Why is the attention movement worth paying attention to?

Over coffee recently, I told a friend about an article I’d recently written. ‘Oh!’, she said, ‘where is it? I’ll “like” it for you’. Obviously I appreciated the sentiment, but a large part of me wanted to face-plant into my sponge cake.

The fact is that increasingly, most of us whose livelihoods hinge on content-related metrics ultimately take the ‘Like’ for what it is: somewhat relatively meaningless and oh-so frustrating. We’d be much happier to see that people are actually reading whatever we’ve written, commenting on it and sharing the piece. It seems that we’re bombarded with so much information coming from so many different avenues, that ‘likes’ express little more than a mild interest in a headline.

Volume doesn’t really mean anything

Simply hitting an approval button tells the publisher very little about how their content may or may not be being received. To pinch a thought from Twitter co-founder, Ev Williams, in his article on Medium: “we literally say one company or service is “bigger” based on a single number… Even without getting into how “use” is defined, this is dumb”.

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Yes. Yes it is. A single article that has gone stratospheric on a news website that otherwise performs averagely could skew the data – and fortunes – of that company for months, not to mention the fact that comparing an article like the infamous Serbian shark story against a piece on the refugee crisis in Syria isn’t even akin to comparing Braeburns to Granny Smiths: it would be the equivalent of comparing apples with oranges. You just can’t.

Single metrics, whatever they may be, are fundamentally problematic, as Dejan Nikolic explained in an interview on these pages recently. It’s the ratio between metrics that will give you a useful insight into how well your content is being received. 10,000 visits to a website in a day might sound good, but if the website is posting fifty articles in that time frame, those digits start sounding considerably less impressive.

That said, single metrics that place a value on time spent (dwell times, etc) clearly have more value to an editorial strategist than metrics that are concerned with the volume of people clicking on a post. If the average reader spends 15 seconds on a page (a tiny window of time that lengthens or shortens depending on which analytics website you care to look at), I will have lost 55% of you three paragraphs ago. The onus is therefore on the writer to produce engaging copy that keeps people on a page past the first paragraph and surely that’s a healthy motivation to work well?

Footfall on the Financial Times website averages at about 12 million visitors a month, compared with 200 million at the Daily Mail, yet FT readers spend three times as long on the site than other media sites

If we needed any further confirmation of the benefit of keeping readers reading and viewers viewing, we need look no further than ESPN, the American sports network. Here’s Dan Coletti, VP of digital media research: ‘Our goal is to reach as many [sports fans] as possible, reach them as often as possible, and keep them engaged for as long as we can’.

ESPN uses retention to bolster its advertising, the theory being that a reliably engaged audience will stick around long enough to notice and respond to advertisements more than someone flitting through webpages. In the UK, a focus on retaining readers has told a similar story: footfall on the Financial Times website averages at about 12 million visitors a month, compared with 200 million at the Daily Mail, yet FT readers spend three times as long on the site than other media sites, according to Fortune. Those are ratios worth shouting about.

Does paid-for content benefit more from attention metrics?

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Here’s the kicker though. In talking about the Daily Mail vs the FT or The Economist, we’re not really comparing like with like, are we? Both the demographic and content of these publications are different and never more obviously so than when we acknowledge that The Economist – another outlet embracing the attention web – is a paid-for publication. Stands to reason that if you’re shelling out to read a publication you’re likely to pay it more attention than if you stumbled through a link at the end of a Google search.

There may not be a direct correlation between paid-for content and those using and benefitting from attention metrics, but what seems to be a truism is that more specific content probably benefits more from measuring time spent reading it than more mainstream, high-volume articles: a reader relationship with a paper like The Mail, or The Mirror is likely very different than that of one with something like The Economist. This isn’t intellectual snobbery, it’s just that the nature of the writing is different: in more traditional editorial pieces, the reader needs to spend time with the article in its entirety to get a sense of what it is and how they react to it.

Time is precious – and finite

Various CEOs and commentators are starting to make a simple but fundamental and irrefutable point: time is a resource that is finite. As the volume of digital content doubles every 9-24 months (depending on whose report you read), our capacity to consume it simply can’t increase to match. There are only so many hours in the day and we’re fast reaching tolerance. ‘Content Shock’, as it has been dubbed by Mark Schaefer, is impossible to deny as an issue: we’re competing against an increasingly massive amount of other digital content and we need the best tools available to ascertain if and how people respond to it.

Paying attention to attention will keep you competitive in a world that has become cluttered with content

In this light, time-related editorial metrics article are the obvious way forward: to choose to spend time reading or watching something in its entirety is worth its weight in gold. As Ev Williams says, ‘where there are a million shiny, attention-grabbing objects a touch away, and notifications coming in constantly, it’s meaningful when someone is actually spending time. After all, for a currency to be valuable, it has to be scarce.’ When you look at it this way, there’s really no better time to be upping your game and producing content that people choose to spend time with.

Paying attention to attention will keep you competitive in a world that has become cluttered with content. Try saying that with a mouth full of sponge cake.

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