Viral Disruption and a Post-Pandemic World

Written by
Fifty Team

Insights by
Josh Tompkins

04 May, 2020

The novel coronavirus has upended the world as we know it. What we previously thought of as certainties – predictions of economic growth or social trends on the rise – have been completely disrupted.

Massive structural change often comes out of unexpected crises, and it is clear that this worldwide pandemic will inevitably shift the trajectories of global political, social and economic trends. There will be no reset button, where life magically returns to normal. We may not feel it at first, but this pandemic could lead to long-lasting systemic changes.

Consider the 2003 SARS outbreak – Kantar Worldwide examined data during that epidemic and found that it correlated with China’s e-commerce boom, which has grown over the last 17 years and led to the success of e-tailer behemoths like Alibaba. Or casting back to the 1918 Spanish flu, many historians pinpoint that pandemic as launching the conversation around universal healthcare in several countries. For many, COVID-19 represents a turning point in history which could see a large-scale reset to the system.

While no one can fully predict what the future will look like, there are ways we can look at how the population is responding to this pandemic in real-time and what that might mean for the future. Using Fifty’s unique technology, we can track what are the topics of concern during the crisis and what people are thinking about post-pandemic in order to help brands’ create strategies for when we come out the other side.

About Fifty

Fifty is a unique data and advertising technology business that brings together relational network technology, graph-based natural language processing (NLP) and audience visualisation within one platform.

We combine smart technology with incredible people to help brands understand trends, their customers or their markets. We provide a suite of ad-technology that harnesses the power of our insights, driving better business decisions and highly targeted advertising across multiple digital channels.

Methodology, Data and Technology

To test the premise of this study, we deployed a variety of our technologies and data sets across two stages: 

1. In order to understand the sentiment around the virus, we looked to the conversations, ideas, attitudes and emotions happening around it, limiting our scope to the English language. To achieve this, we analysed over 700K posts, linking across into 70K shared URLs. We used our own NLP contextual engine to discover key topics of conversation. The engine can classify all of the web pages in the world in near real time, helping us better target advertising in a new cookieless world (it’s wide-range of applications is for another paper!)

2. Looking at the implications of the emerging conversations and key topics, we could then track some of the current global macro trends that may accelerate, and which ones may be changed as a result of this pandemic. We deployed social listening and sentiment analysis for this stage, using a far greater historic social data set – around 20 million posts in this phase.

Data and platforms used by Fifty Technology to uncover complex audience insights.
Data, Fifty technology and platforms used

Semantic Analysis

In order to understand the global response to the pandemic, we have deployed a new contextual NLP engine into Fifty’s technology stack. This gives us the power to understand conversation at scale and discover patterns and relationships between words to make sense of what is being said across the open web.

This first stage can be thought of as a semantic analysis, where we are using people’s own words to build a picture of the topics and emotions that are most prevalent around COVID-19.

To do this, we began by extracting all conversations from millions of posts and shared URLs that mentioned or focused on life after the pandemic. Our engine is able to understand the content that people are writing or sharing as well as websites which they are visiting, to classify and semantically extract entities.

This data allowed us to identify key topics of conversation and emotions around different subjects, whilst removing unwanted noise. Fifty’s entity extraction and ontology models focus on words that have actual meaning and represent real-world things rather than sentence structure (such as articles or pronouns), ensuring this bank of keywords is robust.

Once we had this sample set of words, we applied a probabilistic model and deterministic algorithms to represent the corpus as latent topics, where each topic is characterised by a distribution of words (a process known as topic modelling).

Topic modelling serves as a starting point for Fifty to focus on groups of users that felt strongly about key aspects of the conversation around the virus. From each group of users, we used not only these starting terms but also additional words that are represented closely to each other within the Fifty term graph.

Removing noise and segmenting users in this way enabled us to further apply processing to a subset of comments, to watch not only for volume trends but also sentiment and behavioral patterns within each community.

