How Marketing & Content Has Changed During Covid-19 And Protests

how marketing content changed during covid-19 pandemic coronavirus economic recession

Our business world has been turned upside down, and to this day, that’s what the data has shown. This week, I decided it was high time to look closer at audience development — to examine how campaigns optimizing for a high volume of quality traffic have shifted since this whole thing started. And I have to tell you, I was very surprised at what I found. So let’s dig in. But first, here is how life has changed for workers in the US and around the world.

The pandemic changed many things, but one of the things it changed most for white-collar office workers was disabuse companies of the notion that working from home was an impossibility. We have proven that it is possible for business to get done using only virtual tools. It may not be as efficient, and it may not be as friendly or as warm, but work got done. There are obvious implications of this change – companies can suddenly consider employees not geographically located for those jobs, save money on commercial real estate, relocate out of large, expensive cities, etc. because they have proof now that work can be done anywhere for many office jobs. But in the backdrop of the protests in America and around the world for the end of racial injustice, this pandemic change also creates a new opportunity for companies to think about. When you see a company post about its commitment to diversity, then check that company’s executive leadership page and see an uncomfortable lack of diversity, it’s fair to question whether the company believes in it or not. Prior to the pandemic, the argument was that companies often reflected the communities they were based in; how could you find, for example, qualified African-American executives if you were headquartered in a place where very, very few lived? You see how the pandemic has changed that argument, right? If we’ve established that office jobs generally don’t need to be colocated together, then your talent pool is now global. The excuse that no one of a specific background is available in your city is now invalid for your executive and leadership positions. This is a golden opportunity for companies like ours. Our talent pool is global. We have the ability to recruit the best of the best and we’ve proven we can work from anywhere. I hope we take advantage of this moment, this time, to change the composition of our leadership teams. Not diversity for diversity’s sake alone, but because we can now hire the best of the best AND achieve our diversity objectives as well, wherever they are, whatever they look like.

So now let’s dive into the Covid-19 marketing content strategy headline: Things may be different, but not that different. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here’s what we know about the past few months of changing consumer shopping behavior and digital content use:

Marketing and content are changing during the Covid-19 pandemic. CPCs are lower and CPAs are lower. Overall traffic is higher COVID campaigns drive traffic that converts. But let’s put COVID content aside for now. Yes, really. I took a look at all of the audience development campaigns currently running. And do you know what I didn’t see? COVID-centric campaigns. Not a single one. In recent weeks, customers have successfully been using COVID-related campaigns to drive business results ranging from newsletter sign-ups to sales of yoga pants.

But traffic campaigns? With the exception of a think piece here and there, most audience development campaigns have pretty much been COVID-free. But What About Behavior? Putting aside the shifts in desktop and mobile traffic that I covered last week, the truth is that users aren’t behaving that differently at all. We have a proprietary metric that we use with our audience development campaigns called Loyalty Score. In a nutshell, Loyalty Score gives publishers an understanding of the overall quality of users that they’re acquiring with their paid campaigns.

Put another way: you bought traffic, now how much of that traffic is returning to your site? I decided to look at Loyalty Scores across our publishers, to see if user behavior had changed in any significant way. I think the graph below speaks for itself: This is probably the most stable chart that I’ve shared in these emails. People are returning to sites at pretty much the same levels that they were before the crisis. If anything, this news should be incredibly encouraging to publishers looking to drive paid traffic. Why? What it tells me is that there’s no need to treat the audience today differently than the audience from 3 months ago.

Though the environment has changed, people are still behaving in more or less the same way when it comes to their reading habits. The more things change, the more they stay the same. So, What Are People Reading? Whenever I can, I try to give you a little insight into what’s trending right now in terms of content and creatives.

Let’s be clear: Though there aren’t any COVID-related campaigns, the content here isn’t detached from the reality of the current situation. In some cases, the current situation is addressed. The thing is, though, that most of the articles don’t deal with it directly. For example, escapism reigns supreme, with the true crime genre taking the top spot. Of course, celebrity gossip is, as always, up there when it comes to click-through rates.

