If you needed proof that 'coronabump' is real and audiences are flocking to news websites in search of covid-19 information; the Guardian yesterday (9 April 2020) posted a record 114m monthly unique browsers on its US website for March.
That represents an 86.5 per cent jump from February. What is more, two-thirds of those page views in March were covid-19 related, and its coronavirus explainer is its "most read article ever".
This is not an isolated case. A report by Deep BI compared the behaviour of 84 million news website users between January and March 2020, at the turning point of covid-19 crisis. Its findings reported a 90 per cent increase in traffic to publishers' sites between the two months.
Capitalising on coronabump
So, what should news publishers do with this newfound surge of interest in news content? Deep BI's report suggests that this an opportunity for news organisations to build loyalty and subscriptions amongst their audiences in the short and long term.
This is not just a scramble for information, audiences are more engaged in news content right now. In March, there were twice as many users who were 'likely to subscribe' than January. 'Likely to subscribe' means it has a high 'propensity to subscribe' algorithm score based on more than 100 factors.
The organic interest in the topic is a chance for publishers to develop long term audiences. The challenge, explained Hisham Itani, head of marketing at Deep BI, is growing the readers' engagement levels to a sufficient point where they can target them with more relevant calls to action.
"When it comes to securing these users as a loyal audience long-term, this needs to be done in well-defined steps to increase their engagement and develop a habit of visiting the publisher's site," says Itani.
The case example of a mid-sized European news site shows a newfound 2.3 million fly-by and light users. But they are not so easy to pin down as subscribers.
Screenshot: Deep BI Publishing Industry Report
"Recently attracted users are the least likely to convert in the short term which is why they need to be exposed to different messaging than highly engaged users in order to open communication channels, expose them to the product and make sure they form a habit and establish loyalty with the publisher. This is why newsletters, registration walls, personalised content and other softer calls to action are preferred especially for fly-by users.
"Once these users reach higher levels of engagement in the longer term they can be targeted by subscription offers, for example, based on their 'propensity to subscribe' - if their likelihood to subscribe is high, then they can be targeted with a paywall stop or subscription offer."
Maintaining the paywalls
Other publishers are experiencing a coronabump too. The Telegraph told Journalism.co.uk that it has just experienced its best month for traffic since the EU referendum in 2016. Bearing in mind, this is maintaining its premium model of mixed free and paywalled content. In other words, making no special exceptions for the coronavirus.
For Mike Adamson, deputy editor and head of publishing, the aim is to provide a wide range of content. They have provided a free newspaper delivery service, made the digital edition free to print subscribers, launched a new daily coronavirus podcast - quickly becoming its most listened-to ever - and have continued with its highly engaged WhatsApp group.
"We have seen tremendous growth in audience engagement. We have had more visitors to the site than we have had for years, coming back more often and consuming more than normal. Indeed, it has been a record month for the crucial engagement metric of repeat visits.
"This really helps us to form daily habits with our audience. We’ve also had a record month for video views, passing through the 1m subscriber mark on YouTube at a great pace."
This growth in traffic has also been replicated in digital subscriptions - at their peak, subscriptions were up almost 400 per cent compared to the first two months of the year. Adamson added that, despite dramatic decline of print over many years, they have had the biggest month for the publication’s print subscriptions for more than a decade.
A place for free content?
This is not a practice shared by every news publisher. The Financial Times, for example, has made a selection of general coronavirus news free, which is separate from their traditional financial coverage.
You asked, we answered:— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) March 23, 2020
The @FinancialTimes coronavirus death & case trajectory trackers are now 🔥 FREE TO READ 🔥 outside the paywall: https://t.co/JxVd2cG7KI
In this morning’s update, the US has gone above 470 deaths, bringing it just behind where Iran was at the same stage. pic.twitter.com/NBA7FMYlmC
The idea of relaxing paywalls or offering free content is not generally a smart business move, Hisham said. Users who are likely to subscribe and have been loyal readers will still subscribe and stay loyal readers who pay for the quality journalism which is produced.
"The business argument to relax paywalls or offer free content to engaged or addicted users does not really exist," he explained.
"Users who are in the engaged and addicted segments - those who represent two-thirds of total subscribers while representing only 20 per cent of the total user base - are for the most part highly likely to subscribe to premium content and should not have relaxed paywalls."
Exceptions to the rule
When it comes to users who are in the fly-by and light segments, relaxing paywalls on covid-19 related content could, in fact, be a good approach.
"Most of these users ended up on the publisher's page to read content related to the coronavirus pandemic, so locking them out is probably not a good idea, however putting up a registration wall is a great idea since it allows for cross-device tracking and a soft push to open the first communication channel with these users."
This is less of an issue with FT’s approach, according to media analyst Thomas Baekdal, as it is more general news and as such does not compromise what people would normally pay for - the financial news - nor devalue their news product.
Providing distinct value
The problem with offering up free content is that the public does not recognise the gesture. Rather, it sets an expectancy to provide it.
"What we need to fix is this whole concept of 'news should be free'. This is so damaging to the industry as a whole. [The idea that news is free] is an entirely new idea that people now have," says Baekdal.
Worth remembering. During World War II, most newspapers increased their circulation, and all of them costs money to buy (about $265/year in today's money).— Thomas Baekdal (@baekdal) March 24, 2020
This idea that 'news should be free during a crisis' is an entirely new idea. pic.twitter.com/2HwtIxnUuf
Citizens do cite news organisations as their most-relied on source of covid-19 information. But when 40 per cent of citizens are getting their updates directly from the government - ahead of social media - news organisations cannot expect audiences to pay for recycled news content. News organisations must instead think about creating distinct value, said Baekdal.
"If all we do is to 'report this' and then ask for money, we haven't created any extra value. We are literally just taking information from one place and then presenting it on our sites and then asking for money. This doesn't work anymore.
"So we need to get a lot better at providing something more than just' reporting'. We need more specific journalism, more analysis, more investigations. And we need less aggregation and just random news reports."
Journalism.co.uk approached Financial Times for comment