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Advertising Directly to Consumers in Their Homes

Advertising Directly to Consumers in Their Homes

Steve Heisler

house

Americans have settled into a pandemic-induced homebody existence, and advertisers can recalibrate their content to reach consumers in every room of the house

Workers have seen their morning commutes reduced from a long, crowded train ride to a quick jaunt from the bedroom to the home office. Concertgoers aren’t elbowing each other out of the way for a prime view of the stage, they’re streaming live shows from the safety of their couches. But just because fans aren’t flocking to basketball courts this season doesn’t mean advertisers can’t still join them for a game.

Many of Americans’ activities have shifted to their homes during the pandemic, which means advertisers should come knocking. The so-called homebody economy—the shopping, studying, working and entertainment consumption that people do from home—existed before COVID-19 drove everyone indoors. But state regulations that have kept many events, schools and workplaces canceled or remote have only hastened the trend.

According to McKinsey, more than a third of Americans plan to only leave home for essential activities in the near future, and more than 70% say they intend to permanently adopt much of their pandemic-friendly behavior such as online shopping, home fitness and streaming video.

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If advertisers want to reach consumers, they need to make a house call. There’s an opportunity to interact with people throughout the home, as they stream video in the living room, scroll social media in the bedroom, browse the web in their home office and search for recipes in the kitchen.

The most effective ads during this phase of the pandemic rely on the principles that made a great ad before COVID-19. Humor and brand experiences are back in favor and offer a respite from the “We’re here for you” ads of March and April. Fresh, entertaining and engaging ad experiences can be a welcome break in consumers’ well-worn and homebound routines.

Living Room >> Entertainment Advertising

miniature living room model

The stats on streaming video usage show that pandemic-friendly media consumption is now considered par for daily life. According to software company Brightcove’s “Q2 2020 Global Video Index,” streaming video rose 23% in the first quarter of 2020, then accelerated into 40% growth in the second quarter. 

In the early days of the pandemic, streaming video ads focused largely on general awareness, but Philip Smolin, chief strategy and revenue officer at the advertising platform Amobee, says brands can now be more direct with sales pitches on streaming. 

“For example, six months ago, food delivery services were pretty focused on educating consumers as to why you should use food delivery,” Smolin says. “Now, they’re focused not on getting new customers into the segment, but on share shifting—why you should use us and switch away from a competitor.” 

COVID-19 restrictions vary by state and region, so it may prove difficult to determine how individuals and crowds in ads are depicted as it relates to a location. Masks or no mask? Attending a live concert or a virtual music show? Allen Adamson, a branding industry expert and author of “BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep it Simple and Succeed” and “The Edge: 50 Tips from Brands That Lead,” says brands should depict behavior they’d like their employees to exhibit. For example, when filming in an Amazon warehouse or its retail stores, ask the actors to wear masks to match Amazon’s policy. 

Overall, it’s better to focus on nationwide purchasing trends during the pandemic, rather than worrying about differences in COVID-19 regulations. Smolin raises the example of pet ownership: Historically, there were consumers who owned pets and those who did not. But the pandemic spurred many to adopt, which means that pet food companies need to tweak their messaging to better target all the new first-time owners, in addition to veteran animal lovers. 

The more pressing regional concern is whether orders can be fulfilled in different parts of the country. “Your advertising should be aware of the status of your supply chain and of your competitors’ supply chains,” Smolin says. “If you don’t have product on the shelves, stop advertising in that area to drive people into the store to buy the products that you don’t have. … But the flip side is, let’s say that a major brand is out of stock on the shelves, but a minor brand has stock. All of a sudden, there’s a reason for that minor brand to advertise more aggressively in that region.” 

Maximize any and all opportunities on streaming by returning to what compelled some consumers to watch—rather than skip—ads before COVID-19. Francesca Valsesia, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington, says humor is making a comeback. 

“There is a lot of research that shows when we are too close to an event, we cannot make fun of it,” she says. “Now, we’re getting to the point where people accept some humor around [relatable quarantine] topics.” 

