As early as February, alarm bells were going off in the U.S. regarding COVID-19. By March, businesses and the economy were deeply impacted, and these effects mostly intensified in April. 

How has digital consumer behavior changed amid all this turmoil? In previous blog posts, we reported no radical changes in audience engagement for most app categories. That said, a few apps in some key categories have seen either dramatic gains or losses in audience engagement

This week we analyzed data related to digital consumer behavior (using our proprietary COVID-19 Tracker) from January through April, with an eye on examining which trends shifted and which remained the same from March to April.

The Methodology Behind the Verto Smart App

Our COVID-19 Tracker is powered by our own panel, Smart App, which leverages passive audience measurement across multiple devices to gather data and gain needed insights. This provides an objective, market-level, representative, view on the changes in everyday consumer behavior—across all devices, sites, and apps that people use.

Smart App passively tracks digital consumer behavior in the U.S., 24 hours a day and seven days a week (and conforms to stringent data privacy laws and regulations), and generates data sets that help researchers, advertisers, and publishers understand the full digital footprint of U.S. consumers. 

This set of data includes the U.S.-based panelists to study the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. digital consumers. As with previous data sets related to the impact of COVID-19, we included the time spent by consumers across all of their privately-used online devices, across all web browsers, on all apps.

Communications Apps Saw the Biggest Surge in Users from March to April

Below we used the “total time spent” as a key metric because it combines two key audience metrics—audience reach (number of users for the service category) and average time spent per user (using the services included in the category). If either or both of these metrics rises or falls,  you’ll see those changes reflected in “total time spent in the US online market”.

This analysis reveals some really interesting points. For example, the use of communications and messaging services (social media, video conferencing, messaging app, all included together) increased drastically for March 2020 (compared to January and February 2020). However, their usage surged significantly in April. 

Users spent more than 10 billion hours on these services in March (compared to about nine billion on average in January and February), but this increased to more than 12 billion in April. 

In previous data sets, we saw entertainment, news, and shopping grew in usage. Now we see usage in these categories increased in April as well—but only modestly compared to March. We also see the one category that’s experienced the most growth in usage over any other has been communications. 

There are probably a confluence of factors bolstering growth of usage across these categories, but especially in the communications category. These might include the following:  

  • As shelter-in-place orders got extended, digital users started making purchases and consuming entertainment online. 
  • With unemployment jumping to more than 14% in April, consumers are probably spending less money in general, which would account for the moderate increase in usage among entertainment and shopping apps). 
  • Meanwhile, whether they’re working from home or not, everyone has a need to leverage social and communications platforms to connect.

It is also interesting to see how usage in some categories, for example health services (sports trackers), went up in March, but are stabilizing to the earlier levels already in April. Did initial interest in health services peak early only to experience a permanent drop-off? 

By contrast, we see stability in categories like government, law, and nonprofit; clearly, given the ongoing uncertainty, the need for information about public health continues, even into April. 

As shelter-in-place restrictions throughout the U.S. continued into April, some categories (travel and sports) suffered ongoing decreases in audience and usage. People are not only decreasing the frequency with these categories, but most likely are forgetting them, avoiding these services, and exploring other ways to spend their time. 

How are consumers in your market using their digital devices to research purchases and shop during the pandemic? Contact to see how data from our COVID-19 Tracker can give you actionable insights about your target digital audience.

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