The Impact of Coronavirus on Social Media Engagement for Brands

Competitive Analysis Social Media Best Practices Things we notice

We’ve been receiving tons of questions from marketers about the impact of coronavirus on social media engagement rates, and wanted to present some data and actionable tips in this fast-changing crisis.

It’s difficult to know what to do as marketers (and humans) as coronavirus continues to spread around the world. Reviewing the data is always grounding and helps inform future strategy, so we teamed up with Jason Keath, CEO and lead analyst at Social Fresh and took a look at engagement rates for 14 industries to track social performance in Q1 of 2020.

Social media is a constantly moving target, especially during a global health crisis. We recently released our 2020 Social Media Industry Benchmark Report and wanted to share more about how the situation with coronavirus is impacting social media engagement for brands. This post is intended to provide additional context for brands and marketers so they know kind of impacts to engagement rates they can expect right now on social.

Key things you should know

We acknowledge that the situation is changing day-by-day, but here are our top takeaways and tips for marketers working hard to stay sensitive and relevant during this health crisis.

Channel performance by industry during coronavirus

Instagram

Instagram took the hardest hit overall, with a 14% drop in engagement rate by follower this week versus the previous three weeks. It makes good sense that this channel would be impacted most, since it’s not likely where people are going to get their news (Twitter) or connect with friends and family (Facebook). It’s worth noting that Instagram’s engagement rate declines have been sharp of late, suggesting this channel’s engagement will keep dropping more rapidly than Facebook and Twitter.

 In the sparkline graphs above, we can see that Alcohol, Financial Services, Food & Beverage, Health & Beauty, Higher Ed, and Home Decor have all taken dives on Instagram this month.

Ohio State University communicated thoughtfully and quickly with followers on Instagram about shifting to online classes.

It’s interesting to note that all of these industries except Health & Beauty actually saw an engagement spike right before coronavirus really started to trend in early March. This (temporary) upward spike is logical for industries like Food & Beverage and Higher Ed who are having to constantly communicate with followers about the current operating status of universities and restaurants.

Our second batch of industries on Instagram is seeing similar downward trending, with the exception of Media and Nonprofits, who haven’t experienced as much of a decline by staying relevant. Media brands are obviously working hard to communicate with their information-hungry followers. Nonprofits are on the front lines in working to deliver services to those affected by the virus and closures. These organizations are already starting to coordinate fundraising pleas to help bridge the gap, which is garnering attention from followers on social.

Hotels & Resorts, Sports Teams, and Tech & Software are seeing some of the sharpest Instagram falloffs of any of the industries we reviewed, but thankfully the news isn’t all bad for those industries on other channels.

The bottom line: Instagram isn’t the first place people are turning to for updates on the virus. With tourism, shopping, and dining out on the decline, many industries are seeing sharp declines in engagement on this channel. “Steer away from humor and focus on how you can help. Inform and support,” says Keath.

Facebook

Facebook’s declining average engagement rate in the last few weeks is neck-and-neck with Instagram’s at 13.5%. It’s worth noting that Facebook’s engagement rates are declining around 2x per week, so this channel’s engagement is definitely still in flux.

Fashion and Home Decor were seeing pretty flat engagement in 2020 until the week of March 8 when these industries started to decline more quickly.

Financial Services, Food & Beverage, and Health & Beauty saw nearly identical engagement spikes in late February and early March, and then followed the trend of other industries with a sharp decline in the last week.

Many alcohol brands are trying to be playful on social in this stressful time.

Alcohol’s performance brings a little levity to the chaos and heartbreak. Perhaps their sharp engagement increase a few weeks ago was from people needing a stiff drink due to election stress and the threat of coronavirus spreading. Alcohol’s average engagement rates have since restored to their industry average from last year, showing they’re a little ahead of the pack.

And Higher Ed is helping keep the all-industry Facebook average up with a return to their all-time high for 2020 in the last week. “Higher Education specifically is already seeing increased volatility in their engagement rate. This is a great example of what will work for brands to maintain engagement: utility. As schools delay and cancel classes, stakeholders have questions and are vocal,” says Keath. With so much communicating to do about school closures and classes moving online, colleges and universities are clearly finding success on Facebook.

Hotels & Resorts and Sports Teams saw some of the sharpest relative declines on Facebook. For example, Sports Teams enjoyed a lot of engagement earlier in the year thanks to lead-up to the Super Bowl and March Madness, but are seeing a precipitous drop beginning in early March as cancellations began. Hotels & Resorts saw their engagement drop by half as more and more travel advisories and bans began in early March.

Red Sox kept it simple with their season suspension announcement, which garnered strong attention from fans looking to stay in the loop.

Influencers, Media, Retail, and Tech & Software are all trending down as well. Nonprofits are fighting successfully for engagement on Facebook to offer services and community connection points.

Nonprofits are keeping their engagement rates up on Facebook because they’re able to deliver critical services and information to their families and communities.

The bottom line: While it may feel like there’s been a spike in Facebook activity as friends and family connect and seek out community news, brands aren’t finding a lot of success on this channel unless they have something valuable to add to the coronavirus conversation.

