In the winners and losers of COVID, mobile-first brands thrived

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


The COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for news media organisations — but it also presented a wealth of opportunities. In fact, some mobile-first companies actually thrived through the crisis.

David Murphy, editorial director of Mobile Marketing Magazine, took a look back on the past 12 months of the pandemic in a Webinar for INMA members, identifying the winners and losers through the lens of the news media industry in general and mobile in particular.

David Murphy of Mobile Marketing Magazine led INMA members through some of 2020's winners and losers during the COVID pandemic.
David Murphy of Mobile Marketing Magazine led INMA members through some of 2020's winners and losers during the COVID pandemic.

Loser: In-person social interaction

The immediate big loser hit by the pandemic was live social interaction, as lockdowns went into effect around the world and people began distancing at home.

“I think we’ve all heard a lot about the impact this has had on people’s mental health,” Murphy said. “So that’s a loser — but what could possibly be a winner out of all this?”

Winner: Zoom

“COVID has been incredibly good for their business,” Murphy said. “I guess most of the world had never heard of Zoom before, but all of a sudden it became a lifeline to people who could no longer meet family and friends in the way they would like to.”

In December 2019, Zoom was hosting about 10 million meeting participants per day. By April 2020, that had skyrocketed to 300 million per day. In the UK alone, the number of Zoom users jumped from 659,000 in January 2020 to 13 million by April.

In the beginning, Zoom struggled with this sudden and massive overload of its platform, but it remained a platform of choice to connect people who were otherwise separated.

Loser: Bricks-and-mortar shopping

With the exception of supermarkets, in-person retail shopping took a huge hit, especially for those without an e-commerce presence.

For those who were able to survive and reopen as we slowly emerged from lockdown, they’ve had to make big adjustments in the layout of their stores, cleaning protocols, and social distancing.

Winner: E-commerce

“Online shopping has boomed during COVID,” Murphy said. “In terms of hard numbers, there was a report released last April [2020] that found online shopping was going up 129% week-on-week in the UK and Europe. Much of this was happening on mobile.”

Amazon, of course, was the huge leader in this. Jeff Bezos initially reported that the company would likely see losses in Q2 2020 because of the additional investment required to deal with COVID. However, at the end of July Amazon had actually doubled its net profit, to US$5.6 billion. By the end of 2020, its net profit was about US$21 billion — an 84% increase from 2019.

The grocery store chain Aldi, which did not offer online shopping pre-COVID and rapidly pivoted to do so, said that customers’ buying habits were changing, and merchants must change along with them.

2020, the year of the pandemic, saw a lot of winning and a lot of losing business models.
2020, the year of the pandemic, saw a lot of winning and a lot of losing business models.

Winner: Augmented Reality

AR is another COVID winner as brands used the technology to allow customers to virtually “try on” everything from glasses and clothing to furniture in their own living rooms.

“This trend actually started way before COVID, back in 2017,” Murphy said. “But a lot of brands have jumped on the bandwagon, with good reason.”

AR has moved beyond the “try-on” aspect to allow consumers to play virtual games and have virtual interactions with their products.

Loser: Cinemas, theatres, and live music performances

“Just like non-essential shops, all these things were hit hard by the pandemic,” Murphy said. “There have been many attempts to plug the gap with bands running livestreaming concerts, and we’ve had livestreams of plays as well. But for the most part, we’ve learned to sort of sit tight and wait for things to get back to normal.”

In the meantime, he added, several winners have emerged to satisfy this craving for entertainment.

Winner: Streaming and video games

While Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and others have been around for years, their popularity and watch times skyrocketed during lockdown.

“At the height of the first UK lockdown, adults spent an average of six hours and 25 minutes each day staring at screens,” Murphy reported. They were watching streaming entertainment services for an average of one hour and 11 minutes per day, and 12 million people in the UK joined a streaming service they hadn’t used previously.

“Netflix alone, globally, added 15.77 million new subscribers between January and March 2020, and 10 million more between April and June. That was the biggest growth spurt in the company’s history.”

While much of this live streaming was watched on televisions, a lot of it was watched on mobile devices; 80% of content consumed on mobile today is video.

80% of mobile content consumed today is video.
80% of mobile content consumed today is video.

In addition to streaming, games also benefitted, particularly mobile games.

“This is really interesting, especially to an audience of publishers,” Murphy said. “Because this is all about premium. What is premium on mobile? When you’re talking about the old world of print, for a long time the games publishers — and the ad networks that sell ads within mobile games — they’ve been trying to convince mainstream brands that games are a very good place to advertise, and that on mobile, games represent premium inventory.”

However, they come up against a preconception — perhaps a misconception — that the average game player is young and something of a loser, without much disposable income. But the gaming companies argue that this is completely wrong, particularly with mobile gaming. In contrast to gaming consoles, on mobile everyone can access and play — and everyone does.

“They argue that the huge variety of games means there’s a game for everyone,” Murphy said.

App Annie found this to be true, with a huge variety of games from crossword puzzles and lifestyle to sports and shooting games. The average gamer is nothing like people think. They actually skew female, not male, average 39 years old, and are typically highly educated. They also tend to be rather affluent and identify themselves as the head of the household and decision maker.

A report by Verizon found mobile gaming usage was up 75% during the first lockdown of 2020.

Loser: Eating out

Most restaurants were shut down at the beginning of lockdown, and those that reopened with delivery or take-away food fared better.

Winner: Eating in

Food delivery services were already doing well before pandemic, but they have fared even better during it. In the UK, for example, food delivery service deliveroo’s revenues were up 62% in 2020, and Just Eat saw revenues increased by 54%.

Winner: Mobile behaviours

Murphy grouped a lot of things under this large, catch-all winning category. One example is the use of QR codes at restaurants to pull up menus.

“I’m sure most people on today’s call were pretty digital and mobile savvy [before COVID]. But for a lot of other people, this behaviour would have been alien to them. A year or so, many people had never shopped online, never scanned a QR code, never paid for things on their phone.”

This has become the new reality, however, and even “reluctant” mobile or digital users have largely adapted.

“I think they key point is these are behaviours that have been learned now, and they’re not going to be forgotten,” Murphy said.

COVID has accelerated many of these behaviours — as well as the business models and behaviours within news media companies.

“I’ve heard a lot of businesses talk about having gone through five years of digital transformation in five months.”

Closing thoughts

Murphy left INMA members with some questions and thoughts to ponder:

  • How mobile friendly are you?
  • How e-commerce ready are you?
  • Can AR or VR do anything for your offering?
  • Do you seek audiences in places where they live on mobile, like games?
  • Are you digital and mobile enough?

“A lot of people have learned mobile and digital behaviours, and they aren’t going to forget them when this is over,” Murphy said. “So if you aren’t there for them, they will go to someone who is.”

About Shelley Seale

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