In this post, GlobalWebIndex's Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine examines the changes in consumer behaviour online in response to the global pandemic, the role of social media has been playing, and where and how brands can still get involved in the conversation.

As COVID-19 and its social distancing measures continue to cloud and disrupt daily lives across the globe, consumers are searching for ways to connect and make sense of what’s happening. And with empty hours to be filled each day, we’re all spending more time consuming media - especially social media. 

In dedicated research conducted by GlobalWebIndex in March and April of 2020 across 17 markets, we explored the impact of COVID-19 on consumers and how they’re responding and behaving off the back of the pandemic. So what is the role of social media at this time and how should brands be responding?

Consumers can’t stop and won’t stop scrolling
Above anything, the coronavirus pandemic has showcased the power of social media; it’s connecting people when most other forms of communication have been taken away. Almost 1 in 2 consumers globally say they’ve been spending longer on social media since the COVID-19 outbreak - with the most concerned consumers leading the way. In fact, from the third week of March to the first week of April, the number of internet users who say they’re spending longer on social media has grown by 19% - from 21% to 38%. This is notable when you consider how ingrained social media was already in consumer’s routines pre-pandemic.

But how should brands be responding?
The outbreak has caused major disruption for marketers, and brands have had to very quickly re-strategise. In this sense, social media has really had its time to shine. With added hours of scrolling providing more time to make an impact, brands have an opportunity to showcase a proactive, innovative and heartfelt response. This might seem obvious, but at a time of such high emotion, the right messages and posts will really resonate. And the brands who get it right are likely to be the ones remembered for it.

Getting marketing campaigns right is what can really set brands apart. When we asked if brands should carry on advertising as normal, just over 1 in 2 agree they should, but a staggering 82% said they should be running advertising campaigns showing how they’re responding to the crisis. Many brands are using social media feeds to showcase this too. Lidl UK is a great example of a brand that has been showing its support for its shoppers; it’s been posting reassuring updates, vowing to feed frontline staff, and working with NSPCC to support children at this time.

Marketing doesn’t all need to be serious. Many are on the lookout for entertaining content in their feeds too; a third want more funny content, memes and how-to videos. Another way that brands can get involved.

Fact-checked news is expected from social media
Globally, around two-thirds expect social media companies to be providing fact-checked content to help people cope with the outbreak, and to be filtering out the ‘fake news’. In light of the pandemic, there has been a global call for social media to act as a reliable source of information, especially as the flow of information on feeds is constant. Behind official news sources and government updates, almost 1 in 2 say they’re using social media to keep up-to-date with the news right now.

But social media has the biggest “trust gap” of any source we asked about. Whilst 47% are using this channel, only 14% believe it to be one of the most trustworthy for news about the virus. And this sentiment holds true across users of all the social platforms. 

As such, social media companies collectively have a huge responsibility to stop the spread of misinformation. In a joint statement, the biggest technology companies came together to voice their commitment to “helping millions of people stay connected whilst also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus”. All are working to remove and prevent false news, and placing official guidance in easy view, like Facebook’s COVID-19 information panel. And so far, the outlook for social media companies' attempt looks good; two-thirds say they approve of how they’ve handled COVID-19. 

With almost all scheduled live events cancelled for the next few months, it makes sense that almost 3 in 10 said they would like social media companies to partner to stream live events - something which peaks among Generation Z and Millennials. And users of different services hold broadly similar views, but if we do look across the major platforms, it’s Snapchatters who are most likely to want live streams. 

Supporting this might not be at the top of brands lists right now, but they’re guaranteed a lot of viewers’ attention if they do. The “One World: Together at Home” pre-show was streamed across social media, followed by the TV broadcast and raised millions for COVID-19 relief. And in the sports space, many sports marketers have ramped up their online presence to feed the increasing appetite for sports content in the absence of any games being played anywhere.

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Social media can be an unstoppable force, especially in times like these. Brands need to be resilient at this time and support their audience to be so too. They’ll be remembered for putting their audience before profits and for taking action. There’s an opportunity here like never before to connect on a new level with consumers, and to build long-term connections that should continue once we’re out the other side.