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How COVID-19 has changed social media engagement

Earlier this year, we presented our regular update with the latest data on the best times to post on social media. Around nearly the same time we published this, many individuals and organizations began working remotely, sheltering in place and otherwise changing their behaviors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. As daily routines changed overnight, more of people’s’ daily and work lives shifted to online, and social media became an even more important tool for connection.

With these changes, we reviewed data from our 20,000+ customers to see how usage of social media has changed during this time. You can use this information to update your strategy and get a sense of how audiences’ priorities and interests have changed during the course of this global pandemic.

Resources for communicating during the coronavirus crisis

Find all of Sprout’s resources to help teams and social managers navigate their response to COVID-19

As with our earlier look at the best times to post this year, the way we get this data is similar to how Sprout’s Optimal Send Times determines the best times to get engagement at an individual account level. To see how Optimal Send Times can take the guesswork out of adjusting your content calendar, test out a free 30-day trial of Sprout Social. For our insights on how reaction to COVID-19 has reshaped behaviors on social media, read on:

How COVID-19 changed the best times to post on social media

We updated the data pulled for our yearly review of best times to post to show the latest data through mid-April 2020. Overall, we found that the best times to post have shifted somewhat as more aspects of work and life move online-first. In some cases, we found that these times have shifted more in just the last few weeks of changed behavior than they did from 2019 to early 2020–read on for a breakdown by network.

Disclaimer: Data from Sprout Social includes users from various plan types, industries and locations. All time frames are recorded in Central Time Zone (CST). Number of engagements represents total engagements a brand received on the specific channel during that hour time frame.

Updates to Facebook times to post

While we previously found that Wednesday from 11 a.m. and 1–2 p.m. were the best times to post on Facebook, and Wednesday was a peak day overall, our updated review showed that activity was more consistently high throughout every weekday. Currently, the best times to post on Facbook are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10–11 a.m. In fact, every day at 11 a.m. was a slight peak compared to the rest of the day.

updates to Facebook best times to post

Weekends and weekdays after 5 p.m. still showed a significant drop off, as remote workers juggling a variety of home and family needs face, in many cases, even more demands on their attention after the typical work day ends.

Updates to Instagram times to post

Similar to Facebook, the number of peak times during the week expanded since our previous review for Instagram. Previously, Wednesday at 11 a.m. and Friday from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. were identified as the best times to post. Now, we are seeing that out of an overall very busy span of weekday and working hours time, Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 2 p.m. are the best times to post on Instagram.

updates to instagram best times to post

Additionally, while our previous analysis showed that Instagram activity carried on with some consistency through early morning and late evening, activity is now much more concentrated in the work day, with a distinct drop-off seen after 6 p.m. On the other hand, weekends, including the previous worst day to post Sunday, are now also highly active from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. As a more mobile-centric network, Instagram could be taking a bigger share of time as a source of entertainment and distraction.

Updates to Twitter times to post

Twitter patterns of usage have remained slightly more consistent pre- and post-COVID response. This may be due to the ongoing use of the platform as a way to quickly check news and spread useful public information for different regions’ lockdown and quarantine measures.

updates to Twitter top times to post

Despite this, the top time to engage still shifted somewhat as we reviewed the data in April 2020. While it was previously Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m., the current best time to post  on Twitter is Friday 7–9 a.m., with 9 a.m. showing the peak of activity.

Updates to LinkedIn times to post

Since LinkedIn is a professionally-oriented network, it’s not surprising that behavior has remained largely similar. Like Twitter, the best time to post did shift a little: moving from top times at Wednesday from 8–10 a.m. and noon, Thursday at 9 a.m. and 1–2 p.m., and Friday at 9 a.m. to current best times for LinkedIn of Wednesday at 3 p.m, Thursday at 9–10 a.m. and Friday from 11 a.m.-noon.

updates to linkedin best times to post

We also noticed that the hours of regular weekday engagement now start and end a little later, with activity starting up at 8 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. and wrapping up around 4 p.m. rather than 3 p.m., as noted previously. This could relate to changing remote work patterns, including a drop in browsing for updates during or around a commute.

Changes in social media message volume

We also compared metrics on message and engagement volume, both sent and received, from Q1 2020 to the first two weeks of April to see how things changed (or didn’t) as people adjusted to a ‘new normal.’ For this data, we reviewed the volume of different interaction across both networks and industry segments, to see how audience attention has shifted.