Twitter

Finally, some more upbeat social media news: Twitter engagement rates have declined by about half as much as Facebook and Instagram (down 7%). Why aren’t they feeling the burn as much? You’ve probably already guessed: people are turning to Twitter for critical information about how coronavirus is impacting their lives, from school and store closures to how they can get involved in their community via local nonprofits.

We noted that the engagement rate drop has been more gradual on Twitter than on Instagram and Facebook since mid-February. This gradual decline indicates that Twitter is more insulated against further engagement loss than Instagram and Facebook because of the ability to connect person to person.

In the graph above, we can see that Alcohol, Fashion, Financial Services, and Food & Beverage had some of their highest engagement of the year in late February but took a sharp downturn as coronavirus news really picked up in early March. Health & Beauty and Home Decor have been struggling for much of the year.

Higher Ed’s engagement rates are anomalous in that their highest overall engagement in 2020 has happened since coronavirus really picked up a few weeks ago. This increase makes sense as many students, parents, and alumni turn to Twitter for up-to-date news on school closures. It’s worth noting that Higher Ed consistently sees high engagement on Twitter, and the fact that these schools are continuing to see high engagement is bringing up the all-industry average on this channel. Without Higher Ed, it’s likely that Twitter’s overall engagement decline would be more dramatic.

The engagement rates on this graph trend more steadily downward with industries like Nonprofits, Retail, and Tech & Software. Sports Teams have seen a sharp decline but are bouncing back a little as fans turn to Twitter for news on game cancellations and season suspensions.

Influencers and Media are holding steady as people look to trusted sources for more information about what’s going on in the world.

Marriott stuck to the facts in their recent Twitter update about coronavirus.

It’s worth calling out that Hotels & Resorts’ dramatic engagement decline is very similar to their current Facebook performance, which underscores how hard-hit that industry is in this health crisis.

The bottom line: Every channel and nearly every industry has seen engagement drops across the board, but that decline is currently more gradual on Twitter than on Facebook and Instagram. If you have timely, relevant content to share on Twitter with your followers, you can continue to expect engagement (at least for now).

Tips for social media marketing during coronavirus

The best thing marketers can do is to keep calm and be as sensitive as possible when adding to the noise on social.

Here are a few of our favorite tips directly from Jason Keath’s recent article from Social Fresh.

  1. Pick a Lane: Imagine the worst coronavirus news is sitting right next to your post on Twitter or Facebook. Does your messaging sound awkward?
  2. Scale Back and Keep a List: Adjusting the volume and type of social media content you post is probably a good instinct right now. Give some additional care to the empathy and tone of your social content. Since there is less attention to go around, don’t be afraid to post less content. But don’t stop coming up with ideas. Keep a running list of those ideas for when things get back to normal.
  3. Invest In Trust Content: Consider investing in long-form projects and campaigns. Trust Content is content that allows you to spend more time and more meaningful moments with your audience. It’s great for building trust in your brand. Which is a good place to spend time right now. Consider creating long-form articles, video series, podcasts, essays, entertainment, training content, and more.
  4. Adjust Your Social Listening: While social media time-spent is likely going up around the globe, the way consumers spend that time and the types of conversations they have are different during a crisis. How are your customers, employees, and community talking about the crisis?

You can read the full article containing these and many more actionable tips on Social Fresh.

Methodology

We used Rival IQ to analyze engagement rates, posting frequency, post types, and hashtags on the top three social channels for brands: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We included 14 industries in our analysis: Alcohol, Fashion, Financial Services, Food & Beverage, Health & Beauty, Higher Education, Home Decor, Hotels & Resorts, Influencers, Media, Nonprofits, Retail, Sports Teams, and Tech & Software.

We reviewed overall social engagement rates from 14 industries in Q1 of 2020. We specifically analyzed engagement rates week by week for the last four weeks from February 16 through March 8. To preserve data accuracy, we focused on engagement Sunday-Wednesday and excluded engagement from Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in 2020 so we could include data from this current week (March 8-11).

We define engagement as measurable interaction on social media posts, including likes, comments, favorites, retweets, shares, replies, and reactions. Engagement rate is calculated based on all these interactions divided by total follower count.

Wrapping it up

It’s a confusing and scary time for brands and consumers alike right now, and there’s no one correct way to act on social. “The way consumers spend their time online over the next few months is going to be very unpredictable. Even if this means an increase in total time spent online, most brands will find it difficult to compete with breaking news, entertainment, and utility,” says Keath.

The best thing marketers can do is be as sensitive as possible to the current health crisis when creating any social media posts or strategy. We also encourage you to look to data and benchmarks to lend context to what’s happening on social around the globe instead of guessing.

Does the data in this post reflect your brand’s experience on social media in the last few weeks? We’d love to hear from you, so don’t hesitate to drop us a line on Twitter.

Jason Keath of Social Fresh, an annual social media conference, contributed to this post.

Blair Feehan

Blair is a content marketer based in Seattle who relishes helping companies large and small do one thing: tell their stories. She specializes in content creation, messaging, branding, and community engagement to get the word out. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading her brains out and then running statistical analysis on what she's been reading.

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