During these extraordinary times, understanding the needs of consumers in the U.S. means digging deeper and listening to the millions of voices that make up this unique landscape.

Our new data set, GWI USA, allows us to do just that; analyzing the online behaviors of U.S. internet users from a more granular perspective than ever before. This is an important perspective to adopt as different states emerge from lockdown with different rules, attitudes, and priorities.

Using figures from this new data set and our ongoing coronavirus research, we address some of the burning questions in the U.S. advertising landscape right now. 

Key takeaways:

  • As consumers show a growing interest in travel alternatives, ads on public transport are quickly becoming less of a priority.
  • In-store displays are now a key point of focus for brand discovery.
  • U.S. consumers are watching more broadcast TV than before.
  • Social media has become an important place to research brands as well as discover them.
  • Consumer attitudes to coronavirus-related advertising have changed.

1. How has OOH advertising changed?

In the early stages of lockdown, the concept of the rush hour virtually disappeared in major cities across the U.S. Public safety measures extracted a heavy toll on out of home (OOH) advertising, with advertisers pulling back on a spend previously expected to hit $40 billion across cities in 2020.

Observing OOH advertising across the U.S. now,  it’s clear the outbreak has hit public transport the hardest, with just 2% saying they discovered new brands via ads here in the last month. Even for those living in an urban context, it only reaches 4%.

Given 38% say they’re now extremely or very interested in transport alternatives, ads on public transport aren’t likely to rebound quickly. 

For example, sport-related patterns around transport hubs may not return to their previous level for some time. 

This isn’t to say, all aspects of OOH are set to struggle. Billboards are still resilient, with 12% in urban environments identifying them as a brand discovery channel. Roadside locations and retail environments, for example, may prove fruitful even as demand for public transport is depressed.

Retail environments may even, amid reduced demand overall, prove beneficiaries of the “back to normal” phase we’re entering into. 

Our coronavirus research found 37% of American internet users expect to shop online more frequently after the outbreak. 

This will undoubtedly displace some in-person visits. 

But for those who do make the trip, managing the flow of people through a store or mall will present opportunities. More time and thought will go into the trip, which may mean more attentive viewers of OOH ads in a retail context, and retailers themselves get the chance to develop the in-store experience. 

Safety and hygiene are obviously the priorities, but social distancing protocol allows for more interaction with in-store displays – which 1 in 5 U.S. users cite as a typical source of brand discovery. 

Retail experiences cannot be high-touch for the moment, but creative thinking can ensure that safety measures add to, and don’t detract from, the customer experience.

An additional benefit to in-store promotions is that they’re more likely to appeal to older audiences, with 55-64’s being 26% more likely to discover brands in this manner and over 65’s 35% more likely. We’ve noted previously how older individuals are just as eager to return to stores, and this is a perfect way for brands to remain visible to those less inclined to shop online.

2. Does TV still rule entertainment?

Lockdown also prompted the biggest shakeup in media consumption habits in living memory. Emerging from the other side of it, the natural question to answer is whether TV is still king, or whether newer distractions occupied internet users’ time, and became the place for them to discover brands.

Lockdown restrictions certainly made an impact, with 32% of U.S. internet users saying they’ve been watching more broadcast TV against 29% using more social media. This is unique to the U.S., given, globally, social media consumption is up 43% against 39% for TV.

For brand discovery, this means 41% of U.S. consumers discover brands via TV commercials, while ads on social media sit at 22%. 

While TV viewership is certainly driven by older age groups, younger audiences are important here too – just under 1 in 4 of 16-34’s say they’ve increased TV viewership, with an additional 10% saying they intend to continue after the outbreak. 

But the gap between TV and social is closing, and as younger audiences continue to acquire more spending power, they’ll bear greater influence in dictating this change.

An active example of this can be seen in the South West of the U.S. where the gap sits at just 14 percentage-points between ads on social media (25%) and ads on TV (39%) Here, 40% of internet users are aged between 16-34 – a higher concentration than anywhere else in the U.S.