How brand behavior has changed

Across all industries and networks, the number of posts sent per day remained about the same on average (only dropping by 0.2 post/day) comparing Q1 and April 2020.

changes in posts sent by industry

A few industries increased their sent message volume during this time, especially health care and media and entertainment, both of which have become top of mind as people seek out reliable updates for news on the pandemic, and in the case of entertainment, look for everything from distraction to inspiration during social distancing.

On the other hand, some industries had a sharper decline in published posts during this time, particularly sports and travel, both of which have been highly impacted due to suspensions of activity and restrictions on business as normal. Retail, consumer goods, and education sent messages also dropped, though less dramatically.

When looking at all messages broken out by network, outgoing posts published by brands declined slightly on average across industries:

  • Facebook: Outgoing posts decreased by an average of 1.8 posts/day
  • Instagram: Outgoing posts decreased by 1.9 posts/day
  • Twitter: Outgoing posts decreased by 2.3 posts/day

These changes in outgoing posts make sense as brands have to continually re-evaluate their content strategies to best serve their communities as the situation changes. Similarly, we found that audiences are changing their patterns of interaction with social media throughout March and April 2020.

How audiences engage with brands during COVID-19

Much as the best times to post have varied across networks based on changing user patterns, we found a variety of changes in how audiences are interacting with brands during April 2020 compared to Q1 2020.

Incoming engagements increased on average by 44 engagements per day across all networks and industries. On a per-post level, they also increased by about 7.3 engagements per post per day.

changes in engagement with brand posts

Trends in engagement in many cases followed what we found for changes in the posting volume of different industries. Major increases in engagements per day occurred for consumer goods, health care and media and entertainment, all of which have been top-of-mind categories for many as basic aspects of daily life change dramatically. For other industries, as published post volume dropped off out of necessity due to changing circumstances, engagements also declined–we found this was the case with decreases in sports, retail, legal and nonprofit fields.

While engagement went up, incoming messages to brands actually decreased by 19 messages per day averaged across all networks. No industries saw an increase in incoming messages comparing the first two weeks of April to Q1 2020. Industries that saw a higher than average decline were nonprofit, retail and sports.

Broken out by network, we saw this trend reflected further on both Facebook and Twitter:

  • Facebook comments decreased by 5.6 per day
  • Facebook PMs decreased by 2.1 per day
  • Twitter @ messages decreased by 16 per day
  • Twitter Retweets decreased by 20.8 per day.

Out of these interactions, those on Twitter dropped across all industries. For Facebook, comments decreased across all industries except healthcare and media and entertainment. For Facebook PMs, only messages to media and entertainment industry accounts increased.

Instagram showed the only increase in incoming messages, with an average increase of 6.4 comments per day. Out of changes to Instagram comment volume, consumer goods, media and entertainment and software were the industry segments showing much higher than average increases.

This data shows how quickly behavior on social media can change in line with audiences’ changing daily routines. Shifting patterns of focus between remote work and school, changes in primary device usage and restrictions on activity have significantly changed how audiences interact with social over the course of just a few weeks.

What’s next

Given the fluid situation around COVID-19, the only certainty is that audience behavior will continue to change dramatically over the next few weeks and months. The major updates we found after just a few months suggest that brands will continue to face challenges, highlighting the need to consistently review and reprioritize their strategy throughout 2020.

Our findings at the industry and network level can serve as a guideline on what you can expect, but it’s also important to stay on top of your own brand’s data and identify your best opportunities for success. As we noted here, different industries have seen dramatically different impacts based on reaction to the pandemic, and brands of all sizes will need to take into account complexities such as individual state responses as the situation continues. Social media marketers have an opportunity to continue to keep their organizations updated on audience sentiment and behavior, using the wealth of insights available through social data.

If you’re looking for ideas on getting started with your own brand’s response to COVID-19, read our complete crisis management guide or see all our resources, including useful features within the Sprout platform here:

Resources for communicating during the coronavirus crisis

Find all of Sprout’s resources to help teams and social managers navigate their response to COVID-19

About the data

All referenced data on social messages received is based on the social media profiles and self-reported industries of 11,038 brands reviewed between January 1, 2020 and April 15, 2020.

The messages analyzed included Facebook posts and Tweets directed to a brand via tagging or @message, posts and business reviews on public Facebook pages, comments on brand-created Facebook and Instagram content, and retweets with comments.

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