What does post-pandemic social media look like? An analysis of audience trends

Social media has been a significant source of traffic as the global pandemic has taken shape in recent months. Therefore, we partnered with Echobox to take a deeper look into social traffic, namely the interactions and engagement across social media channels that can give us insights into a post-pandemic landscape.

For the sake of our research, we wanted to provide further context on:

1. Our learnings from studying publishers’ social traffic during the pandemic

2. What changed, and what has normalized since, and

3. How publishers can use this data to inform strategies moving forward

Below, more on the data and our findings.

A detailed view of social interactions

Echobox data shows that the coronavirus pandemic has had positive results overall on publishers’ social media performance. During this unprecedented moment in time, publishers have engaged social audiences effectively with exceptional content from their journalists, and transformed that engagement into a significant traffic boost.

What are the key takeaways from our social media data?

1. Social traffic grew by 45% on average

As highlighted in Echobox’s recent report, there were more publishers that recorded gains in traffic from social media than those who saw decreases during the pandemic. On average, across all publishers studied, social traffic (daily pageviews) increased by a healthy 45%. 

2. The portion of traffic from social media grew by 4%

With readers frequently searching for the latest news developments or actively following live pages, for example, one might expect to see a shift in the breakdown of traffic sources, with direct traffic or search engines gaining more ground over social media referrals. 

However, Echobox data revealed an average increase of 4% in the portion of traffic publishers received from social media, suggesting that social media remained a key source for audiences seeking news as well as content unrelated to coronavirus.

3. Engagement with posts peaked in March

What did social engagement look like for publishers during the pandemic? We observed that user engagement with posts on Facebook (the social platform that still drives the lion’s share of traffic to publisher websites) saw a sharp and short-lived peak in March. In this graph, we see how the average number of comments per share and reactions per share dipped in early March before peaking around mid-month:

How exactly were audiences engaging with publisher posts during this period?

Let’s focus on different types of engagement actions (clicks, reactions, impressions, likes, comments) per share, and how these actions changed week over week. We see an initial jump in both clicks and impressions per share in Week 11 (March 9 – 15). Only a week later, in Week 12 (March 16 – 22), do we observe a steep lift in more engaged actions like comments per share, as well as reactions and likes per share: 

However, by Week 14 (March 30 – April 5), engagement with posts had declined significantly compared to the previous week, across all types of engagement actions. Throughout most of April and into May, we see that engagement with social posts was on a general decline week over week. 

With social engagement trends returning to their pre-pandemic levels, the question now is how will this engagement evolve in the weeks to come? Will social engagement shrink further, indicating lasting audience fatigue? Or will it bounce back as audiences return to their normal routines of consuming social content?

How recent social and search patterns compare

Chartbeat’s global network data tells a similar story when we compare the largest social referrer, Facebook, to Google Search. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the trends:

1. As of late May, Facebook referral traffic is still hovering around the 200 million pageview mark, as shown below. This is still below a peak of around 230 million pageviews, but far above the sub-100 million referrals we saw in the first part of January.

2. Despite its lower overall traffic than Google Search, Average Engaged Time across Facebook is still above average as well. Readers engaged with content referred by Facebook for 37 seconds compared to 40 seconds from Google Search.

3. Engaged Time across content referred by Facebook has actually increased since our initial traffic analysis, as coronavirus began drawing global attention. In February, Average Engaged Time sat around 35 seconds. 

The two second increase is worth noting. Why? We’ve seen that 45% of readers who load a page will leave within 15 seconds. We see surpassing the 15 second threshold critical to increase the likelihood they’ll return to your site again. Therefore, when those numbers are doubled across platforms, content creators have a greater chance of taking the steps to ensure readers will return.

Outside of Facebook and Google Search, we are still seeing the signs of fatigue, as the chart below shows.

1. With the exception of SmartNews, up 3%, all other major referral sources saw week-over-week declines in traffic for the period ending May 20.

2. Yahoo! saw the steepest drop — 19% — during this period.

3. Despite its influence across politics and media, Twitter referral traffic was also down 9%. That said, lower engagement from these referral sources compared to Google search and Facebook reflects a pattern we’ve seen even before the onset of the pandemic.

Post-pandemic social media: Our takeaways

Here are a few takeaways for publishers on our social traffic analysis:

1. Understand and compare traffic patterns

In order to see a path forward, you need to understand how your specific traffic patterns have been affected during the pandemic. For instance, go beyond the gains in traffic by looking at the underlying geographies, referral sources, and content types driving the most traffic. This data can help you identify new areas of growth and support the strategies behind sustaining traffic growth moving forward.

2. Analyze audience engagement patterns

While you may see larger traffic spikes from certain referral sources, it’s important to separate quantity from quality. If your goal is to drive more traffic to your site, identify the types of content that resonated most with those increases. However, if your goal is to encourage more return visits and drive greater loyalty, you’ll want to identify the content that drove more quality clicks and higher Average Engaged Time.

3. Connect the dots between readers and revenue

Did you see reader revenue gains through subscriptions or other sources? If so, are there any changes or factors that could have led to those gains? The types of content and reader interactions that ultimately led to subscriptions can speak to future acquisition opportunities for your organization.

4. Share actionable data across your organization

We see organizations come together in the face of adversity every day to produce high quality content. It’s important that you continue to support your teams’ operational efficiency, especially when your newsroom may continue to be virtual or at a reduced workforce. One way is to leverage your data sources to inform faster decision making. We see this as particularly helpful in a social media landscape, where actionable opportunities for engagement can come and go quickly.

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