Extended Black Friday season increases consumer scrutiny of brands

Emma Monks -

Extended Black Friday season increases consumer scrutiny of brands

Even with life thrown out of whack by the pandemic, holiday shoppers experience a Pavlovian response when they hear those two little words, “Black Friday.”

This year’s anticipated shopping bonanza, however, is unfolding very differently. In-person, in-store battle royales are being swapped for socially distanced online bargains spread over weeks rather than concentrated on the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving.

With an extended Black Friday season driven by the pandemic, consumers will be more engaged online. This means brands will be more vulnerable to harmful content online for a longer period of time than any holiday in recent memory, posing harm to reputation and enterprise value.

Indicators are that holiday shoppers will carry on, with the National Retail Federation projecting that 60% of consumers will do all of their holiday shopping online. An analysis of expected 2020 holiday spending from eMarketer predicted that ecommerce spending would make up about $190 billion of the $1 trillion in holiday spending. A forecast decrease in brick-and-mortar sales should be offset by a 35% jump in online sales.

Recently, the CDC classified shopping at crowded stores “just before, on, or after Thanksgiving” as a higher-risk activity, another push for online shopping. In response, retailers haven’t just moved deals online; brands have started promotions much earlier than Black Friday to limit in-store shoppers and to attract consumers early to maintain market share. 

Amazon beat everyone to the punch with its mid-October Prime Day. Other retailers jumping on the Prime Day bandwagon also scored big, with online sales for non-Amazon retail sites up 76% on the first day of Prime Day 2020 compared to 2019.

Walmart, Target, and Best Buy were some of the first retailers to announce they would be spreading out Black Friday deals through November. The Home Depot decked out store aisles and its mobile app with holiday deals ahead of Veterans Day.

“Not wanting to drive that sort of traffic and crowds to our stores, we are extending the holiday period,” The Home Depot president Ted Decker told USA Today.

More time and greater attention online poses risks to brands

The coronavirus has not only upended retail practices built around Black Friday, it has compelled people to isolate and turn to online platforms for their social interaction, creating an unprecedented surge in users and content. A fair share of that content is negative, taking aim at brands—sometimes just for fun— and threatening their reputations.

Brand leaders need to prepare for this out-of-the-ordinary Black Friday shopping season with extra caution. Historical data from past holiday seasons on social media interaction is of little use, and this year will require educated predictions and honed instincts to protect your brand from online instigators.

The experience of the pandemic has helped consumers become more comfortable with technology and made them feel more connected and empowered when it comes to interacting with brands on social media.

That’s not a bad thing when a brand is using social media platforms to announce and promote its holiday specials by directly engaging with millions of consumers. On the other hand, those platforms give consumers an easy way to publicly speak out against your brand.

When those comments are shared and amplified, the negative content can seriously damage your brand value.

Lessons from the 2015 tipping point are more relevant than ever

The 2015 holiday season is acknowledged as the breakthrough year for online and mobile shopping, when more Americans turned to online shopping during the Black Friday weekend than those who visited brick-and-mortar stores, according to data from the National Retail Federation.

This sea change in retail coincided with the mass market penetration of smartphones that spurred social media use, along with an upswing in the popularity of online product reviews and discussions of brand sentiment.

For the first time, a significant portion of retail revenue was generated through social media platforms, with an increase in social commerce of 240% over 2014, according to a report from MarketLive. Consumers were flocking to social networks to discuss brands on Facebook and Twitter, where they experienced both positive and negative feedback.

“As consumers prepared to head into Black Friday, we knew holiday ecommerce was going to see a big impact from social,” said Lucinda Duncalfe, former CEO of Monetate. “The data we collected shows that brands are making great strides when it comes to targeting social users on the networks they are actively engaging with, and compelling those people to click through and shop on their websites.”

Insights that go beyond the holiday shopping season

For brand leaders, Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2020 will offer insights that extend into the duration of the pandemic, as social media content will reveal trends that will have an effect on retail and ecommerce revenue, as well as reputation.

We know that smartphone use is still increasing, growing at 19% year-over-year, as the consumers’ preferred method to access their favorite shopping websites. We also know that, according to Google research, 78% of U.S. holiday shoppers in 2019 used three or more social media channels to do their holiday shopping, and 58% of shopper-reported purchases were made online.

This year, those numbers are expected to grow. Even the definition of “in-store shopping” is made fuzzier with alternatives such as curbside pickup and contactless buying.

As consumers spend increasing amounts of time on social media and mobile apps, savvy brand leaders are taking a fresh look at engagement strategies at every possible consumer touchpoint at the moment they are experienced.

Part of the strategy involves the challenge of finding the potentially damaging digital chatter perpetuated by instigators in that mounting volume of content. As we have noted before, brands tend to underestimate the amount of harmful content that resides on their owned social media pages and it affects every aspect of digital marketing and communications, from consumer engagement to online storytelling to digital advertising campaigns.

Battling through this extended Black Friday/Cyber Monday season can teach brands valuable lessons for taking on the social media challenge that will persist during the pandemic—detecting and addressing negative content initiated by instigators and fanned by influencers with the sole intent of hurting brand reputation, causing market share decline, and harming your brand value.

Take the megaphone away from social media instigators

In summary, holiday shopping, already moving steadily online for the last several years, has taken a pandemic-influenced turn that could redefine the future of retail. Like the indistinguishable days of the workweek, Black Friday/Cyber Monday have blurred into an indistinct season of shopping that mostly excludes brick-and-mortar venues.

Social media engagement has been substituted for personal interaction, with the trend proving to expose a vulnerability for consumer brands. Instead of a voiced complaint at a return counter, anyone can take to owned social media and, intentionally or not, trigger a wave of customer indignation that takes over the conversation and poses reputational and financial risks to your brand.

With the early-warning advantage of real-time risk detection and high-priority incident alerts whenever they happen, communications leaders can be better prepared with a rapid response to issues that can come seemingly out of nowhere, spread instantly to millions of people, and spiral into a crisis in hours, not days or weeks.

This proactive approach offers constant vigilance that keeps you one step ahead of instigators with the ability to monitor social media 24/7/365 to intelligently sift through content to anticipate, flag, and address issues, so your brand can regain control of the conversation.

Like a pre-pandemic Black Friday shopper who doesn’t move fast enough when the doors open, brands that don’t react quickly may be trampled by a stampede of negative content on social media. Protect your brand with an orderly assessment of content that helps decide what gets in and what gets blocked.

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