As the world continues to reel from the impact of COVID-19, brands are doing everything they can to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their business—especially when it comes to marketing.

In recent weeks we’ve seen dozens of businesses pause or cancel ad campaigns and reinvest their marketing spend elsewhere. Others have used the pandemic as an opportunity to show the public how they can help during this crisis. Take, for example, Google, which recently announced an $800 million commitment to help small businesses impacted by COVID-19.

But to really get an idea of just how COVID-19 has impacted different industries, brands, and publishers, it helps to look at paid content volume. In the past, paid content has been a great way for brands to meet their audience where they are and foster engagement.

However, in recent weeks, paid content production has changed. Some brands are doubling down on their paid content spend, while others are divesting and moving to building brand equity through owned content creation. And yet others have been forced to eliminate paid content spend altogether in an effort to save money.

In this report, we’ll take you through our proprietary data on 1,015 brands and 157 publishers and how their approach to paid content creation has shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But first, let’s touch a bit more on the importance of content creation during a crisis.

COVID-19 and the Importance of Content

During a crisis, consumers can become somewhat blind to brand. They have certain needs, and may not care where they get their items from (think of people in grocery stores frantically buying food without caring if it’s the brand they like). 

For this reason, it’s more important than ever to invest in brand building—otherwise your customers may forget about you. And with more people on the internet than ever before, combined with a dire need for help and reassurance across the marketplace, content is the best way to reach your audience and build your brand during a crisis.

Many brands are already answering that call. Here is what our data has shown us over the past few weeks:

  • There has been a large shift from transactional content to content designed to instill hope and inspiration. 
  • Much of this new content creation is occurring on owned content hubs.
  • These brands have been rewarded with a sharp spike in positive sentiment toward their brand. Our data shows that brands leaning into COVID-19 content across paid and owned channels have seen a 20% increase in positive sentiment over the last two weeks, as well as a 50% increase in engagement across this content.
  • Audiences resonating most with this content are based in areas greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the northeast United States.

As previously mentioned, these trends have also had a large impact on paid content volume. Here’s what our data has shown us.

Paid Content Volume Decreased in Q1, But is Expected to Rebound

Paid content volume dropped by 16% from the beginning to the end of Q1. This dovetails neatly with the impact COVID-19 had on the economy during the first quarter of 2020. Back in January, the virus was seen by the market as a minor threat. The outlook today is very different—and paid content volume is a reflection of this.

Having said that, we see the decrease in paid content volume as a lagging indicator reflective of the reactive measures brands were taking during the outbreak of the crisis. In Q2, we expect to see a spike in paid content volume, particularly from industries that have seen an increase in business (more on that in a second).

Having said that, there will be a dropoff in paid content volume across certain industries that were negatively impacted by this crisis, as our next section illustrates. 

Industries Strongly Impacted by COVID-19 Have Adjusted Paid Content Volume Accordingly

We’ve already seen how COVID-19 has devastated certain types of businesses while helping others. What’s interesting is how businesses in these different industries have adjusted their investment in paid content. Some changes may be predictable, while others are unexpected. Here are our key findings:

  • The travel, arts & entertainment, and food & drink industries have all seen a large decrease in paid content volume. This isn’t that surprising, considering these are some of the hardest hit sectors by COVID-19, and must turn to cost-cutting measures. 
  • The technology & computing sector, businesses involved in helping people find work, businesses related to home and gardening, and businesses in the finance sector have all seen an increase in paid content volume. These are industries that saw a spike in demand once the pandemic hit, so it makes sense for them to increase their paid content volume.
  • Our data shows that there was a spike in paid content volume in the style & fashion industry in February and March. This is interesting considering many fashion brands are dealing with mandatory closures and widespread layoffs. However, this could indicate a pivot to ecommerce sales for major fashion retailers. Additionally, fashion brands helping with the relief efforts by producing masks and hospital gowns may be looking to publicize their efforts. 
  • While healthcare and fitness businesses divested from paid content over Q1, we’ve also seen a spike in owned content creation from businesses in these industries. This indicates that paid content spend is being reinvested in other brand building measures.

