Chaotic communication: COVID-19 is rewriting our cultural rules of connection

30-second summary:

  • Quarantine and the COVID-19 crisis have totally rewritten our cultural rules of communication. But the frantic ways we’re corresponding now will likely shift the way we connect long beyond the end of lockdown. 
  • Open Mind Strategy’s Megan Routh shares four crucial shifts in online behaviors with examples of how brands like Skittles, Frito Lay’s, and many other popular faces have quickly adapted their communication to these shifts.
  • Read on for some refreshing insights and lessons that will help your brand pivot successfully in the “new normal”.

Talk to any Millennial or Gen Z’er two months ago, or… text them, they would say there are fewer things more anxiety-provoking than actual, in-real-time phone calls. The abruptness, the awkward pauses, and the very fact that they’re beyond control.  

But that was the old world.  

In the solitude of quarantine, a craving for intimacy and personal connection means consumers, once notoriously adverse to spontaneous, face-to-face communications, are now clamoring to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s face 

Verizon fielded over 800 million phone calls per day within the first two weeks the country was locked down. The word “Zoom” has become a stand-in to mean any “video chat” and apps like Houseparty have seen downloads increase 70 fold.  

Not only are face-to-face chats more frequent, but they’re also increasingly unannounced, unplanned, and unavoidable. A jarring juxtaposition to our pre-pandemic habits. It’s communication chaos.  

Quarantine and the COVID-19 crisis have totally rewritten our cultural rules of communication. But the frantic ways we’re corresponding now will likely shift the way we connect long beyond the end of lockdown. 

Shift one: A quest for intimacy in digital communities

Your bestie going live. Your boss going live. Your bank going live. When we were ordered to stay home, it only took a matter of days for everyone to start broadcasting themselves, most times to seemingly chaotic and confusing ends.  

Recently on IG live, comedian Whitney Cummings agreed to talk to anyone in attendance: She wound up chatting with baby squirrels.

The official, verified account of Skittles has, on more than one occasion, stirred up drama in the comments section of Bowen Yang and Julio Torres’ Instagram Live chats.  

Club Quarantine, a daily digital Queer dance party that happens every night via Zoom allows virtual clubgoers to join in with their cams, or just watch from behind a black tile, eliciting exhibitionism that can be traced back to the random recklessness of the bygone Chat Roulette era.  

But while it seems haphazard, each call, chat, and interaction is an expansion of community that chips away at our cultural fear of real-life intimacy and democratizes digital communities. 

As more white-collar workers are beginning to wonder not when they’re going to return to the office, but why they would ever return to an office at allmajor coastal cities are staring at an exodus of their creative class and a bit of their cultural capital. 

What the migration offers brands

This migration gives brands a mandate to expand their offerings to bigger, more diverse groups of consumers as they use live-streaming and digital tools to build new communities all over the country.  

Take The Wing, a women’s coworking space founded in New York City with offices in chic urban hubs like San Francisco and London. When forced to close, they quickly pivoted from millennial-pink meeting rooms to Zooms, making the interconnectedness of their community and celebrity-speckled programming accessible online for people all over. 

Shift two: Consumers are rejecting content that screams aspiration

The foundational cracks in the influencer veneer have been growing over the past few years, but the COVID-19 crisis provides a magnifying glass that’s amplifying influencer’s social media shortcomings. 

The highly-filtered, everything-is-perfect image that is the hallmark of influencer and celebrity marketing has never been less appropriate than it is now. 

In a global crisis, consumers are rejecting content that screams aspiration and are instead looking for ways to share in and mitigate our collective exasperation. So what’s to fill this anti-influencer void? More unpolished, even unhinged, content.  

64-year-old character actor Leslie Jordan has seen his following balloon from 80k to 4.2 million thanks to a stream of monologues showcasing the absurd mundanity of lockdown – ironing for fun, baton twirling for exercise, watching porn while eating cereal.  

But we’re the stars, too. From live baking and hair-coloring tutorials to yoga flows in cluttered bedrooms, to organized weekly Zoom sessions, we’re all content creators and each other’s influencers, now more than ever. “Coming to you live” from the physical and emotional messiness of quarantine is recalibrating our relationship with reality, causing us to consciously avoid unreasonable expectations and embrace “doing the best we can do” as the new form of “living our best life”.

Heineken’s recent spot montages the relatable pain points of our endless digital gatherings and nods to the fact that quarantine life isn’t great, but we’re all trying to make it through. 

Shift three: Optimistic content has become a balm to cure anxiety

Optimism was already growing as a countertrend to the vitriol on the internet, but today, it’s flourishing.  During the pandemic, against a backdrop of endless doomsday news, we’re clamoring for more optimism. The sarcasm and troll-like tone that was once the hallmark of the internet is being replaced by content that uplifts.  

For a moment this week, “Duck Pool Party,” a stream of ducks playing in a pool, was the most viewed Reddit live stream. Even notoriously snarky brands like Wendy’s have shifted their Twitter strategy, at least temporarily, to encourage camaraderie through games, activities, and shared stories.  

Wholesome, positive –if not strange and mindless– content has become a balm to cure our anxiety, making it a great way of communication, a form of self-care that fills a void and provides a sense of calm that sheet masks and sourdough cannot.  

Shift dour: Fascination with facts

In March, consumers were letting out a collective sigh of exhaustion as their inboxes filled with branded emails detailing how we were all “in this together”. But against the background of a pandemic, these vague platitudes have a counter-effect, reminding us all just how much these companies haven’t been there for us in the past, what little cooperation and communication we received from airlines and car companies before, and what little practical application they have in this stripped back version of reality.  

Instead, we want to hear the straightforward truth. Unlikely figures like Dr. Fauci and New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo have emerged as the leading men of the pandemic, and Cuomo’s curt, distinctively Dad-toned Powerpoint slides have found a cult following of their own. Frito Lay’s COVID-spot “It’s About People” has won praise for saying what they were doing to help employees, instead of selling chips. 

But the most trustworthy brand voice comes from most unlikely player: Steak Umms. The frozen meat company has emerged as a “voice of truth” thanks to their straight-forward, no-nonsense tweets that are at times, radical, at least for a corporate brand. Their willingness to tweet bold opinions– and not mild platitudes–earned them double their pre-COVID audience and the admiration of the internet.  

When we emerge post-crisis, shell-shocked, knowing that catastrophe can hit again at any moment, we’ll still want straightforward communication from brands. Brands need to learn this lesson quickly if they hope to pivot successfully in the “new normal”.

Megan Routh is a cultural anthropologist, writer, and strategist at Open Mind Strategy whose expertise lies in translating cultural insights and trends into actionable strategies for Fortune 100 companies including PepsiCo, Calvin Klein, JP Morgan Chase, Mondelez, Target, and the United States Postal Service.

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