Feature

Review of 2020: Boom time for digital consumption

As part of Campaign's 'Not Normal' series of essays about 2020, we examine how bricks-and-mortar-based businesses have suffered, while ecommerce, social media and streaming services have hit the boom time as people have been forced to stay at home.

Review of 2020: Boom time for digital consumption

Here’s one for the internet conspiracy theorists – what better way to drive consumers into the arms of ecommerce and streaming platforms than a global health crisis that would force us to stay at home all the time?

Even before the lockdowns, digital shifts were strong. Disney+ launched in the UK within days of the first March lockdown; Amazon emerged as the world’s biggest advertiser in February, with an annual adspend of $11bn; while teen favourite TikTok had effectively gone “mainstream”, with reach among UK adults more than doubling from 5.4 million in January to 12.9 million in April, Ofcom found.

Now, according to Enders Analysis chief executive Douglas McCabe, the pandemic has accelerated changes in ecommerce and video streaming that businesses would have budgeted over “three, four, sometimes even five years to play out”. An Enders report in September estimated the pandemic will add an extra £4bn to the UK online retail market by 2025 (the entire market was worth £4bn in 2016).

Netflix's Tiger King (pictured, top), The Queen's Gambit and The Crown (Alamy/Getty Images)

This atmosphere has forced brands to adapt. Cheryl Calverley, the ex-Unilever and AA marketer, who was appointed chief executive of direct-to-consumer mattress brand Eve Sleep in April, admits the crisis has produced extreme emotions – bad and good.

“It’s horrendous. I’m not enjoying being locked to the corner of my room; I hate leading through a screen,” she says. “But I’ve also really enjoyed the marketing challenges that have come our way because they’ve been interesting and different. And relying on a team that is pulling together and being creative – I’ve never felt so proud.”

As non-essential retailers were forced to close, online demand for home delivery surged. But instead of simply trying to shift more mattresses, Eve has switched to offering a wider range of sleep-wellness products, as well as more content and online services to help people sleep better.

Ocado, unlike other major supermarkets, has no brick-and-mortar stores

“We could have sold more product, but we wouldn’t be able to deliver it with a great experience,” Calverley explains. “The damage that does to your brand is more than that revenue is worth.”

During the summer, Snapchat announced a range of innovations that it hopes will position it among the creatively trailblazing end of ecommerce, such as Snap Minis, a way for developers to build media that can be integrated into Snapchat; better image-recognition tech to search for product images, and improved AR tools for virtual product try-ons.

Ed Couchman, Snap’s regional general manager, DACH, Netherlands, Nordics & the UK, reveals that the Covid-19 disruption has encouraged the social-media brand to “take a much broader view of ecommerce” and it has relationships across different teams with advertisers such as Colgate Palmolive. He reports Snapchat has been “pushing on open doors” with advertisers who are more willing to experiment with ecommerce tools because of the pandemic.

Snapchat tool Local Lens

“It’s not about classical marketing – reach and frequency and Byron Sharp – it’s actually around more data analytics and having conversations with teams you might not normally have,” Couchman says. “If you need to get the tracking pixel implemented, for example, then suddenly you’re talking to the IT team at ‘X’ big retailer, not just the marketing department, and you’ll face different questions. Helping the team understand that and think about how to navigate around that has definitely been something new for us."

Meanwhile TV broadcasters, rocked by a spring collapse in advertiser demand and huge disruption to production schedules, moved to improve video-on-demand advertising opportunities and enable more flexible deals. ITV launched its long-awaited addressable TV platform Planet V in October and created an on-demand unit led by marketer Rufus Radcliffe, while Channel 4 launched “Bring Your Own data” platform Brandm4tch and partnered The Trade Desk on a new programmatic product for All 4.

Jonathan Lewis, Channel 4’s head of digital and partnership innovation, notes how “barriers are being broken down” internally and, despite remote working, has found that colleagues have been more accessible. “The commercial team has become much closer with other departments, like the commissioning team, where we’ve been much more joined-up,” he says.

The Mandalorian is exclusive to Disney+

But was there pressure on Channel 4’s digital team to deliver digital transformation at speed, amid intensifying competition from ad-free platforms this year? Netflix had its biggest growth spurt to date in the first six months of 2020, adding nearly 26 million global subscribers, while Amazon Prime Video stepped up its UK live sport offer this year with Premier League football matches and autumn rugby internationals.

Echoing Couchman, Lewis insists: “Getting the message out there was surprisingly effective, because people were able to engage and listen… Big media agencies and clients alike wanted credible reasons to continue their investment.”

In 2020 we saw the ad market collapse and force advertisers to reassess their digital media strategies. Brands and agencies will do well to remain receptive to long-term innovation amid the immediate business challenges that will remain if, as seems likely, the health crisis continues long into next year.