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A look ahead: Examining the shifts in the COVID-19 conversation


For brands and consumers alike, a return to normal is unlikely to occur any time soon. As of May 5, there are over 3.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and few countries (if any) are prepared to return to business as usual.

But even as COVID-19 continues to ravage countries all over the world, how people are talking about the crisis is changing. People are anxious to return to their normal lives and conversations around when the lockdowns will end are gaining traction on social. In Italy, mayors are taking to Twitter to lambast civilians disobeying stay-at-home orders; and in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, people are taking to the streets to protest extended quarantine policies.

Marketers have already adjusted their social strategies in response to COVID-19. Now, they find themselves having to reevaluate and readjust once more as consumer behaviors and conversations evolve. But with the majority of the world still under lockdown and people growing increasingly restless, what are marketers to do?

To help answer these questions and more, we dove once more into Sprout Social’s Featured Listening Topic to better understand people’s behaviors and how certain industries continue to navigate this pandemic.

From #StayAtHome to #EndTheLockdown

Lockdown fatigue is on the rise

At the beginning of the year, Twitter was filled with conversations related to staying home and COVID-19 virus. But from March to April, the topic volume around COVID-19 dropped 39% even though the number of confirmed cases more than doubled from one million to 2.7 million.

Around the same time, the conversation around testing kits and vaccines shifted. Data from the Sprout Social Featured Listening topic reveals discussion around vaccines hit a message volume high around mid-March before falling around the beginning of April.

But after several weeks of quarantine and stay-at-home orders, people are growing increasingly restless to return to their normal lives. The beginning of April saw social conversations around ending the lockdown gain steam, growing 268% from March to April. Additionally, engagements in “end the lockdown” conversations increased by 353% from March to April, with message volume peaking on April 21, the same day several states announced their plans to reopen.

Not everyone is ready to reopen

Despite an increase in lockdown fatigue, people remain conflicted about the idea of states reopening. We noticed a 7% decrease in positive sentiment surrounding “end the lockdown” conversations once states began to relax their guidelines and the usage of the hashtag #StayHome increased by 21%.

These conversations became even more emotionally charged when we looked at what was happening at a state-by-state level in the US. Adding the keyword “state” to the “end the lockdown” conversation saw a 483% increase in negative sentiment and a 456% increase in messages during the month of April. Conversations around reopening are likely to take center stage as states like Florida and Texas let their stay-at-home orders expire.

How three industries are responding to COVID-19

Every industry has had to adjust its operations in the face of this pandemic. Restaurants have pivoted to curbside pick-up and takeout orders only, while those in the fitness industry have switched to online training models.

In the following section, we’ll take a closer look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted three different industries and how brands have responded.

Higher Education

From January to March, higher education generated 8.4 million mentions, with conversation volume peaking around March 12 as universities across the country announced campus closures and students aired their concerns over being kicked off campus on such short notice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the top keywords used when discussing COVID-19 and higher education was “online,” as students and faculty alike navigate virtual classrooms together. For graduating seniors especially, recent conversations have centered around cancelled graduations and the move to online ceremonies.

In response, brands and high-profile celebrities are taking matters into their own hands to celebrate young graduates. YouTube is hosting a graduation livestream with commencement speakers including Barack and Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga, while beer brand Natural Light plans to host its own commencement event on Facebook Live.

Key takeaways (1/1/20-5/13/20):


Healthcare

Few industries have been hit harder by the virus than the healthcare industry. From January to April, there were over 69.7 million conversations around healthcare and COVID-19 by 12.2 million unique authors in Sprout’s Featured Listener.

While overall sentiment skews positive, much of the negative conversations around healthcare focus on the challenges healthcare professionals face. Thirty-five percent of the healthcare conversation is negative, with topics like slowing the spread and the sacrifices of healthcare workers attracting the most engagement.

On a more positive note, brands are taking to social media to demonstrate their support and gratitude for healthcare workers around the world. McDonald’s, inspired by New Yorkers who applaud healthcare workers every evening, has Tweets with the clapping hand emoji scheduled to send every night at 7pm.

Prominent celebrities have also joined in on the virtual celebrations. Athletes like Wayne Gretzky and Donovan Mitchell are sharing photos of their jerseys with their names replaced with that of a doctor or nurse on their social channels using the hashtag #TheRealHeroes. Beloved Red Sox player David Ortiz has teamed up with local Boston organizations to donate food and other essentials to first responders.

In addition to recognizing healthcare workers by name, several brands are using their social platforms to give back to doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals. PUMA, for example, donated over 20,000 pairs of sneakers to healthcare workers while EOS donated over 100,000 hand creams to New York hospital workers. And popular coffee chain Dunkin’ Donuts recently shared their give-back initiative providing free coffee and donuts to doctors and nurses.

Key Takeaways (1/1/20-5/13/20):


Retail

With consumers still stuck at home, the demand for online shopping and delivery services is higher than ever before. From January to mid-May, the conversation around retail generated over 6.1 million social mentions across 2.6 million unique authors in Sprout Listening’s Featured Topic. Retail social mentions then hit a high of 370,150 messages on March 15 as major retailers like Nike and Starbucks announced the indefinite closure of their brick and mortar stores.

Another factor to consider when examining the conversation around retail is the treatment of essential workers. On April 12, we noticed a significant dip in overall sentiment as retail workers took to social to share their concerns about working at essential businesses, like grocery stores, during the pandemic.

As states increasingly look to lift stay-at-home orders, retailers are also exploring options to safely reopen their doors to customers. Gap, Macy’s and Nordstrom are just a few major retailers with plans to reopen their stores by the end of May while Starbucks in the UK announced its phased reopening beginning May 14.

Key Takeaways (1/1/20-5/13/20):


The COVID-19 conversation remains fluid

Listening data reveals COVID-19 conversations are on the decline, but the fact remains that the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down. And as businesses toy with the idea of loosening their restrictions, new challenges will emerge that brands need to be prepared to face head on. With so much uncertainty still ahead, here are two things all brands should consider:


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