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Coronavirus leads to surge in traffic: How publishers are building reader loyalty by offering free content

Popular content analytics platform Chartbeat has reported that the number of pageviews across its network was up 33% last week compared to the same time last year, according to Recode. The amount of time spent actively scrolling, clicking, and reading articles was also up 30% during the same period.

“We’re at a significant multiple”

This bump in traffic is being driven by people who are increasingly staying indoors to protect themselves and scouring the web for updates about the coronavirus epidemic.  

“Many of us also have a bit more time to read the news as various institutions have been impacted by self-distancing measures and self-quarantines. People who have been asked to work from home, for example, may have some extra time as they no longer commute to an office,” explains Rani Molla, Senior Data Reporter, Recode. 

“We’ve also seen bars and restaurants, as well as gyms and theaters shuttered in a number of major cities and states, meaning more leisure time can be devoted to staring at screens,” she adds.

According to Parse.ly data, coronavirus articles published over last week represented just 1% of articles published, but accounted for about 13% of all article views. The company measures content performance of more than 3,000 high-traffic sites, including the Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast, Bloomberg, NBC, Slate, and TechCrunch.

What we’re seeing is the growth since the start of the crisis, but compared to the baseline of ‘relatively normal’ content and news habits in January/February 2020, we’re at a significant multiple—unlike pretty much anything Parse.ly has seen before, especially for how long the effect has lasted. 

Andrew Montalenti, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Parse.ly

“We are not doctors, so what we can do is this”

Many publishers have lifted their paywalls to give readers access to coronavirus related content. They include, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Atlantic among others.

Condé Nast Italy has made digital editions of all its titles free for the next three months to registered users. They include Vogue Italia, GQ, Conde Nast Traveller, Wired, La Cucina Italiana and AD. 

Before that the publisher came out with an issue of Vanity Fair dedicated to Milan. The issue titled #IoSonoMilano (#IamMilan), features 64 personalities from the city, including its mayor Giuseppe Sala, as well as designers, artists, and musicians.

It also includes citizens like a nurse and a food delivery rider, who have stood out with their work and dedication in this ongoing crisis. The magazine is available for free throughout the region of Lombardy which is one of the most severely hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“With this issue, in this particularly difficult time for Milan, Lombardy, but also the whole country, we wanted to reflect on the most authentic spirit of Milan, rooted in discipline, rational thinking, rigor and sense of community, all values which are key to fight and overcome this crisis,” said Simone Marchetti, Editor-in-chief, Vanity Fair Italy. 

He added, “Fedele Usai [CEO of Condé Nast] took this significant decision to show people in the Italian region most dramatically hit by the virus that our company is at the forefront in such a difficult moment.” 

Usai told Vogue Business, “We are not doctors, so what we can do is this.” 

The publisher is planning another issue, dedicated to the women currently working 24/7 in hospitals like nurses, doctors and anesthetists, reports Vogue Business. 

Following Condé Nast, daily papers La Repubblica and La Stampa are also offering free subscriptions to their digital copies, according to WWD. 

And so is Hearst Spain, which has announced that it will make 19 of its publications, including Elle, Diez Minutos, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Car and Driver, Esquire and others free between March 12 to April 1. They can be accessed by readers after registering in the Kiosk platform. 

Popsugar, on the other hand, has released its new, paid monthly subscription fitness app, “Active by POPSUGAR,” a few weeks early and free of charge for the foreseeable future. The app gives consumers access to over 500 fitness classes from celebrity trainers and experts in the categories of strength, cardio, yoga and pilates. 

“With consumers around the world staying home and social distancing, we decided to release ‘Active by POPSUGAR’ early—and free to consumers—to help them have the best workout possible, wherever they may be, by instructors they love and trust,” says POPSUGAR Founder and President, Lisa Sugar.

All this may sound like publishers are letting go of revenues, but it may not be so in the long run. These are temporary measures, the pandemic will eventually be contained, and paywalls will be back and that’s when the current gesture may begin yielding positive returns. 

“Serve the public on this story”

There is a “reluctance from publishers to be seen as profiteering from the virus,” according to Lucinda Southern, Senior Reporter, Digiday. Most of them have stated that they are doing it as a service to their readers as they find their way through this unprecedented crisis. 

“For over a month, we have been making key pieces of important coronavirus content open to read for free and will continue to do so as we serve the public on this story,” said Louise Story, Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer at WSJ.

But what these publishers stand to gain in the long run is readers’ trust and loyalty, and likely, many new readers as well. 

Offering free information on the coronavirus offers an opportunity to reach new customers [and] readers, who may stick with the publication afterward and perhaps be willing to pay later if they are impressed by the content. 

Tom Meyvis, Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business

“Much of what people are reading appears to be practical, informative, and action-oriented. That is, people aren’t just reading articles about what’s happening. They’re learning what they can do about it,” according to Recode’s Molla.

Readers may develop loyalty to sites they have found useful during this crisis, and keep coming back in future to learn about other issues.

“Providing the right kind of sample is one of the intricacies of building paid digital subscriptions. If potential subscribers like what they see, they may be more inclined to sign up when the wall returns,” comments Rick Edmonds, Media Business Analyst at Poynter. 

“Incredible opportunity to innovate our digital media ecosystem”

Moreover, most publishers that have removed their paywalls require readers to register to consume content. This gives them access to first-party data with which they can track reader behavior and come up with better products (content, as well as relevant ads) and offers for them. 

“By collecting data and insights about our customers, both purchase and behavior, marketers are better able to deliver relevant messaging to customers and inform content decisions,” Nicole McGuire, SVP of Consumer Marketing at Kalmbach Media told Folio. 

First-party data will also help publishers navigate through the increased anti-tracking measures adopted by browsers and enforced through regulations.

A new cookie-less world will present an incredible opportunity to innovate our digital media ecosystem; a new system rebuilt on a sound foundation of quality, first-party data. This shift will not only enable marketers to finally trust the effectiveness of their targeted spends, but will also allow publishers to strengthen relationships with their readers.

M. Scott Havens, Global Head of Digital and Media Distribution for Bloomberg Media

“Start of a completely different way of life”

Moreover, new opportunities are expected to surface after all this is over. Pandemics have been known to lead to radical transformations. The world is going to change forever in many ways, according to multiple experts from different fields. And that will create new behaviors and new opportunities for all businesses, including publishing. 

“To stop coronavirus we will need to radically change almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health, educate our kids, take care of family members,” writes Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-chief, MIT Technology Review. 

He adds, “As long as someone in the world has the virus, breakouts can and will keep recurring without stringent controls to contain them.”

This isn’t a temporary disruption. It’s the start of a completely different way of life.

Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-chief, MIT Technology Review

Hamza Mudassir, Visiting Fellow in Strategy, Cambridge Judge Business School comments, “Over the longer term, Covid-19 has irrevocably changed the way businesses will compete over the next decade. Firms that choose to capitalize on these underlying changes will succeed and the ones that don’t will get disrupted.”

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