Which media horse should you back as COVID-19 starts to wind down in Australia?

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Life in the time of corona has seen media consumption habits disrupted forcing marketers and agencies to pivot their media plans. Now with restrictions easing, we’re having to rethink our strategies once again. So how best to proceed? Spinach’s Ben Willee has a few ideas.

I don’t know about you, but my dream of heading to the local pub for a few beers to watch the footy is now a reality. But with that freedom comes another disruption in the rolling series of disruptions we’ve been faced with in recent weeks. As COVID-19 restrictions start easing, how should those of us in media respond? Based on their previous and current performance, which horse (or horses) should we be backing?

The next steps are not going to be like the Russian Parliament; we don’t know what’s going to happen. But we can look to the recovery from other pandemics such as SARs. And what that tells us is that the return to normal is going to be slow. At times, we will need to take two steps backwards to take one step forward.

One of the most important areas for us to navigate from a media perspective is changing audience consumption habits and which of those habits are likely to stick. To work out where we’re going, we need to consider the COVID trajectory. In the past two months, there have been winners and losers in terms of audiences.

The winners include TV which saw an increase of almost 30% at the start of April. Audiences have since stabilised but remain up by 10% across the day compared to viewing habits pre-pandemic, according to OzTam data.

In the first week of March, Broadcaster Video on Demand (BVOD) viewing peaked at an all-time high for the medium, according to data released by industry body ThinkTV. More than 2 million hours of broadcast streaming video were consumed in a single week. Similar to linear TV, audiences have since stabilised, but they remain significantly higher than pre-COVID.

Another medium experiencing surging audiences is news media. According to Nielsen, the average audience of the top 10 news websites in Australia has grown by more than half (54%) in the wake of the pandemic. However, the news last week that many regional titles would close means campaigns directed outside Australian metro areas will need a rethink.

Alongside this, there’s no doubt Google and Facebook are seeing increased usage of their respective platforms.

Radio is more of a challenge to unravel. Radio surveys have been put on hold to meet with social distancing requirements, yet we currently have figures compiled by GFK showing cumulative radio listenership is up 58,000 listeners to more than 10 million.

And then there are the losers. Globally, out-of-home giant Ooh Media reports the daily audience of OOH advertisements is down by more than 50%. QMS figures suggest the medium has now started to see an increase again as social distancing measures are slowly lifted.

And, of course, cinemas have been closed and are entirely out of the picture.

The biggest unknown is whether media consumption habits will revert to life pre-COVID or if there will be a new normal.

After audiences have gotten used to watching shedloads of TV, will they continue to do so? With winter upon us and the likelihood of people slowly easing back into ‘normality’ again, it’s safe to assume new habits have been formed and TV viewing remains higher year-on-year. As people try to work out what they are and aren’t allowed to do and whether they should still be worried, news is going to remain important as well.

As we start to come out of hibernation, audiences for out-of-home will naturally build once more. And audiences will return to cinemas – it’s a case of when not if.

What’s possibly more challenging to predict is more nuanced behaviour changes such as whether older Australians will continue to use catch up TV and shop online. I bet you a million bucks, once they realise how easy some of these things are, they won’t be going back to the bad old days.

The challenge for marketers is that these behaviours are in flux, changing daily and in different ways from state to state as the various governments ease restrictions. We’re all going to need to be flexible and focus on actionable insights. We need to be critical of mediums that are marking their own exam papers and being selective with the data.

I once worked for a bloke that said good media planning requires some courage. Courage to take educated risks. Even before COVID-19, we often made annual commitments to TV stations, radio stations and publishers based on our view of their performance. What we need now is the courage (and data) to make those decisions more quickly in a changing environment. Take confidence from mediums that are regularly reporting independently verified data and be sceptical of mediums that aren’t.

We also need to remember that just because us marketing and advertising types are keen to get back into bars and restaurants, it doesn’t mean the target audience is the same.

For marketers, my advice is this: make sure your agency understands not just the media challenge but the creative challenge. Can your agencies collaborate and deliver quality work to market fast? Are they able to deliver personalisation and prove to consumers your brand understands their needs?

Media strategy and buying has always been about backing the right horse and now more than ever, you need to study the form.

Ben Willee

Over a 20-year career Ben has worked in some of the biggest media agencies in the UK and Australia. As General Manager and Media Director, Ben optimises our fully integrated, no silo approach.