Brand discovery among U.S. 16-24’s is now social media-centric, with 1 in 3 discovering products or services via ads or posts on a social media platform. While TV still has a place among this audience – commercials make an impression on just under 1 in 5 – behaviors are shifting.

It’s only users aged 55 and above that brands should approach cautiously online, given just 12% discover brands via ads on social media, compared to 59% via TV commercials.

While some 55-64s are using social media more as a result of the outbreak – 22% say this – it’s worth noting this may be short lived as just 6% think they’ll continue using social media after the outbreak.

Discovery is gradually shifting online, but that doesn’t mean offline methods have to be cannibalized. TV’s long-time, and resurging, popularity means younger audiences will continue to discover ads in this manner, despite a greater likelihood to do so via social media. Both are likely to complement one another for the time being. 

3. How should brands reach consumers outside social media?

Social media might not have sucked up too much time from TV, but it’s become a lifeline for businesses whose physical presence has had to shut down. In many cases, it’s been the only way to keep in contact with their customers. 

As a result, social media comes to the fore as a source of information. 

Though 22% of users discover brands via ads on social, 29% say they use these sites to search for information. 

Age groups associated with higher social media use are the main players here – 37% of 16-24’s search for information on social media – older audiences are using them in this manner too, with 1 in 5 of 55-64’s searching for information here.

Other channels gain extra relevance at this stage of the customer journey

Though just 12% of U.S. users discover new products via ecommerce sites, 26% say they search for information here. Given a further 12% say they visit ecommerce sites every day – rising to 32% weekly – there’s a high likelihood that ad-presence here will reach consumers who discovered products elsewhere too.

Ads on video sites, which only 9% of U.S. users say they discover new products on, see a dramatic increase when used for research, almost on par with social media. 

This is important when considering the future of TV and social in the U.S. With digital video ad spending committed upfront set to grow by 11% this year, and as social media begins to encroach on TV ad space, brands can get creative and steer viewers toward their social pages – where users are more likely to discover new products. 

Simultaneously, viewers discovering products will return to videos to research further, giving brands more visibility and better opportunity to directly interact with their viewership.

4. Is corona-fatigue setting in?

When we first started looking at how consumers responded to brands and their reactions to coronavirus, we found that internet users were supportive of those that chose to directly address the ongoing pandemic.

For example, in a custom survey ran from March 31st to April 2nd, we found that over 7 in 10 U.S. users approved of brands running advertising showing their response to coronavirus – with all age groups in agreement. 

At the same time, just under half approved of brands running “normal” advertising campaigns. As this was an early and uncertain stage of the pandemic, brands played an important role in supporting their customers in the early stages.

But as of our most recent research, run from 29th June to 2nd July, attitudes have changed. We found that 57% of U.S. internet users approve of coronavirus-related advertising – still high, but a significant decline from April. 

While the situation is far from “under control”, society has begun to adapt to changes in daily routine and, with 36% watching more news coverage, they’ve become more informed. 

This decline may be attributed to news fatigue, specifically regarding coronavirus.

Evidently, brands continuing to show how they’re tackling coronavirus is still welcome, but approval of running “normal” campaigns hasn’t declined – having settled at around half of U.S. users since tracking this behavior in March.

While this sentiment for less coronavirus-related messaging could be attributed to younger, less at-risk individuals, older audiences – who are commonly considered at greater-risk – are actually just as likely to approve.

In the U.S., 54% of individuals aged 55-64 approve of brands running “normal” advertisements, just behind the 59% of 16-24’s who say the same. Even high-risk individuals –  those with certain health conditions – agree, with 58% of this audience saying this.

Businesses thinking of relaxing their coronavirus campaigns can take comfort in knowing that their efforts to resume with a degree of normality will be welcome – and it’s beginning to show as more brands look toward the endgame.

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