Topic Modelling in Volume as discovered by the Fifty platform.
Topic Modelling in Volume

Looking to the above graph, you can see some strong emerging topics based on our conversation and URL-based analysis, which we have grouped into four categories. First, you have topics that are based on an expression of emotion – the natural human reaction to a global challenge of this magnitude. Second, there are topics that relate principally to what is happening, or the current news cycle. Third, are topics that relate to people’s personal routines and lifestyle under lockdown, and lastly, topics that all coalesce around the theme of change.

This topic of change offers a fruitful example of how our semantic analysis works. The word change was most often found with terms like ‘society’, ‘politics’ and ‘planet’ indicating it is large-scale issues that needs overhauling. We also discovered emotionally indicative words such as ‘fear’ and ‘doubt’, which paint a picture as to what type of change this cohort was discussing.

By being able to pinpoint that change will be a key issue people post-quarantine, we inputted the term alongside other keywords or major talking points like government, sustainability, mobility, digital life and healthcare into our conversation tool to see how the crisis has also led to a greater volume and interest in conversation around these topics.

Using Fifty’s unique combination of conversation volume and contextual classification, we were able to map out what are topics of concern during the crisis and what people are thinking about post-pandemic, alongside already emerging global socio-economic macro trends to paint a vivid picture of how the coronavirus could change the world

Network Analysis

In order to further unpack the concept of “change” post-lockdown, the next stage in our study was to understand who were the people driving these conversations around change. Using Fifty’s network graphing technology, our algorithms cluster individuals based on their similarities – such as shared interests and behaviours. The result was over 25 different tribes, with the top tribes by size mapped out in the visualisation below.

Network visualisation of the resulting audiences as shown on the Fifty platform.
Network viz of the resulting audiences

Examining these top tribes, we can see that the “change movement” is mostly driven by tribes that have an interest and awareness in global issues, such as Politically-aware Americans and Australian Environmentalists. It is is also widespread geographically, with tribes based not just in the Western world but in countries such as Nigeria, The Philippines and India.

Looking at the top influencers across the study – so across tribes – we can see there is a left-leaning political bent with American politicians Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton holding the two of the three top spots, Donald Trump at #9 and Bernie Sanders at #11. These change-minded tribes are also highly engaged in the news, with top media influencers including BBC News at #1 and then The Guardian, The Associated Press, The Economist and The Huffington Post all featuring in the top 25.

These tribes might be the expected people who are usually engaged in conversations around change, but what the study also tells us is how widespread the conversation actually is. Other tribes that appear include Football Fans, Gen Z Social Media Addicts and Right Wing Americans – showcasing the breadth of awareness around the topic. They might not all be talking about change in the same way, but they are all driving the conversation forward. Other influencers such as NASA, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are all also in the top 25, which points to the not only the wide-range of interests, but communities of people who are engaged with larger questions of humanity with an interest in space, the universe and religion.

By understanding who was engaged with the topic of change, we were then able to conduct a trend analysis, using these conversations around change as a barometer for the trajectory of wider global macro trends that were in progress pre-pandemic.

In the following sections, we applied the learning from our semantic and network analyses to understand which macro trends might be accelerated by the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, and which trends might be disrupted. We believe these serve as initial indicators for business – a hint at the many possible futures that lie ahead.

Trends Analysis: Accelerating Change

There are several global macro trends that were on a trajectory of growth before coronavirus ravaged the usual world order. The infectiousness of the virus and its spreadability has led to over half of the planet being placed under some form of lockdown and this enforced time at home created an opportunity for certain societal trends to grow more rapidly than they would have otherwise.

Environmental Mindset

While environmentalism and sustainable living have had waves of interest over the last half a century, the last decade has been widely recognised as a fourth wave with businesses and consumers alike taken on a newly personal responsibility for how consumption affects the planet.

