March 12, 2020. The day COVID-19 made landfall in the U.S.
It goes without saying that “coronavirus” has been Google’s most searched for term of 2020. In the U.S., as with much of the rest of the world, no other topic even comes close.
At its peak, there were more people searching for “coronavirus” in the U.S. than for hardy perennial topics like “weather”, “news”, “sports”, and “music”—combined.
As marketing professionals, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that B2B and B2C operate on completely different planets.
But with everything that’s taken place over the past few months, there’s been a blurring of an awful lot of lines—between work and home, between the personal and the professional, between what matters and what doesn’t.
Given these changes, I thought it would be interesting to look at some key shifts in consumer search behavior on Google Trends and consider what they might mean for the B2B world.
1. Our worlds have grown smaller
The U.S.’s lockdown and subsequent reopening have had two major physical implications for both the short and long term, specifically:
- An increased emphasis on personal space
- The “home as HQ” phenomenon
a) An increased emphasis on personal space
We live in strange times when people are searching for information on personal intimacy. But “how to hug” searches on Google spiked dramatically in late April/early May.
Google also reports that U.S. commuters are “relying less on public transportation and ride-sharing services. 93% of people said they are using personal vehicles more.”
In addition, Google searches for “private pandemic pods” have spiked as parents look for future schooling options that they perceive to be safer for their children.
b) The “home as HQ” phenomenon
Searches relating to “working from home” have been major recent Google breakout topics.
They reflect the realization that a lot of professionals aren’t going back to the office anytime soon—with many corporations quietly accepting that this may well now not happen until next year at the earliest.
Both Facebook and Twitter announced plans to radically increase the opportunities for their employees to work at home. Similarly, Google broke cover in the WSJ saying that “nearly all” of its 200,000 employees would work from home until at least July 2021.
What might more working from home and social distancing mean for B2B companies?
According to a Marketing Week survey in March, only a third of B2C marketers felt confident in their business's capacity to work from home. By contrast, over 50% of their B2B counterparts did.
As a result, the disturbance this sudden flight from the office has caused is likely to be less significant for B2B marketing professionals than for their colleagues in B2C markets.
Over in the world of face-to-face events, the disruption is hard to overstate.
Events were thought to make up somewhere in the region of 65% of B2B marketing budgets. And the industry as a whole has obviously been hit hard.
Spurred on by the success of all-online events like B2B Ignite USA back in May, virtual events are probably here to stay—for the foreseeable future, at least.
2. We’re spending (a lot) more time online
Very few areas of our day-to-day lives haven’t been turned on their heads over the past few months. One of the shifts with the most far-reaching implications has undoubtedly come in the amount of time we’re spending online.
Zoom reported that at its COVID-19 peak, usage grew to 300 million daily meeting participants, up from just 10 million in December. (Unsurprisingly, one of the most searched for terms on Google during the lockdown period was “best Zoom backgrounds”.)
According to a LinkedIn report, social media usage has also increased by 21% worldwide since the start of the pandemic.
In terms of consumer needs, searches like “online groceries” soared with the coronavirus outbreak and saw another mini-spike in mid-July.
What does fast-tracked digitalization mean for B2B marketing?
Crises bring about change. But in many cases, they also tend to nudge a proper paradigmatic shift over the line rather than creating it in the first place.
I like the way Michael Hendrix, partner and global design director at Ideo, put it in a Fast Company piece:
Right now, the virus seems like an accelerator for digital change that was already underway…
A recent survey of B2B decision-makers by McKinsey & Company reported a twofold increase in “customer preference to digital from traditional face-to-face interactions.” The same survey reported a doubling in the likelihood of companies that “provide outstanding digital experience being chosen as primary supplier.”
Put simply, B2B businesses that weren’t properly on board with the digital revolution will have to be very soon.
It’s also interesting to consider the idea that large, lumbering incumbents are likely to be at a disadvantage, while many upstarts are at an advantage. Looking ahead, it will be equally interesting to see how these upstarts confront such opportunity.
3. We’re focusing more on what matters to us
In mid-May, more people than ever before were searching for “hobbies to pick up”.
By the end of May, “cooking” and “exercise” hit all-time search highs since Google’s records began in 2004. Searches for “online classes” and “online courses” have also soared.
Global YouTube data shows that watch time for how-to videos “for beginners” or with “step by step” in the title increased more than 65% year-on-year.
But this increased interest in self-related search doesn’t necessarily equate to less of an interest in others.
Google also reports that people have been searching for ways to thank each other—from the bus driver to a nurse or a healthcare provider—in ever greater numbers. Searches like “help the elderly”, “how to volunteer” and “food donation” have all seen record search volumes over the past few months.
What might an increased interest in ourselves—and concern for those around us—mean in B2B?
People don’t stop being people when they step into an office.
Breakout Google searches like “toilet paper”—and their much reported real-world shortages—raised a snigger or two in the early stages of the pandemic. But they were also an early signal of a consumer shift to necessity and value.
Will this be reflected in B2B buying behavior? It would be strange if it wasn’t.
Will B2B purchasing decisions become more personal? Will we put greater emphasis on choosing to work with brands that have similar values?
And beyond that, will there be a greater need for empathy and emotion in B2B marketing as a result? It seems highly likely.
The gap between businesses and people is only going to get narrower. Those businesses that can’t bridge that gap will struggle.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we now spend more time at home, online, looking after ourselves, thinking about our health, and devising ways to entertain or better ourselves.
For B2B companies, this is likely to result in three key broad shifts:
- Less emphasis on face-to-face sales meetings and events.
- The increased importance of digital marketing.
- The need for more personalized marketing that speaks directly to the values and concerns of the buyer.
One thing’s for sure: the winners—whether B2C or B2B—will be the ones who are able to adapt fastest to the rapidly changing landscape.
Hold on to your hats. It’s going to be an interesting ride.
About the Author
Chris Wells is a market research specialist and founder of Adience, a new B2B market research agency in New York City.