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Tomorrow’s US elections will bring an unprecedented amount of web traffic to news sites. At Chartbeat, we’re predicting the total volume of readership we measure across the web (including non-news sites) to be close to 20-25 million concurrents, roughly double that of a typical day’s 13 million, with a selection of sites up in traffic by factors of 10 or more. This increase in overall traffic represents a huge opportunity for audience building, with news sites seeing large increases in new visitors. But how?

 

Turning election interest into readership

Election days aren’t regular news days by any means. Traffic patterns during an event like the elections are quite different from the norm. In fact, it is important to note that according to our research, search and direct traffic are initially critical to audience building during major breaking news events, followed by social.

When we think about traffic in general, we tend to think about social traffic first — due to the fact that the top referrer to any major news article is likely to be Facebook. But, because Facebook traffic about a particular article tends to have a significant ramp up period, reader behavior is quite different during breaking news events. For example, during the Paris attacks in late 2015, Google traffic to The Atlantic’s What ISIS Really Wants spiked 12 hours before Facebook traffic reached its peak.

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In fact, during the 2012 US elections, search and direct traffic vastly outweighed social traffic, and events like the Brexit vote in the UK demonstrated the same pattern more recently. That means that concentrating on these two areas — search and direct traffic — is critical for news sites hoping to maximize their traffic on election night.

 

Capitalizing on search traffic

For search, that means — perhaps obviously — that the sites topping the Google rankings for terms like “election map” and “elections results” will have search traffic climbing to millions of concurrents. Additionally, search engine optimization around key terms has the potential for massive returns.

Although traffic will be highest for google.com, we should expect readership spikes on the magnitude of 100,000+ concurrents for search traffic from many non-US countries as well, so search placement in google.fr, google.de, google.com.au, google.co.uk, google.es, and others is also critically important.

 

Maximizing direct traffic

Garnering an increasing share of direct traffic is by no means easy, but the sites that people tune into for election coverage will likely crack into the millions of concurrents. Therefore, anything you can do to remind your users to choose your site as their go-to for the evening is likely to reap rewards. Critically, and unlike during “traditional” breaking news topics like weather and terrorism where visitors value hard factual sites the most, we typically see that during major elections there’s a bias in traffic toward sites with a unique angle.

 

Following through on social traffic from Facebook

We often see that the most successful stories on Facebook have an emotional versus strictly informative lens. For example, during the Brexit vote, only a few highly emotional topics received significant Facebook traffic.

 

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Because Facebook traffic is extremely concentrated, looking for stories beginning to gain traction late Tuesday night and doubling down on them on Wednesday morning is the likeliest route to success.

As for social traffic, we can expect Facebook to become the dominant traffic driver on Wednesday morning, following the election results.

There’s much that remains to be seen about traffic on Tuesday night — will more prominent data directly on Google search results pages hurt traffic? Which sites will end up with the coveted top search positions? Will traffic peak early in the evening or continue on late into the night? And how will Facebook amplify traffic?

I’ll be live tweeting patterns as they emerge at @joshuadschwartz and we’ll be following up with more in-depth analyses in the days after the election. Feel free to reach out!

As many major publishers and platforms have transitioned to using HTTPS, a great move for user privacy and security, a side effect has been a commensurate rise in dark social traffic — traffic that can’t be attributed to a particular referrer. Luckily, sites using HTTPS can still have their outbound traffic properly attributed if they chose to do so (e.g. by use of the meta referrer tag). We’ve chronicled major changes to dark social attribution here to ensure that publishers are up to date on the meaning of their traffic sources.

One of the largest sources of dark social on the web has been the Yahoo homepage, which drives an enormous amount of traffic and moved to using HTTPS over the past year, causing their traffic to become dark for publisher sites that don’t default to HTTPS. For publishers who have partnerships with Yahoo, this has meant that directly attributing the volume of traffic they’re receiving has been difficult.

On June 2, though, Yahoo pushed a change to add a meta referrer tag to their homepage and correctly attribute their traffic to sites using HTTP, and we’ve immediately seen dramatic results, as represented in the figure below.

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Since the change, we’ve seen a roughly 6x increase in attributable traffic coming from Yahoo, making it one of the most significant referrers on the web. On the day before the change, Yahoo was the 16th largest referrer across the Chartbeat network, and in the hours after the change Yahoo jumped to the sixth largest referrer (after Facebook, Google Search, Twitter, Google News, and Bing).

Between this change and other updates by LinkedIn and Facebook, we’ve seen significant moves in the past 18 months by many of the world’s largest platforms to ensure that all traffic is correctly attributed. We’ll continue to work with publishers and platforms to track down sources of dark social, and we’ll keep you updated here as more publishers move into the light.