Let the creative department run wild. Adamson recommends straying from obvious punchlines, such as how every day in quarantine feels like “Groundhog Day.” Consumers are ready to be distracted from daily doldrums and consider what the world might look like after the pandemic subsides. In fact, feel free to promote pandemic-unfriendly activities such as vacations and live shows as an eventual activity to look forward to and plan. 

While streaming remains the hot format, Smolin encourages brands to continue advertising on traditional television. The format has seen a decline in ad revenue over the course of the pandemic, which may signal an opportunity for advertisers. For example, one of the biggest players, ViacomCBS, saw a 27% decrease in advertising revenue in Q2. Smolin says this deficit can provide brands with the opportunity to make demands: better placement for the price, malleable contracts and the ability to quickly adjust media buys if consumers once again change their viewing habits during the pandemic. He also recommends paying attention to live sports, which are making a comeback. 

Smolin recommends approaching streaming and live TV the same way. Ads on both are long-form and professionally produced. Along those lines, consider streaming and broadcast strategy as one and the same. “Doing so enables you to apply the same audience strategy to both channels and use them for complementary reach, while also eliminating media overlap and waste,” he says. “With [connected TV] inventory now representing more than 10% of all TV, this has become a must-have strategy.” 

Bedroom >> Social Media Advertising

miniature bedroom model

The best of us have fallen prey to the endless scroll—mindlessly thumbing through Instagram or Twitter feeds. The trend is pronounced when consumers wake up and before they go to bed. The text message marketing agency SlickText found that 87% of smartphone users check their phones within one hour of waking up or falling asleep—69% can’t wait more than five minutes in the morning to check. 

Usage has also permeated the rest of the day. “People are bored: They are home more, they’re not going into the office,” says Akvile DeFazio, president and consultant at the social media ad agency AKvertise. “They might be sidetracked during work and browse social channels. It’s where people get news the fastest.” 

Stand out in the endless scroll by taking advantage of video whenever possible. DeFazio points to the fact that Facebook and Instagram allocate 70% of their inventory to video ads, and their algorithms favor video over text. Videos can be easily and quickly processed by consumers and, quite simply, moving images are more effective in capturing consumer attention, even when scrolled by in a blur. 

Video reigns, but DeFazio discourages marketers from advertising on TikTok right now. Between a potential U.S. ban on downloads and uncertainty surrounding its ownership, the future of the short video-based platform is in flux. Instead, take advantage of the video features on Instagram and Snapchat— particularly Instagram’s Reels, its answer to TikTok. DeFazio also expects IGTV, Instagram’s home for longer-form video content, to begin offering advertising. 

As with streaming video, social media ads needn’t adopt a serious tone to capture consumer attention. Play around with interactive tech such as augmented reality, craft visually compelling charts, host user-generated content and ratchet up the creativity. Valsesia suggests adopting this mindset: “How can we give you five minutes of fun?” 

“This is not just about the pandemic,” Valsesia says. “This is generally a trend that we have been seeing—I don’t think it’s going away.” 

Ads might feel looser and more playful, but don’t become too cavalier about ignoring the pandemic. DeFazio recommends eliminating phrasing that might remind consumers of COVID-19 no-nos. “We made sure not to use copy that spoke to anything being touched, like ‘hand-delivered’ or ‘handcrafted,’” she says. “We noticed that things like that were having a bit of a negative impact on our performance.” 

Most social media platforms offer brands the flexibility to fine-tune their ad placements with the use of social media block lists. This is where brands identify companies and organizations they wouldn’t want to be next to when running ads, such as political groups or a competitor whose language has been insensitive. 

Above all, stay current—the news can change on a dime these days. The endless scroll updates users in real time, and the last thing a brand wants is to appear tone deaf. 

Office >> Desktop Ads

miniature office model

The corporate advertising world has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Because many workers no longer travel to the office, conferences or sales calls, fewer opportunities exist to advertise at airports, inside taxis and at national trade shows. Phones were the preferred method of communication for work travel, but now most employees are strapped to their desktop computers. 

