Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reset Britain

What our online behaviours tell us about how we have changed

Have we gone straight from recession to austerity without a break?

What lessons have we learned and how are we using that knowledge?

What steps are we taking to protect our finances and families?

Are we fighting for our rights or keeping a low profile?

Is our British humour still intact?

In February 2009, in the depths of the recession, I wrote a thought piece titled Chin Up Britain in which I used search data from Google to explore how the online population of the country were reacting to the economic crisis.  In particular, I wanted to know whether the assertion, by brands and the media alike, that we were a cowed, passive and pessimistic nation, responsive only to increasingly hysterical headlines and special offers, was borne out by the data.
What I discovered confounded this assumption.  We were still falling in love and fantasising about high performance sports cars just as we did in the good times. We were no more depressed nor considering divorce nor leaving the country than we were before.  In fact, we were more creative, robust and resourceful than ever. 

 So now that we’re in the position of being able to look back at the credit crunch proper but look forward to an indefinite period of austerity, what can the online data tell us about the changes that the economic crisis brought about? Are those changes only temporary or indicative of a longer term societal shift?  We have we, as a nation, learned from the experience and how is it shaping our current behaviour?

In particular, I have looked at whether these changes occurred as a result of the recession, or whether they are part of a wider trend, both in terms of broader societal trends and the changing role of the Internet and how we connect and engage with it in our daily lives. 

 As before, I have found some surprises, with data that contradicts the school of thought currently popular in the media that we have gone straight from recession to austerity with no intervening period of rest and rejuvenation. But at the same time, I also found plenty of evidence at odds with the assertion by many consumer brands that we want to forget the recession and move on.   The true picture, as always, is both simpler and more complex.

So, if we take as our starting point the question ‘How have we changed as a nation since the credit crunch?’ the immediate answer is that we’re determined not to be caught short again.  Although searches on the Recession are at their lowest level for several years, there is still a higher base level of interest than before the crisis, so we’re not prepared to forget it just yet.  Likewise, searches for the term ‘latest news’ have undergone a slow and steady growth since late 2007 – coincidentally or not – the time of the first wave of the banking crisis.   

 What’s more, this trend has continued to rise.  Of course, we have increased access, via Twitter, newsfeeds and 24 hours news channels, to the latest news, but not markedly more so in the last year or two.  I therefore wonder if the recession made us aware of the need to be on our guard and not be taken by surprise again.

At the same time, there has been a measurable increase in searches for the ‘facts’ about contentious issues, such as climate change, global warming and energy.  As the recession made us re-evaluate the credibility of institutions such as the banks, perhaps people are starting to realise that just because somebody makes a proclamation, or is a popular commentator on a subject, or even has expert credentials, that doesn’t make them trustworthy. 

We can see the results of this search for the truth in the search patterns for savings accounts and high interest investment products.   Until mid 2007 search demand for both followed the same, steady annual pattern, of dips and troughs as we alternated between ‘admin’ and ‘holiday’ mode:    


Yet after the banking crisis, searches for ‘high interest’ dropped away as consumers realised there was no such thing.  But although this decline has levelled off, demand for high interest savings products is far lower overall than in 2007, indicating that consumers have no expectations of getting much of a return on their investment for the immediate future.

 But while our need to face up to reality increased, our appetite for escapist entertainment has actually increased.  During the recession searches for ‘funny videos’ did not decline but remained steady.  There was no growth – but simply no change as we put our lives on hold.  But in August 2009 there is a sudden spurt.  It’s as if we suddenly felt able to let go and celebrate the end of the recession with a barrage of humour, which has been maintained ever since.    

 The data on online gaming, namely Bingo and Poker gives us another perspective into our attitudes to entertainment before and after the recession.  Since early 2008 demand for Poker has levelled off and slowly declined.   Perhaps this is a result of natural maturing of the category – or perhaps the only people playing poker during the recession were the regular players.  I wonder if this is because Poker’s traditionally reckless, maverick image just felt too irresponsible to prospective players at a time when they feared for their jobs.


