As the U.S. presidential election nears, it’s logical that global publishers want to understand the strategies that can encourage stronger reader engagement. Pivotal, high traffic events that truly showcase their content only come along so often.
With that in mind, we looked back at our analysis of reader engagement trends during major events — including the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit vote — to see how audiences tend to interact with this type of unique content. More on our research, along with its implications for publishers, below.
Honing in on audience behaviors before, during, and after events
For the sake of this research, we wanted to put ourselves in the position of publishers for this upcoming election. More specifically, we analyzed data around three major timeframes: before, during, and after the event. These tend to offer the opportunity to reach and engage more readers.
Thinking about pre-election content strategies
There’s no doubt that direct, search, and social traffic have a significant role to play in audience development efforts during major events. However, it’s just as important to understand when they can be most effective.
Our data suggests that the majority of referral traffic in the days leading up to an event will be coming from search, as we show below. This aligns with reader behaviors we saw during the 2016 election. Search traffic was highest leading up to and during the election. In contrast, social traffic didn’t increase until hours later, when reactions (emotions, hot takes, opinions) to the news are more likely to dominate those channels. As such, we see this as a critical opportunity to reevaluate SEO and referral linking strategies in order to maximize traffic during the event.
How audiences seek and interact with content during events
We’ve also seen that loyal readers will likely come directly to publishers once a story breaks or more details emerge. Meanwhile, the majority of newer visitors will find coverage amid a search results page. This is where pre-election SEO efforts should pay off. It could be the difference between content being seen first or buried among other outlets’ coverage.
This is also where publishers can start to get promotional channels such as social media involved. It’s critical that all visitors, new or loyal, are made aware of a publisher’s stated differentiators during major news events. That could be a “dedication to the facts” or a local angle on the event. Publishers have the ability to gain new visitors without alienating their direct, loyal readers.
Building trust with new and returning readers is important any time. However, now you have a chance during periods of higher-than-usual traffic. Loyal readers consume more than double the content of non-loyal readers. So, the experience you provide today will increase the likelihood they come back again.
Prioritize experimentation with different article formats. When we recently conducted research across COVID-19 related content, we found that the up-to-the-minute appeal of live blogs garnered significant reader attention. We also saw that pattern reflected in our 2019 Most Engaging Stories, where live blogs during major events such as Brexit were among the top articles.
Social media as a means of engaging readers post-event
The two previous sections highlighted search optimizations as a point of emphasis before and during the election. When it comes to post-event engagement tactics, our analysis suggests that social media offers a strong opportunity as traffic picks up again in the event aftermath.
Let’s use Brexit as an example. We analyzed multiple articles and angles that covered the same topic across Google search and Facebook. We found that the coverage and subsequent audience behaviors aligned with the reader behaviors we’ve outlined thus far.
For instance, we see that the most successful stories on Facebook tend to have an emotional, rather than informative, lens. Only a few highly emotional topics, like “Regrets and anger about results,” received significant engagement via Facebook. More factual topics such as “What happens if UK votes to leave” received much more significant engagement via Google search.
Therefore, we’ve seen the benefits of experimenting around sentiment on social media versus a singular “news you can use” strategy that works well in search. This approach can help attract new audiences in the post-event phase of election coverage.
Key takeaways: Planning for election coverage traffic increases
As publishers determine their election engagement strategy, here’s some key takeaways based on our research:
1. Optimize for search sooner rather than later
Consider posting search-friendly content before the election. This way, there’s no doubt that it will be indexed by Google or any other search engine of choice. Meanwhile, review linking strategies to ensure that content is being updated or iterated upon for the best reader journey possible.
2. Lean into coverage strengths
The election will have multiple angles. Even though our research suggests that audiences tend to gravitate towards factual pieces, it shouldn’t limit publishers to a single angle on any piece of content. Give readers the unique storytelling angles and formats they can’t get anywhere else.
3. Get social when it counts
Our data suggests that social media traffic will begin to gain traction as long as 12-24 hours after the event. Consider the timing and messaging of content and invest accordingly to have the greatest differentiation and impact on that referral traffic.
When preparing for the election, or any major event for that matter, we see a clear advantage to getting ahead on pre-coverage search and post-coverage social tactics based on the reader interactions we’ve seen before and after the fact. This should also give teams time and flexibility to iterate and experiment during the event, as reader behaviors can rapidly change when it comes to the diverse audiences landing on publishers’ sites.