Saturday, May 17, 2003

Cutbacks show that marketers fail to see Sars' silver lining

by Peter Steyn, director of Nielsen//NetRatings Asia Media Asia 16-May-03

When I hear about marketers who are trimming online budgets and deferring online advertising, I'm convinced they have not seen one silver lining of the Sars cloud.

Last month, the net attracted the highest audience ever in Hong Kong.

And all those people spent a considerable amount of time replacing offline activities with online ones. Some likely satisfied their shopping fix on the net. As the war unfolded in Iraq, people in Hong Kong turned to the internet for up-to-the-minute information. Audiences of online news sites reached record highs as people looked for detailed coverage of the latest developments.

Then the mysterious virus hit contributing to a further boost in news site audiences and driving droves of people indoors and online. As many were afraid to go out wandering through shopping malls and other public places, they turned again to the internet for news, health information, shopping, banking, education, and communication. The internet kept them in close contact with - and at a safe distance from - friends, families and colleagues.

For the first time since Nielsen//NetRatings started measuring internet audiences in Hong Kong nearly three years ago, we saw a double-digit increase in a single month of the number of people going online. A look at online channels and their at-home audience for April (a month packed with Sars and war stories) with pre-Sars February shows news site audiences shot up phenomenally with several reaching an audience level previously unseen.

With the net's extensive content and rich media, people sat at their computers longer than ever before.

Online shopping - even online grocery shopping - has become more fashionable than hanging out at big malls or at Mongkok's labyrinth. While most of the shopping sites recorded a healthy increase in their audiences, bloomed like we have never witnessed before. Online banking took off as well. Audiences of the top two bank sites, in particular, shot up considerably in April compared with the pre-Sars days in February.

Not surprisingly, people by the thousands flocked to medical sites such as the Department of Health ( and the Hospital Authority ( for virus stats and tips on how to protect themselves. The dedicated Sars website appropriately named, became an overnight favourite for charts, messaging and its list of infected buildings. As many schools were closed, students found there was no way to escape their educational responsibilities. Most of the educational sites grew by double and triple digits in April, compared with pre-Sars February.

While people in Hong Kong were forced to discover the conveniences of online shopping and banking, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to rely on these conveniences once it is totally safe to head out freely.

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