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4 tactics to generate engagement during the pandemic

Originally published in What’s New in Publishing in November 2020. While some of the data points have evolved, the analysis and conclusion remain highly relevant.

Publishers have deployed a range of means to generate loyalty during the pandemic. 

By harnessing new products and services, as well as pivoting old ones to meet COVID realities, content creators are using a number of different techniques to pique the interest of audiences.

Building consumption habits is a key driver for creating loyalty. But it’s not the only tactic that publishers are using. Alongside these efforts, they are also exploring other ways to deepen the experience of their users. One key reason for this is that loyal subscribers are more likely to stay subscribers

At a time of financial stress (with consumers having less money in their pockets), and an expanding subscription economy, not only is reducing churn a priority, publishers also want to find ways to super-serve their most loyal audiences. 

Here are four ways publishers can, and are, doing this during the coronavirus crisis.

1. Encouraging eCommerce

With large swathes of the world on lockdown at various points in the pandemic, many of us have needed to change our shopping habits. Where possible, consumers have shifted to online transactions. And although that’s starting to decline a little as restrictions on physical shopping have eased, eCommerce has been a clear beneficiary of the COVID crisis. 

Compared to our pre-COVID world, as data captured by Simon Kemp in his Digital 2020 July Global Statshot report shows, “ecommerce transactions have increased across almost every category.”

Data from Contentsquare shows that overall eCommerce transactions are up nearly 19% compared to the same time last year, and conversion rates (the ratio of transactions to sessions, expressed as a percentage) are up nearly 25% since the outbreak began. 

Screenshot of Contentsquare’s global dashboard, August 8th 2020.

Given this trend, it’s no surprise that some publishers are trying to capitalise on these behaviours. 

Cosmopolitan and The Strategist are two publications who have explored new ways to drive eCommerce during COVID-19. To do this, both outlets have focussed on special events as a means to drive online sales. 

The Strategist’s Two-Day (Actually Good) Sale, ran from July 29 – 30, offering deals on 30 different products, ranging from vibrators to dog carriers, reading glasses to noise machines, as well as a $1,400 ”smart bassinet” for new parents.

Deals were launched hourly on the site. Newsletter subscribers also had access to other offers, which were not publicised elsewhere. 

“Though it’s the first deals event for the Strategist,” the company noted in a press release, “the site has previously experimented with IRL retail, launching a holiday pop-up shop in 2018.” 

Illustration: Joe McKendry. Via The Strategist.

Cosmopolitan devised Hauliday, “an exclusive two-day shopping extravaganza” in partnership with the eCommerce platform Klarna. The online shopping event features discounts of up to 50 percent between 8-9 August for purchases made with brands such as Sephora, Adidas, and H&M

“While virtual shopping festivals are nearly nonexistent in the U.S., these events have seen huge success from consumers across the world,” WWD’s Alexandra Pastore writes.  

Cosmo’s 72 million monthly readers spent more than $9 billion shopping online last year, according to David Sykes, head of U.S. at Klarna, which helps explain why the publication is keen to try and get a bigger slice of this eCommerce pie. 

Promotional image for Hauliday via Cosmopolitan.

“Beauty will be a winning consumption category for Hauliday,” predicts Nancy Berger, SVP, and Publishing Director at Cosmopolitan, “with an opportunity for our readers to treat themselves to a new fragrance, a luxury skincare regime or their favorite makeup products.” 

Research from the NPD Group shows that although overall sales of prestige beauty products have been down during the pandemic, online sales grew by 90% during Q2 2020, representing about 61% of industry sales volume, and a great space for publisher-retailer partnerships. 

As we noted in our special (free!) report, The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce: Case Studies, a number of publishers – such as Marie Claire UK and POPSUGAR – have moved into the beauty space with their own branded products.

“Moreover,” Simon Kemp says, “research from GlobalWebIndex shows that almost half of all internet users expect to make more use of eCommerce even after the outbreak is over, with consumers in some of the world’s largest developing economies most likely to foresee increases in their online shopping activities.” 

Given this, more publishers may want to explore eCommerce as both a revenue source, and a means to deepen their relationship with their audiences. (Side note: the data from this also offers further monetisation and partnership opportunities.)

