How has the global pandemic affected readership? Our audience analysis

Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared on the Digital Content Next blog.

As we continue our analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on audience engagement throughout the world, we wanted to answer a few burning questions in the context of the crisis:

  • How much are people reading? Namely, has their engagement risen or fallen in any significant way? And, how has that engagement has changed over time with the rise and fall of case numbers?
  • Where are readers finding content? What referral sources are driving the most traffic over these past few months?
  • Which types of content have readers found most engaging during this period?

For this analysis, our Data Science team reviewed more than 175 billion pageviews from the beginning of the year across 56 million articles, about 7 million of which were about Covid-19. Here’s what we found.

Coverage declines between March and May

First, we analyzed consumption patterns in terms of the total number of articles published each day on Covid. We saw a small rise in the number of articles as the crisis began to grow internationally. Then there was a huge peak in coverage in mid-March, around the time that the U.S. and U.K. announced major policy changes. 

That was followed by a 45% decline in the number of coronavirus-related articles between that mid-March peak and the end of May.

We then looked at consumption patterns among audiences (seen in the graph above), the overall traffic numbers, broken out by pageviews on non-Covid articles and Covid articles, show that:

  • Journalists were covering coronavirus before it truly caught the public’s attention. There were more than 7,000 articles per day published on Covid starting at the beginning of February, but our data shows that audiences weren’t paying attention until the very end of the month.
  • Traffic and coverage peaked at the same time, the second and third weeks of March.
  • Traffic has declined faster than coverage, with a nearly 60% decline in traffic from peak to the end of May.

The latter point aligns with our assessment that consumption patterns in recent months have suggested the onset of reader fatigue.

Audience behaviors across highly affected countries

Our next step was to see if country trends reflected those patterns, so we analyzed reader engagement across countries where we were able to get data about new cases.

In the U.S., we saw that people started reading about Covid-19 significantly before new cases were exploding. The peak day for traffic on coronavirus stories was 36 days before the peak day of new cases.

Yet, engagement with Covid stories has waned at a much faster pace than actual cases — new cases have only declined 20%, while traffic has declined about 80%.

In Europe, we saw a similar pattern of engagement peaking before new cases reach highs, but we saw greater alignment between engagement and the fall in cases. Here, the UK:

And here in Italy:

Readers in Brazil were only engaged around the same time that other countries peaked.

Referrals still largely driven by Google, Facebook

When dove into the referral data, Google Search and Facebook saw significant jumps in traffic.

When we looked at the total volume of search traffic to Google, we saw a massive rise in mid-March — more than 60% or 200 million daily pageviews. In the case of Facebook, traffic also grew significantly, to the tune of 35%, or 70 million daily pageviews. 

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This change in traffic, with a greater percentage of traffic coming from search, is in line with what we typically see during major news events, where readers more often rely on search to seek out relevant information. However, we usually think about that phenomenon on the shorter timelines that are usually associated with breaking news events. Because Covid coverage has been prominent for several months, it is notable that the dominance of Google Search as a traffic source has been sustained over time.

What’s more, the growth of traffic from just these two sources accounts for about half of the increase in traffic to publisher sites, with the other half coming from an increase in direct traffic.

As we see above, Google News and Twitter also each saw 60-70% increases in the volume of traffic during this period. When you think about our previous understanding of how audiences find information via search over social, Twitter’s rise is especially notable.

Audiences Engaged Time still high across the board

When we looked at overall engagement, we saw that visitors spent 35% of their time on coronavirus-related articles in March, falling to 20% in May. While that breakdown may seem surprising to news consumers, our global dataset includes sites that fall outside of news, say sports or entertainment, which shows us that audiences were still spending time on non-Covid content as well.

We then looked at Average Engaged Time, we saw that readers spent 34% more time on Covid articles than non-Covid articles. This matters because this behavior points to more than a click. It demonstrates sustained engagement with the content.

How readers engaged with different content types

We also wanted to see if audiences favored certain content structures over others. Therefore, we analyzed the top 100 Covid-related stories by Total Engaged Time and categorized them into articles (traditional, short-form narratives), infographics/interactives, live blogs, and longform pieces.

As we see above, about half of the top 100 pages were articles. For live blogs, they only accounted for 39% of the top 100 list. However, they drive almost half of all engagement, showing that this frequently-updated format has resonated well with readers. Additionally, infographics and longform content were among the top pieces by engagement. 

When we delved further into their referral sources, we saw that articles received traffic from various traffic sources, while live blogs were most popular via homepages, which we classify as “internal” traffic in Chartbeat. Infographics performed best on search, while long-form pieces were a hit on social media platforms.

Our takeaways from this latest round of audience data

Let’s step back and answer the questions posed at the beginning of this piece and what they could suggest:

How much people are reading?

The publishing community began covering the pandemic ahead of the uptick in reader engagement. While the volume of coverage has been sustained, it has also outpaced the volume of traffic. That said, this traffic is still higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

However, the data suggests the onset of coverage fatigue, which also points to a need for new coverage strategies as the pandemic continues. Our country-by-country analysis shows that traffic tends to climb quickly as the virus spreads, but peaks within days of a lockdown. This illustrates a relationship between engagement and how regional measures are impacting the lives of readers. That said, traffic remains higher-than-usual when compared to pre-pandemic data we’ve analyzed.

Where are readers finding content?

Google and its related entities have been significant referral sources to external traffic to coronavirus-related content, well above Facebook, which in its own right has also referred substantial levels of traffic.

Which content, and which types of content, have readers found most engaging?

Engagement is higher on content that is directly related to coronavirus, but we’ve seen that readers are favoring the up-to-the-minute urgency that live blogs offer.

We’ll continue to analyze the data and report back on any new or updated findings as the pandemic continues.

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