By Yara Ohashi, iStock’s Head of Digital Marketing in the Americas and APAC
One year ago, it became clear that COVID-19 lockdowns would last far longer than just a few weeks, which meant in turn that business leaders would necessarily need to navigate a much longer period of uncertainty. But now, given the passage of time and that vaccination plans are squarely in place in the U.S., the sense that “normal” is on the horizon is blooming—just in time for spring.
While every part of the business community has been affected by ever-changing regulations, closing and re-openings, as well as health and safety guidelines, impacts to the small business community have been significant. The need to consistently reach out to and communicate with customers as things unfolded in real-time became best practice, which meant that the need for accurate and authentic imagery became even greater. To give you a feel for what businesses and brands were seeking, we’ve pulled together a list of the top search terms on iStock during 2020 to arrive at a few insights which could help guide the SMB community as it moves forward into our brave new world.
What these search trends show is informative, but not necessarily surprising, and small businesses can learn from thousands of other SMBs, entrepreneurs and prosumers (the industry term for creatives and content creators looking for top-notch videos and imagery to use within their work) to get in front of timely trends that could help them get a secure stronger footing in the second half of 2021.
Continued demand for remote options
First off, small business leaders can expect the in-office vs. remote work debate to continue to heat up. As businesses start to consider returning to the office and vaccination rates increase, what would have been at one point a no-brainer to return to the office has become complicated by the fourth wave of infections, combined with employee expectations for greater flexibility.
In 2020, out of one million search terms, “work from home” ranked 16th. It’s no surprise then that the term “working from home” was trending up significantly as well, but what is fairly interesting is that the term “business” trended down. In fact, we found that many searches focused on what work looks like today, meaning there were fewer searches for business people in offices or dressed in business attire, and more depicting professionals in virtual settings or in non-traditional work environments.
This shift is not only important for leadership at all levels as they consider options that may be right for them and their teams, but it’s also important for anyone who sits in a marketing seat, as it should help inform the sort of communications they might need to consider pushing out.
Rethinking the role of tech
We’ve all had to reckon with our own use of technology over the past year, and this fresh reality was reflected through iStock’s search data as businesses sought to rethink the role of technology as a “connector.”
Searches for “webinar” and “virtual meeting” rose significantly, proof of a desire to better illustrate how the digital world helps us continue to share information and connect with the world around us. For small businesses, this demand created an opportunity—instead of simply going back to the way things were, this increased use of technological tools could be employed to expand local audience reach and more generally, better serve both customers and employees.
Interestingly enough, the emphasis shown by iStock’s search data centers on how we use technology. For instance, we found that the term “technology” itself trended downward in 2020, as well as the term “social media.” For businesses, these slight decreases don’t mean that using cutting-edge technology or social media to reach customers won’t still be important in the future, but rather that the focus will be on how we use these tools.
This dynamic tension between the interest in new technologies and the focus on how they are used reflects earlier trends that were first identified through iStock’s Visual GPS research endeavor, which showed that consumers craved the convenience of technology, but not at the expense of human interaction. This dichotomy took on new meaning during the pandemic when technology offered (for many) the only source for human interaction.
Creating space for empathy
Lastly, our searches indicate that now, more than ever, it’s crucial for business leaders to demonstrate empathy towards others—their employees and their customers.
Now that we’re a year-plus in, it’s tempting to talk about our “new normal” and how adaptable we all have proven to be during an extremely challenging year. But there are still many who are struggling with this virus, the after-effects, financial ramifications and so many more. It’s clear from our data that COVID-19 has brought the need for human connection to the absolute center—with searches for “Family,” “Community,” “Thanksgiving”, and “Christmas” all ranking in the top ten overall searches on iStock in 2020. While COVID-related searches claim the top three spots for obvious reasons, it’s clear Americans are still yearning for the comfort of holiday traditions, celebrations and the support of loved ones.
In practice, this means maintaining awareness of the struggles the past year has brought for everyone, employees and customers alike. Internally, that may apply to the conversation around remote vs, in-office work, or having greater flexibility or compassion when employees are moving through a challenging moment. Externally, this awareness should ideally inform how small businesses market or promote their products or services, to ensure a sensitive, savvy approach.
What is just as clear is that these themes of prioritized connection and community also mean that people are seeking to support local businesses and play a part in the post-COVID-19 rebuilding process, as are small businesses and entrepreneurs themselves.