March 31, 2020

How COVID-19 will Change Social Media, Messaging, and Video Chat

If the Coronavirus lockdown has made anything clear, it’s that the internet is a legitimate utility; in many respects as critical as electricity and telephony. From breaking news to working at home, from video chat to entertainment, internet access plays a role in virtually every aspect of our lives.

Cloudfare reports that overall internet traffic in the U.S. was up 18% between January 1 and March 22. But the use of messaging and video chat apps, as well as the use of social media for breaking news, saw more dramatic increases. While these trends are unique to the moment, once the smoke clears and we return to relative normality, they will have lasting implications.

News and Social Media Revenue Suffers
Under normal circumstances, an increase in traffic means an increase in revenue. Given our current reality, however, this rule-of-thumb has been turned on its head. Traffic associated with news and social media sites is skyrocketing even as ad sales are plummeting.

  • While news-publication page views rose 61% in the past two weeks, The New York Times expects Q1 2020 digital ad revenues will decline 10%.
  • Twitter informed investors that it will not meet Q1 revenue projections, despite the fact that traffic is up 23% year-over-year. Many Wall Street analysts predict that Twitter’s Q1 revenue will be 20% lower than expected.
  • In Italy—a country under quarantine—time spent on FACEBOOK properties (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger) is up 70%; Instagram and Facebook Live views doubled in a week; messaging increased 50%; and group calls increased over 1,000% in the last month. Unfortunately, however, FACEBOOK generates little revenue from the use of WhatsApp and Messenger.

FACEBOOK may be a megalith that will weather this crisis, but we expect the strain on news media to continue, with smaller publications suffering most—some going out of business, others sold for pennies. Twitter has enjoyed a resurgence in the last 2-3 years, largely driven by politics. With users paying less attention to politics, ad revenues will suffer, and Twitter may find itself in precarious waters yet again.

Facebook Values the News Again
An internal memo leaked to The New York Times revealed that Facebook has been deeply impacted by the Coronavirus. First, we learned that over half of the articles read on Facebook were about Coronavirus. Facebook’s algorithms assign a quality score to various news publications, with the highest-ranked sources seeing a surge in activity, and non-news entertainment and lower-quality news sites declining. For example, clicks on The Atlantic were up 400%, The New York Times 180%, The Washington Post 119%, and NBC News 160%. On the flip side, Mashable saw its Facebook referral traffic drop 72% and BET and Sports Illustrated both lost more than half their Facebook traffic. Both Facebook and WhatsApp are struggling to handle the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, as well.

Recall that, in 2017, Facebook began to refocus its mission and, subsequently, its algorithms to be less news-centric, instead concentrating on real-life friends, family, and community-building. Prior to 2017, news content on Facebook saw high traffic, algorithm preference, and user attention, much as it is now. As users seek news and (virtual) social togetherness, use of Facebook has surged, including the return of many who previously abandoned Facebook. We thus expect to see a resurgence in Facebook use, as well as short-term modifications of algorithms to prioritize high-quality news.

Messaging and Video Chat Get a Lasting Bump
According to FACEBOOK, total messaging has increased more than 50% in the last month, voice and video calling in Messenger and WhatsApp have more than doubled in hard-hit countries. While impressive, Facebook generates little ad revenue from these messaging services.

In a December 2019 report, TDG found that 75% of streamers at least occasionally video chat with their friends and family, nearly half of which (36%) use it at least weekly. In terms of services, Facebook Messenger topped the list (used by 46% of video chat users), with Zoom—an enterprise video communications app—ranking last (used by only 4%). Keep this in mind as we proceed.

Due to the Coronavirus lockdown, however, usage of voice-chat apps has spiked. Downloads of Skype and Zoom have more than doubled in March. Zoom, which is used heavily by businesses, had 27 million downloads in March, more than thirteen-fold the two million downloads in January 2020. While the two services are not comparable in function, Skype has 59 million daily active mobile users before COVID-19, while Zoom had 4.3 million (obviously prior to the 27 million downloads). Smaller apps like Houseparty, a social video conferencing application with a trivia element, are enjoying spikes in downloads. Even FACEBOOK’s much-maligned Portal TV has sold out.

No doubt companies like Zoom and FACEBOOK have benefited tremendously from stay-at-home orders. The question is whether, once these orders are lifted, these high levels of demand can be sustained, or whether things return to pre-Coronavirus levels. The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in middle. Though today’s sky-high usage will subside in the post-COVID-19 world, video chat apps will prove to be a valuable tool connecting the lives of many long after the pandemic passes.

The TDG team wishes you and your loved one’s health and security.

Lauren Kozak, the author of In Search of an Audience: Quibi’s Post-Pandemic Prospects, User Adoption and Trends in Social Streaming, IGTV, & Facebook Watch, and The Ascent of the Social TV Engager, is our Senior Advisor on Social Media, Analytics, and User Behavior. She has previously held positions for the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, and Britney Spears.

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