One of the challenges we have in radio is continuing to reflect the vibe and mood of the audience – no matter where you live and the community you serve. While COVID proves something we consultants have said forever – every market's different – there are some fascinating consistencies and trends that have emerged from this national and local tragedy.
The obvious macro effects of COVID – aside from its impact on our health and mortality – has revolved around with whom and how we spend our time. Many people are still isolated, especially given their pre-COVID lifestyle patterns. And most people say they have not resumed their regular activities.
We asked that question in our recent Public Radio Techsurvey, conducted in partnership with PRPD. In June and July, we asked our 19,000+ well-educated public radio fans about whether they feel comfortable resuming their pre-pandemic activities. And the response was a resounding “NO.” Nearly two-thirds say aren't venturing out a whole lot.
So, aside from working remotely, home schooling, and watching Netflix, what are they doing?
They're hanging out with their pets – dressing them up, using them in TikTok videos, showing them off, and simply bonding with these furry friends that always give us their unconditional love, no matter what kind of day we've had or difficulties we've encountered.
And one of the trends that's been bubbling under the radar is that pet ownership – especially dogs – has spiked since COVID invaded our lives. If you think you've been seeing more pet commercials on TV these last many months, you're probably right. From food to clothing to medication, pets have become prominent marketing tools for scores of companies and brands.
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Last month, a story in Supermarket News detailed the fortunes being made on pet-related projects. Market researchers Packaged Facts says the pet market is estimated to hit $59 billion in 2020 – up an impressive 8% from a year ago.
While pet services (dog walking, etc.) have been hurt by COVID, pet food is soaring. And one of the reasons why is that more people adopt pets during tough times. An important marker was the Great Recession which saw a jump in U.S. households becoming dog owners – up from 34.9% in 2007 to 38.1% just four years later. That's a lot of families with canines under the roof, and apparently, this pattern is being repeated in 2020.
That's borne out by the fact that 5% of American families adopted a dog in the 90-day period that coincided with the start of COVID. Additionally, 4% adopted a cat, and that same percentage also acquired other pets, like reptiles and small mammals. (Hopefully, Tiger King didn't spur the adoption of exotic pets.)
And of course, every time someone gets a new pet, other purchases occur – food, bedding, grooming products, vets. And that's what contributes to the “pet economy.” And observers agree the trend took flight in the years following 9/11 when the idea of “pets as family” went mainstream. And in these COVID days, it will likely intensify.
I didn't do a content analysis on my Facebook or Instagram pages, but it sure feels like pet pictures, jokes, captions, and stunts of furry friends have captured a whole lot of “social real estate” since the beginnings of COVID.
I swipe through Facebook Stories, it's easy to run across “friends” who are using their pets to communicate their emotion of the moment. In fact, pets often dominate what people are talking and thinking about.
Old songs and favorite foods may provide some comfort during the pandemic, but more often than not, what has made so many feel better is that caring companion sitting on our lap, begging for food at the dinner table, or chewing a sandal at the foot of the bed.
The reason they call it “low hanging fruit” is because pet content almost always works – on the radio and off.
And thanks to the same virtual video technology that has now become the way we do conferences, jock meetings, and (for me, at least) focus groups, showing off a favorite furry friend online has become more common (and more interesting) than posting pictures of food.
How that translates into radio station promotion, marketing, fundraising, sponsorships, and even morning show content is a challenge I'll leave to all of you. While we always recommend that talent gravitate to topics they know and care about, there may not be a better place to go these days than dogs, cats, and other pets. (You can make the call on lizards and ferrets.)
On the one hand, COVID has put a damper on promotions with pets, especially the in-person (or in-pet) events. But during a global pandemic, a little creativity goes a long way.
MGK morning icon, John DeBella has traditionally hosted his famous “Pet Walk” for years from Green Lane Park, a great way to bond with his audience, help shelters in the Philly area, blow up the station's social pages, and rack up some all-important sponsorship dollars.
This spring, COVID made it impossible for the thousands of dogs (and their human friends) to safely show up for a physical event. So, John turned it into a virtual get-together.
And as we've learned from scores of Zoom meetings, birthdays, and holidays, our pets look as cute and lovable on our screens as they do when they're barking at each other in person.
Speaking of which, those canine friends make for great material on those virtual happy hours hosted by KLOS' morning show, “Heidi & Frank.”
Or whether it's dog stories from KNDD's Gregr and his dog, Chowder, whose “familiarity scores” are likely higher than many Seattle radio air personalities. Listeners enjoy going “behind the scenes” with their favorite personalities, and there's no better way to do that than with pet pics.
Television tends to be a performance. But radio, at its best, is a conversation – often an intimate, personal one. Radio hosts resonate the best when they are most relatable. And sometimes, it's as simple as looking at our own lives – our hopes, fears, and desires – for inspiration.
We made it through the dog days of summer.
This fall, at least we've got our pets.
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