This can be seen in the rising conversation around Earth Day, which in the last two years alone has risen 81.9%, from 803,211 tweets in 2018 to 1,461,408 in 2020.

During lockdown the media have revealed just how much the reduction in human movement has impacted the environment. From stories of Venice’s canals being clear and brimming with fish, ducks and other wildlife to photographed vistas of smogless cities such as Los Angeles and Delhi, there is a growing awareness just how much daily life impacts the environment.

In social listening, we can see that people continue to talk about climate change and clean air, despite the fact that the coronavirus is the most immediate issue. When comparing the same 30 day period this year and last year (March 15th - April 15th), we can see that total conversation around sustainability dropped by 8.25%, while conversation volume around pollution and clean air specifically grew by 40.7% in that same week. This indicates that overall, sustainability may have taken a backseat but at the same time coronavirus will not halt concern for our environment, if anything it will make that connection crystal clear.

Convenience Culture

Convenience has become a predominant factor in consumers’ decision-making in recent years, with smartphones, e-commerce apps and faster delivery all creating a culture that prioritises instant gratification. While consumers have temporarily found empty shelves at grocery stores and all non-essential retail closed, they have turned online to get their goods. Conversation around delivery and online shopping has been greatly accelerated by the virus. While the highest daily volume for conversation around it between 2017 and 2019 was 211,716 tweets on 6th December 2019, that matches the lowest point of conversation
(210,145) during the coronavirus lockdown period in March and April 2020.

Online shopping delivery, Volume estimation for the historical period request

Amazon, which has seen “unprecedented demand shift” to its site, has become a saviour for millions of people seeking out everything from toilet paper to books. Likewise services that can bring food directly to a customer’s door such as Deliveroo, GrubHub and the grocery delivery service Instacart. While there has been a steady increase in conversation around these services over the last few years, the volume of tweets has also spiked during coronavirus, indicating that not only are people using these services and talking about them more, but that they may become even more vital parts of the economy. It may be that the war between convenience and environmentalism, convenience could prove to be king.

System Reset

When considering viral disruption and any thought of the “new normal”, one trend that has already been bubbling beneath the surface was the notion of a system reset – a fact that was confirmed in our semantic analysis.

Already, in the last couple of years, we have seen activists, policy-makers, economists and thought-leaders overtly question the current global world order. Last year New Zealand announced it would design its budget not based on economic growth, but on the wellbeing of its citizens – a world first. Economists like Kate Raworth have argued that capitalism is no longer fit for purpose. Politics and government have become so partisan that any notion of compromise has disappeared.

The pandemic has simply put all these mass macroeconomic issues into focus for the general population. Conversations around capitalism have gone from only a couple of thousand in 2015, to a steady trajectory of growth in the last couple of years, with the lockdown period seeing a spike to 225,591. Similarly, conversations around wealth distribution and income inequality have grown in popularity in recent years, with a persistent line of interest.

Both indicate that these issues are not going to go away, and if anything will be amplified in the aftermath of the pandemic. For brands, who have already tried to pivot the conversation from profits to purpose, this could become even more important.

Digital Reliance

In all likelihood, the current pandemic will solidify the digital revolution, showcase its inherent usefulness and accelerate the ways it will reshape our day-to-day experience. While pre-coronavirus our relationship to digital has been fraught with questions of if we are becoming over-reliant on tech, during the pandemic, nobody is bemoaning “screen time”. Rather our screens are a positive source of entertainment, comfort and connection.

Testing this hypothesis, we analysed the engagement with streaming platforms – which have already upended the way we watch television in the last decade. We can see a steady increase in platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime trending on Twitter, growing from around an average of 250,000 tweets per day in 2017 to 500,000 per day at the start of 2020. During the coronavirus lockdown, conversation volume rose an even further 60% to 800,000 average tweets per day. Esports and gaming show a similar upward trajectory in recent years, with the quarantine serving as a flashpoint for conversation around it with 450,000 mentions.

