Media Advertising During COVID-19

As the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to impact businesses, we’re watching several trends develop throughout the advertising community. One of the largest trends—the increased use of online media accompanying stricter social distancing measures—makes it tempting for companies to increase online media budgets.

But with increased spending, it’s important to be mindful of creative messaging and to be diligent about tracking the performance and the social engagement of all placements.

It’s critical not to deviate from your everyday best practices but to heighten sensitivity to the pandemic’s impact across industries. We recommend the following best practices to help you maximize overall performance.

Utilize First Party Data

Having a strong 1st party data strategy is always important, but it is even more important to segment and target the right individuals during times of uncertainty. Depending on your product/service offering, you may be seeing significantly higher or lower traffic and interaction as a result of the pandemic. In either case, it is critical that your first-party data collection, segmentation, and activation is robust.

If you are seeing a decrease in traffic/interactions, you’ll need to use first-party data to understand who is still interacting with your media, why they’re interacting, and how they’re interacting. Once you have that understanding, you can segment high-value users into audiences and use them to tailor media strategy to engage and expand those users and mitigate the decreases you’ve seen elsewhere.

If you are seeing an increase in traffic/interactions, you’ll need to understand where your new users are coming from, why they’re now interacting with you, and which of the interactions are driving the most value. Once you have segmented your new users by level of engagement and/or value, you can prioritize media activation to users that will maximize your value and minimize focus on traffic that doesn’t drive impact.

Craft Thoughtful Messaging


In times of crisis, messaging should become the central focus of any advertisement. Advertisers who appear to be trying to exploit the crisis, even unintentionally, could face immediate backlash and long-lasting repercussions in consumer favorability. Navigate these challenges by considering several key components of your offering, positioning, and media mix. Start by asking the following questions:

  • Is our product/service something people or businesses need in order to survive and/or mitigate serious risk, or are we more of a luxury/“nice to have” offering?
  • Are we running any sort of goodwill efforts to help people or businesses during this time? Note: This does not mean a sale on products/services because demand is down. Goodwill efforts would align better with a pizza place waiving delivery fees to frontline workers vs. a “15% off all summer outfits” promotion for an online retailer.
  • Is our media targeting passive users (who are not searching for us and/or our products or services) or active users (who are showing interest in us and/or our products or services)?

Your messaging approach should be tailored to your answers to the questions above. If your product or service isn’t a necessity and you’re not running any goodwill initiatives, it may be best to avoid inserting yourself into the COVID-19 narrative. You should instead focus your media efforts on active users or contextually-relevant passive targeting.

Carefully keep your messaging focused on your offering and consider avoiding placement on COVID-19 news sites. The latter is especially important as you focus your messaging away from the COVID-19 narrative. The aforementioned “15% off all summer outfits” banner ad wouldn’t look great alongside an article about some of the more unpleasant statistics of the current pandemic.

It’s also important to avoid pseudo-goodwill or an attempt to move your offering from “nice to have” to necessity because of the current situation. Again, running messaging like “Coronavirus news got you down? We took 15% off summer outfits to help, shop online now” is not actual goodwill. These outfits are not a necessity, so the ad could face serious negative backlash. All that being said, the “15% off summer outfits” messaging is perfectly fine, but it needs to be kept out of the pandemic narrative, delivered to users who are searching for summer outfits, and shown only on contextually-relevant placements.

Leverage Real-Time Reporting


Real-time reporting should be considered common practice in 2020, but it is even more crucial during a global pandemic. Real-time data allows you to see trends and performance by tactic so you can make quick changes. This lets you optimize and maximize performance during volatility. Speed is crucial, because trends can change quickly and can dramatically impact overall performance. Real-time reporting will reduce the time you spend pulling results so that you can spend more time maximizing results.

Optimize Your Media Mix


Your media mix needs to be flexible and continually optimized. Channel results can change quickly, your media mix needs to be flexible enough to shift budget to top-performing channels.

If your product or service is not an essential business or related to helping individuals during COVID-19, be extra cautious on paid social placement. Consider shifting paid social budgets to other channels that individuals can’t interact with. Individuals on social media are hypersensitive to companies that advertise within their newsfeeds, and companies that appear to be trying to profit off the situation are facing criticism. By shifting media to other channels, you are still able to reach customers, but you’re only showing your message to those who are actively searching for the product/service that you are advertising. If you are still seeing strong performance from paid social and you’re not seeing any negative backlash from individuals interacting with your placements, continue to support these choices as long as they’re successful.

Be sure to dive deep into digital channel performance, as results are changing quickly. A common misstep is that advertisers observe negative trends in overall performance and decide to reduce or pause media spend. Although this makes intuitive sense, the reality might be that several channels within the media mix could be underperforming and driving down aggregate results. If a deeper look reveals that some channels are actually overperforming, don’t be afraid to shift the media mix and still invest during the crisis. The best strategy is to follow what the real-time data is showing, be flexible, and shift dollars to the advertising tactics that are exceeding expectations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of companies in uncharted territory and looking for strategic guidance. Although it is difficult to guess how long the impacts of COVID-19 will affect the industry, the best practices outlined above will help you navigate through this stressful, ever-changing time.

Optimize your media strategy today to serve clients during uncertainty.

Please reach out if you have any questions or need more information. We’re here to help.

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