Pivoting in Crisis #2: Sharpening the appetite for virtual interaction

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18 March 2020

Covid-19 represents an unprecedented challenge, to global governments, health services, corporations and individuals alike. As the outbreak continues to spread and an abundance of misinformation muddies the water across the world, behaviours are starting to change.

Some individuals are avoiding handshakes, some are shunning public transport, while others are hoarding toilet roll and pasta. Businesses are also responding while others are writing down their earnings statements. And the government too has stepped up, in the form of what they are describing as “largest sustained fiscal boost for nearly 30 years”.

Just as the 2008 crash saw the birth of thousands of new businesses, Covid-19 will undoubtedly mean pivoting marketing strategies and ways of working. Some opportunists already moving to outright exploitation (bottles of hand sanitiser appearing on eBay at hugely inflated prices, for example). Ultimately, corporations have a duty to respond to the changing needs of their customers, and that several of the changes that Coronavirus is causing will create new consumer needs. It is these changing needs that we’ll be looking to highlight in this, the second of an ongoing content series, in which we’ll look at how the need for social distancing may sharpen the appetite for virtual interaction. Our first piece looked at issues associated with the likely rise in working from home and is available here: link.

Living at a social distance

As the UK enters the Delay phase of dealing with Covid-19, its citizens have been advised to adopt social distancing. With the like of the Premier League, Euro 2020, Glastonbury and Eurovision all shutting down, large-scale gatherings will become rarer. We had, anyway, begun to see a transition towards virtual interaction in many spheres of life before the Coronavirus began to dominate our thoughts. This latest outbreak seems certain to accelerate this transition, certainly in the short-term, for the duration of the outbreak, but also into the longer-term too. We’ll look in turn at a number of ways this is happening.

The virtual Doctor will see you now

Over recent years we’ve seen growth in the so-called telemedicine sector, as app-based services such as Babylon health offer high-tech, remote access to healthcare professionals.

Research conducted by Now Healthcare Group (link) suggested that the use of digital health consultations removed the need for an NHS GP appointment in 56% of cases and a hospital appointment in 3% of cases and that if digital health via app-based tech was rolled out across the population, it could potentially save £7.5 billion on public health services in England.

Now we’re seeing both doctors and patients turning to telemedicine solutions in the current Coronavirus outbreak. The use of virtual visits has been climbing as a way of safely treating patients and containing spread of the infection at hospitals, clinics and medical offices. With the likely huge demand for consultations with healthcare professionals, government advice is already to use NHS Direct as a first port of call to take the pressure off the in-person system.

Longer-term we might reasonably expect the appetite for distant, responsive solutions to persist once the current outbreak has been dealt with.

Ready for your virtual interview?

In-person job interviews are another likely candidate of the Covid-19 outbreak – with many of the tech giants (Google, Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn, for example – link) announcing either that they are suspending them, or that they will be prepared to use them if that is the candidate’s preference. Again, this is a case of the acceleration of a pre-existing trend rather than the creation of a brand new one. Either way, virtual candidates will have to learn a whole new set of skills if they are to land their dream job via this route.

Conference season goes virtual

Heading into conference season, we’ve seen a rash of, totally understandable, cancellations and postponements. Mobile World Congress (link), South by South West (link), The Next Web (link), FutureFest (link) and even the CFR coronavirus conference (link) have all responded to the need of social distancing by deciding not to convene as planned. Adobe (Summit), Google (I/O and Cloud Next), Microsoft (Build, MVP Congress and WSL Conf) and Facebook (F8) have all cancelled events too.

But we’re now beginning to see the emergence of a discussion around virtual conferencing. Microsoft have shifted their Build developers conference into a virtual format (link), whilst The Drum are currently running a Digital Transformation Festival (link). The conference industry is big business. Around $1.5 Trillion according to some estimates (link).With that much revenue under threat it is no wonder that the industry is scrambling to pivot. Streaming the content is definitely feasible but the trouble seems to be finding a replacement for the networking opportunities that gathering in one place offer.

New startups like Run the World (link) or Hopin (link) may offer a glimpse of the way forward. Run the World has been described as a hybrid of Zoom video, Eventbrite ticketing, Twitch interactivity, and LinkedIn networking. Hopin describes itself  as “the first all-in-one live online events platform where attendees can learn, interact, and connect with people from anywhere in the world.” We should expect plenty of short-term virtual event replacement but also, longer-term disruptive innovation.

A good time for video-conferencing tools

As more workers avoid their usual workspaces in favour of home, many will lean more heavily on video-conferencing and collaboration tools. Already, we’ve seen the providers of such services recognising this and offering free access to the premium, paid versions of their services.

Google, for example, has temporarily unlocked the premium features of its Hangouts Meet service (link). Microsoft has announced it will offer a free 6-month trial of its Teams service (link). Zoom has announced it would lift the 40-minute limit on video calls for its free version inside China (link).

While many were no doubt already using such services, the increased exposure to, and reliance on such services may well persist.

 Temporary or permanent changes? 

One of the big unknowns regarding the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on society is the degree to which the changes in behaviour that it causes are short-term, limited to the duration of the outbreak itself, and perhaps the immediate aftermath, or whether they are adopted as long-term changes. Most of the shifts towards virtual described here existed before the outbreak, will be accelerated or strengthened by it, and one might therefore reasonably assume have a good chance of outlasting it.

How can the marketplace support virtual living?

How businesses will respond to the likely surge in the appetite for virtual interactions will vary from one business and sector to another. We’ve pulled together a few ideas as to how brands can support customers:

  • Seek to replace physical interaction with online, virtual interactions.
  • Clearly such transitions take time, so in the short-term it will be acceptable to do this in any way you can, but this doesn’t mean that consumers will necessarily be any more tolerant of delays, mistakes or incompetence. In fact, with tempers being frayed their tolerance may fall not rise.
  • Brands should be looking urgently to review processes, staff training, infrastructure to ensure seamlessness of service delivery.
  • Brands should also be looking to create digital and virtual equivalents of all in-person interactions and materials – everything from POS materials to complaints and product returns policies and procedures.

What next?

As the story of the Coronavirus outbreak unfolds, new challenges will emerge and these, more than likely, will also represent the need for brands to quickly pivot to support a society under pressure.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group. 

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