If March felt like the longest month of the year so far, you’re not the only one feeling this way.
COVID-19 has dominated headlines since January when the first U.S. case was made public. In just the first quarter alone, we’ve seen the widespread cancellation of sporting events, schools transition to remote learning and businesses of all kinds close their brick-and-mortar stores.
For many—if not all—of us, we’re wading into uncharted territory. Marketers have never managed social media during a global pandemic and there is no guidebook detailing what to do in certain situations. So we’re left wondering what is appropriate to share on social media, how businesses can contribute to the conversation and what this means for brands moving forward.
To answer these questions and more, we analyzed Twitter messages in Sprout Social’s Featured Listening Topic around COVID-19 and compiled insights from this data below. We’ll break down what the numbers reveal about the COVID-19 conversation, provide examples of brands successfully navigating the crisis and share what marketers should consider when building their strategies.
Dissecting the COVID-19 social chatter
No signs of slowing down
Social media conversations about COVID-19 actually began back in December of 2019, but much of the discussion centered on mainland China. It wasn’t until the first US COVID-19 case was reported on January 21, 2020 that we saw the topic volume surrounding the virus gain traction worldwide.
From there, we see the COVID-19 topic volume continue to rise in conjunction with key events like Wuhan being placed in quarantine (January 23) and the WHO declaring a global health emergency (January 30). Topic volume stayed at or near one million messages a day for much of February until the US stock markets declined and topic volume soared to 5-6 million messages a day.
As the number of reported cases grew exponentially worldwide, the conversation around COVID-19 quadrupled. In March, topic volume jumped from five million to more than 20 million as the US declared its own national emergency on March 13. Additional factors, like Italy announcing a nationwide lockdown and the WHO officially declaring this a pandemic, ensure COVID-19 remains top of mind for social media users across a variety of platforms.
A shift in tone and perspective
While topic volume continues to increase, we’re seeing a shift in how people talk about COVID-19 online. People are no longer focused just on talking about the virus—they are also talking about the impact it has on jobs, schools and everyday life.
From February to March, conversations around COVID-19 and unemployment or layoffs increased by 4,725% and messages about quarantine and social distancing grew 1,188%. In addition to discussing the economic fallout from the virus, people expressed concerns about the impact quarantine would have on university and school closures. Messages around homeschooling and online learning saw a 2,111% surge month over month.
In a word, the mood online was bleak. Not only were people concerned about contracting the virus themselves, they now had to worry about how they would financially provide for themselves and their families.
Yet the conversation hit another inflection point as we moved further into the third month of the year. As more people and businesses found themselves in similar situations, they increasingly turned to one another for support. Messages about helping others grew by 1,174% in March, culminating in 19.5 million messages throughout the month. The conversation saw a 9% uptick in overall sentiment; Millennials and Generation Z posted 87% of all positive content posted in March. Collectively, the volume of positive social conversation increased 1,001% over February.
And more people began chiming in. The number of unique authors joining the COVID-19 conversation grew 127% from February to March and engagements per message increased by 7%. When we look only at positive discussions, engagements grew by 1,016%, with Shares increasing 928% and Likes growing 1,058%.
In other words, people aren’t just spreading information or focusing on the doom-and-gloom of the situation—they’re also looking to connect, support and uplift one another.
Key takeaways (3/01/20-3/31/20):
- In March, there were 800,820 messages discussing layoffs and unemployment.
- There were 13.3 million social messages talking about quarantine policies and social distancing.
- Messages about helping others began to spike around March 12.
- The conversation sentiment in March hit a high of 50% positive.
Brands and celebrities are changing how they respond
This tonal shift is crucial information for brands and celebrity figures to keep in mind as they post to their own social platforms.
Initial conversations focused on sharing information—brands took to social media to provide updates on store closures, operational changes and more. This gradually shifted to brands posting entertaining and educational content on their social platforms as more and more people stayed home.
The National Cowboy Museum, for example, offers levity in an otherwise serious situation. The museum handed their Twitter account over to their head of security, Tim, to post a series of fun facts and photos around the exhibits. The combination of wholesome content and funny Twitter mishaps makes for lighthearted content that keeps people engaged without ignoring the situation at hand.
Rothy’s, the DTC shoe company, also took to social media to share that they are converting their factories to produce supplies for healthcare workers. After crowdsourcing ideas from their social community, Rothy’s identified which basic supplies to manufacture first and encouraged other brands to follow suit. Rothy’s also uses their social platforms to share how consumers can get involved and support organizations providing COVID-19 relief.
Likewise, celebrities are changing their tune and paying closer attention to what and how they share information on social media. Celebrity figures have gone from sharing how they stay at home to providing comedic relief to activating and using their platforms for good.
And celebrities are posting en masse—37% of all topic conversation measured in Sprout featured a celebrity. Ryan Reynolds, for example, took to Twitter to amplify the stay-at-home message to his 15.7 million followers. New Orleans Saints’ quarterback, Drew Brees, committed $5,000,000 to the state of Louisiana and highlighted specific organizations that are providing relief during the COVID-19 crisis.
