What Publishers Can Learn From the Pandemic’s Engagement Surge

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After a few record setting months, how can site traffic be converted into brand momentum?

By Caysey Welton, Folio

If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught the publishing industry, it’s that it must be prepared for anything. This was not only true in terms of how publishers were forced to manage their businesses through an unprecedented economic crisis, but also how they planned, produced and distributed content.

When stay-at-home orders swept across the country in mid-March, publishers had no choice but to react swiftly to address the changing needs of their audiences, which shifted virtually overnight. It’s a responsibility that has been incumbent on media for hundreds of years. So while this may have been a unique circumstance, the need to react to a changing world has always been an ongoing mandate for those who inform the masses.

But as times change, so do consumer demands. During the pandemic, Americans were hungry to devour news and information about the virus and its impacts on society and the economy. Likewise, they also wanted to be entertained and have a chance to escape, even if for a moment. This was evident to several publishers we’ve spoken to since the pandemic began, many of whom saw significant upticks in traffic and engagement across all of their channels.

While such engagement surges are welcome, and communicate that content producers are doing right by their audiences, they also present real opportunity for sustainable growth. For instance, from March to April, TIME not only saw a 20% increase in site-wide engagement, which is a metric that factors more than visits, but also scroll depth, bounce rate and more, it also saw a 133% increase of readers clicking through to its magazine subscription portal after reading a single article.

TIME’s example here clearly illustrates that more engagement equals more opportunities to not only monetize readers, but develop brand loyalists. And after recently speaking with more than a handful of publishers, we learned that maintaining the momentum from engagement surges requires more than resting on your laurels or simply good luck; it requires a reactive, yet thoughtful, data-informed approach that puts audience first.

Know your audience, ask questions and take action

seeker logo

Group Nine Media’s Seeker was no exception in terms of sites that saw huge increases in site engagement. The science publication saw 172% more visits from search to its COVID-19 coverage compared to its channel average. It was clear that COVID was top of mind to most readers, but it wasn’t a sustainable area of coverage, given that the brand has a defined audience with specific interests. However, Seeker did see potential in the health vertical that could dovetail with its core STEM content.

“Generally our bread and butter content saw lower engagement, says Seeker chief content officer, Caroline Smith. “[So we asked], how do we encourage new audiences to be curious of the world around us, regardless of their demo?”

The answer for Seeker was trying new, “risky” endeavors according to Smith. Seeker leaned into its health coverage on IGTV and saw a 120% increase in engagement on the platform. It also launched a project that was already in the works, “Baby,” a video series for young parents hosted by Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson. It launched a podcast on iHeart. And was invited to introduce a Snapchat Discover Channel—Seeker Bites.

Time for Kids

TIME was already leaning into the health category before the pandemic took hold of the world, so its infrastructure was in place to address the needs of its audience. However, SVP or progress marketing, Maya Draisin, suggests it didn’t make any assumptions about what its audience needed.

“We asked questions on how can we help,” she says. “People told us what they want and we fulfilled it for them. And they responded with 1.5 million views.”

Here, she is specifically referring to the TIME for Kids initiative that gave resources to parents who were working from home while homeschooling their children. Draisin suggests it applies to their entire ethos of developing new content initiatives that puts their audience’s needs first. Needs like a free COVID-19 newsletter that netted 70,000 subscribers.

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