How is coronavirus changing the way we connect?
When we set out to write the latest edition of The Collection, we wanted to explore social influence, the role of social media in today’s society and how it can connect people. And as we're writing this in midst of the global coronavirus crisis, we're literally seeing this theme put to the test. With people all over the world practicing social distancing and being urged to physically separate, social media and technology has never been so crucial to our wellbeing. And we’re seeing it being used every day in new and inventive ways to bring people together and connect communities.
As an agency that has a division specialising in placemaking and destination marketing, this is a question we’ve asked time and time again. Our research team has interviewed hundreds of consumers (in the days we could actually hit the streets and gather vox pops) and we’ve used social listening tools to really get to the heart of what ‘community’ means to people. The response we often hear is a mixture of: having a network of people to support me, having a few friends I can count on, having places to go and things to do, a sense of belonging.
Now all of this is being pulled apart and reality as we know it is shifting. Shops and restaurants are closed. Community spaces are eerily quiet. Shopping centres are deserted. Playgrounds and parks remain open (for now) but only for people to exercise solo. Friends and family, small communities and neighbours are keeping their physical distance. There’s no denying that it all feels rather bleak. And yet, amongst all of this disruption, it feels like the meaning of community is being redefined and reborn in front of our eyes. And we find ourselves asking: does distance mean distant?
People who don’t normally gather for months on end are now arranging virtual pub quizzes to stay in touch. Relatives who haven’t connected for years because they’re too busy are now suddenly more in contact than ever. Neighbourliness is reaching new heights, with people dropping notes through each other’s doors and offering to deliver essentials. Facebook groups are being set up to help the vulnerable members within communities. Independent retailers are being championed like never before with people offering to purchase gift vouchers and order takeaways to keep them going. Fitness bloggers who normally run paid-for classes are now streaming free live workouts to keep people physically active. Authors and writers are hosting virtual book clubs and book readings to keep families entertained. And many businesses around the world, including us, are relying on technology like Google Hangouts and Slack to connect people while working from home.
Amongst all of the chaos, there appears to be an uprising of community initiatives, people helping one another and this sense of belonging to a global network. We all know we’re all connected regardless of location, but now that connection is more prevalent than ever.
We’re also seeing technology and social change the way brands connect with people and live up to their purpose. Whenever we’re starting a new project with a client, regardless of sector, we always start with the ‘why’. We dig deep to understand a brand’s purpose, the one thing that goes above profit and everything else. We know that having a strong social purpose is crucial to a brand’s survival. We’re living in an age where more and more people are seeking out brands that align with their values, offer real meaning to their everyday lives and enable them to give back in some meaningful way. And the global crisis is really starting to give brands the opportunity to live up to their purpose. Whether it’s Pret offering free hot drinks to NHS workers, or supermarkets and banks opening up specific timings for the elderley and vulnerable, brands are having to respond to the current climate. Demonstrating ‘purpose’ and ‘value’ has never been more powerful.
It’s a statement that has been used for a long time, but it now takes on new meaning. With physical marketing a no-go (for now) and a plethora of channels, networks, platforms and tech available, businesses will need to adapt to survive. But how can businesses use technology to not just survive but thrive? At the time this was written we're only a week into lockdown in the UK, but we’re already in discussions about how we can use social to positively influence while mitigating business disruption.
With so much uncertainty and a direct instruction to ‘slow down’, can we use this time to turn physical separation into digital connection? When ‘normal’ business resumes, community, purpose and connection will fundamentally be changed forever. But perhaps we can learn lessons and change for the better.