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3 Fixes for Your Engagement Measurement Mistakes

Editor’s note: Given that engagement often sits near the top of the list of content marketing goals, we are publishing an updated version of this article originally published in 2016.

The term “content engagement” gets thrown around a lot. I get that. Why would we be creating content if we didn’t want people to engage with it?

But what, in all seriousness, does engagement mean? “Clicks,” “social shares,” and “time on page” are phrases I often hear when companies talk about how they measure engagement, but how accurately do metrics like these disclose how – or if – people are interacting with your content?

Stick with me and you’ll find out the true meaning of engagement and how to measure engagement to see if your content is delivering.

1. Reach vs. engagement

Your content’s “reach” is determined by the number of people that see it – even if only for a moment. It’s a vanity metric. It means little.

It’s also easily manipulated. Think about clickbait headlines like this from BuzzFeed:

Or this one from The San Francisco Globe:

Or this one from Bad Boy News:

You get the gist.

Clickbait is a way for publishers to boost clicks by slapping an enticing yet often misleading title onto a piece of content.

This tactic might drive more visitors to a site, but what happens next? Annoyed by the false premise on which they were led to the site, they are likely to leave quickly. And you’re (shockingly) left with a high bounce rate.

Does that brief interaction with the content make it a success?

Of course, it doesn’t.

In fact, short session times and high bounce rates can negatively impact your overall digital presence. These metrics indicate to Google that your content is low quality and low value, which generally leads to poor SEO performance.

Short session times & high bounce rates can negatively impact your overall digital presence. @andrewraso1 Click To Tweet

Reach also can be artificially manipulated with the use of paid content promotion ads. They get your content in front of a targeted audience quickly and cheaply, and that’s awesome, but you can’t necessarily label your content a success because you paid to get traffic to it.

You need to do something with that traffic.

Track instead: Conversions

Most of us aren’t creating content in the hope that people will visit, read, and leave – no matter how engaged they are. We want people to take an action when they visit.

But it can be hard to create content that sticks, especially when consumers spend more than a quarter of the day engaging with digital content. That’s 8.8 hours a day on average.

Create a call to action that you want people to complete after they read your content and track how well that performs instead of how far your content reaches.

Track engagement with a call to action after visitors consume your content, advises @andrewraso1. Click To Tweet

Here are a few CTAs that visitors can’t help but click:

  • Get your free report today.

  • Sign up – It’s free.

  • Get a demo. Get started free.

Then use content attribution to measure how much that piece of content contributed to a customer’s journey.

Here’s the thing: There’s not always a crossover with your newsletter subscribers and your dream customers. Of course, you want to cultivate an audience around your brand, but more important is how you nurture visitors into leads, then customers.

2. Time on page vs. engagement

Time on page sounds like a much better measure of engagement than reach. If someone spends a minute or more on a page, you can safely assume they were reading and absorbing – engaging with your content. Can’t you? Not exactly.

Time on page is a heavily skewed metric for a couple reasons:

  • In website analytics, the time on page is calculated based on visitors who did not bounce. If someone came, saw, and went within the bounce time, the visit is not factored in to time on page. The time-on-page statistic reveals only those who interacted with the site longer than the bounce time.
  • Time on page is the time between the visit to the first page and the next page. This would be fine if visitors all browsed a site in a single-session, linear mode – clicking links to other pages and leaving when they’re done. But they don’t.
The time-on-page statistic reveals only those who interacted w/ the site longer than the bounce time. @andrewraso1 Click To Tweet

People open multiple tabs. They walk away from devices. They become distracted in front of a screen. That multitasking can artificially inflate their time on page.

There are many web-browsing variables that Google (or any analytics tool) does not consider. This makes time on page a questionable metric at best.

Track instead: Scroll depth

Scroll depth measures how far down a page a visitor scrolls. It’s not foolproof, but if most of your visitors are making it to the end of your posts, you should be safe to assume you’re doing something right.

Hotjar’s heat maps can tell you how far down page visitors scroll, where they click, what they look at or ignore, and lots more. Simply add the tracking code to your site. Another way to measure scroll depth is with WordPress’s Scroll Depth plug-in, which hooks into your analytics.

Heat maps show the parts of your page getting the most views and interactions in red. You can instantly see what your visitors are clicking, scrolling through, ignoring, and so on.

Instantly see where visitors click, scroll, ignore by adding heat maps to your website coding, says @andrewraso1. Click To Tweet

For the best overview of how your visitors are engaging with your page, combine your heat-map data with your engagement metrics. With the data, you can set up A/B testing to see how different CTAs perform or which images and headlines engage more people.

3. Shares vs. engagement

Reach and time on page aren’t the most reliable metrics to measure content engagement, but what about shares? Surely, people share content they’ve read that has resonated with them in some way.

That’s not quite true.

Tony Haile of Chartbeat revealed in his Time magazine article, What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong, that little correlation exists between the articles people read and the articles people share.

Little correlation exists between the articles people read and the articles people share, says @arctictony. Click To Tweet

As he shared, the story with the longest engagement time had fewer than 100 “likes” and 50 tweets. And visitors to the story with the largest number of tweets read it only one-fifth of the longest engagement time.

“Bottom line, measuring social sharing is great for understanding social sharing, but if you’re using that to understand which content is capturing more of someone’s attention, you’re going beyond (that) data,” Tony wrote.

Since he wrote that in 2014, things haven’t really changed.

One study shows that 59% of links shared on social media aren’t clicked, which implies that the majority of article shares don’t come from people who read them.

Then there was the time Science Post published an article in “lorem ipsum” text (standard dummy mock-up text) with a popular headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Around 123,000 people shared the post – ironically proving the point. Do you want people to share your content? Of course. Shares help content reach more people. But should you rely on share stats to measure the success of your content? Probably not.

Track instead: Comments and backlinks

Visitors don’t comment on your content unless they are genuinely engaged with it (or they’re spammers, but I hope that you’ve taken steps to prevent that). People also won’t backlink to your article unless they see the value in it.

Don’t use shares to measure engagement. Use comments and backlinks, says @andrewraso1. Click To Tweet

Here’s what you can do:

Use BuzzSumo or SharedCount to find out how often a piece of content gets shared. See any correlations that exist among the content people read, share, and link to. Then use Ahrefs’ free backlink checker to see how often people have linked to a piece of content.

Measure up

In all forms of marketing – online or offline, paid or organic, local or international – you need to take steps to understand what is and isn’t working. If you don’t you might as well withdraw your budget dollars, set them alight, and throw them off the nearest bridge.

You need to measure engagement the right way because you need to understand how people are really responding to your content. It’s not how many times they click “like” on a Facebook post. It’s not how many people are being driven to a page. Engagement is about how involved people are with the content you create and promote to them. If you believe this, you will measure to learn what’s working and what’s not. Harness this knowledge to ensure that each piece of content you create is a bit better than the last.

What metrics do you use for monitoring engagement? What do you do with the results? Please take a minute to share your thoughts in the comments (and yes, we’re tracking that engagement).

Want to engage with Content Marketing Institute and learn how to improve your brand’s engagement game? Subscribe to the free weekday newsletter (and let us measure the opens and clicks). 

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute