Marketing during a crisis increases a brand’s sales: Sandeep Balani, Outbrain India

Sandeep Balani, Head of India at Outbrain, speaks about key takeaways from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry

e4m by Neeta Nair
Published: May 15, 2020 9:11 AM  | 5 min read
Sandeep Balani Outbrain

At a time when uncertainty over lockdown is playing the biggest villain, we speak to Sandeep Balani, Head of India at Outbrain, a leading discovery and native advertising platform on the open web, on his key takeaways from the Covid-19 pandemic induced storm on the industry.

COVID-19 wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue as far as India is concerned, we had seen how it impacted other countries before it struck us, how did Outbrain prepare for it before the lockdown was imposed in India?

Outbrain as a company announced WFH policy globally even before COVID came to India. Outbrain took proactive steps to ensure all employees are safe and healthy. We as a company were completely online and did not see any challenges in terms of transforming to WFH culture as all our systems were online. We depend on using various platforms like zoom and slack with our global teams and it was a smooth transition for us to implement them during this period.

Many sectors have adapted to work from home, but as a company where the functioning is largely technical in nature, has it been easy for you?

We are a digital business, our teams are fortunate enough that the transition to WFH was a lot smoother than for perhaps other sectors. Our partners too, the agencies, brands and publishers that we work with on a day to day basis have also adapted well and to a certain extent, it is business as usual.

COVID-19 induced lockdown has made digital channels very popular with brands, what kind of trends are you seeing in the market? 

With any sort of national or global event – good or bad – internet activity spikes. People naturally turn to their mobile or desktop to check the news, search the web, and browse social media to stay informed. In a crisis that impacts each and everyone, more than ever consumers are relying on trusted sources of information, i.e. publishers. While people are turning to premium websites to get their news, they are also staying there to consume more types of content. They might start with the news but then move on to other sections. In India, in the last seven days alone we have seen a 20% to 30% increase in page views related to business, finance, recreation, health, home and lifestyle.

How are these trends impacting brands, and their spends? 

With consumers spending more time online, this has opened up opportunities for brands. The smart brands that are adapting their strategies and finding ways to be relevant and authentic will do well. Unfortunately, many brands have gone silent during the crisis, unsure of what or how to communicate to their customers,  and yet only 8% of consumers feel that brands should stop advertising during this period. A March 2020 Kantar study actually found that 77% of consumers want brands to talk about how they can be helpful in this new temporary normal, and  75% of consumers want brands to inform them about their efforts in addressing the situation. Even more interesting, especially when thinking about the long term impact, a Global Brand Loyalty survey shows that 54% of consumers want the brands they support to balance great products with powerful purpose and activism. So this is no time for brands to sit back and go silent. And yet authenticity and relevancy have become especially important right now.

What are the sectors that are advertising more, and how much of an increase have you seen in Digital advertising volumes in the past two months?

Apps are a good example of a segment that has adapted very well to the crisis. On the Outbrain Native platform, globally we are seeing that brands who are adapting to the crisis - testing new images, headlines or targeting - are getting excellent results, far beyond just downloads. Unsurprisingly, on average between February and March, we saw lower cost per install across the board, ranging from 33% lower for education apps all the way up to 46% lower for health and fitness apps. However even more interestingly, these same brands are also seeing lower cost per in-app conversion, ranging from 17% lower for finance brands, up to 46% lower for health and fitness apps. And last but certainly not least, Lifetime Value is up by up to 30% for verticals such as gaming.

What are the biggest challenges for Outbrain at this point and for the industry overall?

Our challenges remain the same as they were before the crisis. Educating the market about our platform, moving more budgets to programmatic via platforms like Zemanta and DV360 and growing the overall native advertising pie as a great alternative medium. For the industry, there are many challenges and they change quickly – after all this is a fast-moving innovative space. However, one important lesson we have learnt from COVID-19 is that in a time of crisis, especially a crisis that impacts us all on such a personal level, more and more people are turning to traditional publishers for reliable information.

While page views are spiking at unprecedented levels, publishers’ revenues are plummeting. It’s no secret that advertising plays a key role in sustaining journalism. But COVID-19 has caused many brands to halt their marketing plans altogether for fear of associating with the pandemic and mishandling how to best address consumers under the current circumstances. More important than ever before, now is not the time for brands to shy away from advertising on publisher sites and blacklisting words like “Covid- 19. Not only is it detrimental to quality reporting to not advertise at this time, but it's an ineffective business decision. Studies have shown time and time again that marketing during times of crisis help increases a brand’s sales through that recessionary period and beyond it.

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