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Has COVID changed our media consumption habits?

Written by Simpatico PR

Posted on 2021-07-12

The pandemic is now widely assumed to have accelerated our consumption of digital media content, access to digital services and our desire to buy products online. But what did it do to media consumption?

With lockdowns often lasting for months on end, many of us turned to streaming of TV shows and watching films, with people in the UK spending 40% of their day watching TV and online video services in April 2020, as well as heading to social media for fellowship amidst the crisis. 

But has the crisis permanently re-wired the way we consume media? Are online sources dominant and will they remain so? What type of media do consumers turn to for news, and what do they trust? And, importantly, does the PR industry have a clear and accurate perception of who’s consuming what?

These were some of the questions raised in a recent virtual webinar - “Revealed: People’s Media Consumption Habits” hosted by Ben Smith of PRmoment. The event saw Anna Salter, Evaluation Director at Kantor take attendees through its research project titled The Navigator.

The report, carried out in March this year, examined media consumption trends across Europe and the UK. Kantor asked more than 700 senior in-house PR professionals their perceptions of what media channels are important to the consumers they’re trying to target and over 6,000 consumers across a variety of age groups their thoughts on the media they consume.

You can download the full Kantar report and read more about the findings from the research here.

The research revealed some thought-provoking, and perhaps slightly surprising, results. In terms of what sources of news and information have become more important - there was a gap between consumers and industry professionals.

Do PR people think in a filter bubble?

Kantar found social media, influencers and podcasts were ranked as the most important sources of information by PR industry leaders. In contrast, for consumers - broadcast and online newspapers lead the way. Only a tiny proportion of consumers named influencers and podcasts as being important in their eyes.

Are industry professionals over inflating the importance of new digital sources of media content, in effect living in a media filter bubble of their own making? Or could they just be ahead of the curve?

TV dominated across all age brackets for breaking news. Who didn’t tune in to Boris Johnson standing at the podium ready to give the latest Covid lockdown rules? Most of us did (27 million) tuned in across multiple channels including BBC One, ITV and Channel 4 on Monday 23rd March 2020 to hear whether they would be able to see friends and family, or even go to work, making it the most watched broadcast for years.

However, younger age groups (16-34) are as likely to use social networks as they are to watch TV to obtain their news.

But younger audiences are also reaching for search engines to fact check stories that they see. Having grown up in the era of fake news (accelerated by Donald Trump’s infamous presidency) and the fragmentation of media, 16-34 year olds have become accustomed to fact checking and consuming news content from a wider range of media instead of perhaps just being loyal followers of a few key media brands such as The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail.

Polarisation through choice?

The explosion of digital news and other content channels means that compared to say 20 or 30 years ago, audiences can either flit between channels or find media brands that closely match their tastes. With such a rich variety of choice comes the problem of polarization of audiences and a lack of diversity in the type of content and the perspective with which it is delivered.

Direct relationships and old certainties between communicators and media are also weakening, with Kantar’s research finding that 64% of PR business people choosing to avoid the more controversial or polarizing news outlets, which might not fit with a PR strategy.

This issue caught the headline recently with major advertising brands stating that they would not support new entrant GB News.

This suggests a disconnect between audiences and PR and other marketing decision-makers. We seem to be in a position where the tastes of target audiences may be superseded by the brand values of advertisers.

One area where PR industry professionals and the public were more or less in agreement, was the level of mistrust for social media and news aggregator platforms, such as Feedly or Bloglines.

Kantar found that 75% of PR professionals thought the public would mistrust social media influencers while 60% of the public agreed that they did. They also found that social platforms have an average net relative trust rating of -28%, whilst the BBC in the UK rates +58%, reiterating that established news outlets still stand solid when it comes to trustworthiness.

Are news brands losing their power?

Kantar’s study points to diminishing awareness of news brands – a trend that could become a real concern. As AI and algorithms now often determine what content is shared with audiences, there is a question around whether the meaning of news brands and the trust placed on them is eroding. Kantar found that only 21% of consumers in the UK always notice which news brand a social post originated from.

The accepted benefit of turning to recognisable, established and trusted news brands may be dissipating as people look more towards social media.

However, huge concern about fake news and data privacy breaches might be starting to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of consumers about the veracity of news from social platforms.

Amidst all the uncertainty and disagreement caused by Covid, consumers are seeking the reassurance of news from established sources.

But our accelerated use of digital channels and the continued proliferation of media means that PR professionals and others who rely on understanding how and where people consume media can’t rely on either their own tastes for guidance or the certainties of the past.

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