One interesting trend that stands out is the increasing popularity of in-depth think pieces. Long-form content is doing well, most likely a result of the extra free time that audiences have on their hands. Another emerging trend is the newfound popularity of category “top” lists and how-to guides, from how to cook with pantry staples to the ‘Top 10 Best Podcasts’ to listen to. Uplifting stories are also seeing a nice surge. From a creative and copywriting standpoint, lighthearted seems to be working. We’re seeing that emojis are driving engagement – something that hasn’t been happening in other campaign types. Images of big smiling faces are having a bit of a moment as well. So if there’s one thing I want you to take away from all of this, it’s that the world may be upside-down, but people are still people. Some things never change.

What’s happening with your Facebook campaigns? Are you happy with your current engagement numbers? Don’t hesitate to drop a line and let me know how things are looking in your neck of the woods. Are you suffering from a news overload? I definitely think I’m past the point of saturation and on to straight-up drowning in news consumption at this point. The thing is, I have a fairly simple solution that’s mitigating the issue: Newsletters.

About a year ago, I realized that I could no longer keep up with the news, both industry and general, by visiting a million websites each day. I decided to scrap the habit, and instead, I subscribed to a bunch of newsletters. These days, I have daily subscriptions to three current events digests and about eight industry newsletters (and I know that’s still a lot). Before all of this craziness, newsletters were already having a moment. Newsletter juggernauts like Morning Brew and The Hustle, two of today’s most widely-recognized newsletter-first publishers, are building thriving businesses. And those are just two examples; there are plenty of smaller newsletter publishers who are also prospering.

After the Great Upheaval, newsletters still seem to be everywhere, but they’re of a different sort (hint: mostly having to do with a certain virus). That’s what I want to talk about this week. COVID, COVID Everywhere (Not so) shameless plug: we have been helping publishers drive newsletter acquisition for years now with the help of a product we call Content-to-Capture. With it, publishers can run campaigns that are similar to Facebook’s in-feed lead ads, with the addition of an article content preview before asking users to leave their email addresses. This ad format is really useful to me when I dig into campaign data because I can have full visibility into publishers’ content strategies for email acquisition. And I think you can guess what the prevailing strategy has been over the last couple of months.

A big share of publishers doing newsletter acquisition have created a COVID-19 newsletter. Remember how last week I mentioned that we haven’t seen any COVID-only traffic campaigns? Well – this is where they’ve been hiding – in newsletter campaigns. Of the countless Content-to-Capture campaigns, the top spenders are all COVID-related. But how sustainable is this?

The Downward Trend Bottom line – it’s not going to be, at least not for long. Let’s break down the numbers. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing a steady decline in COVID-related pageviews. They currently stand at approximately 11.5% of overall traffic, as you can see below. So there’s certainly quite a bit of content fatigue. Honestly – how could there not be at this point, right? But let’s also be clear: CPCs and CPLs are still incredibly low. If a publisher is running an ROI-positive newsletter campaign around COVID there’s no reason to stop running it. This downward trend, however, will most likely continue. Take a look at conversion rates on COVID newsletter campaigns: Like page views, they’re gradually starting to come down. Costs are still low, but they may not stay that way forever.

So – what now? Time to Pivot Real talk: across the board, regardless of the type of content, CPCs and CPAs are at historic lows. This opens the door to a wealth of opportunity. If you’re currently running or planning on running newsletter sign-up campaigns, it’s time to start thinking about the long term. I don’t think COVID newsletters are going to disappear. If I were to place a bet – I’d say they’ll be around for as long as this virus is, and people will continue to be interested. But it’s time for publishers to broaden their horizons again and look beyond the immediate. The time to grow your audience is now. We’re already starting to see a shift amongst our publishers. Slowly but surely, we’re seeing a return to broader topic coverage.