Streaming on-demand services, Volume estimation for the historical period request

While it may be obvious that more people are spending their time online when they are effectively prohibited for doing much of anything else, if anything, the coronavirus exposes the continued march of digital culture and its prevalence in our lives, and the need for brands to embrace digital as part of their offering or messaging.

Healthy Living

Health and wellbeing – as captured through the catchall term “wellness” – has become a mainstream macro trend in the last few years, with over 28 million tweets on the subject in the last four years alone, growing in a steady upward trajectory.

We know that fitness and exercise became a top priority for people once lockdown was put into place. When comparing the week starting January 1st in 2018, 2019, 2020 (when people are the most motivated around health), we can see a steady growth in conversation around fitness – up 34.2% in 2020 compared to 2018. But if we then look at the week of the 15th of March 2020 (when stay-at-home orders were widely being put into place in various parts of the West), we can see mentions of exercise-related terms rose 71.1% compared to the week of January 1st 2020, with 2,865,435 mentions online.

Health and fitness, Volume estimation for the historical period request

Coronavirus has highlighted how important exercise is to not only our physical, but our mental wellbeing. After we come out of lockdown, what constitutes healthy living will be up for debate. Already, the conversation around mental health had been growing – something we can see in the conversation volume surrounding World Mental Health Day (10 October) which has grown 175% between 2015 and 2019. But preventative healthcare, and hygienic practices could add a whole new layer to the question of what it means to be healthy.

Hygiene, Volume estimation for the historical period request

Cleanliness and sanitation were barely a blip on the conversation map in 2019, peaking at 38,000 while coronavirus has obviously made it a more pertinent issue, persistently peaking in March up to 146,006. While the conversation has levelled out in April as everyone has gotten used to the mantra of “wash your hands”, the public health message could have further resonance on our conversation on healthy living.

Flexible Working
Trends Analysis : Innovation Interrupted

Just as COVID-19 and enforced social distancing has accelerated certain socio-economic macro trends that were already nascent within society, the pandemic has interrupted other trends. This interruption could be short-term or it could be long-term and while it is too soon to say whether these trends will simply die out or become deprioritised in consumers’ minds, they could look starkly different from previous predictions.

Sharing Economy

The sharing economy has been on a steady rise since Silicon Valley made it easier than ever to share peer-to-peer. The conversation around peer-to-peer services like Poshmark, TaskRabbit and JustPark has diminished since the pandemic hit. Comparing January 2018 to January 2020, conversation saw an overall 118% growth but then when comparing January 2020 to the month of March 24th - April 24th (post-lockdown orders) we see a decline of 28%.

Sharing economy, Volume estimation for the historical period request

Car-sharing is a particular part of the sharing economy that could be permanently damaged by the pandemic. Prior to the spread of the virus, conversation around car-sharing was on an upward trend, but since March 24th, every day has been lower than the lowest point in 2018 and 2019, and negative sentiment toward this sector has increased by 12.5%.

Car sharing, Volume estimation for the historical period request

This is not to say that interest in car ownership will rise and car sharing will decrease. The current dip may be simply because people cannot use services like these (and others like Airbnb) while under stay-at-home orders. But how the sharing economy functions could fundamentally change as people’s priorities shift.

Hygiene could become a fundamental communication point for any sharing services. How are the brands’ ensuring that their contractors are meeting new sanitation guidelines? Looking at tweets that contain both keywords on the sharing economy and also on hygiene, we can see that it was never really considered an issue prior to the coronavirus. Will people prefer hotels over Airbnbs when they can guarantee they have been professionally cleaned? Will they prefer the sanctity of their own cars to Ubers or Zipcars? It is impossible to tell, but it is a sentiment we can continue to listen to and track.

