By now, many of us will have read Ev Williams’ tirade against click-bait. He’s certainly not the first to argue for a greater focus on engagement instead of just the click, and the ensuing discussion reflected a fundamental need to broaden how we view the very statistics that serve as the benchmark for online success. This conversation is also happening in the context of a larger debate in the advertising community about ad viewability, with industry giant Google admitting that over half (56 percent) of their ads are never seen.
This confluence of factors demonstrates the pressure on every stakeholder in the industry to come up with a more effective way of measuring audience attention or how successful or impactful an ad has been, and engagement seems to provide a perfect cause celebre for the industry to latch on to.
But to what extent does this debate between the comparative digital value of traffic and engagement obscure a much more complex reality? For that matter, what do we mean when we say engagement? Time spent on site? Page views? Social shares? Comments? Bounce rate? A combination of all of them?
The truth is there is no perfect answer to the question of what is the most accurate metric to focus on. Instead, the reality is one where a multitude of factors combine in different dynamics to create diverse situations – each one unique and each one requiring a specific strategy from publishers and advertisers. Comforting as it might be, engagement can’t be the Holy Grail metric for deciding true digital value, any more than the click could.
Having said all this, engagement – however you define it – is a key factor to consider as a publisher looking to build brand loyalty and a committed readership, and for advertisers looking to get more from a user than a passing glance. Below are a couple of key factors to consider when looking to evaluate (and possibly increase) your engagement.
Where is Your Traffic Coming From?
According to a recent Pew study, engagement can be hugely impacted by the source of your website traffic. The study compared the engagement seen across three traffic channels – direct, search and Facebook, finding that engagement was much lower for Facebook and search referrals compared to direct traffic, with more time spent on site and almost fiive times the number of page views.
The impact of direct traffic is powered by brand loyalty, so if you’re looking to benefit from the increased engagement that comes from direct visits, you need to build a strong enough relationship with your visitors so they arrive at your site because they mean to, not because you’ve paid for your content to be seen by them on Facebook. Your traffic source can be a strong indication of the strength of the level of engagement a user has on your site. If the majority comes from direct you have clearly developed a strong brand, and the quality of each visit has a different power.
What Type of Content Do You Have?
Understanding exactly what value your content holds for readers is fundamental to understanding how important engagement will be, and how to increase it. If you’re a general news aggregator catering to a wide swathe of people with a variety of likes and dislikes, it will be much more difficult to increase engagement across the whole range.
If your content is highly specific and targets a very particular audience, there is a good chance you’re already seeing strong engagement. The length of your content (long form or short form), and the type (images and rich media, video, or text), will all contribute to the kind of engagement you see. The key here is to be realistic about what you’re putting in front of readers. If it’s short news posts, don’t expect a long time spent on site. If it’s recipes, you can expect a higher volume of social shares, while provocative op-eds or celebrity videos might see a high-density of comments. Don’t waste time trying to get high engagement on every front. Evaluate what you have and then strategize to get the most out of it.
What Is Your Monetization Strategy?
No matter what your monetization strategy might be, this is one area where engagement will make a real difference. It might seem as though traffic trumps engagement with something like display advertising, where brands are looking more for passive eyeballs to increase brand awareness, but showing higher engagement will still allow you to command higher CPMs – even here.
With advertising partners looking for a source for native content, engagement becomes even more important, especially when advertisers are looking to see site visitors paying more active attention on site. With ecommerce, this emphasis on engagement becomes even more pronounced. At the end of the day, sellers are looking for site visitors to make a purchase, and a simple click or comment won’t be enough. Whatever your business model might be, take the time to evaluate how much time and effort should go in to increasing your engagement – it will pay off on your bottom line.
As we’ve seen, there is no easy or simple answer to the question of the digital value of engagement, but by being more aware of how different factors interplay with one another, digital publishers will be better able to make engagement work to serve their business goals. As an industry, it’s critical that moving forward digital media advocate less for a particular focus on one metric over another, and more for a holistic approach to the bigger, more complex picture of online publishing.