For many of us—whether we’re worried about jobs, struggling to balance remote work with out-of-school children, or looking for a sense of normalcy again—it may seem like a lifetime since the nationwide quarantine began. As we enter another week of social distancing and hunkering down at home, it’s not surprising that signs of lockdown fatigue are starting to emerge, and it’s playing out in the ways people consume content. The numbers say they’re searching for some respite from the non-stop news cycle.
For three weeks now, Ad Council has been studying the issues occupying the minds of Americans during the covid-19 crisis, conducted with the pro bono help of C+R Research. These weekly reports aim to highlight the top public sentiments—and how they’re evolving in real-time.
What do Americans say they are feeling and prioritizing right now, as we roll into another week of the novel coronavirus pandemic? New data from week three of Ad Council’s study indicates an important shift: the news cycle is starting to feel overwhelming, and brands and newsrooms that want to reach people should consider addressing the growing need for diversions through entertainment or off-topic content.
Anxiety is waning
In general, it appears that people are feeling less worried this week than in weeks past. The top three concerns are still the economy, the health of frontline workers and people taking covid-19 seriously—though the level of concern has fallen slightly with each survey. This could indicate that people are settling into a new normal, finding routines and coping strategies that are pulling them through. It’s also the middle of the month, so fewer bills are due. Let’s not forget, some Americans are buoyed by the impending arrival of a stimulus check headed their way.
On the other hand, however, it could also indicate that people have consumed so much news they’re becoming desensitized to it. Either way, news organizations may want to tap into this shift and recalibrate coverage to include more reporting outside of the coronavirus, so there’s a balance between hard news and lighter content to balance it out.
Managing information overload
A swell of traffic hit news sites in early March, when states and local governments began issuing the first of the stay-at-home orders, and Americans started paying closer attention to the surge in covid-19 coverage. According to data from Taboola Newsroom’s network of publishers, coronavirus stories accounted for 1 in every 4 pageviews on news sites by March 9. The topic, in just seven days, had surpassed the number of pageviews impeachment news garnered in all of January (278 million versus 250 million) and pageviews amassed by the Super Bowl in January and February (167 million).
Harvard’s Nieman Lab reports that around March 12 to 13, traffic appeared to peak, citing numbers from analytics firm Parse.ly. For context, that’s the period immediately following Donald Trump’s Oval Office address, Tom Hanks’ covid-19 diagnosis reveal, as well as the suspension of the NBA season and NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness. Traffic was 44 percent higher than the previous week, with numbers steady through March 23 as the public turned to the media to make sense of these events.
Today, however, the numbers are telling a different story— the possible onset of reader fatigue, or at least a growing interest in stories covering topics unrelated to the pandemic. News site traffic is trending downward towards the numbers typical of a busy news week pre-crisis. Data from Chartbeat, a content analytics company, shows that traffic to covid-19 articles was down by 24.6% by the end of March, and search and social traffic related to the virus also saw a steep decline.
These shifts align with week 3 of Ad Council’s study, which shows that Americans are less likely to seek out information about covid-19 this past week compared to the first two weeks of the study. In fact, when people who reported feeling anxious or depressed in the last week were asked what they’ve done to help themselves feel better, 48 percent said they took a break from the news. Respondents said they were listening to music (61 percent), followed closely by TV and entertainment, and talking to family and friends (both 60 percent), as well as exercise and physical activity (50 percent).
This doesn’t mean news organizations should stop reporting on the coronavirus. Keeping people informed and armed with facts remains critical in times like these. The nuance here is that people are seeking relief through entertainment. They’re showing a need for a happy distraction from the state of things. Since there are no sports, concerts, theater outings or other in-person socializing events to be had right now, this can be a moment for content creators to step up.
What could that content look like? Answer: it’s more focused on entertainment. Music (like the DJ sessions on social media getting traction), virtual theater productions, streaming content, cooking shows, gaming and narratives that build community through storytelling. The numbers show that people are hungry for this type of content. Netflix traffic has hit an all-time high according to data from AT&T. A star-studded virtual concert produced by Global Citizen and the World Health Organization drew 21 million viewers this weekend. And Jackbox Games, a video game company known for their party games, has seen unprecedented traffic that they attribute to audiences seeking out a source of levity.
We may still be in the grips of this crisis, obeying stay-at-home orders, waiting for a vaccine and navigating an economic landscape that’s coming down hard on many people. The need to be entertained isn’t insensitive or a sign that audiences are turning a blind eye to what’s happening. After all, the top two things Americans report wanting more information about are when the crisis will end (64%), and when a vaccine will become available (58%). Seeking a respite is what makes us human—the reliance on a good laugh, a beautiful song or a great story to carry us through. Those are the moments that revive and sustain us, and the ones we’ll return to when we come out on the other side.
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