So far, low CPCs and CPAs are holding steady for now. Keep It Useful So what are publishers talking about? Well – it depends on what their core audience is interested in. One local news publisher, for example, has returned to promoting its food-focused newsletter, now covering the best places for delivery and recipes rather than restaurant reviews. Another local publisher has started a newsletter to update on business openings and closures in the area. Entertainment publishers are back to talking about the Kardashians. Financial publishers are talking about financial planning and outlooks for the coming year. Like I said, we’re seeing a variety of topics popping back up again. I won’t go into a whole treatise about getting newsletter subscriber campaigns up and running (I recently wrote about it on PubExec if you want to dig deeper), but I will say this: If there’s an iron-clad rule in newsletters, I think it’s that you have to deliver value.

People will give you permission to visit their inboxes if you give them something useful. That should be the first question you ask yourself: what can I give to my users that will enrich them? What will build trust? I promise you that as long as you do that, you have the potential to succeed. That’s the common denominator for every successful newsletter campaign I’ve seen. I hope that it will be your guiding light. And if there was ever a time to strike while the iron is hot – that time is now. In a recent interview with Digiday, IAB’s CEO urged publishers, particularly those in the US, to loosen their reliance on advertising revenue. He didn’t mince words, encouraging the industry to “diversify your revenue streams. Period, full stop.” His comments got me thinking about a revenue stream that I’ve been reading about a lot this week — newsletters — and how they’ve been a powerful tool for publishers of all sizes in recent months. It’s been widely-reported that interest in local news has been on the upswing since mid-March, and local publishers have been adapting their newsletter strategies accordingly.

One example is the Martha’s Vineyard-based Vineyard Gazette, which recently increased its newsletter programming to six days per week as part of its efforts to “give readers easy access to the broad scope of content that is added each day to the Gazette website.” The Tampa Bay Times has also overhauled its most popular newsletter, DayStarter, with notable success. Since its makeover, DayStart has grown its subscriber list to over 100,000 while seeing an open rate increase of 30% as well as a 60% bump in click-through rates.

Some of the industry’s biggest players are also focusing more on their newsletter programs and seeing significant growth. For example, over the course of about two months, The Washington Post’s coronavirus newsletter has become its most popular among the over 60 that it publishes. And much like the newsletter strategies of CNN and and The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Post plans to use this one-to-one communication channel to build reader trust and loyalty, and eventually convert casual readers to paying subscribers to support their business during the pandemic.

I found a few big publishers that were faring very well in the current environment. All of them had the same campaign and content strategies, so I picked one for us to walk through. Publisher X is a high-end national publication that relies on a metered paywall. Let’s start by looking at this publisher’s campaigns. Publisher X uses a two-step campaign strategy.

Step 1: Attract Users. We distribute the publisher’s content to relevant audiences at scale, with an efficient CPC, targeting users that are likely to engage. This overall approach leaves room for a “prospecting” phase, which brings in a low-cost, high-quality audience for the top of the funnel.

Step 2: Convert Users Publisher X’s metered paywall is capped at 5 articles. For this second step, we target users that have read 2 or more articles on the publisher’s site. The campaign only promotes content, and not a direct response landing page. All of the subscription calls-to-action happen on site. This targeting strategy ensures that the campaign reaches a high-quality audience that has engaged with the publisher more than once. It builds on the relationship by continuing to show value, which creates trust.

Now, let’s look at the publisher’s content strategy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of COVID-19 digital content out there right now. Publisher X hasn’t shied away from this type of content, but it also hasn’t relied on it exclusively. In fact, the publisher was beginning to see diminishing returns and has started cutting down on COVID online content it has been promoting.

So when Publisher X saw in April that there were diminishing returns from COVID content, it slowly dialed it back (and continues to). The top performing article in May so far is one about politics, and is completely unrelated to the pandemic. I think this change is a big part of what accounts for this (and other) publishers’ success and stability. By diversifying content, users are exposed to a variety of topics, and can see the long-term value of subscribing.

The TL:DR There are two main things that I want you to take away from all of this: Pandemic or no pandemic, demonstrating long-term value to your reader through the right campaign strategy and content will lead to consistent and effective performance. If you haven’t yet started diversifying your digital marketing content, now’s the time to start.

