At Penguin Random House, direct communication and relationships with readers are key to marketplace success, and strong consumer marketing and outreach begin with understanding our audience. Read on to discover key consumer needs that have arisen in the past few unprecedented months, and learn how PRH is tracking them.
PRH has been investing in consumer insights and marketing analytics for more than ten years, and our Consumer Insights team serves multiple functions. We dive deeply into the core audiences for specific books and author brands and partner with marketing teams to make recommendations on how best to reach those audiences. We conduct primary research with readers via surveys or online focus groups among our 90,000-member reader panel. We also help our organization understand what is on consumers’ minds by unpacking essential marketplace context that informs what readers need from us.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States hard in mid-March and our office-based workforce began working remotely, we experienced massive upheaval, as did consumers. To help our teams orient around the changing marketplace, we kicked off a weekly reporting series called Shifting Consumer Needs (and the Books that Solve Them). Each week for the past sixteen weeks we’ve unpacked essential context around consumer behavior and, where appropriate, highlighted books and authors that provided readers exactly what they needed at that moment, whether that be fiction, nonfiction, puzzles and games, workbooks, or something else.
For the first eleven weeks of this series, consumer needs were really born out of the impacts of the pandemic. But a few weeks ago, the landscape shifted massively once again when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and many around the country rallied around the Black Lives Matter movement and against systemic racism and oppression, with protests in 400 cities across all states. These events changed the national conversation, and readers reached for books to help educate themselves and their children about systemic racism and to elevate Black authors and bookstores.
So, while this insights series began as a response to the global pandemic, it continues as an exploration of consumer needs amidst an ever-changing landscape. Here are a few of the lasting shifts in consumer behavior and needs we’ve seen over the past sixteen weeks:
1. Comfort with all things digital. Quarantines and lockdowns led consumers to take on brand-new digital behaviors or lean further into things they were already doing online, whether that’s streaming media, meeting virtually (for both work and fun), or shopping. 96 percent of consumers say they are consuming more digital media than before the pandemic (GlobalWebIndex). Daily Zoom meeting participants went from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020 (Zoom blog). Online grocery shopping grew 110 percent in April (Adobe Digital Economy Index). eBook reading has grown in popularity since mid-March (sales reporting). Comfort with these digital behaviors will stick around post-pandemic, which will certainly have an impact on the way readers discover and shop for books.
2. Wellness takes on new meaning. The nation was already in a mental health crisis going into this pandemic. It’s more pressing than ever for consumers to feel and stay well. We’re seeing consumers gravitate to the full spectrum of wellness, from “mindful distractions” like puzzles, games, and adult coloring books to “healthy lifestyle” books like Mediterranean and vegan cookbooks to more full-on wellness books like meditation guides, practical self-help, and astrology. For example, sales of puzzles jumped 150 percent from February to March (NPD).
3. Family time is a blessing and a challenge. Families have been home together for months and those with young children felt the pressure early on. Caretakers became responsible for keeping children educated and busy, flocking to workbooks and activity books in droves. Children in stable homes have been relishing the extra family time. Teens are even taking book recommendations from their parents! As we move into the summer, families are still struggling with whether it is safe to send children out of the home for care or camp. We expect this to continue across many parts of the country in the fall when children will likely be in hybrid learning models—part in-person classrooms, part remote learning. Almost half of parents note they’re struggling to do their jobs, according to data from Ipsos.
4. More time spent indoors is fostering greater appreciation for the great outdoors. After being cooped up inside, folks are finding ways to get outside and stay safe. From grilling and gardening to camping and birdwatching, folks are trying to stay connected to nature. For example, social listening reveals a 281 percent jump in birdwatching photos posted on social media this March to June vs. last year (Brandwatch).
5. Desire for human connection. Many are separated from their loved ones, and their desire to stay in touch, have real conversations, and actually connect is at an all-time high. Families sought to make celebrations like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduations, and birthdays feel special even while virtual, and the gift of books has been a powerful way to express the sentiments of different occasions. 57 percent of readers in the PRH Insights Panel are interested in virtual author events, and we’ve seen online book clubs serving readers’ needs to connect during this time.
6. A dramatic shift in priorities toward social justice. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and sadly many others at the hands of police, readers are demanding social justice and showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the related protests against police brutality. Now 76 percent of Americans say racial discrimination in the United States is a big problem, up from 51 percent in 2015 (NPR). This sentiment is much stronger among younger consumers, who say this is the number-one issue in our country (YPulse). Consumers are seeking ways to educate themselves and their children through antiracism titles, and renewing their commitment to and enthusiasm about reading and amplifying Black authors across genres.
With profound changes in the cultural landscape, readers’ needs are changing and evolving rapidly. Being aware of these needs is critical in ensuring we’re advocating for the voice of the reader within Penguin Random House, optimizing our product mix to meet their needs, and using resonant messages to communicate with readers in the right places. We plan to continue this insights series for the foreseeable future to ensure we at Penguin Random House bring a consumer focus to all aspects of our business.
Erica Curtis is Vice President and Director of Marketing Strategy, Consumer Insights & Analytics at Penguin Random House.
Grant Griglak is Director, Consumer & Marketplace Insights at Penguin Random House.