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Telecom’s mission to keep Americans connected during COVID-19

April 27 2020 by Sarah Fleishman

Americans are spending a lot of time at home right now.

In fact, 42% of U.S. workers who did not telecommute previously are doing so now. As federal and local leaders encourage Americans to stay home, work remotely, and avoid non-essential travel, some reports show internet usage up by anywhere from 20 to 40%. Brands in telecom are taking advantage of more eyes scrolling the internet, with increased spend on digital advertising. 

We took a look at how leading telecom companies AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint spent on digital ads amidst the global pandemic. Here’s what we found.

March proves a busy month for telecom giants

According to data from Pathmatics Explorer, telecom companies increased digital ad spend from $30.9M in January to $51.2M in March. The burst in spend highlights a definitive need for telecom brands to keep connectivity on and strong while Americans spend more time at home. 

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Between January and March, four major telecom carriers had an overall increase in ad spend: 

  • AT&T spent $39.3M
  • Sprint spent $35.8M 
  • Verizon spent $28.4M 
  • T-Mobile spent $18.5M

The legacy provider: AT&T’s Facebook-centric strategy

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AT&T spent $7.5M in digital ads in January and $20.1M in March — a 168% increase.

The company implemented a strong Facebook strategy throughout Q1, with 67% of its total ad budget invested in the platform. In fact, in the last week of March alone, AT&T spent $6.8M on Facebook ads. Top creatives during this time included star-studded Facebook video ads for AT&T TV with Google Assistant, featuring Missy Elliot, Lebron James, and Martha Stewart. 

While there’s no surprise in seeing influencer ads featured among top creatives by spend, AT&T also invested hefty sums toward a banner ad with a call to action for web users to “get internet today” from the company, and a silent video ad with messaging around, “keeping us connected, even when we’re apart.” The latter ad is part of a larger push around connectivity during COVID-19.

Another Facebook creative for the connectivity campaign positions AT&T as the legacy telecom leader: “AT&T has connected us for over a century. And today, we’re doing everything to make that connection stronger than ever.” This is an important differentiation, given AT&T’s main telecom rival is 36-year-old Verizon.

Verizon’s round-the-clock efforts

Verizon spent $28.4M on digital ads from January to March, and increased spend by $3M from mid-February on. The company has a diverse digital ad mix during this time:

  • $14.8M on desktop ads
  • $6.4M on Twitter ads
  • $5M on Facebook ads
  • $2.2M on mobile ads

With the company investing most of its budget in desktop ads, Pathmatics has seen Verizon increase its desktop spend significantly since the start of the year. This could partly be a result of Verizon’s increase in indirect ad spend as a way to cast a wider audience net. Its indirect spend increased from 21% in January to 37% in both February and March, individually. 

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Messaging from the top creatives proves this may be the case. Desktop ads with scrolling text feature messaging including: 

  • 5G built right
  • Learn how we’re responding to COVID-19
  • We’re here and we’re ready
  • We understand the need to stay connected 
  • Resiliency and built to adapt to demand

It’s also worth noting that Verizon is the only telecom carrier outlined here that’s spent more than $2M on Twitter ads in Q1. The company’s top Twitter creatives show the company’s push toward helping businesses including Anthem, Xerox, and, interestingly enough, JetBlue, during this time. 

Despite merger, Sprint & T-Mobile approach digital ads differently

While T-Mobile and Sprint officially merged in April, their digital ad strategies are anything but coalescing. In fact, Sprint spent nearly double T-Mobile’s total ad spend ($35.8M vs. $18.5M) in Q1. 

Unlike Verizon and AT&T, Sprint focused its creatives around its Unlimited plan, with no real change in messaging for its top creatives from January to March. The company has an interesting desktop video ad trend during this time: at the start of the year, Sprint never spent more than $100K per day on desktop video ads. By March, the company increased daily spending, hitting a peak on March 13 with more than $343K in ad spend on that day alone. Ad copy persuaded mobile users to switch to Sprint.

T-Mobile’s top creatives also focused on the cellphones it carries and pricing specials, rather than specific COVID-19 messaging. Its monthly estimated ad spend has increased from $4.7M in January, to $6.7M in February, and $7.4M in March. T-Mobile had a strong Facebook strategy in March, having spent $369K on March 17 alone for Facebook ads. The company targeted several cities on Facebook during this day, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, DC, Philly, and NYC. 

Connection stable: Telecom wants to be stronger together, apart

As Verizon and AT&T try to persuade Americans that they have what it takes to be the number one telecom provider, T-Mobile and Sprint are just trying to make a deal. 

Whatever the next few months bring, these four brands’ digital ad strategies prove that they’re taking advantage of a captive online audience.

About Author

Sarah Fleishman

With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.

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