If anything, this crisis has put the spotlight back on trust: Nikhil Rungta

Nikhil Rungta, Country Manager, Verizon Media, believes that brands will need a form of ‘immunity marketing’ to strengthen their relationship with consumers in the coming months

e4m by Christina Moniz
Updated: May 27, 2020 1:08 PM
Nikhil Rungta

While the past couple of months have seen a dramatic change in the way consumers live, work and shop, Nikhil Rungta, Country Manager, Verizon Media believes that there could be no turning back from here especially if social distancing continues to be the norm for the next year or two. He tells us about the steps Verizon Media, which is home to platforms like Yahoo, HuffPost India and the recently launched MAKERS, is taking to help advertisers navigate the new normal. Here are excerpts from a conversation with him. 

What are some of the lasting changes in consumer behaviour that you expect the COVID-19 outbreak to create?  

None of us could have predicted how fast consumer behaviour would evolve in just 50 days. Changes that were already on the horizon, accelerated during the lockdown. Consumers moved overnight to digital channels, transacting and buying online. All around us, people now live, learn, work and shop very differently. India was already the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market before this crisis. 

Deloitte had estimated India’s e-commerce market would jump to $84 billion by 2021 (from $24 billion in 2017). But now, many more first-time users have logged on, amplifying this growth even faster, buying even kitchen staples like milk online during the lockdown. There could be no turning back from here, with the new normal becoming the ‘default normal’. 

With social distancing expected to continue until 2022, consumer behaviour will continue to consolidate in the current direction, becoming ingrained for millions of Indians. Think online education and hybrid classrooms, telemedicine - from video consultations with doctors to buying medicines online - and e-commerce shopping for everyday essentials like bread and milk. Meetings and conferences could continue in virtual venues, even as e-sports and gaming hold onto quarantine audiences with safe arenas to play in.  

Traditionally, price-conscious Indians may weigh the risk of a trip to the cinema hall, with the comfort of binge-watching (for much less) at home on an OTT platform. An important change will come in what customers expect from brands. If anything, this crisis has put the spotlight back on trust. Customers coming out of one of the most difficult periods in their personal and professional lives will want to engage with brands they can “trust to do the right thing,” as a new Edelman report has found. That’s a change that will endure.  

What is the advice you would give to companies at this point? What should be the advertiser’s focus? 

We are already seeing more strategic conversations with brands that have partnered with us, as they look to the future. Advertisers want to understand how to reach their audiences in the most efficient, engaging, and relevant way in the ‘new normal’ ahead. Accurately anticipating community mobility (people movement trends within a geographical area) could guide more informed decisions. Consulting our partners on driving traffic and increasing content consumption across devices is already helping our buyers plan and execute awareness and acquisition strategies not just for now, but in the months to come.  

DOOH (Digital OOH) may have hit the pause button temporarily, but that should not take away from the opportunities it could present after the lockdown. By modelling each level of lockdown restrictions, it is possible to predict exactly where to execute DOOH campaigns, based on anticipated community mobility after restrictions are lifted. This would make it possible to target potential locations for more effective DOOH campaigns. 

On a more fundamental, human level, brands will have to stay in tune with how dramatically consumers’ lives have changed. I see ‘share of empathy’ replacing ‘share of voice’ in the post-COVID-19 world. Marketers will have to act with sensitivity and integrity to help regrow consumer confidence. Just as we build immunity against illness, going forward, brands will need a form of ‘immunity marketing’ to strengthen their relationship with consumers. 

Verizon Media has quite a few brands in India – HuffPost, Yahoo and the recently launched MAKERS. Tell us about your plans for these platforms during the current COVID-19 situation in India, and for the post-COVID-19 phase? 

Indians are riveted to the news with the situation evolving every day. Readership on HuffPost and Yahoo News has increased not just in India, but worldwide, by nearly 80% in recent days. HuffPost India has a much-visited coronavirus hub that curates the best content from across India and our partner editions. The HuffPost India team is also at the frontline of cutting-edge, hard news reporting on India's coronavirus response. Readers are also relying on its quality service journalism and of course, entertainment recommendations in the form of celebrity recommendations and watchlists.

Beyond its COVID-19 coverage, Yahoo India is also running a very successful podcast series called Lockdown Diaries, which has seen great traction on social media. The episodes that cover mental health and women's issues have deeply resonated with listeners. Our brand MAKERS India is shining a light on the more human side of this crisis, reporting on the surging domestic violence, mental health issues, while also highlighting uplifting stories on amazing Indian women helping out through this crisis. 

We find Indian consumers turning overwhelmingly to trusted news sources right now because there is such a tsunami of fake news to wade through. Our dedicated ‘Trust & Safety’ team at Verizon Media is on the frontlines of this fight against fake news, helping identify and flag content that contains misinformation or fraudulent information related to COVID-19, across our ecosystem.

 As a company, we are rapidly innovating to create solutions for our customers that fill in gaps created by this new normal. International conferences, for instance, are now going digital and such experiences can evolve to become more inclusive and participatory for people everywhere, including our users here in India. 

Take us through the various initiatives the company is rolling out to meet communication needs during the lockdown.

Staying transparent, facilitating dialogue and creating a community that can reach out and support each other, is helping us communicate through the lockdown. Our CEO Guru Gowrappan has led by example in being transparent and accessible to employees globally. Through virtual Q&As, Guru responds directly to questions from employees, addressing what’s top of mind for them. Working remotely for such a prolonged period of time has brought its own communication challenges. For instance, how do you communicate as a community when you can’t meet up in person? Our ‘Daily Connect’ newsletter narrows this gap, with up-to-date information and news employees need.

 Externally, we are listening and talking to our clients, understanding their challenges, sharing guidance and consultancy to address their current business needs. But alongside, there is now a much deeper, strategic focus on driving smart, focused solutions for the months ahead. We have been conducting webinars for both agencies and advertisers on how certain platform strengths on our DSP can be leveraged for greater efficiency and gains in the post-COVID-19 world. The number of users who have completed the Verizon Media DSP certification has increased through this period. We also have newsletters going out to keep consumers up-to-date on news relevant to them.  

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