In times of global crisis such as this, the importance of independent facts to help guide us through uncertain times is critical. This is as much true for the media industry as it is for other sectors, as advertisers determine the best way to share their message and identify ways to survive amidst the most challenging of times. Maintaining the consumer connection when finances are uncertain and brick and mortar stores remain shuttered is key to the long term viability of many businesses. But how does one know for sure how and when to reach these consumers? Have they been fundamentally changed as a result of this pandemic experience?
What better company to offer insight into consumer behavior than Nielsen, the company that’s been dedicated to measuring audiences around the world regardless of platform for nearly 100 years. As an independent source of media consumption across screens, Nielsen provides valuable information that can help the advertising community make sound decisions during these unprecedented times. To that end, the IAA sat down with Scott N. Brown, Nielsen’s General Manager of its Television and Audio businesses in the US, to discuss the latest insights into the state of media consumption and viewing trends around the world.
IAA: Given stay-at-home orders in place to varying degrees across the United States and the world, what can you tell us about how media consumption has changed in recent weeks?
Brown: Assessing data across this unprecedented period has been nothing short of fascinating. What we’re seeing is media consumption effectively exploding, as people are both hungry for information as well as looking for ways to fill time and escape a bit from the realities of what’s happening in the world.
In March 2020, most states across the U.S. implemented stay-at-home orders. With this came a substantial rise in television media consumption, particularly for streaming content. Streaming usage is up about 120% year-over-year, and while this has been a growing medium for some time, during COVID we’ve seen usage increasing at exponential rates. Just within the month of March, streaming usage has risen 45%.
Similarly, television usage is trending at higher levels compared to previous years in the U.S. and global markets. In March 2020, total tv consumption grew by 13% in the US, which equates to over six billion hours. Not only does this include increases in TV connected device usage, but also increases in Live TV viewing as more people are at home and indulge in content in real-time, with local news in particular seeing sizable gains. In markets such as San Francisco, which was among the states to first enact stay-at-home orders, Local News viewing rose about 38% among Persons 25-54.
In South Korea, for example, there was an increase in television viewing in the weeks after the first reports of COVID-19 in early February. By the fourth week in February, there was a 17% increase ( in TV viewing, approximately 1.2 million more viewers. During the same time last year the increase was just 1%. Other countries where we have measurement show similar trends.
IAA: Television usage is increasing, which intuitively makes sense, but on the flip side advertising spend is decreasing. As advertisers struggle to make the right financial decisions during these times, how should they think about the impact of reducing or stopping advertising?
Brown: The financial realities of COVID-19 are challenging for everyone, advertisers included. Knowing that consumers are pulling back in many areas - either because they simply can’t go to their favorite store or restaurant - or because of general financial concerns, in many ways this is the most critical time of all for advertising. Consumers are connecting with as much content as they can get their hands on across a variety of mediums, and in many ways now is the time to reach viewers that otherwise may not have been accessible. Nielsen recently published a study titled “Advertising in the Age of COVID”, that shows that going dark for a period of time reduces the effectiveness of media when the ads return. Models show that cutting advertising for the rest of 2020 could result in revenue declines of 11% in 2021. The key is tailoring advertising messages to be sensitive to the current state of affairs, and offer a sense of hope and inspiration for what’s to come. Think of the ads that have resonated with you as of late...I know in my case they tend to be the ones that offer thanks to essential workers and talk about what the brand is doing for their community.
IAA: While no one has a crystal ball to know when things will start to return to a new ‘normal’, what are some of the things our members should think about as they look toward a more stable future state?
Brown: One key element for us all to keep in mind is that no one truly knows what “normal” will look like. Having said that, we know it’s not the extreme of what we’re experiencing now, nor is it a total return to what we experienced before the pandemic. Consumers are now getting more and more used to adopting new technology at an accelerated pace, with online shopping and contactless delivery becoming more mainstream than ever before. These behaviors are likely to persist at higher rates in the future, so understanding how to prepare for and capitalize on those opportunities will be key.
It’s also important to “listen” to the data and allow facts to drive decisions over emotion. For example, one would have expected sports enthusiast viewing to virtually disappear during this time but what we’ve seen instead is heavy sports viewers have increased their daily time with television satisfying their need for content in other ways. ESPN’s recent Michael Jordan documentary averaged 6.1 million viewers for its first two episodes, making it the most viewed documentary in ESPN’s history. This is a great example of knowing your audience and finding new ways to entertain and reach them.
This is also the time to explore new business models. Looking at the response to theater closings, content distributors got creative and began releasing movies directly to consumers via streaming services. This was an ingenious idea and a way to bring that content to market, providing a new outlet that will surely be leveraged post COVID.
IAA: Like so many companies, I’m sure Nielsen has had to make changes to its operating model due to COVID-19. Can you comment on how COVID-19 has impacted Nielsen and what you’ve learned thus far from this experience?
Brown: We’ve put the safety of our employees and the communities we serve at the forefront of all of our plans and it remains the cornerstone of our COVID-19 related decisions. That’s of course the best advice for all companies, as this is not the time to gamble on the safety and well being of the teams that make us who we are. A big part of Nielsen’s business is maintaining high quality panels that feed our independent measurement. At a time when for obvious reasons we cannot knock on doors and enter panelist’s homes like we used to, we’ve found new and innovative ways to manage our sample and care for our panelists. The silver lining for us in the midst of this situation is that it’s given us the opportunity to lean into some really creative new procedures and embrace technology more than ever, allowing us to maintain our panels at the level of quality we require. It’s shown us the importance of the personal relationships our field representatives have built with our panelists over time, and the innovations that technology can offer remotely.
When it comes to our clients we’ve seen first hand how this global pandemic has impacted their businesses and operations. Over the past few months we have leaned in and deepened our relationship with our clients to help them navigate these unprecedented times. I’m amazed at their resilience, and commitment to doing the right thing for their employees, communities and business.
IAA: If you could give our members some advice as the events of COVID-19 continue to unfold, what would it be?
Brown: I would simply say to maintain your focus on the health and wellbeing of the markets you serve, allow facts to drive your decisions, and find new and creative ways to reach your target audience. They’re still there, still engaged and still hungry for relevant and timely content. Honoring the consumer now will reap benefits in the long term when we all hopefully find a bit more normalcy.