No Laughing Matter: How the COVID-19 pandemic is driving social engagement across platforms

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of people’s lives, disrupting both short-term plans and long-term prospects. Around the world, people have had to adapt their day-to-day routines, adopting new “normal” behaviours that require a thorough re-evaluation of the way they spend their time, energy, and money.

This is especially true in Southeast Asian economies, where the use of innovative devices, platforms, and services has allowed new consumption patterns to emerge despite overall economic slowdown. And as consumers’ needs, habits, priorities, and preferences evolve, so do the market dynamics that they drive.

What are some of the key trends observed in the region? And how can businesses leverage this knowledge to stay ahead of competitors?

To answer these questions, Blackbox Research, Toluna, and Archetype have published Into The Light, an in-depth study that reveals the emerging patterns, trends, and dynamics across six key ASEAN markets – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

This article is the second in a series of blog posts devoted to examining some of the major findings and implications of the study. It focuses on how the COVID-19 crisis has increased consumers’ appetite for fun, escapist interactions across social networks and streaming services.

Click here to read the first instalment of this series, focused on consumers’ rising preference for local brands.

The need to escape

The COVID-19 pandemic has grown mentally exhausting for even the most optimist and resilient among us.

In addition to the many obvious health concerns, there is a growing list of long-term side effects to worry about: the impact on the economy and the destruction of livelihoods, the looming spectre of new movement-constraining measures, the over-exposure to changing or contradictory news, and the uncertainty of when exactly – if ever – things will go back to the way they were.

It is no surprise that this situation has led people to seek activities that distract and entertain. Whether it is weightlifting, baking, gaming, or watching movies, the past year has seen consumers across all demographics searching for simple, rewarding activities that can be done alone, indoors, or online.

In terms of content, light-hearted entertainment is at the top of people’s list. Consumers are indeed turning to easy-to-digest comedies to relieve stress during the coronavirus crisis, and some even report actively avoiding watching anything that may dampen their mood – including news shows.

Seeking social contact

These anxiety-filled times have been accompanied by strict socially isolating measures that have cut us off from friends, colleagues, schoolmates, and even family members.

This has led to the home transforming into a HQ for work, study, and play, thanks largely to the wide availability of digital channels. Almost four in ten ASEAN workers (39%) state that they now use a video conferencing service once or twice a week, while a similar proportion (37%) declares using video conferencing three or more times a week.

Likewise, social media usage is at an all-time high. Across the region, 80% of consumers use the Facebook app at least once a week, with Instagram the second most popular social network (60% of consumers use the app at least once a week).

It is, however, unclear whether these pandemic-driven patterns will last in the long term; indeed, usage rates may dip back down to pre-COVID-19 levels once social-distancing measures are gradually lifted.

Sustaining engagement across channels

The pandemic has also led to a rise in consumers’ engagement with brands on a wide range of digital platforms. Indeed, many businesses have been forced to suspend or shut down their operations, which means they have had to rely on sustained online engagement to stay connected with their customers.

But this does not automatically mean consumers will remain interested or engaged, especially once it will be safe to step outside in groups. In fact, many businesses may see their brands permanently associated with unpleasant memories of the time spent locked at home.

To avoid such associations, it is important to speak to audiences’ values and emotions, acknowledging and addressing how this particularly difficult time may be affecting them.

For example, in the first half of 2020, Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB, wrote a letter outlining why the company needed to reduce its headcount by 25%. The note largely came across as honest and heartfelt. It demonstrated transparency, clarity, empathy, and above all, humanity in action. And the reactions were largely positive, not just in the media and wider community, but among affected employees. According to Meltwater’s sentiment analysis, over 80% of reactions on social media were positive to neutral.

In Singapore, Razer re-fashioned part of its manufacturing lines to produce surgical masks to contribute to Singapore’s national supplies. They ran a campaign called #RazerForLife that dispensed free masks via vending machines. People had to download the Razer Pay app to get the free mask, but as part of this campaign, Razer also offered ways for people to make donations for community relief efforts. The initiative thus combined a genuine intention to help while furthering brand awareness and loyalty.

Looking ahead: Sincerity drives engagement

Overall, the study conducted by Blackbox Research, Toluna, and Archetype points to Southeast Asian consumers being anxious to escape both the harsh realities and the ongoing sense of oppressiveness felt during the pandemic.

First, by actively seeking out more light-hearted and uplifting content across platforms and channels. Second, by taking advantage of the digital tools available to solidify vital social relationships that drive their sense of reality and familiarity with the world. And third, by engaging with brands that have actually taken the time to think about what is going on with their customers through these traumatic times.

The way forward for successful brands in Southeast Asia will be an approach that puts sincerity ahead of opportunism, optimism ahead of pessimism, reassurance ahead of fear-mongering. For many brands, it will not be easy to convince consumers that a specific message is crafted with genuine concern for their well-being and is not simply the product of a well-planned marketing strategy – but it will not hurt to give it a try. In this regard, consistent, ongoing, and cross-platform messaging (not just product advertising) are essential.

As 2021 draws nearer, closely aligning with consumers’ evolving demands and expectations will help successful businesses to not only sustain the momentum they may have worked for in the last eight months, but also ensure they are ideally positioned to be an important voice in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

This blog post is co-authored by Blackbox Research (Yashan Cama) and Archetype (Julian Chow).

Written by
Julian Chow
Written by
Yashan Cama