Brands in the Asia Pacific region are innovating with programmatic platforms for digital and mobile marketing in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

As the digital landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, advertisers are looking for more ways to better deliver personalized messaging that drives a lasting impact. For some businesses, programmatic advertising has helped fill that need by enabling them to expand the efficiency and effectiveness of their advertising campaigns.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has inevitably resulted in an outlook of uncertainty for everyone. Whether the outbreak will be a boon or bane to mobile advertising remains to be seen, and many brands and marketers have, rightfully, shown caution about the best course of action to take in such unprecedented times.

To find out how programmatic advertising can be leveraged in challenging times – especially with people spending more time at home and online during the COVID-19 ‘black swan’ crisis – DigiconAsia checked with Alan Xie, Vice President, Nativex about the challenges and opportunities in marketing and advertising today.

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on advertising so far, and what could this mean for businesses in the long term?

Xie: The outbreak of COVID-19 as well as its still-unfolding developments have caused a sea change across virtually every industry around the globe, including advertising.

In fact, a March 2020 report reveals that 74% of media buyers believe COVID-19 will have a greater impact on advertising than the 2008 financial crisis. Nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents have paused all advertising spend until the end of June, while 46% have adjusted expenditure for the same time period. Additionally, a MAGNA report on the impact of COVID-19 highlights that ad sales, specifically radio ad sales, may suffer more as commuting via motor vehicles experiences a large dip in occurrence.

Churchill has a famous saying: A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. While many industry sectors are decreasing their advertising spend, especially for hard-hit ones such as travel and restaurant industries, e-commerce and home entertainment space will see a positive growth in advertising spend, due to changes in social norms (remote work and remote education) and media consumption patterns (surge in TV viewing, OTT usage and digital media) induced by quarantine and social distancing policies.

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping most people worldwide at home, and social distancing being enforced globally, mobile consumption habits are growing. This is not unexpected. Many categories of products, especially entertainment apps, such as hyper casual games, soft-mid core games, short video and social are emerging strong in this black swan crisis.

In addition, fitness, education and food delivery services that provide convenience and fulfil essential needs are also growing as people spend extended periods of time at home. Aside from paid install activities, in-app purchase activities also grew substantially.

In summary, as advertising spend takes a hit across the board, the ongoing pandemic is a stark reminder to brands about the growing importance of having a robust digital presence.

While brands have already undergone digital transformation to varying degrees in recent years, COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated the reliance on digital for the majority of businesses and organizations. As such, brands will have to learn how to build their digital presence and develop more focused strategies, as consumer interactions with brands shift almost entirely online at this time.

How does programmatic advertising help brands uncover consumer behavior and preferences, as well as deliver personalized messaging?

Xie: The objective for general brand marketing is to target core audiences precisely while assisting lower funnel conversion more efficiently. The ultimate goal of such efforts is improved advertising return over investment, which is exactly what a programmatic platform can help brands achieve.

As the mobile marketing landscape continues to evolve and grow, marketers face challenges in developing an effective mobile marketing strategy to adapt to the evolving multi-channels, new business scenarios and advanced consumption needs.

Programmatic advertising is a way to automatically buy and optimize digital campaigns, as opposed to buying directly from publishers. In automating the process, advertisers are able to increase the efficiency of ads – enabling the display of an advertisement to a specific consumer, at a specific time and context. As testament to its increasing usage and popularity, a Boston Consulting Group survey estimated that the penetration of programmatic in digital display and video ad activity across Asia Pacific would increase from 6% in 2017 to 11% in 2020.

With programmatic advertising, brands are offered versatility, control and speed that direct buying may not be able to match. Programmatic users are able to target audiences with their ads in real-time, using data and automation to remove any possible human error. Besides, the immense amount of data that we now have access to means the manual effort involved in extracting and analyzing data will be too laborious and time-consuming.

Additionally, programmatic also provides real-time reporting and data measurement – useful insights that marketers can leverage to further refine an existing campaign, or to extract learnings for future campaigns. Examples of such measurements include the tracking of the total number of conversions, as well as specific breakdowns, such as the category and value of each individual conversion gained from those who have viewed or clicked on respective ads.

Brands are able to leverage these consumer insights (with respect to existing data protection laws) to build more comprehensive and accurate consumer profiles. These can be based on different data about consumer behavior, demographics and context. As a result, brands are able to refine targeting, ensuring that the right advertisements are seen by specific consumers in real time as they browse digital channels, contributing to a more personalized brand experience.

