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Here in the United Kingdom, the coronavirus pandemic struck in the tail end of the first quarter. For Cognito, a round of drinks on Friday, March 13, wound up being the last time the entire office assembled in person.

The timing was interesting, as we had just finished the sometimes-winding process of planning and goal-setting for the year ahead. We set expectations for our clients and for our business, and developed systematic ways of checking progress.

Then corona happened. Long-term goals were thrown out in exchange for survival. Marketing became a day-by-day, hour-by-hour exercise. 

Three months later, with the first (and hopefully most acute) phase of the crisis winding down, the Cognito London office hosted a forum to talk with our colleagues, clients and friends to take stock. We wanted to explore how people had coped with the changes forced by the crisis, and what lessons would be taken forward. 

A new forum

The panel itself was an attempt to explore what might be possible in this new communication age. Three members of the Cognito London office presented their insights and learnings.

We then opened the conversation up to the audience, taking questions, soliciting responses and generally debating (under the Chatham House rule, and with participants capped). It was our virtual experiment to reconstruct the side chatter and networking that are usually the most interesting parts of these events.

Here's what we learned.

In media, fewer journalists with less time 

The British media market has been severely impacted by plunging advertising spending. More than 2,000 temporary or permanent layoffs have been announced. While the majority of these have been in the local media away from London, publications important to the financial industry such as City AM, The Guardian and Quartz have seen cuts. A bright spot has been the global business wires and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Financial Times, who leverage their large base of corporate and individual memberships. 

With fewer journalists comes new behaviour. Andrew Marshall, sharing consensus from internal conversation, said that journalists are harder to reach and more choosing about the subject matter they cover. Media roundtables can work to have one expert meet several journalists, but only for quantitative-forward topics such as investment trends. 

Also increasing in importance is the use of technology in sorting through information. Publications are using technology to filter out irrelevant pitches: If a pitch isn’t hyper targeted with specific keywords, it runs the risk of triggering a spam alert and blacklisting an email domain.

Journalists are increasingly savvy in how they pull data and information, tapping into programmable scrapers to pull data from websites and measure spokesperson quality.

Marketers wonder where to put resources

Events have been disseminated by the pandemic. Tightly packed sustained contact is a pitch-perfect scenario for transmission. If socially distant visits in the park are slowly being allowed, large indoor assemblies will be one of the last things to resume. 

That doesn’t mean that event organisers, whose lifeblood depends on gatherings, aren’t experimental. Some of moving their events online, either in one-to-many presentations or more of a discussion format.

Everything right now is amorphous and ripe for change – be it sponsorship prices, speakers or event fees. The same goes for the ‘return’ to events.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Money 20/20 will be able to host ‘exclusive’/slimmed down events in the autumn for Europe and Amsterdam. Sibos and other providers have thrown in the towel for this year, doing some virtual content and planning for a 2021 return. 

With events largely off the table, some organisations are re-diverting funds. Paid search has remained steady even as overall media and advertising budgets have fallen. Niche keywords in financial services have even spiked as providers compete against limited search volume. It remains vital to test hypotheses in search with paid, before committing to larger projects. 

Social networks are taking advantage of increased screen time to innovate. LinkedIn is seeing “record levels of engagement.” The company reported a 26 percent rise in sessions for the quarter and reached a record total of 675 million global users.

The newly launched polls feature allows for users to canvas opinions and get feedback, while LinkedIn Virtual Event allows brands to create and broadcast video events rather inside the platform. The feature is so new that no one at our event had actually used it yet – although the idea generated significant interest. 

A new era

As an industry, we don’t know the absolute answer to many of the questions posed both in this forum and through the many private discussions that take place through Slack, Teams happy hours and email chains in the past few months. Will event organizers retain any pricing power? Can journalists really turn every source into a number? Will the role of research increase? 

But what we can keep doing is meeting and talking through these issues. By combining our individual tiles, we can slowly create the mosaic that points the way forward for the industry. 

Jon Schubin works in Cognito’s London office