There can no longer be doubt: the majority of people in advanced economies are living through the most life-altering event of the last forty years. Natural disasters, wars, economic turmoil, political shifts, technological disruption — all of these pale in comparison to COVID-19’s breadth, speed, and the raw quantity of prolonged, global change. That’s in no way meant to minimize the massive and awful impact wars, tsunamis, droughts, famines, terrorist attacks, market collapses, or any other dramatic event has had. It’s just that almost everything before this has been somewhat limited, bounded by time or limited by geography of those potentially-affected. The pandemic has neither.
You might argue that in wars or natural disasters, far more people have been killed than have been so far by this virus. That’s undoubtedly true, but tragically ignorant of COVID’s exponential curve. Best case scenarios estimate (only) millions of deaths worldwide; worst cases, hundreds of millions. And it ignores another tragic reality: the worldwide recession we are already in, the one that will get much worse before it gets better, will almost certainly kill millions as well (but indirectly, because of the strong relationship between economic decline and lower life expectancy).
If it hadn’t been obvious before, it was on Monday; there will be even more change, at an even greater level of intensity, for a long while. The US government’s plan estimates 18 months right now. That’s pretty hard to process. But, I took a walk down the main business district of my neighborhood today and the writing is on the literal wall. Every shop, every restaurant and bar, every place you might go into has signs like these:
Why Are *You* Writing About This, Rand?
I’m a marketer and startup founder, so it’s hardly my place to speculate on the massive economic, political, and sociological impacts of our pandemic world. But, I believe it’s the responsibility of all with influence, privilege, and insight to do what they can to help others, doubly so in crises. That’s why, in this post, I’m going to publicly brainstorm some ways I believe technology companies can cushion the impending economic crisis, just as robust testing, social distancing, hand-washing, and staying the F home can help the medical crisis.
You’ve probably seen that financial markets around the world have dropped precipitously, many posting their largest percentile or point drops since the crashes of the 1980s. In this case, the fear is probably underestimating the situation’s future severity. Even those who stand everything to gain from projected optimism, politician and banker alike, agree that we’ve never seen anything this bad. But, unlike many prior collapses, we know it’s coming, and that knowledge can help us soften the blow.
Who Needs Our Help Most Right Now?
The world’s advanced economies have long had two crucial pillars: consumer spending and small businesses. COVID-19 hits these hardest. In the US alone, Amazon might be hiring 100,000 workers to try and keep up with demand. But, in the meantime, 5X that many jobs are likely to be lost in New York City’s tourism industry ALONE. The major tech companies will be fine. With the possible exception of Apple, each have business units (or, in Netflix’s & Amazon’s case, an entire model) that stands to gain from trends around remote work, increased web consumption, and reliance on e-commerce.
It’s where people spend discretionary income, where they go when they go out, what they do when they gather, who they buy from when walking the streets — those businesses will hurt most. Small businesses, especially those that rely on consumer spending, are the most vulnerable. And helping them is not just charity, not just the right thing to do, it’s also the best way to prevent a recession from hitting every other sector. When consumers don’t spend, and small businesses don’t have money, they use less energy, take fewer trips, give people less of a reason to go out, and negatively impact demand in every other sector. Being selfless right now might be the right thing to do, but thanks to capitalism’s interconnections, it’s also the best way to be selfish.
What Can Big Tech Platforms Do?
Today, a massive amount of research about where to spend and how starts in three places: on Google’s search engine and on the largest social media networks: YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. These properties alone account for more than 2/3rds of all web traffic. They have the power to shift where consumer demand online is driven, and how. Facebook’s has already started down this path of providing direct assistance with their $100 million fund for small businesses. I’d be surprised if Google and others don’t follow in these footsteps.
But, I’m not going to focus my ideas on direct cash transfers or lending (even though both are absolutely the right thing to do and I hope governments and private industry step up). I’m going to concentrate on platform-based moves the tech giants can do in their websites and apps that might make a difference.
A quick disclaimer: These suggestions are imperfect. They may not be the absolute best use of these companies’ time and resources. My hope in sharing them is not to demand they be implemented or shame anyone for not investing in them, but rather to expand how people in our fields think about ways they might make a difference. If I open even a few minds that way, this post will be a success. On to the ideas:
1: It’s Time to Enable Links on Instagram
Instagram has famously built a platform where external linking in posts doesn’t exist. Many have lauded the move, but I believe it serves only the interests of Facebook (IG’s parent company). It keeps people on Instagram, yes. It forces businesses that want traffic from Instagram to pay for it, yes. But if there’s ever been a time to see what IG can bring to the world of e-commerce and local commerce by allowing links, it’s now.
