What behaviors do you have now, which you definitely didn’t have before Covid hit? Which of these do you think you’ll still be doing in two years’ time?
I now go for a quick walk every afternoon. This is something that, in my former life as a serial lunch-hour skimper, I would probably have raised an eyebrow at. A friend of mine has taken up working pretty much nocturnally: a slightly more dramatic outcome.
This fabled “new normal” looks very different for everyone.
There was a spate of articles at the start of the pandemic about what things Covid might change, such as ours on the impact of covid on user behavior. But, there have been few updates, with the most recent pieces dating back to November 2021. Now that we’re a year-and-a-half in, what has actually changed?
Here we’ll focus specifically on:
- Long-term impacts on digital and the online economy
- Marketing and consumer behaviour trends that we are objectively able to measure using both proprietary and public datasets
- Assumptions of the last year, that we’ll challenge to spark new approaches within digital
- Key solutions that you should consider looking at in response to these trends.
Trend 1. The move onto ecommerce and digital
As brick-and-mortar shops locked their doors at the start of the pandemic, consumers were driven online by need. McKinsey noted this in their assessment of how the shift to ecommerce was hastened by Covid.
This change in consumer behavior is certainly true, but what else can it tell us?
Below you can see very generic online shopping searches (for “online stores”/ “buy x online” etc.), in the UK, over the last five years.
These are the terms that people generally use when they are looking for an online equivalent of a real shop. There is an incredible spike when non-essential shops in the UK shut in March 2020.
It is important to note that this doesn’t generally relate to ecommerce at large (hence why it has returned to the baseline), because these searches typically contain the product (e.g. “black dresses”)
So what does this data tell us?
One lesson is that the initial shock and severing of previous vendors caused a short-term rush to find a new provider. The start of the pandemic was a great opportunity to gain market share, something that Amazon has capitalized on.
Another is how loyal people were to their providers. A large proportion of the searches for “online store” searches were for brands. When the physical shop wasn’t reachable, they were trying to find the online equivalents. Not being available online meant you were likely to lose those customers to a competitor. This is a lesson that doesn’t just apply to Covid, those searches have a high baseline day-to-day.
Trend 2. Different age groups are using ecommerce differently
We can also see that the move onto ecommerce is different for different demographics. The consumer behaviors in the new normal differ between old and young.
Below are aggregated stats from ecommerce sites in a range of industries across North America and the UK. It shows the number of users, and conversion rates before Covid vs now (last 6 months), by age group. The trend was similar across all shopping categories.
The absolute number of users has all risen during this time, unsurprisingly. We’ve therefore shown here the relative change vs the average. So, for example, the rise in the number of 18-24 year old users was 89% greater than the average rise across all age groups.
This data has two messages.
Firstly, the high growth in users and declining conversions among the very young suggests they are conducting more of their research phase online. Although, with conversion rates still relatively strong (despite not rising as quickly as the average), total conversions from this group are still a force to be reckoned with.
Secondly, it tells us that users from the 55+ age groups are converting a lot more frequently than they were before. This could suggest that two major barriers for this group – setting up payment details, and general trust in online shopping – are potentially longer-term casualties of the pandemic.
Trend 3. User's digital lives are diverging
One main long-term impact of Covid on consumer behavior is giving people more flexibility within their schedules. This has been triggered in particular by the move to working from home.
Upwork suggests that, in the USA, there will likely be an 87% increase in the number of fully remote workers by 2025 compared to pre-pandemic.
Whilst this change is physical, it also has major implications on digital.
Below, you can see the number of users visiting a major UK website by the hour of the week. Every hour is compared against pre-pandemic levels.
Because this site’s traffic has nearly doubled over the last year, the chart shows the change vs the average. For example, those hours at 0% have grown by the average, whilst those at 250% have increased by 2.5 x the average rise in the number of users.
As you can see, the greatest rises in traffic have been during the night and at weekends.
The sea of red during the traditional workday shows how visits at this time have seen the lowest rise.
This is an example of several major long-term impacts on digital from changing schedules.
- The commute has fallen in importance. For example, email marketing campaigns or social posts can no longer be timed at the traditional commuting hours by default.
- Behaviour differs significantly within different audiences. McKinsey has noted that remote working differs significantly by industry. In other words, your campaigns must be appropriate to your target audience.
In the key solutions section, we make some suggestions for how you should react to these changes.
Trend 4. Local searches are changing, but they are just as important
The move to remote working might suggest that local SEO and advertising’s importance has diminished.
In some cases this is true: You need to recognize that your prospects might well be in a completely different country to you. Whilst the pandemic has made short physical distances feel painfully far away, the rise in virtual has brought those furthest away from us closer than ever. This is because of:
- Dramatically improved shipping and logistics in ecommerce
- The rise of the remote attendee
- Full-time jobs no-longer tying employees to a particular city, or even country
One eCom provider we looked at, who does not advertise outside the UK, had seen a 111% increase in their international sales versus pre-pandemic. While their UK sales had also grown, international growth far exceeded growth nationally.
However, local search is still powerful. See below how searches containing “near me” have continued to rise in the UK below.
Searches containing “near me” in the UK, last 5 years. Searches around Covid testing have been filtered out.
Aside from a visible dip during both UK national lockdowns, searches for services “near me” are at an all-time high. Local SEO and advertising need to remain top of mind for providers of physical services.
