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Reach means nothing. Engagement is everything

Traditionally, publishers have chased audience numbers – the bigger the number, the better. In the digital world, this can prove counter-productive because, says Mark Alker, it’s not how many people visit your site that counts, it’s what they do when they’re there.

By Mark Alker

Reach means nothing. Engagement is everything

Last summer, I stayed in a London hotel for a couple of nights to attend a seminar on podcasts. I’ll come back to how amazing podcasts are for engagement later, but for now, I want to tell you about something that happened when I got to my room.

After dumping my bag on the bed, I next scanned the room for plug sockets. As is typical in many hotels, they were scarce. In fact, there was only a single double powerpoint just above the desk. Only, when I tried to plug in my MacBook power supply, it wouldn't fit. The socket was mounted so close to the desk top and my MacBook power plug was so bulky that there was no room for it to slot in.

I decided to video the failure so that I could show reception staff rather than try and explain the problem. The video was less than ten seconds and for good measure, I said ‘Bollocks’ at the end.

It amused me so I posted it as a reel on my Instagram account – thought nothing more of it and went down to reception to report it. They were super helpful and found me an old MacBook power cord that solved my problem.

Powered up, I did some work and the next morning went off to the seminar.

Meanwhile, my reel went viral. To this day, I have no idea why. By lunchtime the next day, it reached a million views. To date, it has had over 10 million views, over 800 comments, 300k likes and, incredibly, it has been saved almost 6,000 times!

I honestly don’t think it’s that funny. What it seems to have done is sparked off an international war between advocates of national electrical plug standards.

So, over 10 million reach, 300k+ likes and my profile went from just under 400 followers to over 8.5k in the space of a week.

I post infrequently and when I do, it’s mostly just the usual lifestyle stuff like pictures from the top of a hill, mountain biking, skateboarding stuff. Nothing notable really. But heck, that’s clearly not true. Now I have over 8,500 people interested in my life.

But of course, I actually don’t.

I did have about 400 people vaguely interested in all that stuff because mostly we might actually know each other. Now I also have 8000+ people who are interested in plug socket failures and the problem is that I am not in the slightest bit interested in plug sockets – it’s just not my niche.

My roundabout point here is that I attained massive reach with my content that day but the fact is the audience I reached is worthless to me. I can’t exploit them to my advantage unless I change course and start creating plug socket failure content. I have reach, but my audience quality with respect to my niche is poor.

You see where I’m going with this?

It’s not that difficult to pick a zeitgeist topic and follow the SEO rules of optimising keyphrases to maximise the reach and there are countless examples of this kind of writing for the algorithm first and human second in the media every day. But even where those tactics are successful, often the new reach doesn’t translate into anything more meaningful than a big number. The traffic bounces and the overall engagement metrics of session time, bounce rate and pages/visit are all impacted negatively. And it’s these metrics that transmit the real value of an audience to marketers.

Attracting these new readers into your content could be classed as engagement of course but what really matters is not just engagement but meaningful engagement – are they leaving comments, exploring more content, clicking ads, buying subscriptions. Unless you are chasing page views for programmatic ad impressions, this type of statistical ‘win’ is unlikely to prove lucrative. And as programmatic CPMs continue to plummet, even that approach is looking unsustainable right now.

Take podcasts for example.

Our podcasts are listened to by around 2.5k people each month, which when stacked against the 600k+ people who visit our website seems like small potatoes. But, that’s only if you think in terms of reach being the best metric.

“The average engagement time is around the three minute mark per visit.”

Now, a visit to a website is technically an engagement. It’s a conscious decision by a user to click a link or visit a bookmark that brings them to our site. As such, it’s safe for me to say that the average engagement time of those 600k+ users is around the three minute mark per visit according to our analytics. Many come back daily and their respective monthly totals would undoubtedly be of concern for their employers. But let’s compare and contrast with those meagre podcast listeners.

The average listen-through rate of our podcasts is 80%. With our podcasts lasting on average 50 minutes, that means a typical listener is engaged with our content for 40 minutes. That’s a phenomenal length of time in today’s attention economy landscape. That’s an average per episode and we crank out 4/month. 2.5k members of the public who are invested enough in our content to put aside 40 minutes/week to engage with us.

As a marketer, what should impress you more? 600k sized audience with an average session duration of three minutes? Or a highly focussed audience of 2,500 people who are so engaged with the subject matter that they spend literally hours of their time every month hanging on every word we record?

“A typical listener is engaged with our content for 40 minutes.”

The logic and the conclusion seem obvious – not that there’s a binary choice to be made – both platforms have their strengths and will suit different marketing strategies. But the common factor across both of these funnels, and indeed I believe all funnels, is engagement. Yet, so often the hardest job of anyone tasked with selling ad space or sponsorships is persuading the potential buyer that reach is not the metric they should be focused on even though it’s often the first thing they ask for.

Inventing or creating massive numbers to dazzle media buyers has long been etched into the media publishing sales playbook, but when the likes of Google can come along and at an arbitrary stroke, wipe hundreds of thousands off your reach numbers with a core update, it’s time we stopped banging on about reach so much and started to focus on the quality metrics that actually convert for ourselves as publishers, as well as our clients.

Take it to the reader

When a user on Twitter clicks your link and is taken away from Twitter, they don’t like it. They chose to be on Twitter, not your website and by yanking them away from where they chose to be results in limited engagement as they bounce back to the safety of their chosen platform. How do we fight that? The answer is you can’t – the solution is to take your content to them.

Facebook offered a solution back when they still liked publishers. Recognising this reluctance of users to leave their chosen platform, they provided us with Instant Articles. Now pretty much consigned to history as a false prophet in terms of monetisation but that doesn’t get around the fact that the principle behind it was, and still is, sound. This applies even within your own website.

Take our forum on for example. It represents around 85% of our entire web activity, much to my and our editorial team’s frustration. Our most expensive content sits in the 15% and for years, we tried all kinds of ways to get our forum residents to head over to our editorial content.

Although I knew very well that trying to move users from one platform to another is tough, I never applied that thinking to our own website. The reality is that any forum is its own platform and even though we considered editorial content to be part of the same platform, our users mostly did not. They choose to be on our forum and our engagement results from trying to get them to our editorial were disappointing – we barely moved the needle with each successive campaign attempt.

When we treated the forum as a distinct platform, things changed. Instead of tempting our users away to read our editorial content, we instead took our editorial to the forum. Now, every editorial story we publish is automatically turned into a forum topic. There is a ready-made WordPress plugin that does this perfectly so we didn’t even need to spend development time building it. The result was we more than doubled the engaged reads of our editorial stories overnight and tripled the average comment count on each editorial piece. Our editorial content now gains a greater number of engaged reads from our forum than it does from our front page – or any other external source.

The bottom line

We’ve scaled back the work and time spent attracting traffic from the social platforms – not eliminated, but scaled back and automated where possible. The quality of engagement from those sources doesn’t warrant the energy even if we occasionally score a large influx of actual traffic. Our social traffic has the lowest session times and highest bounce rates, which is typical in the specialist media realm.

Click through rates are up across the board, both for editorial and advertising campaigns. In particular, our direct ad sales results have seen the highest increases in CTR, which is not surprising as these are the campaigns specifically targeting our most engaged audience.

Our audience reach is now half what it was two years ago, thanks mostly to Google’s core search updates, but unlike my newfound Instagram followers, what we now have is a much more concentrated and engaged audience. Chasing the big numbers is for bragging rights only and best left to those still reliant on the dwindling CPMs of programmatic.

As for my Instagram account, is there anyone out there who can rise to the challenge of creating power plug content? I think I have an audience ready and waiting.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.