The emergence of the novel coronavirus in late 2019 marked the beginning of a massive social, business and economic upheaval. By March 2020, entire industries were shutting down. Many millions of people were left without jobs, and hundreds of millions more were instructed to work from home.
Within the tech industry, companies mobilized to respond to customer and staff needs. Employees worked from home and tried to adapt despite an array of distractions. Customers looked to vendors for support and continuity. Investors adjusted where and how they managed their money. And reporters pivoted overnight from writing about aspirational tech topics like autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, to covering pragmatic issues pertinent to the new work-from-home reality – and how tech can support both local business needs and global public health requirements.
We wanted to dive deeper to understand exactly how the environment has changed for technology marketers and communicators. What are the top conversations in tech in 2020 so far? How does that compare to last year? Which topics are rising and falling? How can tech companies stay relevant and sensitive to market needs? And how will this evolve over time?
To that end, we analyzed the relative performance of 150 technology topics across earned news and blog sources monthly from January 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. Comparing the first half of 2019 to the first half of 2020, we saw that 54 topics gained ground, while 96 topics declined. Gains were considerably bigger than losses, and while the average gain was 370% (109% if you exclude contact tracing as an outlier), the median gain was only 38% (read: really big gains skewed the average). The average loss was much smaller (25%), and much closer to the median loss (22%).
Top Conversations: A Clear Shift
Dialing the clock back a year, the top five technology conversations in first half 2019 were (in rank order):
- Artificial Intelligence
Fast forward to first half 2020, and videoconferencing stole the top spot (up 360%), followed by stories and commentary about layoffs and furloughs (up 163%) and supply chain issues and requirements (up 88%). While all five of the top topics from 1H19 remained in the top 10 for 1H20, all but e-commerce (up a comparably small 9%) dropped significantly. Drone, formerly the most discussed topic, fell to number 5 and shed 44% of its mention volume.
The breakthrough topic – one that was virtually undiscussed and unknown in the general public’s vernacular – is contact tracing/tracking. Citations jumped by over 14,000% as it moved from a narrow conversation about HIV and healthcare technology to a critical element of minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Today, contact tracing is a thing. And a job. And a phishing scam. And a dreaded phone call everyone is hoping never to receive.
What Does This Mean for Tech Marketers?
With this data about top conversations in hand, we asked our two favorite questions: “So what? Now what?” I’d like to offer three key takeaways:
- First, the data assures us: We didn’t actually all go crazy, even though many of us felt like we might be. The world really did stop, and for a time, the only conversation we were having globally was about the pandemic – and it dramatically re-shaped the top conversations in tech.
- Second, the data reminds us that analytics play an increasingly important role in grounding B2B marketing and communications practices in reality. There’s only so much earned space as the “news hole” and related social conversations shift to reflect what audiences need now. That means even a crucial topic like online privacy becomes less relevant as the pandemic focuses us on how to keep people working (videoconferencing, etc.) and keep people safe (contact tracing, etc.). A year ago, topics like autonomous vehicles and voice technology were all the rage. Twelve months later, not so much. These and related discussions fell by half or more, while remote work (up 13x), educational technology (up 6x) and digital workflow (up 2x) all posted sizable increases.
- Third, this data – and the reality of an uncontrollable environment – challenges tech marketers to keep an outside-in perspective. We all need to guard against myopic thinking that makes us less useful, out of touch and/or unaware of the broader market context and dynamics. It’s noisy enough when we aren’t in a global pandemic. Now that we are, we need to stay well tuned to the outside world as it changes month by month – and find the right openings to be part of relevant conversations.
How Will This Evolve? Stay Tuned…
Moving forward, we’ll continue to track and publish the Top Conversations in Tech every month to evaluate how the environment evolves and what topics emerge as the next big thing. We expect COVID-19 to dominate through the end of the year, perhaps even beyond that, and we’ll watch to see how the U.S. presidential campaign re-shuffles the deck. Under the surface, we’ll also be watching to see which conversations percolate up to lay the foundation for 2021 and beyond.
Check back with us to see if our instincts are right. And for those brave enough to put a stake in the ground, we’d love to hear your thoughts about what topics in tech are likely to dominate in the months ahead.