Social Distancing and the Golden Age of Digital Communication

Harjiv is a serial entrepreneur who started his career as a financial analyst at GE Capital. He is also an Executive Fellow at Cambridge Central Asia Forum at a Cambridge University.

Emergencies accelerate change. Three decades ago, the term 'remote working' would have raised eyebrows. Ten years back, it was a practice at best resorted to under unexpected circumstances. Today, with the world upended by the spread of COVID-19, many are beginning to wonder if working from home could become a way of life.

Social distancing has accelerated technological adoption as people strive to communicate while staying indoors. Aside from the growing adoption of digital tools in the workplace, we have also seen the effects of social distancing on marketing communication. As we grow accustomed to using digital tools, we may be witnessing the arrival of digital communication's golden age.

The workplace goes digital
At the end of December 2019, videoconferencing software Zoom hosted an average of 10 million meeting participants every day. In just three months, this escalated to over 200 million. As the world locked down, organisations rushed to ensure that business continued, if not as usual, then at least close to it. Zoom's phenomenal growth is touted as one of the greatest success stories to come out of the pandemic, the recent hacks notwithstanding. But it is by no means alone.

Recently, Adidas and Nike have been publishing content featuring athletes and sports influencers encouraging fans to stay indoors and helping them stay motivated

In April, Microsoft reported that it had 75 million daily active users on Teams – a 70 percent jump in a single month. Likewise, Google Meet recently crossed 100 million daily meeting participants, adding around three million users a day. Meanwhile, Cisco WebEx recently saw almost 240,000 new members in a single day. This rapid adoption is not just limited to videoconferencing tools. Between February and March, the communication platform Slack reported an 80 percent rise over the complete quarterly total for the preceding two quarters. These platforms have crucially enabled work to continue uninterrupted despite ongoing restrictions.

Experts believe that intermittent social distancing norms are likely to continue for some years. Habituated to these tools, which were already enjoying growing adoption in pre-COVID times, there is no doubt that people will continue using these platforms aggressively in the post-pandemic world.

Social media marketing sees a surge
The rise of social media has been one of the 21st century’s defining developments. Marketers have been quick to leverage its full potential. Unsurprisingly, social media use has surged since the pandemic struck. According to a Nielsen report, India alone saw a staggering 87 percent rise in social media usage in just the first week of the lockdown. In April, the country recorded a surge in usage by 50 times. As people spend more time indoors and online, brands have used social media in interesting ways.

Recently, Adidas and Nike have been publishing content featuring athletes and sports influencers encouraging fans to stay indoors and helping them stay motivated. Likewise, Levis has been streaming live performances by musicians on its Instagram page as part of its 501Live Campaign, capitalising on the trend of musicians hosting live performances at home.

Tried and tested marketing strategies, such as user-generated content, continue to be used, especially by small businesses. For instance, consumer electronics company BOAT launched a Facebook campaign called #StayInSane, inviting users to post fun videos of their responses to social media challenges. Likewise, caffeinated personal care brand mCaffeine invites customers to share coffee stories and selfies on how they incorporate coffee into their day.

As social distancing measures continue to hold out for the foreseeable future, we can expect to see brands enhance their engagement with customers. Communication is essential in times of crisis. Brands that reach out to customers during this period through innovative strategies are best likely to be remembered in a post-COVID world.

Every crisis can be turned into an opportunity. Many of the seemingly short-term strategies we have adopted in response to the pandemic over the last few months may well become the norm in times to come. Digital communication has seen phenomenal strides in the past few decades. Even as adoption has continued to grow, COVID-19 has accelerated this development. Interesting times are in store.