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The dao of engagement

February 16, 2011

Over the next few weeks I’ll be picking apart reader engagement on news websites – why it’s important, how to measure it, and how you can make your site stickier than the competition – in a series of shortish posts. Here’s the first.

If you work in online media, you’ve heard of it. It probably came out of the blue. One day analysts and advertisers are talking about how many visitors you have and how many pages they see, and the next they don’t care so much anymore. They”re suddenly terribly worried about what those visitors are actually doing on your site.

It’s fair enough. A reader can load up a page, read the first paragraph, then leave your site completely without even noticing the lovely banner ad at the top of the page. They’re not worth the same to the advertiser or to you as a regular visitor who reads the article completely, leaves comments, shares the story on Twitter, and see the same ads multiple times.

Engagement – measured by various metrics like time spent on site or page views per session – tries to measure this. It shouldn’t replace the bread and butter measurements of unique visitors or page views. But it is a welcome addition to the arsenal of numeric weapons you can use to blow apart the mystery of how people use your site. (See? Web analytics can be exciting too.)

So let’s start at the beginning – why should you care about engagement?

The numbers a site quotes to advertisers aren’t just gorgeous specimens of maths. Booking X percent more page impressions with Site A because it serves X percent more pages is awesomely scientific looking. But numbers, while they never lie, never tell you the whole truth either.

What advertisers and analysts (and you) are really after is reality – how many people actually will see this ad? How are people using the site? The advertiser wants specificity – knowing that this ad shown this many times to this person has this effect. The internet isn’t there yet but it’s a quantum leap from the black hole of TV and print advertising.

Telling the advertiser you served up this many ads to this many people is helpful, and much more exact than a newspaper or TV campaign. But serving the ad and being affected by it are two different things. Engagement metrics try to bridge that gap and give a clearer picture of reality.

Here’s why engagement is important for news websites:

1. Visitors who are really engaged with your content, the thinking goes, are more likely to be interact with ads. Not just click on them or buy a product, but “get” the advertiser’s message. If you see the same banner ad on a few pages, the message is much stronger than if you see it just on one.

2. Page views per visit. If longer readers spend on your site, the more likely they are to load up an extra page and be served another ad. So increasing engagement = more pages served = more ads served = more money (hopefully).

3. Engaged readers are worth more. They’re not just dipping in for an information quickie. They’re likely regular visitors who are contributing user-generated content (eg comments) and feel some attachment to the site’s brand. They’re also more likely to subscribe (giving you juicy demographic details) or even pay to access content.

4. Engaged readers are more likely to hit your homepage. They’re more likely than casuals to seek your content out, often starting from the homepage, which tends to be the most lucrative ad spot on news websites. Casual readers are more likely coming from Facebook or Google. If you start on the homepage and move to a story, that’s two page views, while a casual reader will often start at the story itself (so only one page view).

5. Engaged readers are the chunk of the audience you’re selling to advertisers. For the reasons above, plus they tend to be the ones who affect your site traffic more than casuals – which stories get read, what section homepages do well. That’s your regular readership, the stable audience, the ones who will come every day for news. Those are the numbers you’re selling to your advertisers.

Next we’ll look at the various ways you can measure engagement on your site, and how to make sure you’re reporting the metrics that tell the truth (or at least make you look better than the competition).

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