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How the CDC Used Metrics to Communicate COVID-19 Info Online

At GovLoop’s online training Wednesday, Digital Metrics Lead for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Fred Smith shared how the agency communicated COVID-19 information online.

By March, the pandemic had led to a surge to CDC’s websites unlike any other incident before. To keep up and plan ahead, online metrics were key to understanding what kind of information people needed and how to relay it.

Smith explained how metrics can be used to prepare for and respond to incidents when the public flocks to authoritative sources such as CDC for information. Understanding the data and metrics of online interactions is critical to delivering valuable messaging to the public when they need information the most.

“We have this statement: ‘The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives,” Smith said.

First, it was important to know the agency’s online traffic baseline and previous highs. In 2019, the agency averaged about 3.2 million page views a day. The single highest day had 15 million views when the H1N1 virus outbreak started in 2009. Using these and other baseline numbers, it planned ahead by preparing for double the traffic, making sure its contracts could handle the load, Smith said.

By February, the record for page views on a single day had been topped with 22 million views on the 26th. CDC’s preparation had paid off, and the agency also mobilized extra attention to ensure it was fully optimized for potentially higher traffic. The agency used analytics-driven alerts to guide actions, and it initiated daily standup calls with IT and briefed federal partners.

In March, the agency broke the record a second time with a single daily high of over 65 million page views — four times its highest number ever and 20 times the average traffic from 2019, Smith said. At one point, CDC.gov handled a third of web traffic to all federal government websites, surpassing even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and post office during tax season.

“The citizens’ expectations — they’re looking for instant access and answers to everything,” said Chris Sinkus, Account Executive at Adobe.

The agency had started to rearchitect its microsites around COVID-19 when the traffic record broke the first time in February. It continued to redesign its sites using data-driven evidence.

Event websites, such as coronavirus.gov, are unusual in that they start small with one or two pages but quickly explode into hundreds, Smith said. In January, the site had a dozen pages, and now it’s over 1,000. When the amount of information amasses like this, it’s key to make data-based changes so the content is relevant for customers.

“It’s important to continue to understand your customer throughout the entire process,” said Melanie Megregian, Public Sector Analytics Leader at Adobe.

For example, using search engine data, the agency made sure its terminology matched the terms people were using online – such as “coronavirus” versus “COVID” or “face mask” versus “face covering” – so users could be directed to the most relevant information. It adjusted its content to match the audience’s needs.

Data is key to effectively communicating to the public. “Use all the data you have at your disposal to see what’s going on,” Smith said.

This online training was brought to you by:

Photo credit: CDC on Unsplash

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