The temporary failure of intent marketing: care work in a pandemic

With the UK jobs market in chaos even before lockdown was announced and care homes the embattled locus of much of the UK’s interaction with the virus, the state of the care home jobs market and the attitudes and intent of the people within it defied any speculation. Blindfolded in this way, but still keen to offer our clients insight and advocacy, we commissioned our own research to better understand the prevailing mood of frontline workers in care home settings.

In which the changing role of intent is explored

Over the last couple of decades the value of demography in defining and targeting an audience has been diminished significantly by the arrival of intent targeting. Where once we had to work on the assumption that people with similar inclinations are likely also to share similarities in the way of age range, income bracket, postcode or gender, today in many circumstances we can target those inclinations directly. This has the dual benefits of massively reducing wastage on the one hand, while on the other allowing brands to tailor their messages, their frequency or even ad sequencing based on a precise understanding of intent; of exactly what stage of the buying cycle any individual might have reached, or might soon reach (whether they know it or not).

Where once anything so emotive as intent was entirely the province of the creative agency, with the media team left to occupy themselves with reach figures, crosstabs and putting ticks into boxes, today intent targeting coalesces these two distinct disciplines and alloys their responsibility for client outcomes. Vital to the contribution each party makes to this endeavour, consumer online behaviours are a glistening seam of commercial opal, mined extensively and used to adorn targeting and ornament messaging alike.

Enter the pandemic

Although its impact on the economy at large and the household finances of millions of Britons is now being felt and will no doubt eventually prove enormous, it is at the level of intent that the coronavirus pandemic was most immediately disruptive. With the CJRS keeping millions in work, and many of these at roughly the same level of income, it wasn’t demography that changed overnight when lockdown began: postcodes went unchanged, peoples’ ages still went up at the proper speed. Instead the sudden sea change took place within intent: immediately our attitudes to dozens of purchasing decisions both large and small changed irrevocably. Lockdown restricted our ability to make many purchases, of course, but it also impacted our intention to make them, whether that was an increased appetite for paying for online content or a new caution about the wisdom or worth of takeaway coffee. Decisions about new cars, about holidays, or moving home were delayed or reversed; attitudes towards FMCG products were drastically revised; intentions to change jobs were re-considered.

We all read dozens of those blogs and columns in April and May about “the new normal” and “these uncertain times”. With so much of the more tangible, concrete constituent parts of our consumer economy as yet unchanged, it was the change in intent that lurked at the heart of this shellshocked navel-gazing. We were the same people in April as we were in February, and in the majority of cases we had the same jobs and lived in the same home, but we wanted wildly different things and we harboured a whole new set of preoccupations, interests and anxieties.

With such a sudden, wide-ranging and significant swing in personal attitudes, many of the tools of the media planner were immediately obsolete. What value can be ascribed to a set of online behaviours that have marked your journey through the passive stage and into active research for a new product if within the course of a week every consumer in the country has had cause to sit and re-think their plans and re-examine their finances? The situation also limited the reliability of demographic targeting: reduced access to more traditional media (out of home, cinema, print) impacted the demography of its audiences overnight in ways that could at first only be estimated, while first-party data from our clients’ websites suggested a noticeable change in the age profile of their consumers. In this way, at the same time as the viability of many more traditional routes to market was impacted, our confidence in the demographic profile of a typical consumer for many products and services was shaken. Exactly the circumstances in which intent targeting would have been extremely useful.

Good old-fashioned research

This agency has always placed a premium on the importance of third-party research. Our investment into research tools, perhaps disproportionately large compared to other agencies, evidences our commitment to rigorous strategic planning for any media campaign. In late March, however, even the most recently updated research tools were suddenly out of date. Much like the intent implied by online behaviours and post-engagement audience pools our costly and hitherto sacrosanct research tools became overnight reliquaries maintained in respect of ancient truths. Interesting and evocative of a time certainly, but of no immediate practical value.

The only means of ensuring relevance in such a time of change is to collect data in real time. If the pandemic was Heraclitus’ river, then to have any chance of understanding its flow as it buffeted the shores and riverbeds of our commerce and society, we had to be stood knee deep in it at the time: there was nothing to be gleaned from peering into a bucket of water collected weeks before.

With the jobs market in chaos even before lockdown was finally announced, and care homes the embattled locus of much of the UK’s interaction with the virus, the state of the care home jobs market and the attitudes and intent of the people within it defied any speculation. Blindfolded in this way, but still keen to offer our clients insight and advocacy, we commissioned our own research to better understand the prevailing mood of front-line workers in care home settings.

Methodology & background

A sample of 103 care professionals was surveyed by email during the early part of June 2020. All in Care Assistant or Welfare Assistant roles within a care home setting, they had an average of 5.4 years in the industry and had been in their current role 3.7 years on average.

In order to quantify the impact of Covid-19 on these people and their work choices, we established a base line that assessed the panel’s habitual views and attitudes, and then asked how these had changed (or not) in recent weeks.

When asked to consider what was most important in choosing to work in the healthcare profession, nearly two thirds of our panel identified flexibility around location as key, while more than half regarded the potential for career progression as vital.

Looking beyond the decision to work in healthcare in general, to examine what motivated people to choose their current employer, we saw a broader distribution of answers. Locations were still important, but an employer’s standing within the industry and the training opportunities offered were the most significant factors identified.

We asked our panel to consider how Covid had impacted on these deciding factors and saw a significant growth in import for employer reputation and pay and conditions.


Alongside other questions concerning how people came across their current role and which recruitment portals and sector-specific platforms the respondents were aware of, our survey offered a brief snapshot of a vital service at a time of crisis and yielded actionable insights regarding both where to speak to these people and how best to engage their interest.

The responses to two of our questions were particularly humbling. Asked if the Covid situation had impacted their intention to stay within the healthcare sector, 82% of respondents said they were more likely to stay in the sector than before; that the arrival of the pandemic made them more likely to remain within the industry, not less.

Elsewhere, a free-text question invited respondents to tell us what they liked most about their current job. Responses made clear the commitment this workforce has to the wider community and its pride in the being able to make a difference, remarking on “an opportunity to serve”, an affinity for “the caring nature” of the role and ultimately a satisfaction that “my actions will directly help people”.

Moving forwards

This research project and others like it helped us to plug a temporary gap in our strategic planning. That opal seam was down there somewhere, but with our access to it temporarily removed we had to ornament our planning strategies and help our creative partner agencies to enrich their messaging through other means.

As the lockdown has gradually unwound we have seen both a limited return to “normal” behaviours and proclivities, and a catching up of the more usual intent-based targeting options with consumers’ new real-world situations. Today people’s online behaviours during lockdown and after provide a far more reliable illustration of their current intentions than we had available to us in the early days of the pandemic. Similarly, our third-party research tools have been updated with new surveys and fresher data and are once again a functioning bellwether.

As the downstream implications of the pandemic continue to impact on the wider economy and those working within it, there will of course be continued consequences for media consumption, attitudes, affinities and intent targeting. We can expect further volatility in our engagement audiences, but we will approach those changes with greater warning and, even in the event of a second lockdown, will find some guidance in having rehearsed all this once before. These opportunities for insight notwithstanding, there will still be a place for proprietary research and first-party data as we chart “these uncertain times“.

If you would like to discuss our findings further please get in touch with a member of our team.