2. Highlighting non-COVID content

eCommerce is a good example of a vertical which isn’t explicitly about COVID-19, but one which caters for evolving consumer habits and needs during the pandemic. 

Similarly, I believe that publishers should be investing more effort in evergreen content and recirculating stories which may have been lost during the early COVID-noise. 

One key reason for this is that the audience’s appetite for coronavirus stories has dissipated as we have adjusted to the “new normal.” As their needs change, so publisher strategies must evolve.

Driven by a desire for news and information related to this new disease, many publishers saw an early bump in traffic during the early days of the pandemic. However, some outlets found that this didn’t last long as coronavirus fatigue began to set in. 

In the U.K., research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford revealed that “after an initial surge in news use, there has been a significant increase in news avoidance.”

“News avoidance is evenly distributed across different social groups, with small differences based on income, education, and political orientation,” the researchers said. Key drivers for news avoidance include the effect it has on their mood (66%), volume of news (33%) and distrust in the news (32% rising to 49% of those who identified as right-wing).

Image: U.K. news avoidance as indicated by survey respondents (data from 7 -13 May) via Reuters Institute

We’ve seen a similar story in the United States. In late-April the Pew Research Center commented that “the continuous news churn has had an impact.” “A majority of Americans say they need to take breaks from it, many say it makes them feel worse emotionally and half say they find it difficult to sift through what is true and what is not,” Pew said.  

It’s worth noting that this trend of news avoidance, and many of the drivers behind it, are nothing new. The Digital News Report 2019 observed that “avoidance continues to be a real issue… almost a third (32%) say they actively avoid the news.”

Given that the study’s sample consists of news consumers, this statistic should give publishers pause for thought. It’s not just coverage of the coronavirus crisis that audiences find exhausting. With trendlines which pre-date the pandemic, this is a media habit which publishers should be taking more seriously than they arguably do. 

Active news abstinence “may be because the world has become a more depressing place or because the media coverage tends to be relentlessly negative – or a mix of the two,” the Reuters Institute speculated back in 2019. Sound familiar?

To address this, I have argued previously that news outlets must do things differently. This may involve changing the tone of content, telling stories in fresh and innovative ways, engaging more with audiences online and offline, as well as exploring new beats and approaches to storytelling (such as solutions journalism). 

Either way, news avoidance is a trend that most publishers cannot ignore.

In a COVID world, this may mean placing a greater emphasis on producing “feelgood” or non-coronavirus content, looking at where this is placed and introduced to audiences (online, on social, in newsletters etc.), making better use of archive stories and creating more pandemic-proof content. 

Publishers need to be looking hard at their content mix, and determining how they can publish and circulate more evergreen content, along with topical COVID-related stories. 

This is important if outlets want to retain relationships with audiences, especially those introduced to your work – perhaps for the first time – during COVID, after the pandemic ends. 

To do this, showing that you’re about more than just serving audiences immediate coronavirus needs is an essential attribute that publishers need to be able to demonstrate. 

Image: Pre-COVID data (May 2019) on Wired’s evergreen content. Via Parse.ly.

3. Answering Questions

In a pandemic the need for service journalism is more important than ever. Audiences have many questions about what’s happening and the implications for their lives. Publishers can address this need by listening more and addressing head-on the concerns of consumers. 

Not only is this incredibly valuable as a means for generating content and insights, but it’s a technique which can help to build trust and demonstrate value. This, in turn, may also encourage audiences to be more likely to support your work.

Many outlets have turned to explainers as a popular format for addressing common concerns.

A visual piece of explainer journalism, “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’,” is The Washington Post’s most viewed story of all time. 

The Guardian has seen something similar. Their coronavirus explainer, first published on January 20, is their most-read piece ever. A separate coronavirus video explainer is the third most popular video on their YouTube channel. 

Nevertheless, especially in this period of upheaval and disquiet, publishers and journalists alike shouldn’t simply assume they know what questions audiences want answered. 

“In the face of uncertainty, ask. Ask often, and ask everywhere. Ask your current audience and ask people you don’t regularly reach. Ask over and over again and never stop asking,” recommends the Solutions Journalism Network and Hearken.

To help them do this, content creators have been utilising a range of tools and techniques.