Trend 5. Informational search queries are even more dominant
Informational searches are queries that indicate that the user is after information, not to make a transaction or find a specific site. These typically contain words such as “who”, “how”, “why”, and so on.
Below, you can see how such searches vastly outnumber transactional searches. Transactional searches are where the user indicates intent to purchase a certain product or service.
Furthermore, the difference between the two has only increased over time.
As you can see, this is not a recent trend.
However, the pandemic saw a significant jump after a period of slowing down. People around the world searched for information to counter the uncertainty of the real world. Such searches are categorized nicely on the excellent “Searching Covid-19” site. The rise of fake news has further helped this jump.
Google itself reacted to the greater need for information. They introduced the Passage Ranking algorithm, which helps it to rank and pulls out bits of content from a larger content piece directly into SERPs.
This trend is not just true of externally facing web pages, There was a similarly large spike in searches of internal company sites, identified by Cleverley et al. (2021), as employees hunted for answers from their own companies..
Both internally and externally, providing timely information which is retrievable by search is absolutely crucial within the new normal.
Trend 6. The search behaviors that have stuck
Consumer interests have also changed. After all, a year and a half of being locked in our homes has to have some kind of an impact.
Travel, both international and domestic, is one of the major casualties.
Searches for UK holidays have risen this year, but more out of necessity than a convenience. Spending on domestic tourism is estimated to be down by a whopping 44% compared to 2019 according to Visit Britain, from £91.6bn to £51.4 bn.
The slight growth in search volume for UK travel (‘staycation’, ‘Scotland holidays’ etc.) doesn’t make a dent in the nadir still occupied by the searches for flights. These remained lower in Q2 2021 than they were in Q2 2020.
On the other hand, industries like gardening, personal real estate, and hiking have had more positive years. You can see annual average weekly search volumes for these below.
While DIY searches quickly reverted to the mean, searches for “walking boots” are still very much in charge in 2021.
Time will yet tell with these, but consumer behavior in marketing has changed as a result of Covid. Every industry is different, and you ultimately need to keep your research up to date. An idea that was fantastic a year ago might now be outdated.
How to adapt to new search behaviours
In many ways, digital is the new normal. We’ve shared some of the trends, and now we look at some of the ways you should be addressing them.
1. Individually tailored strategies
One theme that has come up, again and again, is the need to better tailor your digital strategy to suit individual needs.
You should look to adjust your campaigns based on how your prospective customers have been impacted by Covid, whether that be their daily schedule or their entire lifestyle. There is no one-size-fits-all rule to a number of these long-term trends.
One of the main strengths of digital is the ability to customize to the individual at scale. Take full advantage of this.
Changes, like creating segments within your email campaigns based on the most effective time of day for those groups, are examples of good reactions to the new normal.
2. Strategies that maximize both online and offline
In a similar vein, make your solutions available both virtually and physically if you can.
We showed how not having an “online store” had the potential to lose you loyal customers. However, even for services, if you are not making your service available to people at home and people attending in person, you’re excluding a large pool of potential customers.
One clear example of this is industry conferences. Part of this new normal is that people expect conferences to be available both in-person and online, with 79% of conference planners looking to run hybrid events.
International attendees, in particular, look to attend virtually rather than physically due to a combination of expenses, climate change, and Covid. Realistically, only one of those factors is likely to go away any time soon.
In the below chart, you can see the global searches for “online” forms of conferences (such as “portal”, “login”, “virtual” etc.)
As you can see, searches soared above pre-pandemic levels, and remain above the benchmark. This trend is despite average weekly searches for “conference” in 2021 remaining around 40% below what they were in 2019.
Virtual conferences are very much bucking the trend during a year in which much fewer people worldwide are looking to attend conferences in person.
Likewise, for anyone in digital promoting physical locations or events, you need to make sure your strategy and product cater to those who prefer to attend online.
3. Reevaluate what is your new local
Just as that ecommerce business we mentioned earlier saw its sales soar outside the UK despite no advertising, consider what opportunities your business has abroad.
If you’ve sorted your national shipping out in the last year, is it that much of a leap to do the same internationally?
Regardless of whether you are B2B or B2C, consider whether your likely prospects still need to be in the same country as you. Alter your digital presence accordingly.
It might mean turning your paid media campaign target settings to “interested in” your country rather than “located in” your country. It might just mean adding the option of international transactions to your checkout, and seeing how it goes. Reevaluate where you can sell.
4. Provide timely information
The even greater dominance of search as an information source has one very clear lesson: Make sure that you are letting Google use you to give relevant answers to your customers’ questions.
Ayima’s Head of SEO, Martin Fennon, writes:
“Google’s prioritization of content is widely based on your page’s ability to answer user questions. So, FAQs which do this directly, particularly in a period of uncertainty such as Covid, will be extremely valuable.”
Google’s Passage Ranking algorithm update means there is now even more traffic to be won by providing timely information in a way that Google understands.
This is even more important within industries of greater customer uncertainty, such as travel. We’ve worked closely with clients to help them provide reliable and relevant information that Google quickly recognizes, and we’ve seen incredible results for those clients as a result.
The same applies to internal communications, as we saw from the spike of internal searches. Answer your target audience’s questions in a way that allows them to find your answer through Google.
Interested in learning more? Our experts are on hand if you’d like a more in-depth personal analysis or a bespoke strategy. Get in touch with the team here, we'd love to hear from you.