The Evolution of Media During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Joe Mineo
September 2, 2021

Advertising and analytics have changed drastically in the past few years, especially in 2020. This series, “The State of Advertising and Analytics,” will explore the evolution of media, advertising and privacy, the rapid growth of data analytics in marketing, and the future of marketing and analytics, providing useful tips and value along the way.


It’s hard to believe, but some of the biggest digital media players have recently or will soon hit the 15 year mark: Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Hulu, MediaMath, Apple’s iPhone… and yet, it took a few heated election cycles and a global pandemic to force businesses and marketing teams to understand the true value and power of these companies. Along with the players, the game changed, too.

The grim reality

Traditional television, radio and print as we knew them a decade ago are dying, no matter how brightly anyone tries to spin it.

In 2016, I worked behind the scenes for a local talk radio station that was consistently rated among the lowest in the city by normal rankings, but rated top 20 across the country on the company’s entire portfolio of digital streams, across all demographics. I was told that the People Meter readings (how they measure over-the-air radio) were inconsistent for the station, as the core of older listeners died or users forgot to turn them on, which is what caused the discrepancy. The measurement was, and still is, outdated, and is now finally under the scrutiny it deserves.

Advertisers are changing their tune. Businesses don’t want rating points, they want results. People aren’t buying physical newspapers, they aren’t watching local news the way they used to, and if they are, they’re likely watching it on-demand. The worst part of it all is the amount of layoffs, which has affected thousands across the country, including a lot of my friends over the years. I could link dozens of articles from 2014 to now detailing “company restructuring” events, but I want to end the unhappy news here.

“Traditional” media has evolved to include streaming services and digital properties, and as long as they continue to follow those successes, lean into their legacy brands, and provide better measurement, they’ll retain their value—just at a much lesser scale of dominance than they once had.

The happy future

What happened? People have access to news, music, entertainment and information in their hands, on their own time. The attention economy—where attention lives and how it is monetized—shifted from the few media conglomerates setting the schedules to the broader public. Social media brought real-time global socialization to the masses, and people devoured it. People control when they see and hear things, what they say, who they want to say it, and where they want to see it. The stars and artists have direct access, they don’t need their movie deals or record labels to reach their fans. Just as the studio system of the 1950s fell upon the advent of TV, traditional media has fallen upon the advent of digital media.

This seismic shift is a great thing, as it democratizes those media dollars and has arguably created more jobs than have been lost from the failing titans. Sure, the technology itself helped, but it’s the monetization and measurement that’s winning. Facebook and Google figured out how to make money on eyeballs. Hulu and Spotify monetized their massively popular platforms, and everyone gathered insights along the way to help advertisers reach people more effectively.

The election years

Society’s darling, social media, had its own reckoning across three years: 2016, 2018 and 2020. A well-weathered example was the 2016 election, where we all learned that we share way too much information online, and it’s incredibly easy to manipulate people with enough personal data. Facebook took the brunt of the blame, which led to many platforms reorganizing their algorithms and a change in how people consume content.

Feeds went from chronological to “recommended for you,” forever altering our perception of digital reality. Ignored posts from days or weeks ago could pop up and go viral, or catch a second wind with a new audience. Ads got new prioritization in the feed when all the other platforms saw how effective they were. However, instead of job cuts, there were job increases to handle content moderation and customer support. It’s kind of like the myth of Hydra: Platforms can try to slay the data and content manipulation beast, but cut off one head and two will grow back.

The pandemic awakening

If you thought a slow burn and churn over fifteen years was crazy, COVID-19 forced the unwitting masses to kill even more giants in the span of a few months. OTT (think Hulu, SlingTV, Netflix) exploded as people cut cable cords to save money. Hungry for more video, TikTok took off and gave people a new place to complain about politics. Jobless and frustrated, people stormed to LinkedIn and Indeed to make themselves more appealing to employers, or even quit altogether, forcing companies to rethink their hiring procedures. Zoom went from a casual conference call system to the vital lifeblood of business communication. QR codes—something we all forgot about—became the best way for restaurants to serve menus when they didn’t want to waste hundreds of dollars printing disposable options.

All of these changes and rapid adaptations show you just how quickly society moves to the things that work best in the moment. The pandemic was a meteorite, and it wiped out dinosaur technology indiscriminately. Stalwarts like Skype, Comcast and Instagram had to pivot or improve their offerings to stay relevant, along with thousands of businesses around the world. Over a year later, thankfully a lot are still standing.

Bringing it all together

The bad thing about evolution is all the cool stuff we thought we liked suddenly disappears, replaced by weird new stuff. The good thing about evolution is that the new stuff works way better and does a lot more.

Big screen TVs used to cost thousands, but now you can get a pretty good one for a couple hundred. Same goes for marketing. Small businesses could never make radio or TV work at scale, but thanks to two decades of utter chaos in the media world, businesses get cheaper ads that scale more effectively and reach people in more measurable ways.

There are definitely questions about privacy in advertising—we’ll get to that in the next chapter—but generally, people are happier now with their endless media choices than ever before. Knowing how the landscape has evolved is crucial to understanding the state of the ecosystem as a whole and the potential this new ecosystem has for democratizing success for businesses. If you’re curious about where media is heading and how to prepare your business for the future, we’d love to hear from you