New video research shows what viewers value during the pandemic, and beyond

Vanessa Hensler, Kim Gardner / September 2020
Stylized illustration of a woman interacting with apps on an oversized mobile phone.

In this unprecedented global moment, people are turning to digital video for more reasons than ever. Need an at-home workout? An up-close-and-personal concert? A home-school sidekick? Digital video has you covered.

For years, the variety and accessibility of digital video have pulled audiences away from traditional TV and toward streaming platforms. And while the rise of streaming was always expected, it seems to be accelerating.

As people who are deeply interested in understanding why and how people turn to online video, we’ve long been curious about the shift to streaming. In fact, late last year, we set out to take a closer look at how people use online video and to study the emotional associations they have with different video platforms, including streaming platforms like Hulu, social media platforms like Facebook, and linear TV. In partnership with media agency OMG, we surveyed 2,000 people in the U.S., conducted 75 weeklong digital ethnographies, and hosted 15 in-home sessions where we observed people’s behaviors throughout the day.

Then the pandemic hit. And given its life-altering nature — and inevitable impact on people’s video watch behavior — we extended our research. Throughout May, we interviewed an additional 2,000 people.

Our monthslong process and analysis shed light on the meaningful ways video is playing a role in people’s lives. These are the three distinct themes that emerged.

In times of uncertainty, digital video can be a wellspring of positivity

This year has been challenging on so many fronts. A large majority of viewers have reported feeling anxious,1 which is no surprise. They also said that they’ve found joy and relief through video: 79% said streaming platforms make them happy.2 As one interviewee told us, “If I’m having a bad day, I’ll just put on a YouTube video, and then I’m dying laughing, and it makes me feel so much better.”

A red pie chart wedge representing 79% is overlaid on a line drawing of a smiling face. Text reads: 79% said streaming platforms make them happy.

Video’s role as a positive antidote has taken many forms in recent months. Nostalgic viewers head to HBO Max to hang out with “Friends,” while aspiring bakers indulge in the soothing tenor of Netflix’s “The Great British Bake Off.”

Over on YouTube, channels like Some Good News or videos like “Dear Class of 2020” inspire and cheer people up. As one respondent explained, “There are reviews, music videos, you can learn things, and you can get inspired. If you’re going through something — how to get over depression — other people will relate to you. It’s everything.”

Digital video can fill gaps in understanding and education

While video has been a powerful educational tool for years, 2020 has been a unique time for learning online. At this point, who among us hasn’t relied on a home-school-friendly science project, DIY haircut, or a cooking tutorial? As one respondent explained, “How-to videos give me energy. The wide variety of choices YouTube offers makes it kind of my sidekick. I don’t go too far without it.”

Right now, in a time when 65% of people say they’re taking a moment to reevaluate their lives and their goals,3 online video is a particularly useful resource. More than half our respondents — 58% — reported that they are using digital video to learn new skills.4

In one respondent’s words, “Video can show all different sides of an issue, rather than just one.”

The scope of what people are interested in learning about is vast. They are turning to video to understand everything from how germs spread to the history of racial injustice. Since the medium is visual with the ability to be immersive, stories can be told with the context, nuance, and care they deserve.

In “The Origin of Race in the USA,” for example, the creator visualized primary sources to share in-depth analysis that many Americans may have never gotten in a traditional classroom. The New York Times’ short film, “ A Conversation About Growing Up Black,” allowed viewers to hear young Black people’s experience directly, in a way that’s more compelling and emotive than reading words on a page. In one respondent’s words, “Video can show all different sides of an issue, rather than just one.”

Fresh content helps us feel engaged in a constantly changing world

We know that Americans are watching more video than ever since the onset of the pandemic. Eighty-five percent of viewers say they’re watching more YouTube specifically (compared to 30% for other video platforms), and the No. 2 reason cited for increased video usage overall was “fresh, new, or unique content.”5

When our global and individual realities seem to change constantly, people want video that reflects what’s going on in the world today, right now. Our internal data in March showed that over 60% of signed-in viewers of YouTube on TV screens watched a video published in the last seven days.6

Top drivers of increased video usage across all streaming services

Bar chart indicating how viewers use streaming services. New/Fresh: 33% to teach new skills, 31% for fresh, unique content; Refuel: 30% to keep me going, 29% to recharge, 25% to feel positive; Information: 25% for reviews/demos, 22% brand info

Our research made it clear that in a “new normal” marked by indefinite uncertainty, online video is a powerful medium for positivity, exploring new ideas and difficult issues, and simply engaging with things that feel timely. A platform like YouTube, which offers a diversity of creators and a wide array of content, allows for constant innovation and adaptation to viewers’ needs — whatever they are today and whatever they may be tomorrow.

What pandemic video trends reveal about consumer needs