As we settle into our new routines, marketers are taking a second look at their strategies and the ways they’re communicating with consumers. We talked to Edwin Wong, the SVP of media insights and innovation at Vox Media, for an expert take on how brands can navigate consumers through this crisis, and how to rebuild your brand post-crisis. 

What responsibilities do you think marketers should take on during a crisis, and what role should data & storytelling play?

COVID-19 will be one of the defining moments for many of us in marketing. It is the ultimate example of a situation that is nuanced, layered and complicated. Within just a few weeks, we’ve seen changes to our work lives, how we educate our kids, how we shop, and the ways we interact with one another. It’s a cultural force that will require a response from all brands. Marketing and messaging is no longer simply about the tone of voice, but rather understanding the important role each of our companies have in consumers’ lives.

Marketers can play a critical role in maintaining their instrumental position in people’s lives by telling us how their brands will help us adapt, endure, and rebuild when this crisis subsides.  The stories we tell each other right now are critical in forming our moral fabric of what’s next to come.

What COVID content & communications has Vox Media been publishing during this time, and what has been the primary goal of the content & communications?

Vox Media has been essential in helping our audiences get through this difficult time. We’re covering the pandemic in so many ways, and it’s evident in our traffic across our 13 networks.

Eater has become the go-to source for restaurants to understand the impact across the industry—most notably from local Eater sites. Vox has released a special edition of the Vox Care: Covid-19 newsletter and we regularly update our Guide to Coronavirus. We believe our network’s flattening the curve piece changed people’s minds and is continuing to save lives, and it was shared by Barack Obama and used by Governor Jared Polis when he limited large public gatherings in Colorado. New York Magazine’s online networks have also lifted their paywalls on essential news and updates about the coronavirus.

People also need a break, and our networks are creating content to also entertain audiences. We’re experiencing big spikes in traffic to our entertainment networks Polygon and Vulture.

We are seeing audiences need our services more than ever before, and based on audience engagement with content across our networks, we are focused on delivering on utility, emotional ease, and action. Here’s a breakdown of those content topics:

Utility = Up-to-date Comprehension

From a utility perspective, 94% of our readers are saying our content has been helpful in some way. There is nuance to utility, and our coverage is as much about helping our readers keeping up-to-date as it is about understanding complicated issues. Even though we don’t have a dedicated healthcare vertical, the data is showing us that about 20% of our audience feel that we are helping to improve their health and their family’s health (~20M people in the US).

Emotional Ease

More than 80% of our readers state that Vox Media’s COVID-19 coverage is helping them re-establish their emotional selves, and nearly half report that our content is helping them stay in control and balanced. We feel providing this assurance and emotional ease is even more important than measuring views or providing information on the economy.

Spurring Action

More than 75% of our audience believes our coverage spurs real life action. Most importantly, this is the content that they will keep returning to as we learn to live in this “new normal.” Seventy percent of COVID-19 readers say this content helps them cope with the new reality, like learning how to work from home and parent children during this pandemic. 

They also use our content, particularly Eater’s, to support businesses and help those who have lost their jobs. Eater is specifically focused on working through the weekend and late into the night providing up-to-date news and analysis on how this outbreak is affecting our food and restaurant industry, which is facing a $225 billion decline in sales and 5 - 7 million job losses. And it’s working. Fifty three percent of those reading COVID-19 coverage on Eater state that their content is helping to support businesses in need.

What areas of digital marketing are you seeing events budgets reallocated to?

Webinars and virtual events are becoming interesting opportunities for many brands. It’s an area we’re exploring for our networks. A few of our networks are engaging with their audiences on platforms like Zoom and Instagram, creating natural opportunities for us to partner with brands. 

Eater launched a content series—an extension of their successful event series—giving audiences an opportunity to continue connecting with their favorite editors, chefs, sommeliers, and other world food experts to make their time indoors more enjoyable, useful and entertaining. The events feature chef friends of Eater, using the publication’s scale and uniquely-engaged audience to elicit much-needed support for the restaurant industry and its workers either through donations or brand partnerships.

Vulture also launched “Two Friends,” which Julia Louis Dreyfus happened to crash last week. This featured two friends both trapped separately in isolation, like everyone in this world, catching up on Instagram live and broadcasted to Vulture’s audience. 

The Cut is also exploring formats like celebrity takeovers. Last week featured Padma Lakshmi taking over their Instagram with a day from her isolated life. 

All of these examples are an extension of best-in-class editorial work our networks are creating for their audiences. These give consumers an escape from the news with content that will satiate their desire to cook, laugh, and ultimately feel a sense of community.  

We’re also seeing stability in the podcast advertising market. Because of the intimacy between the host and their audience, podcast ads come off a little more authentically and empathetically—it’s clear there’s a human on the other side going through the same thing. 

Do you think this crisis will permanently change the way we do marketing in the future, and if so, how?

Journalism and news have never been more necessary than right now. It’s a massive opportunity for brands, though they are staying farther away from it. Seventy percent of our readers said that this coverage will help them reshape, pivot, and cope with the new realities of what's next.    

In the past 15 years, marketing was focused on leveraging platforms to create virality and in a way supplement and escape reality. The next wave of marketing will be about rebuilding reality. The information and reporting that comes out of this will help to shape what happens next for all of us. My take? Utility and resiliency will be the most important messages of all.

Outside of Vox Media, what COVID-19 content & communications have you been most impressed with?

I love how Bank of America has risen to the challenge of helping small businesses during the pandemic and. I admire their marketing leadership’s POV on the importance of local journalism and news during this critical period.  

I’m also impressed with brands like Spin Master and Mattel. Both have created quick-turn programs to help parents adjust to educating their preschool children and to suggest ideas on how to play with toys by way of videos and learning tools. They’ve stayed true to their brand while giving comfort and instruction to the many parents juggling work and caregiving. 

What is one positive thing you will take away from this experience?

It's safe to say that none of us have ever gone through a global pandemic of this magnitude before. Just last week, I was having an intense and, frankly, tough day. I decided to look at antonyms for the word pandemic and instantly found a few words that changed my point of view—words like extraordinary, rare, and unusual. 

Being resilient during a pandemic means focusing on being the complete opposite. If nothing else, there hasn’t been a greater call for the role of quality journalism than right now. It shows that the collective stories we tell each other will shape our culture at large and effect change. Marketers now have an opportunity to start a dialogue around supporting things that matter, like local news, accurate reporting, and the need to contribute to our shared cultural narrative.