If there’s a war in publishing, it’s the ongoing battle to increase reader engagement.

Most publishers enter the fray by engaging with a content recommendations vendor that promises to keep visitors on their sites longer, where presumably they will engage with more content.

But before ceding control over the content being promoted on their Web sites, publishers should ask themselves some important questions:

  • Is your content recommendations vendor driving your business or theirs?

  • Are you in control?

  • Who gains insights about your readers in this relationship?

  • Can the industry afford to commoditise content distribution in a similar way to how ad distribution has developed?

Driving reader engagement means delivering the most relevant content to users. The process was once rather simple (in the offline world days): It was a partnership of journalistic judgment and graphic design.

But that single daily news package produced and delivered in a finite package – with the editors determining what all readers should see – has been forever disrupted.

Online, users have many expectations, including one that says publishers know what is important and relevant to them as individual readers.

With the 24/7 newsroom producing a steady stream that publishers package across multiple platforms, too many users turn to search, aggregators, third-party apps, and social networks to filter the voluminous content.

In this model, publishers risk being reduced to sideways traffic that garners those “one and done” pageviews, even though they are still producing lots of quality content and investing in people to produce it.

Developing an effective engagement strategy helps publishers take control of dynamic content presentation and, importantly, helps them reclaim direct audience, enhance their position as a trusted news source, and engage current users in their product portfolios.

Perhaps most importantly, regaining control of their audiences gives publishers the opportunity to convert them to paid subscribers and to increase their ad generation — both necessary for increasing their revenues.

A successful engagement strategy means more than dropping an outside vendor’s black-box widget on a Web site to produce generic content recommendations. Rather, it requires a strategy that balances expert curation, real-time collaborative analysis and trending data, deep user insight, and “noise reduction” (for example, removing content I have already read or in which I’ve shown no interest previously).

After years of slogging through the trenches with third-party content recommendations vendors, publishers are waking up to the fact that content recommendations are more successful, and more importantly, more engaging when they are based on audience insights, as well as on the individual reader’s actual content engagement and consumption.

Moreover, real benefit rests in keeping readers on the publisher’s site using its own content rather than recommending content from other places.

Want to grow true value? Stop thinking in click-through rates alone (we all know lots of things your readers might click on will either diminish your brand or drag them off your site).

The true value comes from prioritising and optimising quality matches between content and readers, keeping them engaged with your content and on your site longer.

The lesson here is not to treat content recommendations as an afterthought.