By Bryan Melmed, VP Insights, Exponential
A dramatic political transition is mesmerizing the nation. It’s not so much that things are changing, it’s that the change was entirely unexpected -- and when it comes to uncertainty, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.
As a result, a significant percentage of the U.S. population is exhibiting signs of heightened anxiety. We see it in our data, in the aggregate, across millions of anonymous user profiles, and almost entirely in Democratic areas.
In heavily Democratic areas such as New York and San Francisco, traffic on sites offering support for anxiety is up 32.7 percent. We see 21.1 percent more users are looking for relief from insomnia. Interest in other mental health issues is up 12.2 percent. (This is especially telling as interest in most health conditions has fallen; people anxious about external issues tend to ignore their health.) In Republican areas, these indicators are all flat to negative.
It’s a challenging environment in which marketers will struggle to stay positive, seem relevant, and somehow capture the attention of a restless populace. Here is some advice.
Consumers will stick to their routine
For most individuals, anxiety isn’t readily apparent. Low-level anxiety can simply keep people in their routine. That’s a problem if you’re in the business of changing consumer habits.
We found that anxious consumers are 23.1 percent less likely to change their phone plan and 2.9 percent less likely to consider a new credit card. They are even more likely to stick with familiar television shows and same music, being 32.9 and 50.3 percent less likely to try something new, respectively.
Another common response by anxious people is a focus on what gives them a sense of control. For example, our data shows that debt reduction planning jumped 25.6 percent in Democratic areas, but remained flat in Republican strongholds. Content related to home cooking and DIY projects were up 22.3 percent and 12.7 percent respectively. Readers fled from issues they couldn’t control -- a range of topics that included politics, the weather, and even hair loss.
Anxiety makes people especially averse to risk, and consequently they avoid new commitments. After the election, interest in moving dropped 43.1 percent. Content on university courses saw 16.9 percent less traffic. 25.3 percent fewer people resolved to quit smoking.
The impact on relationships was especially stark. Dating sites had 17.1 percent less traffic and there was a 52 percent drop in wedding planning. Content on new pregnancies was down 18.1 percent. (Conversely, there was a 23 percent jump in birth control topics.)
In a time of anxiety, conspicuous consumption is clearly passé. Interest in dining and nightlife in Democratic areas fell 16.7 percent, even as it grew slightly in Republican areas. New car content was 12.1 percent less popular. Coverage of high fashion fell 32.5 percent, 16.9 percent fewer people were interested in luxury handbags, and there were 13.1 percent less jewelry buyers. Some of this money shifted to discreet indulgences including spa visits, sleepwear, and home audio equipment.
Lessons from the past
We are witnessing a sudden but not unheard of shift in consumer sentiment. Marketers should be forgiven for feeling whiplash, especially in that these events have a personal impact as well. Unfortunately, many of our instinctual reactions are wrong. Consumers want practical solutions, not emotional reassurance. Cutting ad spend weakens market share and prolongs an eventual recovery. The best strategies involve adaptive positioning, clear messaging, and even more careful targeting.
The good news is that what we are going through is hardly unprecedented and by international standards not even that severe. Still, it’s a sober moment that should command your attention. The turbulence of the next few months will serve as a test that puts some marketers ahead and leaves others far behind.