But Bingo is another story.  After a period of slow and steady growth from 2004 onwards, 2008 and early 2009 (that is, the worst of the recession), were the record years for Bingo.  This makes complete sense.  After all, Bingo is perfect recession entertainment – it’s cheap, cheerful, colourful, exciting and accessible.   

But what’s particularly interesting is that while Poker has continued to decline, 2011 has seen a resurgence of interest in Bingo.  As there’s a distinct economic chill in the air now, maybe Bingo players, who tend to be the ones with the most uncertain incomes and employment prospects and most at the mercy of rising food and fuel prices, are turning once more to the comfort of their lucky numbers.

There is one change in the way we engage with the companies in our lives that does seem to be symptomatic of a wider societal shift, as well as connected to the recession and that’s in our demand for Customer Services.  We can see how, at what was arguably the low point of the recession, March 2009, there was a sudden surge in searches for Customer Services. There were no legal or market changes that could have driven this.  Rather, it’s as if we as consumers suddenly and collectively decided that we would stand up for our rights – and maybe also get a better deal by switching to a new supplier.    


The brands associated with these searches are the everyday companies we engage with – mobile, entertainment, utilities and interestingly, these are the brands that rely on churn to increase market share, who are big promotional spenders and who have recently focussed on the web as a customer service channel rather than simply information and transaction. 

 As with Bingo, we can see that during the later half of 2010 and the first half of 2011, we relaxed a little but the last few months have seen another surge in demand.  This seems to indicate that we’ve recently started to prepare for another period of economic winter.

 So is the recession a driver for the 2009 and 2011 surges?  It’s hard to say for sure – perhaps February 2009 was the point at which consumers had had enough of being lectured by brands about how hard life was and how poor and hopeless they were and decided to take control.  Maybe it was the moment we decided to fight back against the recession – starting with the shoddy service we were getting from our phone, gas and TV companies.   

 We can see further evidence of this trend for self-actualisation when we look at data around the Christmas of 2009 when there was a sharp spike in demand for home-made Christmas decorations and although the spike was lower for Christmas 2010, it was still markedly higher than previous years, indicating a long term trend.  Indeed, we can see demand starting to rise already as we prepare for another home-made Christmas.


Anybody who has ever been to a craft shop will know that the materials for decorations can end up costing a great deal more than a trip to Poundland, so this can’t be to save money.  It seems to me that we are determined to make Christmas our own, to personalise our celebrations and enjoy the particularly old-fashioned satisfaction of making, rather than just buying things. 

Another way to look at this trend toward self-reliance is in the way we confide in the Internet and how the data represents a mirror of our anxieties and ambitions as a result.  For example, if we compare searches for ‘minimum wage’ with ‘redundancy’ over the last five years, a fascinating pattern emerges.  Between 2004 and early 2008, searches for redundancy had slowly declined, as our fears of it happening to us had subsided.  At the same time, our interest in the minimum wage increased, driven partly perhaps, by the influx of immigrant workers taking low paid jobs and also as a mark of our confidence in our worth as employees.   


But in early 2008, this comfortable situation dramatically changed.  Suddenly, our interest in the minimum wage melted away as we were glad to have a job, any job, and our anxieties about redundancy grew to a peak in February 2009.   Since then, searches for minimum wage enjoyed a modest increase in 2010 and a more dramatic climb in 2011, whilst searches for redundancy, if not back to pre-recession levels are at least steady.  So whilst we’re expressing our lack of certainty in the economic climate in some ways – by escaping to the Bingo and by shopping around for better mobile phone and broadband deals – we’re not worrying about our jobs.   But it’s worth remembering, the credit crunch actually began in September 2007 and it took about a year before people starting losing their jobs so this confidence may yet be misplaced.

 So, in summary, are we living in a Reset Britain?  The answer is most definitely yes – but not in every aspect of our lives.  In some ways, we haven’t changed at all – in other ways, we have grown up and wised up.  We’re more confident and demanding – but only when we hold the balance of power.  We’re more creative and self-reliant – especially when immediate friends and families are going to enjoy the results.   But most importantly, we’ve learned our lesson from the recession and although we took a bit of time off in 2010 to relax and rejuvenate the recent events of 2011 have been a wake-up call and we’re taking a close interest in what happens next so we won’t be caught out again.  

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