Technical note: for those used to the hsrd.yahoo.com referrer, traffic sent via this change will carry the referrer yahoo.com, not hsrd.yahoo.com.

Beginning several days ago (the evening of Tuesday, 1/20, to be precise), you may have noticed a significant increase in the traffic on your site from LinkedIn: across our network, traffic from linkedin.com increased by over 3x. Below, we’ll detail why that change occurred, and what publishers should expect going forward.

Over the past year, publishers have become increasingly interested in traffic from LinkedIn, as the LinkedIn team has been steadily working to improve their feed experience with the launch of their new mobile app and content platforms. Nevertheless, when looking at referrer traffic in analytics tools like Chartbeat, web traffic from linkedin.com has always seemed smaller than it should for such a large platform, especially given the volume of traffic we see from LinkedIn’s counterpart apps, which shows up under the referrer name lnkd.in.

On January 20th, that changed when LinkedIn made a change to correctly attribute their traffic, some of which had previously been categorized as dark social. The impact of that change was immediate and significant.

Let’s look at traffic coming from linkedin.com to sites across the Chartbeat network over the last six months, we see two trends: a steady increase over the year, followed by a huge increase at the end of January.

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Zooming in on the right side of the graph, January, 2016, we can see the immediate change in traffic as the attribution change was pushed:

linkedin_02_v3If we compare numbers from just after the change to the same time during previous weeks, traffic from linkedin.com was up by over 3x.

Some sites saw more than 6x increases in their LinkedIn traffic.

While LinkedIn still isn’t a major traffic source for many types of sites, we expect that many business-, media-, and technology-focused sites will see LinkedIn as a top-10 referrer going forward.

With Facebook’s change last year to help attribute all of their traffic, LinkedIn’s change here, and other work to come, we’re excited to see more traffic correctly attributed. We’ll continue to work with platforms in the coming months to bring their dark social traffic into the light.

In general, when we publish data, it’s always in anonymized, aggregated form — that sort of data lets us identify the cross-network trends relevant to all publishers. Now and then, though, we have occasion to look deeply at one publisher’s data, which lets us pull out facts that might be obscured when aggregating across tens of billions of pageviews. This is one such special occasion.

Many of you have seen our list of the 20 most-read articles of 2015. Today, we wanted to give you an analysis of the data behind the success of the most read article on that list, The Atlantic’s March issue cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants” by contributing editor Graeme Wood. The piece is the most popular article in the history of The Atlantic and accrued more Total Engaged Time than any other in the 164 million pages published in 2015 across the Chartbeat network of 50,000 sites. At its peak, it was the second highest traffic article page in the Chartbeat network, and it has received sustained traffic for over 10 months.

On its way to becoming the most-read story of the year, this article availed itself of almost every conceivable audience-building opportunity — beginning with a carefully-executed launch, and then social and publicity strategies to bring sustained attention to the piece. So the data around this article provides a fantastic lens into the mechanisms by which digital content can succeed.

On its way to becoming the most-read story of the year, this article availed itself of almost every conceivable audience-building opportunity.

Our list of top articles was calculated using Total Engaged Time — the sum across all pageviews of each visitor’s active Engaged Time — and the article was an outlier in terms of both components (pageviews and engaged time), so we’ll look into both traffic and engagement in turn.

Traffic Volume

From the perspective of traffic, this story was incredibly successful, receiving nearly 20 million pageviews between its publication in mid-February 2015 and the end of the year. As we see in the graph below, traffic occurred in three distinct phases: a huge initial volume of traffic upon release, a long tail showing steady traffic over a period of months, and a major second pickup coinciding with the Paris attacks. The patterns of traffic during each phase were quite different, so we’ll examine them one-by-one.

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Initial spike (February 16-March)

The piece, along with the rest of the March issue, was posted to TheAtlantic.com the same week that the magazine appeared on newsstands. The page’s initial spike, as we see below, occurred simultaneously for a number of referrers, but the vast majority of traffic in the first four days was driven by Facebook. As we’ll see echoed in the November spike, Facebook has an unparalleled capability for generating massive spikes — spikes on other platforms are not nearly as large. Interestingly, as Facebook traffic died down on 2/20, Google traffic immediately picked up, perhaps in reaction to a number of media responses to the piece that were published on 2/20. This spike in Google traffic formed the basis of the next phase of traffic.

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Interim period (April-October 2015)

Although, this window was quiet compared to the February and November spikes, the page garnered 2.4 million pageviews in this period by steadily accruing roughly 10,000 pageviews per day. The main traffic driver in this period was Google search, which drove nearly a million pageviews. Twitter traffic was all but non-existent, and Facebook drove a more modest amount of traffic.

