September 2020. Our expectations at the start of this year were probably very different from how things have actually turned out. We've been forced to change the way we work, shop, exercise, and interact with others. And, as a side effect, the way people consume news changed as well. But how long should we expect that side effect to last? Were things starting to return to normal this summer, after the initial societal upheaval became normalised or the lockdowns eased? Is the virus still at the top of everyone’s mind? Do people even want to read about the coronavirus anymore?

A couple of months ago we conducted a comprehensive study on audience behaviour related to stories on corona. This is the follow-up and we hope to provide some more insight to the following questions:

  • How do people consume news now?
  • What are their preferences when it comes to virus-related content?
  • What has caused these preferences to change?
  • How can you anticipate, and answer to, users’ news needs?

But first, a little refresher

In our previous data study on corona we researched audience behaviour in selected countries during the first 4 months of the year. Back then, there was no attention dip on corona, as people read about it consistently throughout the day. Search played a big role in how people found the news they were looking for, and posts about the virus on social media were not a big hit.

has interest in corona waned over the summer months?

For this new study, we collected data on reader behaviour during the months of June, July and August. Similar to last time, our data was collected by looking at 31 websites that use smartocto to fuel their publishing strategy with actionable insights. These news outlets are principally located in Germany, Switzerland, Serbia, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Norway.

So, has anything changed? Has the societal turmoil during the summer months pushed Covid-19 to the back burner? What about those massive increases in traffic we saw earlier this year? In the new study, this is what we've noticed:

  1. Just like last time, behaviour differs greatly from country to country
  2. There's a short window of time when people like to read about the virus
  3. Crime is making a comeback as the most popular topic for news stories, as are other all-time favourites
  4. Article length matters for corona-related pieces
  5. Corona may be more social than it seems

So let's dive in and take a closer look at the data.

Keep an eye on what’s happening in your country

As the severity of corona rises in a country, so does the hunger for information - with a visible peak in numbers whenever there's a turn of events. This is especially visible in Germany when their 'second wave' struck (early August), in Serbia when there was a steep rise in the number of infections and face masks were made mandatory in Belgrade (early July), and in The Netherlands when their corona-law was introduced (13 July).

Interest in corona-related articles differs greatly per country and changes along with current events
Interest in corona-related articles differs greatly per country and changes along with current events

Overall, there's a huge difference in the number of corona-related article reads when you look at all the countries in our study. In Germany, about 9% of all the articles read over the summer months were about corona. Compare that to Norway, where only 1% of the stories consumed were about the virus.

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People may get anxious when they see the rate of corona infections spike. Make sure that you anticipate this with quality content. Dig deep into your readers' feedback, comments and interactions to determine what's on their minds. Look at ways to answer questions that they may have, rather than just posting updates on figures. This will help you publish the stories that answer to your audience's needs. Inform, but don’t forget the tips from our previous article: many other publishers are likely to jump on the corona train as well, so you want to stand out by finding innovative ways to present the information.

Choose your publication moments wisely

Contrary to the results of the research we gathered in the previous study (when people read about the virus consistently throughout the day), we can now distinguish clear peaks in the interest in corona-related articles versus other pieces. With this information you’re able to more accurately and effectively plan the moments you publish these stories.

Corona-related articles read per hour
Corona-related articles read per hour

There's a steep rise between 11 am and 1 pm. This could indicate that people don't actively search for this news first thing in the morning. As the day progresses, maybe they're reacting to notifications, posts on social media or having conversations with colleagues, and start to take a look at these articles. Then, when the time comes to wind down for the day, there's a sharp drop around 8 pm. That's likely when readers will be looking for lighter subjects to divert them.

It follows then, that the most beneficial time to publish your Covid-19 stories would be between 11 am and 4 pm, when the most interested readers are looking for them.

We'll come back to this in point 5, where we look at the sources people use for these stories.

it may be better to invest your time and energy in other topics

For lots of pageviews, focus on other topics instead

While corona is still in the top 10 of total article reads, these stories don't get nearly as many reads per article as many other topics. So if you want lots of reads per article, it may be better to invest your time and energy on other subjects instead. Now that the virus is transitioning to the background, some all-time favourite topics are making a comeback - especially crime. Articles about crime, economy or human interest receive two to four times more reads than the ones about corona. For high engagement on your articles, it may be better to write about something other than the virus.

reads per article on various news topics
Reads per article on various news topics

Long-ish is the way to go

So what about attention time or article length? Do people still have the patience to read long stories about the virus? Turns out, they do. Our research has shown that when it comes to corona, semi-long articles (464-1205 words) receive over twice as many reads as their short (0-463 words) and long (1206-16.361 words) counterparts. This is interesting because by far the most articles fall into the short category (57%). So what does this mean? It could be that these semi-long stories get into the kind of detailed reporting we were advocating earlier in this study, that go beyond listing infection numbers and death counts and dive into other aspects of the pandemic instead. This could be a report about the creation of a vaccine for instance, background on how these viruses originate, or what's happening to society as a result of it.

Comparing these numbers to the 'regular' news, there’s a remarkable difference: for the non-corona content, short stories are most popular both in terms of the number of reads and articles created.

Overview of article reads based on length
Overview of article reads based on length

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So what can be concluded here? While most articles on corona tend to be on the shorter side and are likely of an update or breaking news nature, people are actually more interested in the longer articles that may focus on background, context or education about the virus. Don't be afraid to get into greater depth here. At this stage of the pandemic it may well be that readers are more interested in solutions and explanations, rather than updates on how bad everything is.

Your SEO work is paying off, but do you know about dark social media?

And finally, how do people find the stories they're looking for? Well, just like four months ago, search is still pretty big here. Compared to other topics, four times more visitors discover corona stories through search engines. This is huge, and underlines the fact that you need good SEO if you want readers to find your corona pieces. SEO is often neglected by publishers, but if you followed the advice in our previous data study, you could be picking the fruits of your labor now.

How your audience finds corona vs. non-corona content
How your audience finds corona vs. non-corona content

There's also a lot of direct traffic for corona related articles, almost twice as much as for 'regular' news. Direct traffic means that people had the exact URL for that article. How does that happen? It may be caused by so-called 'dark social media': private social media channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook chat, direct messages, email - any kind of medium that allows people to share URLs without referral information. This could indicate that even though social media posts on corona aren't immensely popular, people do like to share news or interesting articles with others. This may also tie in with the peak we saw in corona-news consumption around 1pm. People could be sharing bits of news with others during their lunch break, contributing to both the traffic volume and amount of direct traffic.

Another thing worth mentioning here is that if search is still high, loyalty to brands is also still quite low: people are trying to get the information any way they can rather than expect single publications to provide it, as is also evidenced here by the difference in non-corona traffic.

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Ask yourself this: how easy is it for people to share articles from your site? Do you have your social sharing buttons in place? Facilitating this could help increase your reach and page visits.

What's next?

The conclusion of all this is that it's really important to pay close attention to your audience. When are they reading your stories? Can you distinguish between corona and non-corona in your own data? Take those numbers as a guideline and experiment. Try and facilitate their actions and behaviour as much as possible, and keep close tabs on what's happening in your area. The audience's needs seem to follow the developments around the virus, so anticipating new surges in information-hunger will be pretty straightforward. There's no one way to do it right: all newsrooms have a slightly different approach, demographic and business model, so let your audience and your brand DNA guide the best way forward for you. And, as always, stay safe.

Until next time!

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