What happens when coronavirus fatigue sets in? Our latest traffic and engagement analysis

Chartbeat’s most recent analysis of coronavirus readership data suggests that despite the continuous flow of traffic and coverage from news providers, we’re seeing the onset of reader fatigue. While coverage of the virus and the associated global pandemic is still providing readers with vital information, content teams should begin closely monitoring their own metrics to consider allocating resources to other types of coverage and avoid saturation. 

This new set of findings is based upon an analysis of 96.7 billion pageviews on 28 million articles published so far this year, including 2.3 million about COVID-19*. Below, we’ll share global trends that provide a wider perspective on reader behavior, as well as context for understanding the state of your own audience when compared to these trends. 

Compare to our previous analysis*.

Coronavirus traffic and average reader engagement trends down

The number of coronavirus-related articles produced on weekdays is still quite significant — slightly more than 80,000 published per day. However, the total number of articles produced on the topic is beginning to decline, with 6.7% fewer articles produced for the week beginning on March 30.

Number of Coronavirus Articles Published

 

When we look at pageview data, traffic to COVID-19 articles is down by 24.6%, and also declined in the proportion of traffic — to 27%, down from 31%, as of the week of March 30. 

Proportion of Pageviews to Coronavirus Articles

Our data also indicates a decrease in Total Engaged Time. COVID-19 articles currently account for about 29% of Total Engaged Time across our network, a decrease of 24.5% compared to the previous week.

This continues a trend we observed during the week ending March 27, as coronavirus-focused content accounted for about 34%, dropping by 3.7% compared to the previous week.

Proportion of Total Engaged Time to Coronavirus Articles

As of last week, Average Engaged Time is also down, but remains relatively strong. We saw coronavirus-related content receives 40 seconds of average engagement, compared to 36 seconds for non-coronavirus pieces. This follows a slight increase in Average Engaged Time in our previous week-over-week analysis, when it was up to 41 seconds by Thursday from 39 seconds on Monday.

(Related reading: Why real-time reader engagement matters)

Overall traffic and engagement are down week-over-week, and COVID-19 articles are trending down much faster than other articles.

COVID-19 Traffic and Engagement Trends

Search and social traffic slows significantly

It may come as no surprise that the astronomical rise in search traffic to COVID-19 articles could not be maintained for long. In fact, our data shows that it has been trending down since March 16.

Search traffic, as we see below, declined faster week over week (-44%) than social media (-23%).

Search and Social Traffic to COVID-19 Articles

That said, these platforms are still driving unusually high traffic, as evidenced by more than 100 million daily pageviews being referred by search. 

Trends in Google and Facebook Traffic Across Chartbeat's Network

When we look at trends among the leading sources of search and social traffic (shown above), Google Search continues to drive an average of 460 million daily pageviews, compared to 195 million for Facebook. 

That is continuing to trend down from the respective 500 million and 230 million pageviews we saw in our analysis for the week ending March 27.


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We also continue to see a notable contrast when comparing Google Search and Facebook referral traffic. Facebook drives fewer than half of the daily pageviews compared to Google for consecutive weeks, and driving lower engagement on average (30 seconds). Total Engaged Time for each platform has also decreased along with pageviews.

Facebook and Google Trends for Week of March 30

Traffic from other notable referrers, with one exception, is also down

The rapid growth that we saw from other major referrers has also been truncated, compared to last week’s data. While the same key players are driving traffic, led by Google News, much of their growth has largely flattened or declined. 

Referrer Trends Across Chartbeat Network

One exception is Yahoo!, which saw a week-over-week increase of 22% in referral traffic. On the other end of the spectrum, Bing saw the highest dip: 9.3% compared to the week prior. 

Our research for the week ending March 27 saw a similar rise in Japan-based SmartNews, only for the news aggregator to fall by 7.8% in this most recent week-over-week analysis.

(For more on this topic, see: How distribution channels drive reader loyalty: Our findings across devices)

Has coronavirus reader fatigue arrived? What to make of our latest findings

While our recent data does suggest that traffic to coronavirus-related content is slowing, we should also note that sustaining the past month’s levels of growth would have surpassed “unprecedented” and gone into completely uncharted territory.

And although the week-over-week data shows that reader appetite for coverage is still fairly high, content creators have reason to see this as more than just a minor blip, and need to take some careful steps to align their strategies accordingly.

Here’s a few other takeaways:

Continue to optimize for Google —and its platforms. 

Google Search is still a source of hundreds of millions in pageviews per day, while Google News leads other major referral sources by wide margins. Chances are you’re already optimizing for search, but it could be worth revisiting the recent changes to Google News we discussed last year to see if you’re taking advantage of that platform’s reach.

Keep an eye on emerging referral sources. 

The 25% growth in traffic referred from Yahoo! this week and SmartNews the week prior caught our attention for this round of analysis, but their increasing influence is nothing new for content creators. 

Whether or not traffic patterns return to a relative level of normalcy, our data suggests that ignoring content optimizations around mobile-first aggregators such as SmartNews is simply a missed opportunity.

Early signs of reader fatigue signal a need for future strategies. 

Our data suggests that consecutive weeks of decline in coronavirus coverage and traffic is a sign of trends to come. Our data on reader fatigue has been mixed in the past, but either way, media and publishing should not see this scenario as all bad news.

While it’s incumbent on organizations to monitor their performance and identify signals of any slowdown, it’s also important to regain momentum for a return to pre-coronavirus audience engagement trends. When that time comes, content creators should be prepared to make optimizations such as homepage adjustments, the re-promotion of strong content that was overshadowed by coronavirus news, or thoughtful decisions surrounding reader revenue models.


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