Car sharing and hygiene, Volume estimation for the historical period request

Live Entertainment

Live Entertainment across a broad range of categories has remained relatively stable over the last few years in terms of consumer interest (proof?). While there has been occasional disruptions to the industry in terms of streaming wars and novel formats, for the most part people enjoy gathering in groups to be entertained - whether that be attending a sports match, going to the theatre or watching a live gig. Of course, during the pandemic, live entertainment venues and stadiums have been completely shut down – and they are predicted to be the last thing to return as we navigate a post-lockdown, yet still socially-distanced world.

Does this means live entertainment will disappear? Certainly not, but the cycles of entertainment that we are used to seeing – the predictable sport seasons or music touring seasons – might be interrupted for the next year or even two. In the meantime, the form they take will be altered, which could then lead to permanent change. Already during the pandemic we have seen a marked increase in interest around live-streamed entertainment. Conversation around streaming performance and gigs on platforms like Instagram Live and Facebook Live saw a 206% rise between January 2020 and April 2020.

Live entertainment, Volume estimation for the historical period request

No-Lo Drinking

A burgeoning social trend in the last couple of years has been the growth of the NO-LO (no and low-alcohol) markets. Consumers have become more interested in drinking less, as part of overall healthier lifestyles. And while the NO-LO movement is still a small part of the overall market, there has been steady conversation volume around it over the last three years with some sizable spikes.

No and low-alcohol drinks, Volume estimation for the historical period request

Many in the industry have fretted over what non-alcoholic beverages could do to the sector, with multinational alcohol corporations like Diageo investing in the segment, making acquiring leading non-alcoholic brand Seedlip in 2019. And yet, during the lockdown it seems that alcohol has fallen back into favour. Nielsen found that 27% more people were buying alcohol in the week ending 11 April 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019. This aligns with Fifty’s finding of a massive peak in conversation volume as the coronavirus pandemic grew, culminating in a huge spike to nearly one million mentions in mid-March, spending the next week above its previous record of 426,243. What’s more, social listening around alcohol also found that there was a 37.4% drop in negative sentiment when comparing January 2020 to April 2020.

Inevitably, people may be turning to alcohol to help them cope during a difficult time, and this doesn’t mean that the NO-LO lifestyle will abate. But it does offer opportunities for alcoholic drink brands to interrupt this trend, especially for the at-home market considering it is unclear when pubs and restaurants will be able to operate at full capacity. Indeed, Fifty client Cornish beer brewery Firebrand Brewing Co. sold out of their delivery-only limited edition beer within 24 hours after a successful social campaign.

Fast Fashion Frenzy

The fashion industry is in one of the most precarious positions during this crisis. Across the sector, there have been major drops in sales, heavy discounts on new stock and cancelled orders at warehouses. Fast Fashion has been a long downward trajectory

  • Desire for change and for the industry to provide social benefit highlighted during lockdown.

  • Ethical/sustainable fashion was already on the rise, more holistic change/rethinking called for during these times.

  • As per Edited: Due to supply chain difficulties and diminishing demand, the top mass producers of fashion items have seen an 82% reduction in New Arrivals compared to the previous year. -> Fast Fashion Slowdown

  • From our study into Ethical Fashion audience (last week): this wider, more mainstream demand and clamour for fashion to reconsider has not yet filtered down to fashion’s ethical startups -> The audience is almost exclusively driven by sustainability and ethical concerns.

Where we have seen an expansion in the audience of many of the sustainability industry’s success stories (e.g. Vegan food brands & Sustainable Travellers), beyond those who are solely environmentally-motivated, into the larger swathes of sophisticated trend-loving society, an analysis into the Ethical Fashion market last week shows this is not yet the case: Vegans, Environmentalists, Animal Rights Activists and other ethical small businesses form the crux of the audience. Will the larger scale clamour for the industry as a whole to change lead more people to these ethically-centric startups? We will continue to monitor the evolution of this marketplace.