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While Google carried the day, many other referrers drove what, for any other piece, would’ve been very significant amounts of traffic — traffic from other sites is captured in the “external links” line above. In particular, citations in, and cross-promotion on, the Washington Post drove 97k pageviews, The Huffington Post drove 42k pageviews, and The Guardian and CNN drove 19k pageviews each. Interestingly, audiences coming from other publications were much more engaged with the story than the overall audience, spending an average of over 5 minutes of engaged time on the piece (compared to an overall average of 3 minutes).

Paris attacks (November 13-December 31 2015)

The largest spike in the article’s history occurred during the Paris attacks of November 2015.

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Clearly the main traffic spike was from Facebook, but let’s zoom in to the beginning of the spike:

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We see that Google search traffic peaked almost immediately after the attacks, nearly 12 hours before Facebook and Twitter traffic took off. This Google spike is a phenomenon we’ve been seeing for many breaking news events — while Facebook often delivers more traffic over the long term, Google is often the leading source of traffic in the first few minutes after an event. We also see an interesting phase change in Facebook’s promotion of the page at about noon UTC on 11/14.

Engagement

Beyond just high traffic, the article’s atypically high engagement crowned it as the most-read article of the year. Most stories receive an average of under 45 seconds of engaged time per pageview; this one received over three minutes.

Engaged Time was very strong across all top referrers, including over 3:30 minutes for visitors from Facebook, 2:20 for visitors from Google, and 4:15 for visitors coming from internal promotion. Similarly, engagement was strong on all devices, with an average engaged time of just under 3:00 for mobile and just over 3:40 for desktop.

Most stories receive an average of under 45 seconds of engaged time per pageview; this piece received over three minutes.

Let’s put engagement in the context of the article by looking at scroll depth instead of time. Because the article is so long and might take multiple visits to read, we’ll look at the maximum that each unique user attained, even if that took multiple pageviews. Note that the below figures measure scroll depth in pixels, so they understate scroll depth: 10,000 pixels, the first tick mark, is already over 2,000 words into the piece.

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On desktop over 40% of readers scrolled the first 10,000 pixels, and 24% of readers made it to the end of the article.

Turning back to repeat visitors to the article, we see two types of repeat visits: visitors who come to the page on subsequent visits and immediately abandon the page (possibly, for example, because they’ve already read it), and visitors who read deeply on subsequent visits. In the first figure below we see scroll on subsequent visits across all readers:

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That is, overall visitors scroll less when they visit the article later. However, when we restrict to only visitors who actually engage with the page, we see a different story. In the below graph, we look specifically at desktop readers who engaged with the page (as judged by an engaged time of 15 seconds). We see that on subsequent visits these visitors scrolled significantly more deeply than on their first visit.

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Final Insights

“What ISIS Really Wants” was literally a one-in-million success, and the vast majority of articles (including great ones), won’t garner anywhere near the level of engagement it received. Nonetheless, a look into its data shows a number of trends that are valuable for pieces of all sizes:

  1. Most critically, its place as the most-read article of the year clearly shows that there is a significant value associated with deeply researched, high-quality enterprise journalism. The other members of our top 20 list only serve to validate this statement.
  2. Facebook has no peers when it comes to driving massive traffic spikes; across two spikes Facebook drove over 6 million pageviews to the piece.
  3. Search engine placement has its value both for long-tail traffic and during breaking news events.
  4. Even when facing down a tough subject and over 10,000 words, readers are willing to actually read, on all devices and across multiple sittings.

Want to see what other numbers we’ve crunched in the past year? Check out Chartbeat’s look back at 2015 and media-minded resolutions for 2016: Past-Forward.

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2015 was a big year for top-quality journalism. Just looking at the 20 most read stories across the Chartbeat network, it’s clear that a heartening mix of longform reports and critical resources for breaking news captured and held the world’s attention this year. Quality content shone, even as the relationship between media and technology continued to shift – especially in the realms of mobile traffic, distribution platforms, and ad blocking.

In 2015, more than 70% of sites we measured saw traffic from mobile devices increase, and Facebook, as in prior years, generated the largest share of mobile traffic. In contrast to prior years, though, Facebook’s share of traffic itself was constant for most sites. That said, there’s no denying that the new channels for content distribution, like Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover, and Google AMP, will only grow in importance over 2016, presenting an opportunity for publishers to build their audiences. And this is the key. Even as some publishers, especially in Germany, are reporting high rates of ad blocking, by prioritizing audience, embracing new channels, and doubling down on speedy browsing we can build an even brighter media landscape for years to come.

So take some time to read Past/Forward. In it, we’ve proposed eight New Year’s resolutions for digital publishers seeking an outstanding 2016. We walk you through cutting down page load times, growing your loyal audience, writing winning headlines — pretty much everything future-focused publishers should strive for.

You can find Tony Haile’s forecast for 2016 and our eight digital media resolutions in Past/Forward.