The Pandemic Pivot of Social Media and Video

By Shaili Bhatt, Senior Research Director, C+R Research, Chicago, Illinois, shailib@crresearch.com

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much of our ability to communicate and connect was relegated to the fleeting framework of a Zoom call or social media post. Our intrigue about each other’s living and working situations—the laughs, the tears, cute kids and pets, and the celebrations of life and death—were rendered through our screens. It may be no surprise that we are now seeing greater fragmentation in the social media settings and digital realms where people have been feeling most comfortable in expressing themselves.

Two years ago, the biggest social media platforms in the U.S. were Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat. Audiences were already enjoying multiscreen experiences with media on their computer, smartphone, TV, or tablets. It was a time when Zoom was largely considered to be a business application to host webinars and chat, and Skype excelled for instant messaging (IMs) and its holistic package of remote communications for personal or business contact lists.

The need for safer, visual ways to communicate became obvious as our physical distance grew. It is worth noting how video technologies and social media have risen to the challenges of COVID-19, in what can be called the “pandemic pivot.”

Power of Video

Before COVID-19, it was common to worry about overusing our smartphones, tablets, and computer screens, as well as social media itself; for many of us, the social shifts of this pandemic have changed our perspectives on screen time. The day-to-day isolation and work-at-home safety measures—including for most of us in the market research industry and our clients—dramatically increased our collective use of these technologies over the past year. Live remote communications, plus the visual benefits of using a screen, have become our daily necessity to learn, work, shop, play, and relax across many U.S. households.

Our physical distancing measures and face-to-face limitations during the pandemic created a socio-emotional deficit among many people—one that is struggling to be filled with the power of video. It is interesting to see how video-based applications are managing to stay relevant for content creators and their audiences; to create real connections and joy without physical touch. While we have been unable to reach out and touch our loved ones during a video call, we can see the warmth of their facial expressions, or react to their stories. We can even type messages or questions into a live chat that are acknowledged by some of our favorite authors and performers.

YouTube Premieres have allowed users to gather simultaneously to watch a new live video together; the video is scheduled to release in advance, and it is pushed to subscribers at a preset date/time, to feel like more of an event. These are the moments that have been engaging and connecting us the past year. However, the question will be how much we will need or want to rely upon these video-based experiences as we get vaccinated and can regain some normalcy in our lives.

No surprise, the most popular online platform in America is YouTube, which has more than two billion logged-in users every month; 74 percent of adults in the U.S. use YouTube, which is more than Facebook (68 percent of adults), and viewership is expected to increase. According to Pew Research Center, 80 percent of parents of children ages 11 and younger say that their kids watch YouTube; half of them said that their child watches videos on YouTube at least once a day.

According to David Anderson, PhD, vice president, School and Community Programs at the Child Mind Institute, parents of young children are being advised to “think about their child’s overall health” and how they spend their time across the day versus limiting the number of hours of streaming shows and games at home. Despite a seemingly inescapable disdain or boredom for screens, kids have been encouraged to use screen time to safely keep up with school and homework, as well as stay in touch with their friends.

Engagement on Social Apps

Facebook owns several key social media assets: Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger continue to grow as broadly popular apps for sharing individual and group texts, as well as making video calls.

As the need for human connections through a screen grew in the early months of the pandemic, social app providers leaned heavily into video-sharing capabilities. Facebook made a notable move to enable selfie-style Instagram Live videos to be a shared viewing experience across multi-screen platforms, regardless of the user’s device. Instagram also diversified its capabilities during the pandemic, and the platform now reaches a broader audience than the (largely) under-40 crowd that it entertained before the pandemic. Instagram Live has been popular for livestreaming COVID-cautious events and shows.

For those who have grown tired of video calls, Clubhouse is a newer, iPhone-only social networking app based on audio chats, where users can explore different conversations, and audience members can “raise their hands” to be invited to participate in live conversations. As of this publishing date, the Clubhouse app is still in beta, so the quickest way to join is to get an invite from an existing member with your phone number. With ingenuity and minimal risk, market researchers have been using social networking sites to start discussions on research-related topics; the live audio on Clubhouse harkens a bygone era of group conference calls using telephones.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention TikTok, a social app for users to easily share and watch compelling video content that is short, usually fun or informative, and refreshingly current. The app has largely overcome its initial barriers for intrusive user tracking and other privacy issues; TikTok surpassed WhatsApp as one of the most downloaded apps on Apple and Google app stores last year. However, the app has been under fire for admitting that its algorithm was favoriting content from white creators. This comes after TikTok users of color have been loudly calling for better visibility of their videos in order to alter what shows up on the infinite scroll of the TikTok “For You” (#fyp) home page to gain likes and have a chance at going viral.

