Tell Me a Story: What’s it all mean?

The COVID-19 crisis has administered a collective shock to our equilibrium.

It is, of course, a “novel” virus – a new strain of the previously-known coronavirus and, with this “new” has come disruption we could scarcely have imagined.

It can be hard to adjust to the new, even under the best circumstances, which these are most certainly not. This new virus has entered with devastating speed and repercussions – taking a wrecking ball to our status quo.

Brado studies the new. We look at how consumers respond to the new — sometimes resisting it, sometimes embracing it — and advise our clients on how to usher in and adapt to the new within their organizations.

We do this using many data sources – observational, survey, field research and more – but as fast-moving as this is, with so many of us sheltering at home and spending more time online, Brado’s has increasingly relied on search data for insight into the great “database of intentions” – what people, consumers specifically, are trying to know, find and do.

We’ve applied this lens to COVID-19. An initial post found many trying to understand coronavirus at the most basic level: “What is it?” or “How contagious is it?” or “What are the symptoms?”

A subsequent post detected a second phase in the consumer coronavirus journey — one distinctly colored by fear and anxiety. We saw search was now done with a greater intensity, motivated by the magnitude of the threat, but also by the many gaps in what was actually known: How to treat? Where will it spread? How long will it last? How many will die?

We have continued to mine for attitudinal and behavioral trends. Our Chief Technology Officer, A.J. Ghergich has, with others, observed how specific searches on particular symptoms – like loss of smell – have, in different geographies, actually anticipated the outbreak and acceleration of reported cases.

We’re seeing many consumers moving along a common journey of coping and adapting to this crisis by a very clear search for meaning. This stage of adjustment is what we call “sense-making.”

The following images, replete with Google autocompletion, suggest the type of knowledge that consumers are reaching for.

We find questions on what the coronavirus is and how it’s transmitted are now complemented by assessments about the true level of the risk and even its veracity:

Thus “Covid is airborne” is likely to share visibility with more subjective evaluations like “Covid is….

  • getting worse
  • man made
  • a hoax

Nerves are unmistakably fraying in these queries. We’re in new territory and, not surprisingly, the process of sense-making means one person’s common sense might be another’s nonsense. The varieties of search alert us to different segments of concern and, in turn, very different perceptions of COVID-19’s threat, magnitude and appropriate response.

What this means is our search behavior is clearly both a window and a mirror for a roiling set of emotions. The “don’t tell me I have to shelter” protests we’re seeing have become a sort of physical correlate to the emotions we’re seeing in autocompleted search phrases.

As another proof point, public health measures like social distancing have also become the target of new appraisals – and are starting to veer away from previous straightforward queries about distancing’s importance, effectiveness and instructions, and are now moving toward value-laden language pointing to a cross-cutting range of emotions about distancing behavior, effects and duration.

Thus “will social distancing…”

  • change the world
  • save trillions
  • last till 2022

Coping with COVID-19 is and will be a steep challenge for all of us. Gaps in our knowledge and the uncertainty hanging over our future can inspire fear and evoke a sense of dread. Human behavior, reflected through search behavior, is continually evolving from the most basic understanding to the most emotionally complex queries.

In just this way, search analysis – even the most basic sort illustrated here – can provide some reassurance that we’re not alone in our need to make sense of it all; that this anxiety is shared, as is the need to imagine some larger significance to what we’re all experiencing. Much like “Once upon a time” stories read to us as children, the collective storytelling context of a beginning, a middle and an end helps us cope.

Our search behavior reveals an irrepressible aspect of human activity – our persistent need to discern meaning to reach for deeper significance, even in the face of a difficult reality. As the psychologist Viktor Frankl proposed, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Jim Fisher, Ph.D.

Jim Fisher, Ph.D., is a senior strategic advisor at Brado, bridging the gap between academic research and marketing practice. He has extensive experience in business consulting and training, having served clients across a wide range of industries, including healthcare and consumer packaged goods. He is also a professor of marketing at Saint Louis University, where he teaches marketing strategy, business ethics, decision-making and brand communications. He makes extensive use of the case study method in his teaching and consulting, and he has written scores of cases and is a Past-President of the North American Case Research Association. He did his graduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (marketing) and Yale University (theology).

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