Some Companies Saw a Pandemic Boom — How do They Stave off a Bust?

Published Jan 26, 2021

On January 15, 2020, the United States confirmed its first case of coronavirus. Over the next six weeks, as the virus spread throughout the country and around the world, daily life changed incrementally at first, then seemingly all at once. By mid-March, lockdowns and quarantine became widespread, grinding business, travel, professional sports, and much more to a halt. 

And for consumer-facing companies of every size, across almost every industry, this meant partial or full digital pivots. Boutique fitness, for example, had for years sold in-person, spa-like experiences to customers. Almost overnight, they were forced to switch to virtual, app-based classes. As I wrote last spring, those transformations were impressive—living room workouts suddenly made a lot more sense thanks to solid digital offerings by companies such as CorePower Yoga, Mirror, Peloton, and others. And although people will eventually file back into gyms and spin studios, online fitness is expected to grow 33% by 2027, a trend undoubtedly accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. (Perhaps another telling sign: home-fitness dominated the conversation at this year’s CES. ) 

Elsewhere, many companies have seen similar, unexpected digital gains in the last year as people have been confined at home and consigned to screen-based life. Consider:

These companies, for the most part, were humming along fine before the pandemic sent business surging. Others, such as Etsy and Blue Apron, appear to have been given a second life by the Covid pandemic. The former, an e-commerce shop that sells clothes, jewelry, art, and more, saw its share price plummet 80 percent after its 2015 initial public offering and two years later laid off 15% of its workforce. But just two months ago, Etsy was deemed a “Wall Street darling” after its stock rose 250 percent in 2020 due in part because of a demand for masks. Blue Apron, the meal kit delivery service, after reporting a 34% decline in year-over-year sales during the third quarter of 2019, saw a 13% YOY rise in sales the same quarter in 2020, “due to the ongoing positive impact on consumer behavior from the pandemic,” the company reported.

(To be clear: the tremendous economical and emotional despair for millions of people around the world due to the virus certainly dwarfs these isolated booms that benefit relatively few, but we’ll cheer for good news where we can these days.)

Now, regardless of where they started or how they got there, many companies are tasked with an entirely different challenge in the coming months and years: keeping this influx of new users engaged as life (hopefully) becomes less stationary and we’re not as dependent on digital connections powering our communications and activities. Because as vaccines become more available and we head towards “an umbrella of herd immunity,” there will likely be a migration of eyeballs away from digital devices as our environments change and we’re allowed to safely gather in physical proximity once again. In practical terms, this means Tinder and Bumble will have to keep users swiping left and right when our masks are off and we’re allowed to mingle in bars again. Schools and colleges, with millions of dollars now invested in edtech, have to figure out how to best deploy all of the new infrastructure. And DoorDash, whose December IPO was a big success despite questionable business and employee practices, will have to keep on its toes as “indoor dining” becomes a verbal relic of the past and takeout orders decline.

Indeed, this is the situation now presented to PMs: leveraging interest in existing products and features (old or new) to continue helping minimize challenges. Meanwhile, they must continue creating frictionless and sought-after experiences through products that serve user needs and desires defined by environmental, cultural, and technological variables. There is no silver bullet. But exercising patience, respecting users’ needs, and considering not only the what but the how is a fine place to start. 

The good news: this time, we know the change is coming.

‘Continue to Provide Value’ 

Within the first few months of the pandemic, dating apps Hinge and Tinder rolled out video chat. As Hinge said, the move was so that users “can stay connected even when we need to be physically apart.” The new feature solved an immediate problem, yes, but it also soon showed value, pandemic or not. Dating, after all, can be awkward, especially blind meets after nothing more than a few text messages, and video chat can help assuage the trepidation and uneasiness of an in-person rendezvous—voices and mannerisms can round out personalities helping gauge attraction and compatibility, even if budding romance over video chat can quickly short circuit after meeting in person.

“From a product manager or user acquisition perspective, the key is that new users have been exposed to products or features during the pandemic and, hopefully, had a positive experience,” says Chance Heath, a former general manager at Stack Overflow and current co-founder of Climb Technologies. “So now, it’s project managers’ responsibility to make sure that their apps and products stay top of mind for future buying decisions or use by continuing to provide value.”

And that is the critical next step. For Hinge and Tinder, they need to recognize that sooner or later, people will again be regularly meeting in person, and the value of video chat, though it may have a decent shelf life, will attenuate unless it further assists the user experience, perhaps supplanted by a feature or tool that provides recommendations on places to go, things to do, and informs of any possible Covid protocols and restrictions.

Dodgeball on the Edge of a Cliff 

Mentioned above is the surge of engagement on Twitch, the livestream platform that features gaming, music, esports, and more. But it is worth reiterating the company’s exponential growth in the last year. According to Twitch Tracker, users streamed 33.9 million hours worth of content in December 2019; a year later, that number hit 79.4 million hours, and January 2021 is on track to finish even higher. 

Now a decade old, Twitch has arrived at what appears to be an inflection point, a time that may determine the company’s direction and possibly its fate. The effects will likely reverberate throughout the gaming industry and beyond. Twitch’s influx of users and engagement, while great for its bottom line, has also brought heightened scrutiny to its content and what it does and doesn’t permit on the platform. Recently, perhaps hoping to preemptively control the narrative, Twitch announced that it was tightening its content moderation rules, guidelines that, among many others, included banning the Confederate flag emote and such words as “incel,” “virgin,” and “simp” in livestream chats when used in a derogatory manner. A cynical view might be that Twitch is merely applying a bandaid over a flesh wound, hoping the problem corrects itself or that audiences nod in approval and look away. 

