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Post-coronavirus content: A Chartbeat analysis of global engagement data

April 13, 2020 | By Jill Nicholson, Senior Director of Customer Education – Chartbeat @tumbling_after

Reader interest in coronavirus content has begun to wane. In fact, since March 30, we’ve seen traffic to Covid-19 articles is down nearly 25%.

As Covid-19 fatigue sets in, we wondered how audiences would interact with non-coronavirus content. Therefore, we looked to past data on highly-engaging content to find insights that may help inform content strategy in our near future. 

Do readers spend more time with great content? Yes

We began by analyzing content with the Top 100 articles with the highest engagement from last year (otherwise known as our Most Engaging Stories) against articles published in 2019 with at least 10,000 pageviews*. That data was then compared to our findings on coronavirus and non-coronavirus engagement (as of April 3 of this year) to get a glimpse of what to expect from readers moving forward. Here’s what we found.

For starters, the Top 100 articles of 2019 had a much higher Average Engaged Time compared to the others we analyzed, as we see below.

We’ll narrow this finding to two hypotheses. The first is that the majority of these articles are simply longer, and therefore command more of the reader’s time. The second is that they’re actually more engaging, with audiences actively reading longer.

When we add our Engaged Time data to the mix, it suggests the latter. Readers placed a higher value on this content, or understandably, spent more time with the captivating pieces when you account for scroll and click behavior. Audiences spent an average of more than two-and-a-half minutes (141 seconds) with the Top Stories compared to an average of about 39 seconds with articles that had more than 10,000 pageviews.

Compare this to our latest data on coronavirus-related and non-coronavirus articles, which found readers spent an average of 40 seconds and 36 seconds, respectively, with articles that had far more pageviews (>800,000 since January).

Therefore, while coronavirus content has understandably drawn the world’s attention, it still doesn’t come close to the Engaged Time we saw for high quality journalism last year.

Why this matters to publishing and media organizations

Content creators will likely feel validated by these findings. In fact, some publications have made it a focus to produce fewer, yet more substantial, pieces in lieu of cranking out lightning fast content. When it comes to being a more engaging piece of content, those efforts appear to be rewarded. 

Is social media a factor in non-coronavirus engagement? We think so

We also saw that the Top 100 articles from last year have much higher proportions of referrals from search and social channels. This suggests that their offsite success contributed to their higher Engaged Minutes tally.

The data also shows that, in general, the Top 100 articles had higher search traffic as a percentage of total pageviews, as shown below.

In comparison, our long-term findings have shown that once critical information is widely known, traffic begins to decline, particularly in search. This finding was supported by our newest data on referrals to coronavirus content, as shown here:

Why this matters to publishing and media organizations

While “going viral” isn’t necessarily the goal for writers and their publishers, the popularity of the Top 100 stories with audiences from external platforms had a sustained impact on engagement. We see that organic channels (i.e. getting the eyes of multiple outlets or social media readers) was significant to the Total Engaged Minutes of these pieces. As coronavirus coverage slows down, these attributes can signal a return to the engagement norm.

Can engaging pieces attract more loyal or new readers? Our findings say yes

In our analysis of new versus loyal visitors, we found that the Top 100 have higher proportions of new visitors. The data suggests that these more engaging articles manage to transcend a site’s typical audience and draw new readers’ interest.

Why this matters to publishing and media organizations

This should also come as good news to media and publishing as they look to transition to non-coronavirus content, all while maintaining the strong traffic momentum from the past few months.

Today’s digital publishers are also as focused on retention as they are on acquisition, especially when it comes to generating reader-driven revenue. In this instance, we see an engaging story as a chance to introduce new readers to content. It also presents a better opportunity to create returning (i.e., loyal) audiences that will read more than a single article.

What to make of a post-coronavirus content world: Our takeaways

Overall, our data suggests that highly engaging stories will display certain qualities as readership (and production of) coronavirus-related content declines. Those included:

  • A higher Average Engaged Time among readers
  • Greater search and social media referral traffic
  • New visitors (a possible benefit from the aforementioned social media boost)

What does this mean for content creators trying to recreate the positive impact of an engaging piece of content moving forward?

Longform still has a place, but isn’t the only distinguishing factor for the most engaging reads. Audiences made more time for long, captivating narratives.

The Top 100 stories we analyzed were given a boost by search and social media, whether on the backs of their organizations or influential readers that elevated them. Good practices across SEO, promotion and re-promotion are key to maintaining momentum for prolonged periods.

Engaging pieces are not just for loyal readers. Content creators can use these marquee pieces to attract new visitors as well. One way to attract new audiences is by leveraging a wider set of platforms (such as mobile aggregators) where your content’s quality will  also command a high level of attention.

*A note from our Data Science team on engagement methodology:
The plot above shows the distribution of Average Engaged Times for the two groups of stories, normalized so that the total area under the distribution curve equals 1.0.  We see that about 40% of the Average Engaged Times for stories in the Top 100 group take values greater than 150 seconds, while almost none of the stories in the other group have an Average Engaged Time greater than 150 seconds.  

We can interpret this to mean that the probability a Top Story has an Average Engaged Time greater than 150 seconds is about 0.40, while the probability a story with 10K+ page views has more than 150 seconds Average Engaged Time is practically zero. If we take the average of each small bin of Average Engaged Times weighted by the probability that the Average Engaged Time falls within the range of the bin, we can get  the mean Averaged Engaged Time for each group.  
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