COVID RPM Trends — Behind the Numbers with Brad

person smiling at phone while scrolling

If you’re reading this, give yourself a pat on the back for surviving 75 percent of the year 2020.

That’s right, just three more months until the end of a trying year none of us will ever forget.

In the previous edition of my cleverly-named column, “Behind the Numbers with Brad,” we talked about the ways in which business and school closures altered how our society consumes information — perhaps permanently.

With millions more adults now working from home, kids adjusting to a new learning environment and just about everyone’s lives upended, we saw traffic explode in many categories (here’s looking at you family and parenting sites).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, other categories took a significant hit. Lockdowns and ongoing restrictions meant declines in traffic for most travel-related sites.

same-sex couple looking at a laptop on a couch

While we previously discussed the ways in which traffic was impacted, today we’re breaking down how this year changed the digital advertising industry as a whole.

One key metric that tells a great story is publisher RPM

Mediavine Director of Business Intelligence Cynthia Butler helped me neatly compile RPM data from Mediavine’s 7,500-plus publishers, specifically focusing on the change from 2019 to 2020 numbers on a week-over-week basis.

To start, let’s look at all site categories combined:

Bar graph of RPM year over year growth, all categories combined. Bars are split up into 3 sections, pre-covid, covid shutdown, and covid. bars decreased in height then increased.

As you can see, 2020 began slightly stronger than the same period a year prior, with RPMs for the first nine weeks of 2020 roughly 9% higher on average.

Then, well, you know the rest.

March, which normally brings slightly lower RPMs due to seasonality, saw steep declines as the uncertainty and impact of COVID-19 rippled through the economy.

Most businesses quickly scaled back or tabled advertising altogether, and a time of year that normally sees increased ad spend — Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, as well as non-official holidays such as March Madness and baseball Opening Day — saw little if any at all.

These unexpected budget decreases meant less competition in the digital advertising auction, resulting in a substantial decrease in CPM and RPM

In the blink of an eye, RPMs 30-40% lower than the previous year became the norm, with no real indication as to when “normal” might return. 

And no niche was safe from the drop.

Food & Drink and Family & Parenting

Of all website categories, Food & Drink and Family & Parenting were perhaps most notably impacted in a positive way by the Covid lockdown, with traffic surging over 100% year-over-year.

Yet even with huge increases in traffic and a welcome opportunity for advertisers of all types to reach just the right audience, widespread economic uncertainty led to RPM decreases of around 45% for publishers in these categories.

Bar graph of RPM year over year growth, food and drink category. Bars are split up into 3 sections, pre-covid, covid shutdown, and covid. bars decreased in height then increased.
Bar graph of RPM year over year growth, family and parenting category. Bars are split up into 3 sections, pre-covid, covid shutdown, and covid. bars decreased in height drastically then increased.

While Food & Drink and Family & Parenting sites saw audiences increase drastically as a result of Covid, Travel sites predictably suffered a huge decrease. 

With people staying home, airlines limiting seating and countries shutting down borders to slow the spread of the virus, travel advertisers quickly fell off the map.

As a result, travel publishers saw RPMs drop nearly 50% year over year.

Bar graph of RPM year over year growth, travel category. Bars are split up into 3 sections, pre-covid, covid shutdown, and covid. bars decreased in height drastically then increased.

Personally and professionally, it’s easy to focus on the things we lost as a result of Covid. Website earnings and RPMs are no exception. However, there is good news. 

We’re beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. While we were discussing all the declines, did anyone notice the trend lines over the last six weeks above?

What you’re seeing is not an illusion; RPMs have significantly recovered despite how different life remains. We are seeing increases in RPMs across the board compared to 2019.

Many advertisers who previously pulled or limited their budgets in times of uncertainty, are now re-injecting them into the market in a big way. Fortunately it’s just in time for Q4, the most beautiful quarter of the year for publishers.

Conclusion

These highlights paint a small picture of the impact of the pandemic on advertising.

We welcome you to check out the interactive table below to take a closer look at how the different categories were affected.

Based on the data we see here, and barring any unforeseen circumstances (please 2020, enough already), Mediavine publishers should be in a good position to close out this most tumultuous year on a very high note.

Interactive Chart

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