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
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 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.
“We are looking at how to help people during this time,” she says. “There’s a level of engagement that goes back to that utility and value. To create loyalists we have to help make their lives better.”
At Bustle Digital Group, Mic’s executive editor, Shanté Cosme, says her mission was “never more clear than during the pandemic.” The site’s engagement nearly tripled by leaning into content focused on bringing communities together.
“We were a source, but we were also living through it ourselves,” she said. “It was easy for us to understand our audience and their fears. We tapped into that.”
Specifically, Mic and its sister brand, Inverse, leaned into becoming a resource, not a news source—from better understanding the virus, to protecting yourself from infection to even buyer guides.
Additionally, the two sites focused on producing content that helped readers escape the glut of COVID-19 coverage that was everywhere.
“None of our sites were ever doing breaking news, says Nicole Dalessandro, director of content operations at Bustle Digital Group. “So figuring out how and where people were going in order to get away from that [content] really helped our sites. We recognized, much like our writers, there was a group of people looking for something else. Awareness is more important than ever, but distraction is important for health and well-being. There’s a real fatigue in seeing the horror that is there. [Audiences] are looking for a take that isn’t just a big splashy headline.”
In the enthusiast space, it’s somewhat obvious why readers engage with a brand’s content. While this is certainly true at Hearst’s Runner’s World, it’s not something runner-in-chief Jeff Dengate takes for granted.
Dengate acknowledges that the pandemic gave his brand an opportunity to not only engage new readers, but super-serve his existing audience during a time when running was among the few activities that were not only allowed, but encouraged by health professionals.
“There was a spike in engagement [+48% YoY search traffic in May]. We had a lot of new runners coming and we wanted to give them something to bring them into the fold.”
To deepen that connection with new readers, Runner’s World offered a three-day trial membership to its Runner’s World+ club, which offers members a number of benefits, including coaching and training plans, exclusive newsletters, video tutorials and more. The community has more than 18,000 registered members, one of whom the magazine featured on last month’s cover.
“It’s not just us talking to them,” Dengate says. “It’s a two-way street that brings them right into the mix. The connectivity and tools are things we couldn’t have done 20 years ago.”
Meredith’s Allrecipes saw numbers that might make some gasp. From March through May, traffic increased between 45-54%, averaging 60 million monthly unique visitors. Director of digital content strategy, Michelle Edelbaum, says it’s not surprising given the circumstances of the pandemic and people being forced to cook more at home.
“People had sudden and new needs and interests they hadn’t had a week before,” she says. “Those needs evolved and some people had a lot more time. Some of the interest was in categories that was always popular, like simple recipes, but the volume was much greater.”
It’s that evolution of content consumption that Allrecipes wanted to tap into more, which is why they didn’t simply fall back on an already robust audience and content achieve.
“We really relied on both internal data and third-party research to check the pulse on what was happening, because there were a lot of sudden shifts. So we adjusted our strategy right away to be relevant in that moment.”
That shift included more how-to content for first-time cooks and more live programming, particularly on Facebook. And for anybody who has been active on social media in the past few months, it is not surprising to learn that traffic to content related to baking bread was up more than 100%.
Bonnier’s Popular Science enjoyed a record-breaking month of March. The 148-year-old brand saw a 27% YoY increase in traffic, with nine out of its top 10 stories being related to COVID-19, according to digital director, Amy Schellenbaum.
She suggests that the brand didn’t necessarily pivot its content strategy to amplify the surging engagement, but instead stayed on-brand while making some minor tweaks.
“Our top-performing pages were practical and science-based articles written in a way that is accessible and approachable,” Schellenbaum says. “That’s what we consider Popular Science‘s specialty. Our top-performing stories provided information people could use to make decisions in their life during this uncertain time: how to make hand sanitizer, quantifying the contagiousness of COVID-19, an FAQ on the transmission of COVID-19, and others. We did slightly scale back our coverage in the space and environment categories, as well as a few general science stories per month in favor of health coverage. We plan to turn the heat back up as soon as possible.”
Maintain the momentum
Schellenbaum’s point raises a critically important question for editors moving forward: how to leverage increased engagement and turn it into momentum as they begin to refocus back to their fundamental mission once the pandemic is behind us?
Besides reintroducing content that has taken a back seat, Popular Science is also offering first-time readers access to a digital version of its latest magazine issue for free. The thinking is that it could entice deeper engagement with the brand and even create loyal readers. Additionally, it offers a number of free newsletters that can tap directly into readers’ interests.
Draisin says TIME’s recalibration strategy “isn’t rocket science.”
“I think what this situation has taught us is to act quickly,” she says. “But it’s also working with our editorial partners to get return visitors. And helping [visitors] understanding the full scope of what TIME can bring to them. It’s up to all of us to provide great content and products. It’s that simple for all of us, all the time.”
Edelbaum believes that from an audience development perspective, the pandemic has given Allrecipes a new approach to building up its already sizable audience.
“One of the things that the surge allowed us to do was identify what the needs were, who the people were and why they were coming to us,” Edelbaum says.
But she also admits there are questions about this new audience that are yet to be answered but will require some assumptions when planning content. How to serve them? Will they keep cooking once they don’t have to? Will they have time to cook?
To get that information, Allrecipes launched a series of columns that addresses some of those questions and the hope is data will provide the answers. From there, the brand can promote or even develop newsletters, product offerings or more content that could serve the needs of their various segments.
At Runner’s World, the goal is to keep people running, and providing necessary resources for the hobbyists. But beyond that, Dengate says it’s also critical to keep runners motivated to run. He points to fall events like marathons being cancelled, and sees it as an opportunity for Runner’s World to host virtual events and encourage more participation within the Runner’s World+ community. It presents a chance to supplement missed experiences with new ones.
For Seeker, momentum is about iterating on its fundamental editorial strategy and complementing it with new projects that align with its core mission. Smith believes that projects like “Seeker Baby” and new projects in the pipeline will continue to introduce the brand to new audiences.
Dalessandro has a somewhat more philosophical point of view.
“Editors need to feel more empowered to explore their more offbeat ideas,” she says. “There’s a lot of fatigue and exhaustion to be aware all the time. Being online was already exhausting and annoying because there is so much noise. People will be more selective of what they choose to consume.”
“For Mic, our social platforms are particularly important,” says Cosme. “Everything with COVID was very much on the fly, but as we return to somewhat normal we want to be reactive to what’s happening to our audience and addressing their anxieties and concerns, and anticipating their questions and then creating content around that.”
To be clear, an essential takeaway here isn’t that the pandemic drove more people to consume more content, even though that is empirically true. Rather, it’s the underpinnings of that rudimentary finding, which is that the increased demand was driven by people’s desire to become more informed or entertained. There was no one right way to respond to that demand, but those who did respond were better off for it. Such levels of demand may wane in the months ahead, but as content strategies are planned and implemented, the intangible desire audiences have to be informed or entertained must always be a publisher’s north star and what they trade on.