A limited release is fine. One link every ten posts per user is, too. Just let people promote the local businesses they love, and send them valuable traffic over the web since we can’t go in person. It’s the right thing to do, and I suspect it might yield remarkable results that Instagram and Facebook have never realized because they’ve never tried it.
My guess is that Instagram could send as much or more outbound traffic than Facebook if links in posts were enabled. That traffic could lead to billions of dollars of desperately-needed, additional commerce.
2: Google Maps Needs to Overhaul Local Listings ASAP
Google Maps’ long-term revenue relies on small businesses, local businesses, and the advertising they do. Now is the time to pull out all the stops to help these folks, and directing traffic to the Maps listings, IMO, isn’t the best move. Instead, I’d propose highlighting the local business websites, enabling gift card purchases via Google Pay on Google Maps, creating more visibility for the email lists of restaurants and local businesses, directing Maps visitors to e-commerce opportunities or takeout menus or whatever the business owner tells Google brings them the most revenue and relief right now.
In some cases, that might actually be sending their visitors to a competitor! I talked to Charlie (the co-owner of Moshi Moshi today), and they’ll be shuttered for the next few weeks, possibly longer. Charlie would love to redirect their Google Maps listings to someplace productive, where folks can find takeout or delivery, but without Google’s help, can’t do it.
I get that in normal times, Google Maps trades some of what works best for local businesses for things that primarily benefit Google. But, now’s a great time to put Google’s own interests aside to help these companies stay in business. Arguably, it’s the only sane move, as Google itself will suffer massively the longer these small businesses are without customers to service.
3: Gmail Should Consider Greater Visibility for High-Resonance Promotional Emails
Today, I went through my promotions tab in Gmail, purchased gift cards from two favorite local businesses, and made some e-commerce transactions at a couple others. I suspect tens of millions of Gmail users might do similar if those emails showed up in their primary rather than promotional tabs. We don’t need to see all the Covid-update emails right now, but we could probably use a few more reminders from the businesses we love on how to help them through.
Google’s got the ability to unilaterally help a lot of folks who could desperately use a boost. I’m confident their machine learning systems could identify the best, most resonant, most authentic email promotions from small businesses and get them in front of us. And, in my opinion, this move could make a big difference for however long this tragedy lasts.
4: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, & Every Other Network at Scale Should Imitate Reddit’s “Secret Santa” Program
Imagine this: you visit Twitter and instead of promoted trends, the platform shows a message imploring folks to buy their Twitter friends a gift from a local business, and get one in return! You go to a page that collects some info, then directs you to a list of local businesses in your friend’s area (restaurant gift cards, a board game, a book, a funky new keychain, whatever!).
Once you choose and buy a gift, you forward the receipt, and now you’re in the group of folks to receive. Twitter might suggest friends that have already participated in giving to you when you see the box, or they might have a list of folks who haven’t yet participated that an ML-based system thinks is likely to. Regardless, we all get to participate in a project that injects potentially hundreds of millions or billions of dollars into local economies all over.
Reddit already does this every winter around Christmas. They call it Secret Santa. The joy you can see from people who participate is wonderful, but we need a Christmas-level of consumer spending and demand right now, artificial though it may be.
5: Extend Ad Inventory Credits to the Hardest Hit Sectors
Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft have access to extraordinary access to data on which businesses and sectors are being most negatively affected by Covid-19. I’d love to see them use that data to identify strong targets for ad credits and offer them to those businesses the same way they do with non-profits.
It’s my understanding from firms in the digital marketing space that ad inventory is already getting cheaper the last week, because demand is dropping dramatically and businesses are trying to save money. The major ad networks — search, display, re-targeting, e-commerce, and local — can help prop up that demand by giving ad credit, meanwhile driving much-needed commerce on the web while we wait for the real world to come back online. Google already has a program like this, extending it feels like a low-effort, high-ROI move.
What Can I Do As An Individual?
If you have means, you can contribute at a small scale to your local economy. Buy those gift cards, go to your favorite stores’ websites and pick up some gifts to be delivered to your shut-in friends and family, grab takeout or delivery from the neighborhood restaurants. Do some online shopping. Support a Kickstarter. Go pick up a few Patreon subscriptions.
But, more than this, you can support policies that will help your city, state, and country weather the storm and rebound as fast as possible. You can sign the Main Street Alliance’s petition to get federal relief to small, local businesses (rather than purely big business bailouts). You can vote — supporting the politicians you believe most capable of using the power of government to help get us back on track. If you’re a political conservative, I urge you to reject your reflexive tendency not to trust or rely on government. And if you’re liberal, I urge you to reject your tendencies not to trust corporations and banks. We are going to need all of these organizations functioning at their best to turn this sh!tshow around.
I’m a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist. I believe the worst is ahead of us, but it will pass. And the best is yet to come. Stay safe. Stay at home. Support your local businesses, however you can.