How the Pandemic Has Amplified Growth in Digital Media

Online content consumption is surging and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. The pandemic has only amplified trends we have been seeing over the past five years. Analysts and industry hawks are in overdrive as they interpret how Covid-19 has changed our media habits—possibly permanently. Let’s walk through some of the most significant findings and provide context as to how our digital consumption habits are evolving.

Edison Research’s latest blog The Infinite Dial reports that amid the pandemic, U.S. adults spent seven hours and 50 minutes per day consuming digital media, up 15 percent from six hours and 49 minutes per day in 2019, which is the biggest increase since 2012.

In fact, according to eMarkerter smartphones are driving a significant amount of this shift in time, with usage now surpassing three hours per day for the first time in 2020 (3:13 up from 2:45 in 2019). While digital sources have long been a top source of news and information, Nielson reports that year-over-year, the U.S. saw a 215 percent increase in time spent on mobile devices accessing current events and global news. This increase cannot be ignored. While usage is beginning to normalize, media habits adopted during the pandemic are here to stay, and as smartphones and devices become more and more accessible, we will only see these numbers increase. This mobile platform will continue to be a cost-efficient way to add message frequency to any digital campaign.

Perhaps no one has benefitted more from the surge in time spent with digital media than streaming video services. Over-the-top-TV (OTT) adaption is a growing media channel. As of April 2020, the total OTT households in the U.S. grew 9.5 percent year-over-year, a boost heavily influenced by COVID-19.


Streaming now accounts for 25 percent of all television minutes viewed, with Netflix being the largest contributor, followed by YouTube and Disney+, which has grown remarkably since its introduction, exceeding all expectations in terms of audience growth.

Users of all ages have adapted to the platforms, including adults older than 55 who now account for 26 percent of all streaming minutes viewed. This is up almost 37 percent from just one year ago, reports Nielson.

While streaming services have seen tremendous growth accelerated by the pandemic, the cable cord-cutting movement has also been boosted. At the start of the shutdowns, consumers tightened their budgets, live sports and events were canceled, and cable providers were canceling their promotional pricing.  According to a recent report from eMarketer, while there are still more pay-TV households in the U.S. than there are those who do not have a paid cable subscription, that number has declined 7.5 percent year-over-year, the biggest decline ever. It is estimated that by 2024 non-pay TV households will outpace pay television households for the first time.

Digital Media Growth Trends Continue

Industry experts predict that digital media will hold its growth in 2021, and although the pace will slow, the trajectory is expected to remain strong.  The number of platforms in which consumers have video subscriptions may have hit a plateau. Forty-four percent of consumers subscribe to an average of three to five paid streaming services and do not plan to add more, however, 67 percent said they also do not plan to cancel any of their existing subscriptions.

Advertising Impact

With this increase in consumption also comes an increase in available ad impressions. A recent survey conducted by TransUnion finds global ad impressions on mobile devices saw a 32 percent increase in Q1 of 2020 while available impressions on OTT devices saw a 182 percent increase over the same time just a year before. This has meant record-low cost-per-million (CPM) impression levels for advertisers who were willing to invest in digital media.  Time spent with digital media has begun to normalize as people are returning to their typical daily lives.

What does all of this mean for the market? There are some rich advertising opportunities that your competitors might be overlooking. For example, marketers should take advantage of the current record-low CPMs by testing new streaming video channels they may otherwise have not included in their advertising plans. OTT is here to stay and now is the time to put it to work for your brand. If you didn’t think television advertising was possible, it’s time to reconsider. OTT allows brands to effectively sell with compelling video content, precisely targeted, at cost levels that are a fraction of traditional television.

How the Pandemic Changed Audio

In a year that resulted in media habits being disrupted and time spent in vehicles significantly decrease, The Edison Research Share of Ear Q4 2020 report shows that audio consumption is holding steady.  Streaming and podcasts continue to steal share of ear time, and while daily in-car listening rebounded in Q3, it slightly dipped (-7 percent) in Q4 2020 and has yet to fully bounce back to pre-Covid levels. This can perhaps be attributed to consumers shifting from traditional in-office employment to remote work. On a national scale, adults are listing to four hours of audio a day and 56.2 percent of that time is spent with streaming or podcasts, while 43.8 percent of that time is spent with terrestrial AM/FM radio.  This is a 4.6 percent decrease from Q3 2020.  It is likely we will continue to see that number decline as more and more consumers adapt to streaming and podcast options and the in-car technology continues to become more prevalent.

In the Milwaukee market each month after Covid, the total weekly cumulative audience (cume) listener numbers climbed higher until the dreaded second surge began in November/December. (Nielsen Jan19-Dec20 Milwaukee-Racine PPM P12+.)

So far in Q1 2021, weekly cume listener numbers remain slightly below December 2020.  It is likely these numbers will not fully recover from the COVID dip for months, or at all.  However, it is important to keep in mind that the dust hasn’t settled yet. A recent Gallop poll published in U.S. News & World Report found that 56 percent of American workers were always or sometimes working from home still in January 2021. Without that daily commute, terrestrial in-car listening will continue to decline.

Advertisers should continue to support terrestrial radio as the loyal listeners are still there.  Station avails are plentiful and rates are negotiable for increased message frequency.  Platform frequency is important.  Follow your listeners and insert on both platforms as budget allows for optimal audience frequency in this fragmented media marketplace.