To me that falls short. I see this move by Twitch, however futile in its initial execution (as many have pointed out, people will just make up new words as insults), as a step in the right direction and one they’re likely to follow through on. Why? Because if for no other reason, not doing so would be shortsighted and serve as something of a voluntary death knell. Twitch simply cannot afford to offer products or livestream chats where only straight white men feel comfortable participating; after enough time, a competitor would come along and offer a better alternative, shrinking Twitch’s user base. Again, I don’t think that will happen — with Amazon’s backing, Twitch has the resources, brand equity, and a head start of 18 million daily users, all of which should carry enough inertia to force the company to better police its content through a combination of AI, reward and punishment systems, and continuous education of its users on what it means to be part of a healthy, vibrant online community. It may take a decade to fully realize, but we’re already seeing measurable action take place: last summer, Twitch banned the well-known Guy Beahm, known as “Dr Disrespect,” for violating its rules, indicating there will be zero tolerance for abuse of the most serious offenses, even for the platform’s most popular users. Maybe especially for them. 

Content moderation is indeed having a cultural moment, the practice now extending from gamers to those occupying the highest office in the land. So for some of those product managers who’ve seen a boost in engagement—and, thus, a bigger public profile—part of their job now is to develop thoughtful content guidelines that are specific enough to actually have a demonstrable effect while broad enough to reach the full user spectrum which, again, can range from middle schoolers playing Fortnite to the president of the United States. It might feel like there is no right answer. Allow unfettered, reckless user content to proliferate and risk users finding more welcoming platforms. Ban or block users whose content is unfairly flagged by in-progress AI systems and risk furious backlash. Give freedom of speech a long leash and risk a deadly riot. Ban the most powerful person in the world and risk user abandonment and accusations of deep state censorship. It’s playing dodgeball on the edge of a cliff.

The assignment is more than what most bargained for, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But core principles remain and should help shape thinking: listen to users, follow the data, and keep the user experience simple, welcoming, and safe. And when everything else fails, trust your gut.

Embrace the Unknown

In December 2019, I wrote a story for this very site that argued digital companies (which, now, means practically every public-facing company) must build product suites by thinking “X-first.” In short, I wrote that it was no longer sufficient to design and develop for, say, mobile-only, and that the companies who “succeed in 2020 and beyond are already prepared for this unknown future, platform agnosticism baked into their DNA.”

Prescient? Hardly. At the time, my idea of an unknowable, platform-agnostic future meant problem-solving for a landscape that might consist of various interfaces that we couldn’t yet imagine inside airports or malls—not, you know, as preparation for a global pandemic that would paralyze world economies and state governments. But here we are, in the midst of exactly that, and for all its disruption, the pandemic has certainly crystallized the thesis: solving user problems remains paramount, and on whatever platform or operating system it happens … well, so be it.   

Consider the New York Times. In February last year, the media company announced it had surpassed five million digital subscriptions; by November, that number swelled to seven million. Chalk it up to a mix of Trump, the pandemic, social protests, and mostly good journalism all around. The Times, now, is aiming to hit 10 million subscribers by 2025. To get there, it would be wise to approach recent digital trends with skepticism. While use of desktop computers was up in 2020, it doesn’t mean we’re headed that way forever. With many of us stuck at home, it only makes sense we were consuming content at our desk rather than on the bus. This next year, and certainly 2025, is bound to look different and many unknowable factors will shape how we read and share news media. So to continue growing, the Times will have to continue solving problems and delivering quality content across multiple channels with platform agnosticism baked into every decision it makes. And it doesn’t stop with just billion-dollar corporations. Whether trying to reach 10 million users or 10,000, the track remains the same for organizations of all sizes: solve problems, create smart content and experiences, and embrace an unknowable future. Because anything, as we’re now all too aware, can happen.

A New Chapter

The pandemic: 0/5 stars. Bad, avoid at all costs, spend your money elsewhere. Cocooned at home and literally shielded from half of each other’s faces, it’s been a lonely year, one full of death and dread. And technology has not saved us, perhaps once and for all teaching us that it probably never will—Zoom fatigue quickly set in and there are only so many Slack messages one can handle in a day, work-from-home-life a tremendous strain on parents, relationships, and for some a source of crippling paranoia. And, it turns out, staying connected via social media often just means doom-scrolling all evening. But it was a mistake to ever assume or hope that technology would fix everything in the first place; rather, it should have always been thought of as supporting and enhancing the material world. Accepting this might help us move forward.

Because for better or worse, we need technology at nearly every turn of the day, so we might as well get it right. And for companies that want to leverage renewed interest in their digital products, now is not the time to get complacent. A year of staring into screens has given many people a better idea of how digital content and user experience works—or how we want it to work—and tolerance for poor digital performance has never been lower. People want and need services to be useful, they need to see value or they’re on to the next. People want to feel safe and know that fellow users can’t harass them or cause harm, online or elsewhere. And, sooner or later, people will want to again access products and services on various platforms across different operating systems outside of their homes. It is unclear which those will be or how we’ll use them, so it bears repeating: Start with solving the problem and from there let the pieces fall into place. The playbook is being written as the game unfolds here. It’s terrifying and fun, messy and hilarious, ugly and gorgeous, pointless and critical. Ready, jump.