During such crisis, digital advertising via programmatic also presents brands with the insights that allow them to exercise greater caution and sensitivity when communicating to their consumers.

What is Nativex doing to support its clients in the region in the current situation – be it mandatory social distancing, work-from-home, city lockdowns, isolation or quarantine?

Xie: Nativex has 16 offices globally. At the beginning of the outbreak in China, while people in the US and EMEA were still going about their day normally, people in Asia were experiencing a shift in their lives due to the situation. In light of these changes, the Nativex team in China had been working hard to adapt operations to be work-from-home (WFH) compatible, enabling our clients to thrive in the midst of the pandemic.

With our highly “glocalized” approach, our team shifted strategies and made timely adjustments rapidly to help clients remain agile. Some of the strategies resulted in substantial increases in return on advertising spend (ROAS).

Nativex also sends out regular emailers to clients and partners to keep them updated on any developments to business operations, alongside the evolving situation with COVID-19. Clients are also able to contact the Nativex team dedicated to addressing any issues that they would like to flag through the emailers.

The launch of Nativex’s new Trading Desk is also timely given the outbreak, as clients now have easy access to custom API reporting functionality, which helps extract relevant data for more automated and efficient customized reporting and analysis easily. In order to streamline the process of speaking to various parties, which has been made difficult due to the lockdowns imposed globally, marketing campaign results and data can be easily viewed or extracted from the platform, in various formats, by the team for a hassle-free experience.

How should business brands maintain their presence through considerate and meaningful branding activity in this climate of uncertainty? Please provide some best practices and tips.

Xie: Brands can maintain their presence through meaningful branding activity by:

1. Ensuring brand content is relevant and sensitive

In this climate of uncertainty, it is important for brands to ensure their messages are relevant and sensitive to the current situation. Instead of pushing out ads that push for sales, brands can push out ads that inspire solidarity and encouragement, or content that is relevant or useful for consumers now. This is a great chance for brands from hard-hit industries, such as the hospitality industry, to show their creative prowess through interesting campaigns.

For example, in view of declining demand for hotel bookings due to the pandemic, Homeikan, an operator of traditional Japanese-style inns in Tokyo, is among hotels there trying unconventional approaches to draw customers. The district is home to many traditional ryokan inns where distinguished writers secluded themselves to finish their work on schedule.

Drawing on this for inspiration, Homeikan is offering similar stays where guests can feel like great authors in the past and do their work there — or simply be alone — while hotel staff, behaving like publishing house editors, come and check on how they are doing. The guests are not permitted to leave the inn unless an emergency occurs. The offer was so well-received that bookings in March were sold out.

2. Getting creative with virtual platforms

With most offline activities and activations being canceled or postponed, brands should also explore using virtual platforms and mediums to continue engaging with consumers. This is the time for brands to be innovative in their digital strategy, and use online platforms in more agile ways.

For one, livestreaming is expected to surge in popularity – the number of users in China’s online live streaming industry has increased 10.6% year on year to 504 million in 2019, and is expected to reach 526 million in 2020. As people are confined to their homes due to social distancing policies enforced globally, the pandemic is expected to accelerate this growth in livestreaming.

Brands can look at leveraging a digital strategy combining livestreaming and influencers to engage consumers.

For example, Estee Lauder partnered with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) to promote the #WeCanWinThisFight hashtag on social platform Weibo, in a bid to encourage people to stay positive during this period. Their video message of solidarity was viewed more than 61 million times and generated over 328,000 discussions to help generate relief funds, spread awareness and show support during the crisis.

3. Demonstrating a spirit of care in brand initiatives

Instead of focusing on campaigns that drive sales and conversions, which will take a hit in these times, brands should focus on what they are doing to help consumers or communities – be it through launching new initiatives to address needs of certain groups, or additional measures taken to maintain consumer confidence in the brand.

As the pandemic brings about changes in consumers’ lifestyles and habits, this is a good time for brands to explore new offerings that meet such evolving needs.

For example, fashion e-tailer ZALORA has expanded their product offering into health and food products to help customers who are unable to purchase essentials during lockdowns. They have also issued an open invitation to brands to partner on community initiatives. By clearly communicating how brands’ contributions address practical needs, consumers will value the authenticity and subsequently associate the brand with good.