Mass Urbanisation

The global population has been on a consistent march towards cities since the Industrial Revolution. Already, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, with the urban population outpacing the rural population in 2007. Megacities (those with over 10 million inhabitants) have grown from just 10 in 1990 to 33 in 2018 and it has been predicted that 68% of the world will live in cities by 2050. But the rapid spread of COVID-19, especially in dense urban populations like New York City and London, may cause a wholesale reconsideration of the city. In our topic modelling, one of the most commonly associated words with city was “change” as well as “worry” and “death” implying current negative sentiment around it. Presently, conversation around the city and urbanisation has declined 33.8%.

Urbanisation, Volume estimation for the historical period request

The cholera outbreaks of the 1850s is widely acknowledged as contributing to the modernisation of London’s sewage system. So too could the coronavirus pandemic completely reset our cities. The urbanisation trend could begin to reverse as people shy away from high-density living. Or surveillance culture – which has seen dense cities like Seoul escape the worst of coronavirus – could become commonplace and accepted by citizens as a price to pay for being an urban-dweller. While we do not know yet how the makeup of cities could morph, what is clear from the conversation, is that the general population already understands that cities might have to change. For brands, this offers an opportunity to re-examine the role how urbanisation has shaped your strategies. Will suburbs even exist if everyone can work from anywhere and people don’t need to be in commuting distance anymore? Will the traditional stereotypical consumer personas delineated based on being an urban, suburban or countryside consumer still hold?

Borderless World

Borderless World and the ways that globalisation and technology have created cross-border communities is another macro trend that has been swiftly interrupted by coronavirus. While globalisation has become a political target, with many populist leaders promising to put their countries first in the global order, for regular citizens globalisation is an invisible force embedded in what they buy, who they communicate with and how they travel.

The spread of coronavirus from China to the rest of the world within two short months has shown the far reaches of globalisation – and also rebooted a conversation about whether or not it is something as society we should strive for.

Globalisation is likely a topic to be discussed in academic circles and media posts on social, but we can see the leap in conversation around it after March 25th – growing 85% from a steady 3,500 mentions in 2019 up to 7,500 mentions.

This could lead to key societal shifts such as the way we travel. Will staycations and domestic travel have more appeal than an international holiday? While conversation around domestic travel remained relatively low and flat prior to 2020, during the pandemic it has peaked to 35,917.

Staycation, volume estimation for the historical period request

There could be a similar wariness around planes as there is around public transportation, with people choosing not to fly not due #flightshaming (the recent phenomenon of choosing not to fly due to its burden on the environment) but due to the hygienic factors. For travel companies, now will be the time to reconsider your pitch. It will no longer be about aspirational travel, but could be about a more conscientious form of travel that is more mindful of its impact.


We are still living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. While we cannot say what change will arrive, we know it is inevitable. By using Fifty’s technology, we were able to pick out the major macro trends that are of current concern to consumers today, and understand whether they seem like they are on a continued trajectory for acceleration or are going to be ripe for disruption.

What Can Fifty Do Next?

While we now know what people are talking about, and where potential shifts lie, Fifty is capable of continuing to track these macrotrends and key topics in various ways to develop bespoke data sets that are most pertinent to you.

We can:

  • Track change. Fifty can continue to monitor these conversations, topics and trends, as well as any evolution that is anticipated by the team.

  • Build further data sets. This report offers just a snapshot of what our data can reveal. With more data ingested across a greater number of data sets, we could develop further bespoke data-based conclusions.

  • Provide real-time monitoring. Once we identify the key variables or metrics for your brand, we can set up a custom dashboard, monitoring these signals to give a real-time read out across this specific period and beyond.

  • Define how your brand’s customer base fits into the narrative. We have the capacity to apply this analysis directly within your customer base in different territories, using CRM. This would make the resulting data sets even more robust and bespoke by directly linking to your customer base.

  • Understand what matters most to your customers. Fifty’s platform is capable of classifying the conversations of your matched CRM contacts and social followers to understand what it is that matters to them most right now and into the future.

Want to unlock your audience data? Book a platform demo today.

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