placed a sizeable order for upgraded video recording equipment from Dell’s website. Weirdly, despite massive demand spikes, there’s no guide, no blog post, no content at all directing folks to their video cameras, recording devices, etc. Do
  • Speaking of… Wistia, where’s my guide to looking and sounding great from my home laptop/office? I know y’all know this ????
  • Rogue Fitness (along with dozens of other online stores) are running out of home exercise equipment. Thousands of other online retailers (from Bob’s Red Mill to ) are running out of products in the short-term as well. What to do? Turn that bug into a feature! Tell folks you’re overwhelmed, and let them sign up to receive the next available shipment with information on when that’s coming. If you’re unsure, build a special email notification list and offer a discount or promotion to those who get on it.

If your business is in a hard-hit sector, or one that has no relevance at all to the current situation, it’s still a good time (given the dramatic decline in ad rates) to do some clever, relevant brand-building.

Obviously, there are brands and marketers trying dumb stuff right now. I mean, c’mon BMW. You’re better than this:

But there are also numerous thoughtful, smart brands who recognize that marketing doesn’t mean exploitation. When it’s done right, marketing is about recognizing and serving a real need. Kettle & Fire KNOWS that people are asking about the shelf life of their product because they want to stock up. Changing their homepage to match this need isn’t just good marketing, it’s a kind, empathetic move.

THAT is how I’d think about marketing through a tragedy: put other people first. Align whatever you do with the way you’re helping someone else navigate uncertainty, stress, financial fears, and disruptions to their lives. Don’t be scared that your alignment of benefit to others and benefit to your potential sales will arouse the ire of critics. It might, but that’s not what matters, and it’s not what will be remembered.

The Second Wave: Transitioning to Life Online

Somewhere between 30-40 days from now, and little-by-little every week thereafter, online life will become the norm for a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before. Tens of millions of people who work in sectors that rely on foot traffic will be doing work or seeking work online. Hundreds of millions more will be fulfilling not just basic needs, but non-essentials online as well. That revolution is already creating a lot of disruption, but it’s going to create a lot of opportunity too.

My best advice for this inevitable future is to follow April Dunford‘s positioning playbook:

Via April Dunford on Twitter

Your business, like it or not, *will be* affected by this virus and/or its aftermath because all of humanity is affected by it. In most times of economic shift, it’s been much harder to predict the future, but this time, it’s a little easier. Some countries are already recovering, and their examples are instructive. Many businesses, professionals, and consumers are rapidly changing habits, but most of those shifts are… frankly… obvious.

The big purchases that are being postponed won’t be postponed indefinitely. Many people will pull back on their spending, but a huge amount of pent-up demand will emerge as well. Cars, homes, weddings, kitchen remodels, new grills for the summer, better lead-tracking software, tax preparation help for the new July deadline… it’s coming back.

Strategy — not just marketing strategy, but who your business serves, how you serve them, where, why, and with what — will be crucial to thriving in this recession. My previous company, Moz, grew 100% year-over-year from 2007-2014, through the worst recession in 30 years because (unintentionally, if I’m being honest) we helped people in the right way at the right time.

This I can guarantee: if you’re not willing or able to adapt your strategy, times are going to be far rougher than if you do.

The Third Wave: Back to a New Normal

In this last phase, certain trends will persist (I’ve seen guesses around remote work, virtual meetings, increased takeout demand, more games+gaming, direct-to-digital releases, home workouts > gyms, among others) while others fade. Travel will return. Live performances, sporting events, bars, and restaurants will too. But “normal” won’t look exactly the way it did three months ago.

Channels, creators, and media sources that earn attention now will continue to exert influence long after the crisis has passed. Brands that earned positive attention will capitalize on it while those that failed to execute or got unlucky falter. Many will simply be gone. For some industries and businesses, even flawless execution won’t be enough.

Via Steve Hammer on Twitter

One certainty is that existing trends around digital-first workplaces and online-enabled business will accelerate. Marketers who help organizations do that well are going to have a lot of demand for a long time to come.

If, today, you’re an event planner who becomes a leader in running online events (sourcing talent, building audiences, picking the right web tools, etc), those skills and that reputation will serve you well long after we’re all vaccinated against Coronavirus.

I’m truly scared for the next 6 months. But I’m also genuinely optimistic about the years after. Economic pain is inevitable. Yet survival and even growth are possible in the coming environment. And while I can only do so much with my limited financial resources to help the businesses and charities I love do well through tough times, I hope that this post and the content I create in the future can help a bigger group.

Stay safe. Stay at home. Together, we’ll get through this.

by Rand Fishkin, Founder, SparkToro

This article was originally published on SparkToro as “Marketing Right Now Is #$%*ing Hard” and is re-published with kind permission.

About SparkToro:  SparkToro is a new software company from Moz founder, Rand Fishkin. Its mission is to make it easier to discover the websites, blogs, podcasts, social accounts, and publications that reach your audience.  @randfish | @SparkToro