Key takeaways (3/01/20-3/31/20):
- Social messages that mentioned celebrities saw a 50% increase in sentiment compared to those that did not.
- There was a 51% increase in average engagements per message in conversations where celebrities were mentioned.
Consumers embrace the stay-at-home lifestyle
As the virus continues to spread, people and brands have learned to adapt and make the best of the situation at hand.
Perhaps the most obvious adjustment: remote working is on the rise. Beginning in March, conversation about remote work has ballooned to over 1.2 million messages and garnered 5.5 million engagements, a 5,000% increase compared to February. As for who was driving the conversation, the majority (75.8%) of the chatter came from 18-34 year olds. While the initial shift to a complete work-from-home set up was difficult, people began to adjust to this new normal and we see sentiment become more positive by March 25.
Of course, there’s more to life than just work. As people increasingly stayed home, they also sought ways to keep themselves entertained.
In March, there were over 453,000 social messages around the various activities people engaged in during the pandemic. Activities like cooking and baking, fitness and video games rose to the top of the conversation and drove 3.7 million engagements. We also saw an increase in the use of the hashtag #StayAtHome as people encouraged others to help fight against the spread of the virus. Conversations including the #StayAtHome hashtag hit six million messages in March, with 90% of the conversation occurring after March 13th.
Key takeaways (3/01/20-3/31/20):
- The hashtag #Wfh was used in 1.56% of all messages sent in March around COVID-19 while #RemoteWork was used in 1.14% of all conversations.
- 40% of #StayAtHome messages came from individuals aged 55 years and older.
Top five stay-at-home activities (3/01/20-3/31/20):
- Video Games
- Happy Hour
What the future holds for brands
Social media has shown how the world has adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while we’ve seen brands respond in an appropriate manner, the reality is the situation is still fluid and we can expect more change on the horizon.
Consider how consumer purchasing behavior has changed in the span of a few short weeks. In March, we saw a 4,966% increase in conversations around cancelling memberships and subscriptions. People also began talking about getting their groceries delivered and encouraging folks to order take-out to support local restaurants and businesses. And who could forget the videos posted to social media showing people fighting over things like toilet paper or the rows of empty shelves in grocery stores?
Key takeaways (3/01/20-3/31/20):
- In March there were 790,000+ messages about curbside pickup and delivery.
- There was also a 67% negative sentiment in conversations about consumers buying in bulk.
Buyer behavior transformed overnight, but brands should expect to see this change stick around for the long run. Delivery services and online shopping portals are consumers’ new normal—and that’s what they will expect from brands even after the virus is brought under control. Businesses in all types of industries, not just food services and consumer goods, should anticipate a demand in online services from here on out.
Then there’s the economic fallout from COVID-19 that brands need to take into account. Despite the uptick in positive conversations online, people are still financially strapped and stressed. In the United States alone, over 10 million people applied for unemployment benefits in March. Brands will need to revisit how they price their goods and services as consumers grow increasingly value conscious.
Lastly, COVID-19 has pushed brands to evaluate the strength of their digital transformation efforts and how they manage their “digital shelf.” The rapid increase in demand has placed significant strain on business’ capacity to fulfill orders and keep their shelves stocked. And marketers are learning how to navigate less than optimal customer experiences and leaning on social media to support their customer care and service efforts.
We don’t know how long this pandemic will last or when the world will return to “business as usual.” We’ll all continue to adjust our business operations as more news around COVID-19 emerges, but above all there are three things we can fall back on to guide us during this time of uncertainty:
- Prioritize social customer care. Brands need to go where their customers are, and these days that’s 100% online. Social media is often the first place consumers will look to for information and it provides brands the best opportunity to stay connected with their audience. And in times of crisis, social customer care is what will empower brands to weather this uncertainty. Use your social channels to provide ongoing support and help customers navigate any less than optimal experiences. It’s more important than before for brands to listen, respond and communicate effectively with their customers, and social media is where brands are able to do just that.
- Lean on your social data. While there is no roadmap for navigating a global pandemic, marketers can turn to social data to inform the direction of their content and keep a pulse on the conversation. Insights gleaned from social media provide brands a better understanding of what their audience is concerned with and how the ongoing pandemic is influencing their behaviors. There are also larger trends brands need to keep an eye on when digging into their social data. What does social data reveal about the long-term impact the virus will have on buyer behaviors, and how are brands taking steps to resolve these changes?
- Always lead with empathy. Now, more than ever, brands need to demonstrate their human side. How are you supporting your customers during this crisis? What can you do to ease some of the challenges your community is facing? Remember, we’re all impacted in some way, shape or form by this pandemic and people’s priorities are shifting. What do insights from social data say about your audience’s concerns? What are your followers asking of you? With this information, you can make your content authentic and relevant and remind people they can trust you.