Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Data freshness is a lifeline for marketers

By Mike Klinkhammer, Director of Advertising Sales EU at eBay

COVID-19 has changed nearly every aspect of our daily lives and the way we spend is no exception. While it’s true that the shift towards online shopping has been underway for years, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst — accelerating this process significantly. With all but essential high street shops closed for business for over two months, consumers have been forced to embrace online shopping for most purchases.

We’ve seen this shift first-hand at eBay, with site traffic rocketing as the shops shut down. And our insights into the shopping behaviour of our 32.3 million unique UK users during the lockdown have revealed a fascinating change in focus for many — highlighting a need for marketers to consider the freshness of the data they’re basing their ad campaigns on

Lockdown spend trends

In the first week of the lockdown, panic buying in the supermarkets and social distancing triggered a switch to buying foodstuffs online. Searches for ‘food & drink’ on increased 473% that week, compared to the same week last year*, while searches for ‘cat food’ and ‘dog food’ jumped 633% and 467% respectively.

After a week of adapting to considerable change, the reality that the ‘new normal’ would last for a prolonged period started to sink in. During the second week of the lockdown, searches for ‘office chair’ and ‘printer’ on grew 121% and 143% respectively, compared to the previous year, while searches for ‘jigsaws & puzzles’ rose 841%.

A combination of good weather and fewer distractions meant that week three prompted many shoppers to invest in their outdoor spaces. Searches for ‘barbecues’ and ‘garden lighting’ rose 256% and 246% respectively, while searches for ‘fence panels’ grew 169% year-on-year. And, from landscaping to manscaping, it became clear that there would be no trips to the barbers for the foreseeable future – so saw interest for home hair care rocket, with searches for ‘hair clippers & trimmers’ shooting
up 1,566%.

At the end of the first month of lockdown, Brits finally ramped up their DIY efforts, with searches for ‘interior & exterior paint’ rising 825% year-on-year and those for ‘cordless drills’ jumping 135%. Meanwhile, cycling became an everyday essential, with searches for ‘bikes’ and ‘bike accessories’ growing 112% and 142% respectively and searches for indoor exercise ‘cycling turbo trainers’ seeing an 873% boost.

These numbers might not seem that surprising in hindsight, but no one could have seen this behaviour coming.

No more assumptions

What does this tell us? Human behaviour is suddenly more unpredictable than ever. And with the short to medium term riddled with uncertainty, this isn’t set to change any time soon. This is important for brands to recognise and address. At a time when budgets are shrinking and ROI is king, marketers can’t afford to lose brand visibility, but neither can they waste money serving ads to audiences that won’t be interested in them. Guesswork has gone from being not ideal to not even worth considering. Not only this – while consumers are looking to buy products online in their droves, it’s imperative that marketers make themselves as visible as possible and stand out from the crowd.

Today, effective marketing relies upon the ‘freshness’ of data. We need to know exactly what a consumer is in the market for at any given moment. We need to make real-time a reality.

Now, I’m not saying that historical data is redundant — far from it. Pre Coronavirus insights certainly provide useful context, especially for big milestones such as Black Friday or Christmas. We just can’t base decisions solely on it anymore. After all, just because someone logged an interest in running when they signed up to a brand’s newsletter doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be interested in the latest Asics trainers now. Equally, those who never showed an interest in sports previously may have become avid
endurance athletes during lockdown.

Because shopping preferences can be switched on and off without warning, advertising should always be based on real-time insights. Is that person in the market for a pair of trainers right now? And if they are, what’s the most appropriate message to serve to them in a specific moment?

Test and learn

This second question raises an important point. As well as using the freshest data to inform targeting, marketers must use it to stay in tune with the changing market and adapt their messaging accordingly. What worked pre-pandemic might not necessarily land so well now — whether that’s references to summer holidays or images of hugging families. There’s no right or wrong answer but by measuring campaign performance in real-time, marketers can flex their campaigns to ensure that they do hit the mark.

The power of unpredictability

We’re undergoing a period of mass change and have no idea how long it will last or how far it will go. The lockdown may be relaxing and non-essential shops starting to re-open, but it’s certainly not business as usual. We don’t know what we’ll need and want ourselves over the coming weeks and months, so there is no way of predicting what other people will be in the market for.

As we navigate this unchartered territory, the only certainty is that brands can no longer afford to make assumptions about consumers — whether that’s who they are, what they want or when they’ll buy it. Real-time data is now not only important but essential to marketers. Of course, data can be difficult to mine due to the vast scale of what’s available along with complexities around how it’s gathered and stored. But the technology already exists to transform it into valuable insights — and that’s really exciting. We’re almost there; now, we just need to ensure that every marketer is making use of it.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift towards online shopping, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same effect on data use too. With marketers coming under an enormous amount of pressure to demonstrate efficiency and ROI, now is the perfect time to embrace the technology and data that allows them to do just that. It’s not quite a case of ‘out with the old’, but we’re definitely ready for ‘in with the new’.

* The percentages shown represent year-on-year increases in searches across product categories on for 2020 vs the corresponding week in 2019. The eBay retail week runs from Sunday to Saturday.