Amazon accelerated: Covid-19’s effects on consumer and audience behaviour – by CNN’s Tini Sevak

By Tini Sevak, vice-president, audiences and data, CNN International Commercial

Increased globalisation and greater connectivity had already created seismic change in consumer behaviour and media consumption, fuelled largely by the widespread usage and diversified application of mobile technology and smartphones.

Pre-Covid-19 we had already seen a cultural shift – largely driven by the developments in technology used for services and content delivery – that gave audiences higher expectations and lower attention spans when it came to content. The ‘Amazon era’ of easy access and fast delivery created consumer demand for media and news brands to deliver what people want, when they want it and where they need it. With countries such as the UAE having 99 per cent active internet usage and its population spending on average seven hours a day on the internet, it comes as no surprise that the Middle East is widely embracing this ‘Amazon era’.

Now, the current global pandemic has further accelerated many of these trends around access to content, services and products. Consumers are predominantly turning to their smartphones, with Global Web Index finding that across the world 71 per cent of people are spending more time on their smartphone/mobile. This is certainly the case in the Middle East, with research by Inmobi showing that from 15 March onwards, every Gulf nation saw a notable increase in mobile app usage. During the second half of March, the highest mobile usage was recorded in Saudi Arabia followed by the UAE and Kuwait. There was also a huge spike of internet usage in Egypt, with the Egyptian National Telecom Regulatory Authority reporting 87 per cent increase in home internet usage in the second week of April compared to the second week of March when the country was in pre-Covid-19 measures.

Looking at the global picture, based on Global Web Index’s Coronavirus Multi-Market Research, we found that two thirds of CNN audiences are spending exponentially more time consuming news since the Covid-19 outbreak; a similar amount are watching more shows and films on streaming services; and more than half of CNN audiences are spending longer on social media. A quarter of CNN audiences indicated that spending more time on news coverage, streaming and video will become their permanent habit. Looking specifically at the Middle East, a study from McKinsey shows that in the UAE people have intensified their behaviour for many digital activities such as online streaming, video chatting, remote learning  and grocery delivery, and, looking ahead, expect to spend more time on activities such as cooking at home, consuming video content and social media. Lasting habits are being formed and consumers are placing even more value on media and content that is available instantly and on-demand.

Despite this need for instant access, at this time of heightened uncertainty, consumers are taking time to seek out reliable news and information from trusted news brands. This is reflected both in record audiences figures for news organisations – CNN saw a larger global audience than any other digital news platform in the world in March with a record 259 million unique multiplatform visitors – and from many consumer surveys, such as a special Covid-19 edition of Edelman’s Trust Barometer that found major news outlets are relied upon by consumers nearly twice as much as global health organisations or national health organisations. At CNN, the level of seriousness with which we take this duty is reflected in our output – from covering the latest news and business analysis, to the creation of the highly popular “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction” podcast hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to airing shows about the ‘new normal’ on CNN International such as “Working From Home: New Reality” and “Inventing Tomorrow”.

From an advertiser perspective, most consumers want to hear from brands that they know during this time. The reason for this is that brands have a critical role to play in fostering confidence and optimism. Global Web Index found that 79 per cent of consumers approve of brands running campaigns that show how they are responding to coronavirus and/or are helping their customers at this time. The message needs to be clear, authentic and align with a company’s values. It also needs to be mindful of the current status of the audience – for example, a Covid-19 message in a country in recovery stage must be very different to a message delivered to a country still at the peak. Regardless of geography however, the overwhelming concerns from populations in the world’s major economies remain health and the economy.

At CNN, we use a range of technology and techniques to dig deeper to understand consumer behaviour and needs – both in terms of the content we are creating and delivering to them, but also in the way we are advising our advertisers and commercial partners in their communication. As we understand more about content consumption and behaviour during this unprecedented time, media companies and brands can respond better to consumers and their needs, enabling a stronger and more direct relationship with our audiences. As a result, the value exchange between media, brands and consumers will evolve and strengthen.

While there is no playbook for exactly what lies ahead, the trends we are seeing indicate long-term shifts in consumer behaviour, consumer spending and e-commerce, company operations, and communications and connections. From this period, new digital ecosystems will emerge and the current need for digital services will increase adoption amongst different age and demographic groups – for example people who had never banked online before may have had to do so out of necessity, and as a result financial providers have responded by making more services available online to respond to and/or anticipate demand. It is within this environment that a country’s long term planning – schemes such as the UAE’s National Innovation Strategy, the Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031 and the Blockchain Strategy 2021 – show their considerable benefits. Such circumstances can also see the creation of new innovative initiatives, such as the “Be Digital” scheme backed by the Central Bank of Egypt to help the country’s small and medium-scale enterprises in digital transformation.

The countries and brands best positioned to navigate this change will be those that have used data, technology and audience insights to re-imagine, reinvent and adapt to the changing consumer behaviours, and therefore have invested more in consumer relationships. Within this environment, the strength of a brand and its ability to deliver on its consumer promise will be even more essential.