Blog Post

COVID-19 is forcing many to “step into the future,” right now. Will it stick?

Author: Julia Eisenberg

We’re four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and seemingly every day we see another article noting the massive amount of behavioral change happening as a result. And virtually every piece ends wondering which of these behavioral changes will be permanent, and which will fade when the Coronavirus threat finally abates?

To us here at Aspen Finn, it’s another example of quantitative data (in this case mass behavioral data tracking from things like people’s smartphones, web searches, and geolocation information) doing a great job of telling us “what” consumers are doing but unable to tell us the “why.” And it’s the “why” that helps us understand which behavior changes are sticky, permanent habits that will outlive COVID-19 and which will recede with the pandemic.

To get the kind of insight we knew we needed, we established a COVID-19 online qualitative community to keep in daily contact with 50 regular Americans. They gave us a look at their in-the-moment everyday reality using pictures and videos as well as sharing their stories on our discussion boards. And our lens for the community is about all understanding the “why.”

Our community helped us see and actually feel what’s driving pandemic-related behavior changes. Armed with insight around the “why,” understanding which changes will stick and which won’t becomes dramatically easier.

Here’s an example:

It’s clear that COVID-19 has led many individuals to “step into the future” and try digital services like online shopping and videoconferencing. According to a recent Economist podcast, “Most people think COVID-19 brought forward the shift to a digital economy by somewhere between 3 to 5 years.” And it’s done it in less than four months. But will the online ordering dry up when it feels less dangerous to shop in a real grocery store again? Will we continue to communicate virtually even when we can do more in-person?

The stories our panel shared indicate that much of this surge will be permanent. People are being “forced” into trying online services and in many cases they’re liking them. Convenience matters, but these services also offer peace of mind and control in a chaotic world. Once they’ve crossed over and tried these behaviors, many are finding unexpected benefits and value and expect to use them long after COVID-19 no longer requires them to.

“Before COVID-19, I had never done a video call. But the COVID situation made it so that I can’t see any of my healthcare providers face-to-face. Now I’ve personally had 3 or 4 telehealth doctors appointments during COVID-19 and I quite like them. Much easier, less wait time.”

“My family had never tried the online grocery pick-up until the pandemic started and my mom was really skeptical. We didn’t have a choice to figure it out because we’re an immunocompromised house. Now mom seems to have fallen in love with the convenience that it brings. I think by the third time she did it she’d been through all of the hassle of setting it up, and once you’ve done all that it’s actually a much easier way to shop. I think the pandemic has forced a lot of people out of their technological comfort zone but it seems to bring more good than bad from my perspective.”

Part of the formula is that this “forced trial” of new technologies is sustained over time. COVID-19 isn’t forcing people to just try new things, it’s forcing them to use them repeatedly and develop a new habit in the process. As a result, it’s clear that online grocery ordering and other similar services will sustain throughout and probably after COVID.

And in many cases, COVID-19-imposed behavioral changes are happening because they’re pitting massively high human needs like connection against resistance to technology, and as usual, human needs are winning.

“My mother-in-law Facetimed me for the first time last week. Before the coronavirus, she never would have tried out a new technology. She is normally kind of technologically challenged. But when it became the only way for an 81-year old to see her grand-kids, she figured it out and now she’s on FaceTime all the time. She now Facetimes the kids directly and texts with them too.”

It’s clear that the pandemic has changed behaviors and realigned consumers’ value sets. Now it’s up to research and insights experts to help determine which of these changes will stick and what brands and businesses can do evolve and innovate accordingly.