Where’s My Herd?
Connecting with Consumers in a Post-COVID World
by Clay Dethloff

  • Connecting With Consumers

    We are a couple of months into COVID-19, and by now, almost all of us have experienced some form of “self-quarantining,” “sheltering in place,” or “distancing” to help control the pandemic.

    Realistically, we are still in the middle of things as of this writing, and each week brings something new—new challenges, new opportunities, new rules/guidelines, etc. And yet at this time, we are also starting to focus on the future, and conversations are beginning again about “getting back to normal,” or a “new normal,” when this is over.

    Regardless of the “when,” watercooler (or more correctly, Zoom) conversations are turning to what the normal will be like in the future. A key part of our life that may be changed in the future is what a consumer group is, and their associations with “groups.” People by nature seek to belong to groups, and a general sense of community is important and needed, but what will it look like in the future? Jerry Thomas’ recent post, The New World After COVID-19, talked about several aspects that the pandemic would impact, and when talking about groups, succinctly pointed out that...Social interaction is a deep human need.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the fact that from a human standpoint, many of the “groups” and group affiliations we are part of and have been accustomed to have basically gone away or been put on hold as we distance ourselves from others. Not in recent history have our groups and our “communities” been dissolved or changed so quickly. Our typical groups or the “herds we run with” are often no longer our primary herds at this time. In fact, in most instances the immediate family has become the herd we run with. In addition to herding with families, it seems many people (whether by need or desire) seem to be circling their wagons in a tighter, more intimate, circle, keeping in contact with, and checking on, a smaller group of close friends and family. Gone, or on hold, are the days when we went broad with relationships; looking for “likes” or “follows” on social media accounts.

As we think about this “new normal” from a group and connectedness standpoint, and what exactly it will look like, we really do not know at this point. Could it go back as before or are current changes going to result in more permanent trends? Schools are now conducting virtual learning; workplaces have become our homes, athletic activities have ceased for the moment. Churches and other associations/organizations are trying to “find their way” with members unable to be with each other physically. The recent NFL draft was held “virtually,” and as a side note, I personally thought it was much more fun and enjoyable to see the draftees getting the news in their own homes surrounded by their families jumping up and down. As a whole, and across the board, our interactions with others at this point have changed. From a consumer standpoint, what herds or groups will we be a part of when this is over? And what will the groups look like, think like, and be motivated by?

The tearing apart of our groups or herds is going to definitely impact a business’s ability to get back on track as they seek to find ways to reach their customers and potential customers moving forward. Historically, businesses, organization, and associations used various grouping methods to try to reach different people in different ways, including:

  • Those people living in or near the same place (consider those in close proximity to our store, office, or restaurant).
  • Those having particular characteristic(s) or traits in common (think of segmentation schemes used to find commonalities across larger geographic areas).
  • Those who are early adaptors of a new technology, or process.
  • Those “groups” who share common experiences; (think of veterans returning from World War II, [or any other war], those who may be sharing a common illness or condition, or those who follow their favorite sports team).

From a business standpoint, these approaches have been fairly “stable” over the last fifty years. Nothing has really had an impact on the way we think about groups; and “yes,” there have been regional or local disruptions as well as events of shorter duration, but this time it seems different. It’s affecting most everyone, it’s longer, and it’s nationwide (actually worldwide).

Some specific examples one could see coming out of this that will affect businesses are: Will consumers who have personally experienced COVID-19 now be more likely to join with others in staying at home, rather than supporting their local diner down the street? Will the recently unemployed worker migrate from a segment that typically “wants to impress others,” to one that wants to “take care of their family”? How many of those who have considered it in the past will now “home school” their children moving forward?

Businesses must proactively think about what “herds” people will end up in as the pandemic continues and ends. We must consider what groups are going to look like in the future; and how will we, as organizations, reach and communicate with those groups. Along these same lines, we have to be on the lookout to see if these changes in our consumer groups and herds are more permanent or more fleeting. Chances are that some changes in their groups and herds will “stick” and some will not; some people will want to get back to normal as soon as possible; and some will find themselves forever changed. Moving forward, it will be imperative that businesses find, monitor, and keep that connection with the customer in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

About the Author

Clay Dethloff (cdethlo@decisionanalyst.com) is Senior Vice President, Director of Qualitative Research at Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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