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Can’t See the Web for the Trees

What have businesses prioritised during the pandemic?

Quick nav:

Image of happy marketerGiven the rare course of the last, somewhat tumultuous year, we asked over 1,000 SMEs how they have been prioritising their time when it comes to expanding, refreshing or improving their marketing and overall business efforts, both digitally and offline.

Digital initiatives taking priority

The number one thing businesses have spent the most time on over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic has been digital marketing, covering both paid advertising efforts such as online advertising and more ‘organic’ efforts, such as SEO, online PR or company blogs. 36% of the SMEs we surveyed said that this has been their main focus.

Following this, the highest priorities were all also digital-based initiatives, with time invested in social media (35%), the business’ website (29%) and setting up a new online service (23%). Meanwhile a much lower number of SMEs had been prioritising offline services with the physical premises (14%), traditional marketing, such as leaflets and newspaper advertising (16%) and setting up new offline services (17%) seeming to have been of lowest importance.

Dedicating time to online services

So, what do these priorities amount to in terms of physical hours? We found that, in a typical working week, businesses have been spending the most time on their online services – amounting to an average of just under 11 hours (10 hours 56 minutes) on their digital offerings. Offline services, however, saw a lower amount of time per week (10 hours 9 minutes), perhaps little surprise considering how many businesses were forced to pivot to digital services throughout the three lockdowns.

And this trend continues across other focus areas – the second activity that business owners have chosen to focus the most physical time on each week was social media, taking up an average of 10 hours 42 minutes per week. Meanwhile, website maintenance (10 hours 13 minutes per week) saw more time invested than caring for physical stores or premises (9 hours 22 minutes per week), and digital marketing (10 hours 7 minutes per week) was allocated more time than its traditional, offline counterpart (just 8 hours 49 minutes per week).

Whether they were forced to or chose to, it’s clear that businesses have been heavily prioritising their online products, communications and promotions over offline equivalents.

Q2 in SME survey: Roughly how much time, if any, does your business spend on the following during a typical working week?

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Reducing financial investment in a challenging year

It’s not just time that SMEs have been investing in their services, branding and marketing – there often needs to be a financial investment as well. And there’s been an interesting shift between the amount spent in the last 12 months compared to the year before (pre-Covid 19).

Over the last year, the most money was spent on social media, which saw an average spend of £18,555 per year. Despite the major shift towards online however, this was actually a drop from the year before, which saw £21,399 spent on average per year.

In fact, comparatively less money was spent across all issues, apart from one area; setting up and running online services went from an average annual spend of £12,542 before Covid-19, to £14,054 over the last year.

Financial investment by sector

We can break this information down even further to take a detailed look at where money was being spent by each of our core industries. The results show a very varied picture:

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How many new websites?

Nearly a third (32%) of businesses have launched a new website during the COVID-19 pandemic, showing that SMEs who previously may only have had a very limited online presence have taken steps to offer their products and services online. Out of our key focus industries, commercial services businesses were most likely to launch a new website, with 41% noting they’d done so.


The shift to digital has continued to be of major importance for SMEs, who have been investing time and money into reaching their customers online. The reduction in financial investments could be a larger sign of enforced cutbacks as a result of various lockdowns and business restrictions, but even so, online services are still the main priority for businesses when promoting and improving their offering.

“The pandemic has forced businesses to adapt quickly, leading to a widespread adoption of digital services at speed. Whilst these digital services have been crucial for businesses to survive the past 16 months, our insights show that this trend is set to continue long past the pandemic. Therefore, it is crucial for SMEs to be getting their digital strategy right, and an effective website will always be at the heart of that.”
Claire Miles, CEO of Yell

Survey methodology

1,011 SME owners and 2,039 consumers were surveyed in April 2021 by Censuswide on behalf of Yell Business.

Download SME survey data

Download Consumer survey data