Brands Impacted by COVID-19, Either Dramatically Reduced Paid Content Volume, or Dramatically Increased It

In a sampling of 14 different brands representative of the wider market, we found that many either drastically reduced paid content volume, or revved it up. Of course, the action taken by each individual brand hinged greatly on the impact COVID-19 had on their business. Here are our key findings:

  • Campofrio, a Spanish multinational food company that is the largest distributor of processed meat in Europe, had the most significant dropoff of any brand analyzed. This is interesting, considering Campofrio was likely affected on two fronts. For one, demand from restaurants likely decreased as social distancing rules across the world forced many food service businesses to close their doors. On the other hand, grocery stores have never been busier, meaning this line of business has likely seen a spike in demand. Another consideration is that Campofrio is based in Madrid, Spain—one of the cities hit hardest by COVID-19. Overall we’d speculate that Campofrio’s decrease in paid content volume is likely due to a pivot in marketing strategy that is more cognizant of the current mood. For example, the brand recently launched a TV spot entitled “we have a message for the enemy” aimed at comforting audiences amid the pandemic.
  • Other brands that have sharply decreased their paid content volume include sports betting service Bettingexpert, financial services company Impact Partnership, and the movie studio Warner Bros. Pictures. The reason for these decreases is myriad. For Bettingexpert and Warner Bros., which have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, lowering paid content spend might be a cost-cutting measure. Impact Partnership, like many other financial services companies, may have pivoted more to creating owned content.
  • On the other hand, brands whose business is related to technology have seen sharp increases in paid content volume. Noteworthy examples include Amazon (ecommerce), Veeam (cloud data management), CyberArk (data security), Box (content management and file sharing), Dell (computing), Adobe (software), and TechRepublic (tech news and advisory services).

Publisher Paid Content Volume Mirrored Brand Paid Content Volume

There is an obvious correlation between brand paid content volume and publisher paid content volume—if brands aren’t paying for paid content, publishers don’t have anything to publish. Here are our key findings for paid content volume as it pertains to publishers:

  • The one publisher in which we saw an outsized increase in paid content volume was Computerworld, which had a roughly 40% increase from February to March. This is directly correlated to the fact that technology companies are ramping up their paid content volume to leverage the increased need for tech services during the pandemic. Another publisher that saw an increase in paid content spend was Adweek, which covers the advertising, media, and technology industries.
  • A handful of publishers actually saw fairly consistent paid content volume month-over-month throughout Q1. This includes lifestyle outlets like Men’s Journal and POPSUGAR, news publishers like Buzzfeed, Vice, and the New York Daily News, and certain business publishers like Business Journal and Cheddar. We expect to see paid content volume increase in Q2 for some of these publishers, as brands reevaluate their strategy and begin reinvesting in paid content.
  • The publishers that saw the sharpest decline in paid content volume were news and business outlets. The largest dropoff month-over-month was Madrid-based Spanish newspaper El Mundo, which saw its paid content volume drop roughly 60% from January to March. Other outlets with drop-offs included Forbes, National Geographic, The Drum, The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Variety.

What Does Paid Content Volume Say About the Business Landscape?

So what can we learn from this data? For starters, it appears paid content volume is a metric that is representative of the broader business implications of COVID-19. Businesses negatively affected by the pandemic, such as those in the food and travel sectors, saw a sharp decline in paid content volume, while businesses positively impacted, like technology, appear to have increased their paid content volume.

Also keep in mind that some businesses that decreased their paid content volume didn’t necessarily do so as a cost-cutting measure. In many cases, we’ve seen these businesses reinvesting in their owned content hubs so they can provide helpful information around COVID-19 directly to their customers. Furthermore, we believe these brands will increase paid content spend in Q2 as more businesses become proactive around their response and double down on brand building.

If your brand is looking for ways to redistribute your marketing budget in light of COVID-19, we recommend investing in your owned content hubs. This way, you don’t have to pay to publish content while still being able to form a narrative around your business’s response to the pandemic.

Looking for more information around paid content spend? Check out our new report on paid content & communications during COVID-19.