Digital services have a new level of responsibility

As the coronavirus crisis worsens, brands would do well to remember people just want access to the services they need and signs that brands are helping.

Ocado has struggled to keep up for with demand for its online grocery service

This is the first article I’ve written for Marketing Week since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. (What a stupid opening sentence.)

I’m not sure what I can write, at this moment, about marketing or digital technology. (There’s another sentence that seems full of small-minded conceit.)

So, I thought I’d just record a few inconsequential moments where marketing, ecommerce and tech have crossed my mind, fleetingly (outside of work), over the past few weeks. The main one has been talking to my family about the big demand for online grocery shopping – important for many of those advised to strictly self-isolate.

Today, my mum has been on Messenger warning me that she has been having issues checking out on Asda’s website unless she uses Microsoft Edge and, elsewhere, that if I try Ocado, I should expect a one-hour wait in my browser upon logging in.

Suddenly my mum is an online grocery power user, and yet she had never done a click-and-collect order until this week.

After the outbreak is contained or a vaccine is developed it will be interesting to see how the demand for online grocery has shifted. For many veteran online shoppers, slowly wandering the aisles once this is all over is actually a strangely comforting thought.

Digital ethics

My conversations with my mum made me feel a bit silly about some of the things I’ve written about customer experience in the past. Most likely, the details of your experience don’t matter at a time like this – we just want access to the services that we need. It’s a bit like when people queue online for Glastonbury tickets – the wait is inconsequential if the tickets are eventually secured.

I’m being a bit disingenuous, of course. There are many businesses struggling at the moment, such as in fashion, where dwindling traffic may push the minutiae of conversion up the agenda again. Speaking of traffic, I was most impressed by Wired’s article on its approach to coronavirus coverage, specifically this paragraph:

“We’ve never taken the business of ranking top for certain search terms lightly – it does, after all, bring in a huge chunk of our readership. But in the midst of a pandemic ranking for coronavirus-related search terms comes with a huge responsibility. As such, key pages we rank for, including our coronavirus explainer and mythbusting pages, are being regularly updated with the latest information and advice.”

Ethics comes into sharp relief in testing times and the danger of being seen to exploit a crisis, or even worsen that crisis, is present at the level of SEO – not just in journalism – as well as in more obvious areas like pricing, or even whether your store should be open.

It’s not controversial to say a real commitment to helping people is the most admirable thing a brand can do right now.

On a related note, it says a lot that, beyond Amazon, streaming services and the supermarkets, the only brands I can remember registering lately have been those engaging in efforts to fight the pandemic – whether it be LVMH manufacturing hand sanitiser or Pret a Manger offering free hot drinks and discounted food to NHS staff.

In normal times, brand purpose might be a controversial topic, but it’s not controversial to say a real commitment to helping people is the most admirable thing a brand can do right now.

Of course, as the social distancing continues, many people’s only desire is a distraction, and with my wife now looking after a newborn and a toddler who can’t go to nursery, we have pinned unrealistic hopes on Disney+, which launched in the UK on 24 March. If all goes well, the streaming service will become the Baloo to my two-year-old son’s Mowgli.

And, though it seems silly (again) to write about all this now, when I signed up for a special-offer annual subscription, it was via an Instagram ad – a first for me. I was no doubt targeted after I had viewed a Disney offer my wife had sent me in Messenger. Instagram even offered to remember the email address I signed up with (no, thank you). It was all so effortlessly easy to welcome another proxy parent into our household. God bless television.



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