5 Impacts of Coronavirus on Digital & Marketing

At the time of writing this original article (at the start of the pandemic. I also spoke at a couple of virtual conferences on the topic), the full impact of Coronavirus was yet to be felt, however it is wise to debate how society, and business specifically, will deal with “a new world”.

Article updated 13th September 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the world, including the digital, ecommerce, and marketing industries. As businesses navigated the “messy middle” of the crisis, they had to adapt to new challenges and opportunities to thrive in a post-coronavirus world.

As this blog focuses on ‘Digital’ this article will focus on digital, marketing and ecommerce in a ‘post’ coronavirus world. Businesses must adapt to any new normal and find innovative ways to meet the changing needs of their customers. By leveraging the insights from various sources, businesses can thrive in a post-coronavirus world (note: clearly the impending recession will impact how much businesses “thrive”!). 

According to ROI Revolution, COVID-19 impacted ecommerce in various ways, including changes in consumer behaviour, supply chain disruptions, and increased demand for certain products and services. As a result, businesses adapted their ecommerce strategies to meet the changing needs of their customers and stay competitive in the market. The “messy middle” of the crisis was a challenging period for businesses, as they had to decidedly pivot their pre-coronavirus strategies to adapt to the new normal. The book “The Messy Middle” provides insights into how businesses can navigate challenges and find their way through hard times. In a conversation with McKinsey, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, explores the impact of disruptive technology on economies, business models, and people. He selects those technologies likely to have the greatest impact on the world and discusses how businesses can leverage them to gain a competitive advantage.

Certainly, the crisis accelerated an expansion of e-commerce towards new firms, customers, and types of products, according to the OECD. It provided customers with access to a significant variety of products from the convenience and safety of their homes, and enabled firms to continue operation in spite of contact restrictions and other confinement measures.

So, let’s focus on digital

…to do this I have split out this post into 5 themes as to how coronavirus impacted digital, ecommerce and marketing:

1/ Recession & Organisation Strategy pivot

The economic outlook was already looking challenging and but predicted a worse recession than the one seen in 2008/09.

After only a few weeks of Coronavirus hitting the UK; GfK consumer confidence was down, vacancy rates down, UK GDP output down, unemployment up, government gilt issuance up (debt), economic output down, etc (facts here).

Whilst we will see a bounce post us being ‘released into the wild’ (broad consumerism up, infrastructure development kickstarts, Keynesian-esque government stimulation, etc) it will be a challenging period, and the recovery will most likely look less like a ‘U’, ‘V’ or ‘W’ bust/ boom cycle and more like a Nike logo (where the start of the tick is more dramatically downward, and the start of the upward tail of the tick is more jagged due to some consumers/ sectors being in and out of government imposed confinement).

The above, coupled with uncertainty around Brexit resulted in challenges for many businesses and resulted in many companies having to pivot their pre-coronavirus strategy.

I posted about a 10C Digital strategy framework previously and this for many had to change; for example the likes of ecommerce growth and culture shift might accelerate whilst others such as product launches and wider non ROI driven digital media will likely fall away in the short-medium term. Digital marketing can absolutely help businesses thrive in a recession (examples here) though it isn’t going to be easy and only the smart and adaptable will thrive.

2/ Decline in Retail & a new Low touch world

The “Death of Retail” has been grossly exaggerated previously however I saw many small and medium sized businesses (and some large organisations) without cash reserves not surviving this period that will lead to a visible impact (death of shops; examples here) on our high street.

A new low touch post coronavirus world has indeed emerged that “will change how we eat, work, shop, exercise, manage our health, socialise and spend our free time” forever.

If retailers for example are not offering an experience (and one, that for some needs to be hands off such as app payment enablement or the Amazon Go model; example here) + one where you can essentially get the same products and services online then there will be a major contraction of this type of high street offline retailer and those Brands which have adapted taking market share

3/ Ecommerce enablement & engagement

Ecommerce will be turbo charged in a number of sectors as a result of coronavirus (example here)

With this ecommerce growth comes more online competition though and only those with advanced customer and engagement strategies can prosper with decent ROAS > ROI.

At present the ecommerce infrastructure isn’t right for many (degree of automation, just in time methodology paradox, drivers to deliver > CX focused path from purchase and beyond the last mile into people’s homes) and so businesses need to put in some hard yards behind the scenes to make it physically possible + to maximise ROI. Volume will both be a curse and a blessing and those that have built their infrastructure from the ground up for ecommerce will win (think Amazon and Ten Cent).

As we saw at the start of the coronavirus outbreak there was a real difference between growing and declining eCommerce categories globally (examples here) and these give a window to a world where more companies may change old ways of working/monetisation and adopt new areas of growth e.g. micro payments, product subscriptions, products made for the 4P’s of ecommerce globally, etc

4/ Leadership, Brand & Trust

Leadership (enabling more remote working, working agile, using tools such as Slack/Teams, etc) helped businesses survive the adjustment period (as we moved in and out of staged confinement before a vaccine was developed & globally disseminated).

Leadership came from those Brands who offer real humility, enabled true employee advocacy and not an onslaught of promotional emails and false advertising during the particularly tough first 6 months of the outbreak.

Those that engaged and showcased their Brand credentials (particularly around key themes such as paying their fair degree of tax, Buying British > buying local, etc) also were given a distinct advantage.

Meaningful connection with consumers and consumers voting with their feet to those who helped them/society in the crisis and those who did not. A lot around trust and enabling it (my G.O.O.D X Trust framework is a good place to start)

With my first point around recession and the impacts this deep initial dip resulted in a change of media consumption (examples here) that Brands needed to adapt to. As global advertising spend was broadly down (though those who cut marketing during downturns see an average profit drop of -0.8% during the recovery, whereas those who increased activity saw a +4.3% increase. Facts here) businesses needed innovative ways of engaging (going back to my point above around ‘enablement and engagement’) and also several businesses did, as a result of reduced budgets focus on marginal gains (James Clear definition)

As much as I will espouse digital transformation (below) and exacerbated ecommerce development (above) the pandemic was also the time to focus on marginal gains/iterative developments of SEO, CRO, PPC, tracking & attribution, stimulating product/ service reviews to aid Trust, marketing automation, Digital > CRM improved integration, etc.

5/ Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation was important to many over the final year of the pandemic and coming years.

Before coronavirus truly took hold I was due to talk at an innovation leadership summit on digital transformation (it got cancelled due to coronavirus)…

Whilst it is clear digital transformation initiatives were hit (more businesses going bust, reduced cap ex budgets, less disposable income for innovation and appetite for £failure, etc) it was the time for integration of digital technology into all areas of business, fundamentally changing how your business operates and delivers customer value.

Digital Transformation will be an area that will allow some businesses in the medium-long term to gain competitive advantage and win.


Nice article on post coronavirus novel economy and the 3 phases from recovery > prospering

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