Informational needs by the numbers: using data to cover the COVID-19 crisis
Ideas Blog | 23 April 2020
It took less than a month for coronavirus (COVID-19) to completely take over the media. Every platform that provides content is challenged to keep up with an unprecedented demand for timely and relevant information in an environment where “timely” and “relevant” are in a constant state of change.
Now more than ever, retaining an audience is a matter of identifying and addressing a moving target of informational needs. Within this context, we cannot rely on past experience and instinct alone to accurately anticipate and meet the needs of our audience. We need real-time data to better understand what people are most interested in learning about and attune our content strategies accordingly.
Our data shows audience interests about the virus are changing rapidly, and our coverage of the outbreak needs to respond accordingly.
Examining the completion rates of different categories of video content about the virus is one way we can gauge which topics are of highest importance to online audiences. The higher the completion rate, the more “engaged” the viewer was in the topic. In other words, higher completion rates indicate a greater informational need for that theme, as audiences lean in for more.
Looking at this data holistically, between January 1 and April 6, audiences were more likely to complete videos about “Culture,” “Define/Identify” or “Prepare/Prevent” topics vs the general “Coronavirus” completion rate benchmark of 22%. At this same time, they were least likely to complete watching videos about “Sports,” “Populations at Risk” or “Politics.”
If we track completion rates for these themes over time, however, we get a clearer view of how informational needs have changed as the virus’ spread has intensified. In this view, we can see that from late February to early April 2020, audience content needs shifted from a state of tracking the virus’ spread from afar and anticipating its impact on financial markets to safety and protection.
More specifically, from March 31 to April 6, audiences were more likely to complete a video focused on defining/identifying or preparing/preventing the virus. Five weeks prior, when shelter in place orders were just beginning to roll out, viewers were more likely to complete a video about business and finance or travel.
It’s also important to note how completion rate data correlates with major events in the news. In the days following U.S. President Trump’s initial state of emergency announcement on March 13, where he also outlined plans to ramp up testing efforts across the country, completion rates for content in the “Define/Identify” category surged.
A week later, as U.S. legislators readied their historic US$2 trillion stimulus package, completion rates for “Business & Finance” video soared as the relief bill inched closer to its approval on March 26.
Another way we can trace fluctuations of audience interest is to track content plays by volume — a measure of quantity vs quality.
In March, we can see that views of content in the “Prepare/Prevent” category surged while viewers watched far less content about “Populations at Risk,” “Politics” or “Business & Finance.”
Merging this insight with completion rate data, we can see that “Prepare/Prevent” content ranks high not only for playback volume, but also for completion rate — two strong signals of audience interest.
In this same comparison, however, it’s interesting to see that while Business & Finance content had sometimes outperformed Prepare/Prevent content in completion rate, the topic ranks far lower in overall playback volume. This lack of correlation hints that media outlets may not necessarily be publishing information that their audiences are most interested in. This disparity is an indicator of opportunity for publishers to increase the availability of content concerning business topics.
What does it all mean?
COVID-19 puts us all in a strange new reality. While instinctively we know that safety and financial stability are top of mind for people everywhere, these interests may not always translate to predictable content consumption behaviour online.
Subjectively, this makes it difficult to anticipate what information people need at any given time, which is why objective data on both the quantity and quality of viewer attention is an invaluable tool for informing future media coverage strategies.
As the data shows, the themes and keywords driving the highest levels of consumption and engagement are changing over time. By identifying the topics that are most interesting to viewers and where there are opportunities to fill informational gaps in the moment, publishers can better serve the needs of their audiences with content they will find the most valuable.