Valsesia recommends using email and banner ads for the sole purpose of driving consumers to a brand’s website, where more compelling content awaits. Ads can feel static, but those promoting games, a video series, interactive tours and audience polls located on the brand’s site are more engaging. Because colleagues are primarily communicating with each other over chat programs, there’s an opportunity to make your ad shareable and potentially reach a broader audience. Minimize the number of clicks as well—a single tap should point directly to the content and reduce the chance a consumer would bounce. 

“People want to be engaged, they are feeling lonely,” Valsesia says. “Brands have the opportunity here to substitute the humans that people have been missing to some extent [by] having an engaged relationship.” 

Targeting is of the utmost importance, and Smolin recommends brands tie their CRM data to their ad tech platform. “By using an integrated audience strategy, you can better manage the consumer journey, using the right message at the right journey stage for each consumer, and significantly reducing the paid media budget you’re wasting due to overexposure of your campaigns to individual consumers,” he says. 

Be careful not to go overboard, particularly with banner ads. Valsesia warns that consumers are still creeped out when they search for a product on Amazon, then notice banner ads for that product popping into every website they visit. This ad targeting strategy will soon be irrelevant anyway, as forthcoming changes to Google’s cookie privacy policy in 2021 will render it null and void. Under the new guidelines, Google Chrome will no longer store third-party cookies, which consumers find invasive, and will instead implement yet-to-be-finalized technology to collect user data without sharing personal data across multiple websites. Every piece of information will remain anonymous. 

Kitchen >> Advertising Alongside How-Tos

miniature kitchen model

One of the most pronounced trends in the pandemic is the adoption of do-it-yourself projects around the house. For example, sales at Lowe’s are up 35.1% since the pandemic began, and Home Depot sales saw a 25% increase in the second quarter of the year. 

Consumers are often turning to YouTube and Pinterest for help in completing their projects. Pinterest grew 55% year over year between 2017-2019, and Forbes forecasts it to grow at least 34% in 2020. YouTube’s own trend report found that searches for the phrase “at home” went up 700% since the start of the pandemic, including a 515% increase in “home workout” and a 458% increase in videos about baking sourdough bread. Even searches for the phrase “raising chickens” increased 160%. 

Ads around DIY content, particularly on YouTube and Pinterest, should be more actionable than those found on streaming video or other social media platforms. “Consumers are in a very different mindset when they are searching for information, versus leisurely consuming content, whether it’s TV, radio or social media,” Valsesia says. “They are ready to be engaged, but also focused on a goal-directed activity.” 

Ads on these two platforms appear alongside the content itself. YouTube ads run before, after or during a video in progress. Pinterest allows brands to purchase promoted pins that appear in search results among user-generated pins. These can appear as videos, static images or a carousel of photos—Pinterest also offers advertisers the functionality to let customers purchase products directly from the pin. Placement of all ads is customizable by keywords. 

Help consumers start on their DIY project right away by tailoring the ad and its placement to the type of project consumers are searching for. Warren Jolly, CEO of the digital strategy agency adQuadrant, raises the example of a treehouse. If a consumer is looking up tips on building a treehouse, Jolly says an effective ad serves as a mirror: Depict a family using a brand’s tools to construct something cool. 

“The goal here is to make sure your ad does not feel like an ad or commercial, and instead, you are inserting your brand in a natural way that coincides with the mindset of the consumer,” Jolly says. 

Both Pinterest and YouTube are search engines in addition to content platforms, so it’s of paramount importance that ads contain proper keywords where appropriate. Pinterest has built-in keyword modifiers, for instance. Once a search is completed, the platform will list other words that can be added to the query to better narrow down results—such as the color of the clothing a user is searching for. Make note and incorporate some of these related keywords into the ad, a strategy that can be applied to YouTube as well.

Steve Heisler is a staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.