The top 10 moments of engagement in 2016

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2016 was an eventful and emotional year, filled with surprises (like Brexit and the US presidential election), cultural losses (the passing of icons like David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and Leonard Cohen, among others), tragedies (the ongoing crisis in Syria, the protests and violence around the pipeline in North Dakota, and terrorist attacks), as well as the occasional glimmer of hope (the Olympics, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko returning to earth, and record levels of giving of during the holidays).

Although we looked at 2016 as a whole, we found that the most instant and dramatic spikes in engagement were elicited by moments of global emotion — people looking for information during a tragedy or an upset, such as the grossly misstated polls in both US and UK politics. This year, the world turned to the internet in disbelief and surprise to fact check and validate, especially in instances when reality veered off course from expectations.

Throughout the year, we’ve reported on traffic patterns during peak events, including the Super Bowl, the 2016 presidential election, and holiday shopping (and giving). Here’s a look at the biggest moments of engagement from 2016:

  1. Rock legend David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016. The story broke that evening; we saw a 100% increase in traffic to news sites as mourning fans sought real-time coverage, and engagement with the news continued to rise — as of 7 AM ET, traffic was 150% above normal. 6.1 million tweets about Bowie were sent and global streams of Bowie songs on Spotify increased 2,822% on 1/10 following news of his death.

    high-traffic events 2K16 david bowie
  2. Super Bowl 50 took place on February 7, 2016, and the internet unplugged to pay attention — at kickoff, we saw a 12% drop in overall online traffic, and another 15% drop at halftime (what we affectionately refer to as the “Beyoncé drop”). It’s also a critical time for advertisers, with $377 million in ad spending for Super Bowl 50. That investment pays off: on average, we saw a 74x increase in requests per second for our customers with ads, with a particularly popular ad causing a spike of 190x more requests per second than usual as visitors rushed to engage with the brand online.

    high-traffic events 2K16 super bowl 50
  3. Pop superstar Prince passed away on April 21, 2016, and mourning fans sent over 6 million tweets. We saw an immediate increase in online engagement — traffic to news sites spiked 229% as people rushed to read of his death.

    high-traffic events 2K16 prince
  4. On June 12, 2016, 49 people were tragically shot and killed just after 2 AM at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Traffic to news sites rose later that morning — as of 10 AM, traffic was 194% above normal. Traffic stayed high throughout the day, at 168% above normal at 1 PM ET as readers searched for answers.

    high-traffic events 2K16 orlando
  5. On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union. “Brexit” was a surprise, with polls indicating the opposite outcome up until the decision. The collective shock was reflected online: as of 10 PM ET, global traffic to news sites was 280% above normal as disbelieving readers rushed to check the results.

    high-traffic events 2K16 brexit
  6. Over 80 million people tuned in for the first presidential debate on September 26, 2016, and we saw corresponding engagement online: an hour before the debate began, traffic to news sites was up by almost 140% versus the same time the previous week, and spiked by 6,500% after the debate started. After the debate ended, traffic remained high, with requests at 2,000% above normal.

    high-traffic events 2K16 first-debate 2016
  7. The presidential election took place on November 8, 2016, and like Brexit (and despite reports to the contrary up to the last minute), the results came as a surprise. Engagement was most dramatic at times when it normally drops off — as of 2 AM ET, traffic to news sites was 365% higher than normal as shocked readers rushed to check the unexpected outcome.

    election 2016 traffic
  8. Holiday shopping was up following the election; consumers spent $3.45 billion on Cyber Monday, up 12.1% from last year, and $110 more than on Black Friday. Although Cyber Monday has an edge over Black Friday both in terms of sales and engagement (traffic was 39% higher on 11/28 as compared to the same time on 11/25), it’s really more of a Cyber Week: more and more retailers start sales before Thanksgiving, and we saw corresponding engagement online, with traffic up 35% on Thursday morning, and climbing to 62% by 9 PM on 11/24. Traffic remained high throughout the week, at 129% above normal as Cyber Monday drew to a close.

    high-traffic events 2K16 shopping
  9. 2016 wasn’t entirely without hope — this Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday following Thanksgiving) was a record year for the ACLU: this year, they received 20,548 gifts, a 1,495% increase from last year. We saw a corresponding increase in engagement to, with traffic peaking 411% above normal late into the evening on November 29.

    high-traffic events 2K16 aclu
  10. The year ended on a heartbreaking note, with the final week of December marking the deaths of important cultural figures and a terrorist attack in Turkey. Pop icon George Michael passed away on December 25, and saddened fans rushed to read news of his death, with traffic increasing 90% as compared to the same time last year. Film star and mental health activist Carrie Fisher passed away on December 27, and traffic to news sites was 174% higher than it was on the same day in 2015 as grieving fans sought confirmation. Carrie Fisher’s mother and Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds passed away the following day, and traffic climbed 60% as compared to 12/28/2015. With only hours left in 2016, 39 people were tragically killed at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub in an attack later claimed by ISIS. Contrary to many of the tragedies we’ve seen this year, traffic to media sites barely rose as compared to 2015, indicating overall digital disengagement as an emotional and eventful year came to a close.

We’ll continue to monitor moments of engagement surrounding major events — keep an eye on our real-time insights in 2017, which we’ll update with events as they unfold in the new year.


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Tyler McMullen is CTO at Fastly, where he’s responsible for the system architecture and leads the company’s technology vision. As part of the founding team, Tyler built the first versions of Fastly’s Instant Purging system, API, and Real-time Analytics. A self-described technology curmudgeon, he has experience in everything from web design to kernel development, and loathes all of it. Especially distributed systems.

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