COVID-19 was a textbook black swan event. How can data help drive the phase of reopening?

29 Jun 2020

  • Strategy
  • Thought leadership
  • Data-driven Marketing

While it originally started as a slow burn over several months, the COVID-19 disruption erupted in early March when the country effectively went into national lockdown and the economy, in the words of the Prime Minister, was put into hibernation.

Companies found themselves making decisions in days that they would typically spend months planning. In the fog of the moment, data became a critical asset driving the response. But what data did they need, and how easy was it to access?

COVID-19 and its impact on the economy was a classic black swan event, which is defined by Investopedia as an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected and which has potentially severe consequences.

And it was especially unusual as the impact was global in nature, yet the responses around the world were uniquely localised.

One of the biggest, most immediate consequences was the mass migration to work from home arrangements. Large organisations like Australia’s ASX saw the number of staff working from home skyrocket from 10 per cent to over 90 per cent almost overnight.

While the challenge for large national organisations were significant, smaller organisations, which are typically more nimble, found themselves facing quite extraordinary challenges.

Steve Perissinotto, co-founder of Vetshop Group, Australia’s largest online retailer of pet health products, had to deal with the problem of getting his call centre staff in the Philippines home safely. The government had imposed restrictions so suddenly that staff were stuck at the office at the end of their shift.

“We moved our Manila office to work from home overnight after the government there gave just a few hours’ notice of lockdown,” he said. The rest of his operation - those who were Australian based - followed shortly after.

With the immediate challenge addressed, the company needed to understand the likely impact of COVID-19 on its operations.

“In terms of looking at the data, we need to remember that the data may necessarily trail the events. So in our case for example, at least initially, the data on slow order deliveries wasn't available when people were ordering, it only became apparent once customers started reporting delays,” he explained.

“I would also say "don't just look at the data yourself or with your management team. Get the views from across the company, as sometimes a frontline team member will see something you won't see. For example, sales data tells a different story to customer service reps than it does to the dispatch team".


For WW (Previously Weight Watchers), the sudden change extended not only to staff working from home, but to the very nature of how the business operates.

A big part of its traditional business involves customers getting together to meet, but COVID-19 removed this option. As a result, the company moved 30,000 face-to-face meetings, affecting a third of the company’s members, into the digital realm.

With such a huge disruption to both staff and customers, WW’s ANZ director of Marketing and Commercial, Nicole McInnes, understood the critical role data would play in responding to these extraordinary circumstances.

“We use data a lot in general to communicate and substantiate actions, but this went into hyperdrive during COVID. We increased our normal weekly meeting schedule with our agency to daily initially (now we are at twice a week and will revert to weekly in July) and we used our daily dashboard for media ROI.”
In addition, she says, the leadership team met daily so data could be picked up and shared to back up any big pivots that were required.

WW also quickly launched a global research project into how its members were coping, including their state of mind alongside general consumer sentiment, as well as how they were feeling about WW’s temporary solutions.

“We ran this weekly and used the data to iterate and optimise our offerings. This helped us develop some live experiences, member challenges and the way group members experienced WW virtually.”
The ability to utilise and leverage data was critical to its success, says McInnes.

“Our media ROI data was crucial in making daily and weekly media spend decisions and in tracking consumer sentiment live which informed the rest of Q2 planning. I was able to see where there was an opportunity by channel to increase spend really quickly and take advantage of that opportunity. “
When it came to the marketing supply chain, the insights from data helped to drive decision making.
“We used both the quantitative data on ROI to rethink our media channel plan for the quarter, while we used the qualitative study to inform a fast-turnaround creative that then contained relevant messaging in terms of what our members and potential members were going through.”

According to McInnes, “It was invaluable in such turmoil to have these data points readily available, especially given the agility required both in media mix optimisation but also in making fast edits to creative assets.”

Creating our live experiences through the new virtual platform was a key initiative for the company, she said. “We were really able to deliver wellness across our three pillars of food, movement, and mindset.”
Even as restrictions ease, McInnes says WW is still getting thousands of members joining its cooking and fitness events. “So this intense period of getting really close to our members' needs has uncovered this amazing new pillar that members are loving!”

Next steps

As the economy starts to emerge from the shutdown, data is critical to ensuring organisations and their employees are able to bounce back.

According to Sarah Kruger, Managing Director Human Resources Australia and New Zealand at Accenture Australia, collecting insights yields data points that are just as important as traditional business data points.

“We've conducted a number of employee listening sessions and we have done a lot of qualitative data analysis after asking them questions and getting their ideas. So internally we've looked at those data points. We've also looked at the traditional data metrics that we use to manage our business and we have been laser-focused on that as well.”

She also said that currency of data is important in responding to an event like the Covid-19 shutdown.

“As a society, as well as internally, we are more focused on real-time data as opposed to last month's data. This gives us a greater ability to actually respond immediately and to be more predictive rather than reactive,” she said.

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