This week, I’ve been reading about recent ways that publishers are using social platforms to find audiences and drive engagement. For some, this means experimenting with Instagram’s new Guides feature. Refinery29, Shape, BuzzFeed, and Parents Latina were among those tapped to be launch partners for the platform’s new curation tool. Those with early access to Guides have been using the feature to create collections of posts and videos that support well-being and mental health.

Another go-to channel where publishers are having success growing audiences is YouTube. PopSugar is a great, timely example: by helping to meet audience demand for at-home fitness content, the YouTube channel for the company’s fitness vertical grew by 1 million subscribers in the past two months. And Boston Globe Media recently grew an audience of small business owners using the popular chat platform Slack, and is now in talks to sell the Slack channel to one of its larger clients. Of course, Facebook continues to be, arguably, the most powerful social platform for audience development.

By sharing its Guide to Quarantine Summer this week, Slate joined the ranks of countless publishers who are providing value to readers who are navigating a new reality. The staff-sourced suggestions for a socially distant summer include tips for “backyard camping,” advice for creating your own oyster bar, and instructions for organizing an at-home “Quarchella” music festival. Gannett is also helping usher audiences into the remainder of 2020 with its newly announced “Rebuilding America” programming. The new initiative will cover the reopening of the U.S. economy post-lockdown, while providing the publishing powerhouse with various new advertising opportunities.

Meredith, Axios, and The Information are also putting resources behind content with an audience-first outlook. The Information announced a free “news summer school” on Zoom, which will consist of eight hour-long sessions over the course of four weeks. Axios, on the other hand, is relaunching its Axios Science and Codebook newsletters this month, and debuted its Axios @ Work newsletter on May 5th. And with podcast listenership on the rise, Meredith is set to debut podcasts for four of its brands: Allrecipes, Parents, Travel + Leisure, and Southern Living.

Reader interest in COVID content, however, continues to decline as of late May 2020. For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID content is responsible for less than 10% of readers’ content consumption. Also notable is the decline of desktop traffic as more states begin to reopen. Interestingly enough, May 25th, Memorial Day, saw a steep increase of desktop traffic, which is unusual for non-work days. We attribute it to people taking advantage of Memorial Day Sales.

Also, unemployment and job-seeking searches and content have skyrocketed as well in this new recession. HR job-related queries have dipped by 20% compared to 2019. Unemployment in America is a crisis with keywords like “unemployment benefits” seeing a 900% spike on Google searches. The keyword “air ticket” is seeing 75% less searches this year.

Now of course the protests and related politics have taken over the headlines, at least in the United States, so Covid-19 related content should continue to decline for the near future…

This week, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the ensuing public outrage, the publishing world was forced to confront long-standing, under-addressed issues: systemic racism and the prevalence of police brutality toward people of color. On Tuesday, social media feeds were flooded with #BlackoutTuesday posts calling for inward reflection, deference to these important issues, and substantial change and action.

To quote The New York Times, “what began as a proposed day of reflection after the death of George Floyd morphed into something broader.” In a show of solidarity, many throughout the industry responded in kind. SPIN, for example, published a piece stating that the outlet “stand[s] with protestors seeking justice against police brutality and unlawful murder of American citizens.” Likewise, regional publishers like Pittsburgh Business Times pleaded with readers to “show the world that we can be different, and that we can be a welcome place for all to live, work and play.” There’s no doubt that these are complicated and layered issues that have gone far too long without being sufficiently addressed.

As Digiday aptly points out, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, and there’s no doubt that Refinery29 is correct in saying that “there’s no guidebook for solving racism in 2020, and it can feel intimidating to know where to start. However, one of the most important steps you can take in this moment is to educate yourself on racial biases and what it means to be anti-racist.” Needless to say, we’re living through a historical moment in time. For me personally, seeing content publishers, brands, and, of course, countless brave citizens stepping up and demanding justice makes me hopeful for the future.

Times are changing in the world of digital marketing, but solid marketing and smart pivots will always increase your business success rate. Keep putting out creative content consistently!