The holy grail for subscriptions is engagement, but how is engagement defined?

By Stefan ten Teije


Nijmegen, The Netherlands


More engagement, especially in the era of subscriptions, is something every news publisher is pursuing. But “engagement” can mean myriad things, so newsrooms need to define it in a way that’s useful, actionable, and helpful.

Actually, for the kind of success news organisations say they’re chasing, they’d often do better to focus on loyalty rather than engagement. More on this later.

Clearly defining “engagement” helps newsrooms decide how truly engaged their audiences are.
Clearly defining “engagement” helps newsrooms decide how truly engaged their audiences are.

But first, let’s discuss engagement.

“The era of growing online traffic via social media and Google to news sites is over,” said Miloš Stanić, strategy manager at smartocto. “Publishers want to switch to subscription models, following Netflix’s and Spotify’s strategy, and bind visitors to them with an associated revenue model.”

It’s true: In almost all conversations smartocto has with publishers, the current focus is on engagement.

If you want to understand the quality and degree of audience engagement, the following metrics are almost always available with data and editorial analytics tools, and are a great place to start.

  • Scroll depth: This is how far the user has scrolled through a page. The deeper/further they go, the more interesting that page is deemed to be. It is expressed as a percentage.
  • Read depth: This is a more accurate representation of how far a reader has read. At smartocto, for example, read depth blends multiple metrics — such as the number of words in a piece and the average reading speed — to give a score. This results in a percentage for each page (as well as an average) showing how far a reader got through an article.
  • Reading time, also known as active time or attention time: This is the number of seconds a visitor is active on a page.
  • Page depth: This is the number of pages a visitor visits during a session. It’s often expressed as an average, like “3.45 pages per session.”
  • Reactions: If a page has the option for reactions, the willingness to take the time to respond says quite a lot. Likes, shares, and reactions on social media are also included if they can be linked with the page data.

Naturally, there’s no universal answer to the question of how to boost engagement. The strategy is best devised by the publishers themselves, because they’re the ones most likely to know where the strength of their brand and newsroom lies.

Niche news site Daily Coin, for example, recently decided to focus on read depth. Editor-in-chief Heather Budrevičienė explained in a client case that she noticed it fostered a great sense of teamwork among editors and journalists, who gave each other tips on how to keep readers’ attention longer.

Some data analysis agencies work with a compound metric, Stanić said. “It’s difficult for editors to deal with all these different parameters, so we work with a content performance indicator (CPI) for reach, engagement, and loyalty.”

CPI is a single number that, when it comes to engagement, summarises the different metrics mentioned above. Thus, with a glance at a report, an editor knows whether an article, section, or subject scores above average on engagement or not.

Which brings us back to the start, and this question: What exactly is loyalty, and how does it relate to engagement?

“It’s very important to understand how data analysts once viewed loyalty,” Stanić said. “It was, quite simply, how often do visitors come? Before, regularity equated loyalty. However, someone who comes back 10 times a week but only half-reads two articles each time probably attaches too little value to what you produce to be classified as truly loyal. This is why we think it’s important to focus on habitually highly engaged readers.”

Here’s where this shocking stat comes into play: Just 3.8% of readers are loyal.

It’s a truth that blows many publishers away: On average, only 3.8% of readers can be classed as habitually highly engaged readers, but those readers (the ones who are genuinely loyal) consume five times more content than “occasional readers.” These are the hardcore fans of a news brand.

This is why loyalty is so important to understand. Once you’ve identified readers who fit the bit as “loyal,” you can drill down and see what they’re doing.

“You can increase that percentage [of loyal readers] by studying what draws these visitors,” Stanić said. “Not only at the article level but also at the section level: which topics and which user needs. Even formats could be analysed from this perspective, if an editorial team tags them well.”

Using this analysis, it might emerge that visitors find it valuable when you provide context to political topics happening in region X, while virtually no loyal reader is waiting for updates on football club Y.

“It’s up to the decision-makers in an editorial team to draw conclusions from this,” Stanić said. “Usually, they do more of what works, but you could also try to increase engagement on a topic you find important but has little engagement from loyal visitors. Maybe you should let a star reporter work on it, knowing his or her pieces always score well on engagement.”

Never forget that, while engagement metrics may well record activity about specific articles or topics exceptionally well, understanding human behaviour (i.e. loyalty) gets into the bones of what drives, thrills, and, yes, engages the readers who are most likely to subscribe — and stay subscribed.

So yes: Monitor engagement, but keep an eye on what your 3.8% are doing, too.

About Stefan ten Teije

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