What Does Real Engagement Look Like?

By Aaron Paitich


Figuring out how to get people to connect with your brand online isn’t easy. But it’s even tougher when you define engagement in a way that doesn’t really capture what attracts them to your site and compels them to come back. Nothing represents this dilemma better than the highly popular (and often misleading) digital analytics metric of the click.

As the digital engagement coin of the realm, the click leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, it captures online behavior and customer interest of a sort, but in a crude, perfunctory way. You wouldn’t define a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman’s success rate simply by counting how many people answered the doorbell, so why should we be content by measuring the online equivalent? And the ugly truth is that so many of the clicks we champion in online marketing are little more than the digital equivalent of having a homeowner open the door only to quickly slam it shut seconds later, before companies can get their message across.

Digital analytics firm Chartbeat, an industry leader for measuring online engagement, closely studied user behavior across 2 billion visits over the course of a month. The upshot of their findings, as noted in a recent Time article was sobering: most people who click on a link don’t read it. In fact, more than half—55%—spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on the page they clicked through to.

The flaws of click-as-metric are obvious. But what then should media and marketers measure instead? Chartbeat’s CEO, Tony Haile, argues for a different way to track engagement online, and as this CJR article explains, it’s become something of a mission:

“Over the last year, Haile has increased his public stature to become one of the most visible proponents of a metric that he believes can realign advertising dollars to the content most worthy of them: attention. ‘Time is finite for each of us,’ says Haile, which makes it a scarce and therefore valuable unit for advertisers. He and his colleagues at Chartbeat have been pushing the media establishment to adopt attention, or the amount of time spent on a landing page, as the universal measurement of Web traffic.”

Why attention? Because it better captures reader interest far better than a click. And if holding reader interest for longer becomes the real gold standard of online engagement, that makes an even more compelling case for content marketing. Clever curiosity-piquing headlines make get lots of clicks, but only smart, well-researched custom content can pull a reader deeper into the page and hold their interest. And contrary to most conventional wisdom, two-thirds of our time reading online is spent below the digital fold (see image, left). Your online audience is willing to stick around, in other words, if only you give them good reason to.

That’s where the good news comes in. If you can get and hold a web visitor’s attention—even once—your chance for engagement and brand messaging goes up far more than what you can predict based on mere clicks.

According to Chartbeat’s research, the more time a reader spent on a page, the more likely he or she was to return to that page in the future (see chart, left). In fact, a reader who spends 100 seconds actively reading is twice as likely to return to a website as someone who clicks away within 15 seconds. Keep a web visitor engaged for five or six minutes—the time it roughly takes to finish a 400–500-word article—and the probable rate of return jumps to nearly 12%, three times the rate of the click-and-go reader.

Content marketing, then, builds the very online habits—loyalty and willingness to listen—in readers that companies desire. So, it’s time to start asking if your online brand is merely chasing clicks or is it looking to make a compelling claim on our most precious resource—attention?