For market research purposes, it can be helpful to remember that any content on social apps like Instagram and TikTok can be filtered by clicking on hashtags to find relevant or similar posts. For additional content discovery, use the magnifying glass icons to watch trending videos/sounds/reels, or type keywords into the search bar for specific content. I also recommend reading the thoughtful comments that are freely available. Furthermore, TikTok offers unique Stitch video replies, linking the original video with a video reply; this can be used to pose a research question to solicit comments and video replies from the TikTok community—just toggle your video privacy settings to “Allow comments” and “Allow Stitch” responses.

Content creators’ tools on many of these video-friendly platforms can be upgraded to include powerful video metrics to analyze posted video content for audience reach, engagement (i.e., likes, comments, re-shares), and retention, such as viewing duration and total unique versus repeat views.

Notably, Facebook has offered some inspiring tips on what to share in a video:

  • Share how you are feeling and coping and offer any tips
  • Livestream a performance
  • Teach a class or showcase a skill
  • Answer questions directly from the audience
  • Post “process-style” content, such as a behind-the-scenes look at your craft or hobbies, cooking, working out, or talking about an upcoming project

Along these lines, we can explore the types of video content that have helped or entertained consumers during the pandemic.

On a separate note, Facebook now offers businesses access to a mobile-first Video Creation kit that streamlines the process for creators who don’t have the right software, in-house skills, or investment to produce this type of creative. The kit includes simple video creation tools that now allow businesses to automatically create and customize a mobile-first ad in their templates from the content that already exists on their Facebook page. This could be useful for recruiters to conduct an eye-catching social recruit—adding a link to a screening questionnaire that people can complete to see if they qualify. (Note: in these ads, it helps to be more transparent by indicating that “space is limited,” and that you are looking for a variety of experiences and opinions, to help deflect disappointment.)

Changing Patterns for When to Post

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, marketing norms for posting new content on social media were on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, when readership and engagement on social media platforms were the highest. Conversely, as the world started to quarantine and work from home, prioritizing their families, binge-watching, and other personal interests, the best days to post new content on the top social media platforms have shifted in the past year.

According to Sprout Social, the best day to post new content is now on Wednesday (especially around noon), with an exception of Friday being the best for Instagram media. “Reliable times for engagement occur every weekday around 8–10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Meanwhile, engagement is lightest every day before 5 a.m. and after 6 p.m.” In general, the weekend is not a good time for new posts to be seen; Sunday is cited as the worst day for engagement. These could be helpful tips for our recruitment partners that rely on social media, phone, and email to reach people when they have free time.

There have been some silver linings in the remarkable ways that we have been able to stay connected on video calls and social media. Still, as we head into a post-vaccination era, many of us are perhaps much in need of a warm embrace.

Addressing the Digital Divide

While the initial technical difficulties of our increasing reliance on online technologies and video meetings have waned, some adults and families still face a struggle. The sudden rush for e-schooling stemming from COVID-19 safety measures put many families in a tough spot. The pandemic increased financial pressures and widened the digital divide.

The Pew Research Center reported in May 2019 that 44 percent of U.S. adults with household incomes below $30,000 did not have broadband internet. Due to the proliferation of budget-friendly, low-cost smartphones and service providers that specifically target lower-income consumers, some families relied on internet access on smartphones or tablets, instead of a laptop or desktop computer. In the interest of market research among this target, as well as broader U.S. demographics, using a platform that is easily accessible on a mobile phone browser, rather than one that requires an app download, is recommended.

In a time when we were cut off from seeing each other, grandparents and other less tech-savvy adults were suddenly motivated to improve their comfort with technology and use their device screens in new ways; they’ve had to develop greater digital prowess for online offerings beyond their basic skills.

As of February 2021, 70 percent of active U.S. Facebook users are using the platform every day, and according to Pew Research, the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook continues to be ages 65 and older. Facebook also continues to be the most popular social media platform among this older demographic, as well as among U.S. adults in low-income households. This may be a surprise and quite a change for younger generations who never expected their parents and grandparents to engage so deeply with social media.

Nevertheless, the ongoing effects and repercussions of the digital divide are certainly something to watch with caution and work to improve in the years ahead. For our qualitative research interviews, consider asking participants (of any age) a few questions to get their “status update,” as well as their digital usage patterns:

  • How are they feeling right now?
  • What did/have they done differently, under these extreme circumstances?
  • What lessons have they learned?
  • What digital tools will they continue to use post-COVID?

These types of questions can reveal an individual’s digital usage patterns for communications, as well as shopping, entertainment, education, and work.

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