In March, NPR created a show based entirely on audience input and questions related to COVID-19. Listeners were able to submit questions through a questionnaire posted on their website.

‘New York NOW,’ New York state’s Emmy-winning, in-depth public affairs program from  WMHT, has done something similar using a tool powered by Hearken, while the New York Times has used machine learning to help develop a giant FAQ based on questions from readers.

Screenshot: COVID-19 page on the New York Now website, August 2020

Text messaging also offers opportunities for interaction, including two-way communication. 

“Texting is a low barrier to entry,” says Andrew Haeg,  founder and CEO of GroundSource. It is also more inclusive, given that not everyone has internet access. 

According to an interview with Current, a news service about public media in the USA, his company is working with 42 clients to harness the immediacy and intimacy of text messages as a response to callouts on specific COVID related topics. 

Image: KCUR using GroundSource

“Your story may become a radio feature or digital post on our website,” explains one client,  KCUR, an NPR affiliate serving the Kansas City region. “It may resonate with the stories of others and warrant a virtual town hall or Facebook Live. We might ask you to work with us on an audio diary. Who knows, hopefully, down the road, we’ll be able to gather in person for a face-to-face conversation!”

In California, the KPCCLAist newsroom has also used texting as a means to ask questions in Spanish, a language spoken by 38 per cent of residents in Los Angeles county.

This was part of a suite of efforts used by Southern California Public Radio (KPCC) and the website LAist, which has also seen their engagement team receive over 3,300 pandemic-related questions from audiences. By June, they told Nieman Lab, using the Hearken platform, they’d already addressed over 2,900 of them.

They also created bi-lingual coronavirus mailers, with essential information (and kids activities) which they distributed to just under 13,000 households in zip codes where less than half of homes have access to a computer and fixed broadband.

Image: read-only version of KPCC / LAist’s mailers in English or Spanish

4. Opening up 

As well as organisational efforts to communicate with audiences, individual journalists are also using the pandemic to engage directly with audiences. 

We have previously shared how Diya Chacko, an audience engagement editor for the Los Angeles Times Metro desk, has been specifically encouraging questions about the outbreak, addressing them in the LA Times’ Coronavirus Today newsletter.

Other outlets have used Facebook Live as a means to talk about their work and approach to covering COVID-19, as well as a means for reporters – or expert guests – to address questions from audiences. 

The Albany Times Union, in New York State, has hosted discussions on topics such as New York’s reopening, Governor Cuomo’s meeting with President Donald Trump, and what the pandemic means for schools and education. Meanwhile, Illinois Public Media hosted an hour-long COVID-19 Q&A With Local Public Health Officials And Medical Doctors.

Screengrab of a Facebook Live with the Albany Times Union’s Rachel Silberstein talking to members of the Shaker High class of 2020 about the fundraising efforts and work packaging meals for families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alongside this, we have also seen numerous publishers, large and small, frequently make the case for taking out subscriptions or giving donations. 

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get outlets to talk so openly with audiences about the need for direct support, but hopefully, one legacy of the coronavirus is that publishers will continue to talk about this (and perhaps feel more comfortable doing so).

Image: Screengrab of an article introducing Vox’s new contribution program

These efforts come against a well-known backdrop of declining advertising revenues and reduced capacity to deliver on many other monetisation efforts, such as live in-person events. As a result, with the emphasis on reader revenue being more important than ever, we are seeing publishers be much more open with audiences about their business and revenue model. 

Throughout this period, and beyond, publishers need to consistently make the case for the cost of creating content, and why audiences must pony up. 

With advertising revenues on the wane, the pivot to reader revenue won’t just be a passing fad. It’s the only way that many organisations will survive.

Image via the Trust News project

Stressing the need for financial support, and what it buys, coupled with other engagement efforts – such as deepening relationships through eCommerce, offering more evergreen content, developing strategies to both listen to audience needs and tackle news avoidance – should outlive the pandemic. 

Implementing these efforts offers the potential to provide products and a content mix which meet defined consumer needs. In the process publishers can support both new and established consumers, as they start planning now for their survival during the COVID crisis and beyond.

This article is adapted from our free to download report, The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating COVID-19.