Why ‘Depth Not Breadth’ Is the Rallying Cry of Content Marketing

Engagement is one of those truly irritating words because no one can agree on what it means. Once upon a time, it meant two people were going to get hitched, which made it a perfectly pleasant word that—double bonus!—had absolutely nothing to do with marketing. Sure, it also meant “the act of being engaged,” but no one really used it that way. Only verbose anthropology professors would rather say, “Joe demonstrated exceptional engagement in the lesson,” than, “Joe was very engaged with the lesson.”

But then we needed a word for people interacting with advertising on the Internet, and marketers settled on “engagement” as a catch-all term. At first it was clicks, visits, and unique visitors because that’s all marketers could really measure. But then social media came along and likes, retweets, views, favorites, and a slew of other buzzmetrics were added in. Hell, some people even started calling the act of seeing an ad for one second engagement. Basically, if it was a number that could keep you from getting fired, it was engagement. And it was a mess. To a large extent, it still is.

A year ago, however, that mess started to get cleaned up. Chartbeat’s Tony Haile and others—including us—started beating the drum on a simple idea: Brands primarily care about one thing, and that’s building relationships with consumers over time so said consumers will keep buying what they have to offer. And the best way to measure those relationships is to track how much time consumers spend interacting with the content brands put out into the world while also tracking how that “engaged time” led to positive outcomes—aka conversions.

We believed in this idea so much that early last year, we built metrics around helping brands and media companies figure out which stories people were spending time with. As Contently’s editor-in-chief, I use Insights every day, and I love it. I want to know how long readers are spending with our stories, what percentage of people are finishing them, and at what point they’re bailing so I can figure out why and fix it. These metrics just tells you so much more than UVs and pageviews alone. And while shares still gratify my ego like crazy, the only shares that really matter are the ones that drive readers who stick around.

Some of the smartest brand publishers on the planet—GE, Coca-Cola, IBM—have long had a similar perspective, and this pretty logical approach is gaining more traction, though it’s still far from mainstream. But I do think one thing that’s been holding it up is the lack of a rallying cry, since—let’s be honest—”engaged time” or “attention time” aren’t very catchy. But now, I think we’ve got it: depth not breadth.

(Full disclosure: GE and Coca-Cola are Contently clients.)

To be fair, I didn’t coin “depth not breadth.” It’s been a rallying cry in the education world for a while. But I never saw it used in relation to digital media until Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Medium, decided to take some time off from dominating the media world to blow some minds in a blog post. “Most Internet companies would build better things and create more value,” Williams writes, “if they paid more attention to depth than breadth.”

Williams is one of the web’s biggest proponents of time as a valuable metric that cuts out of a lot of the misleading crap, as he highlighted in this anecdote from his post:

Medium had its biggest week ever last week — or so we might claim. By number of unique visitors to, we blew it out of the park. The main driver was a highly viral post that blew up (mostly on Facebook). However, the vast majority of those visitors stayed a fraction of what our average visitor stays, and they read hardly anything.

That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. It’s an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium. By TTR, last week was still big, but we had 50% more TTR during a week in early October when we had 60% as many unique visitors (i.e., there was way more actual reading per visit).

As William notes, focusing on the time that someone spends reading something is valuable because it keeps you from honing in on superficial metrics—like UVs and Facebook shares—that provide a misleading sense of success. Medium’s “biggest week ever” was far from it because many readers were leaving soon after they arrived on a page and thus not deriving much value from the posts. The week in early October that had 50 percent more total time reading was a significantly bigger accomplishment.

But as Williams goes on to note, time isn’t a perfect stat. It isn’t the holy grail of content measurement:

The problem with time, though, is it’s not actually measuring value. It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value.

Advertisers don’t really want your time — they want to make an impression on your mind, consciously or subconsciously (and, ultimately, your money).

As the writer of this piece, I don’t really want your time — I want to make an impression on how you think. If my rhetorical skills let me do that in less time (for me and you), all the better.

Williams is right. Time is merely a proxy metric for value, and while that still makes measuring and prioritizing time a great first step for anyone who wants to embrace the “depth not breadth” mantra for creating content, many other metrics need to be considered if you want to measure true value. As BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti likes to say: There is no God metric.

So how do you measure the value of your content? Williams concludes that media companies are going to have a hard time figuring that out, and that you “have to accept that things are very imperfectly measured and just try to learn as much as you can from multiple metrics and anecdotes.”

For brands, though, I believe the road is far less slippery.

Value is really hard to measure if you’re a media company; readers don’t buy anything directly from you unless you have a paywall. And a paywall is just something you use to convince advertisers to give you money.

However, if you’re a brand, you are hoping readers buy something from you eventually. There is a direct value to be measured at the end of the content rainbow. Not for all of your readers, but some—which adds an extra layer of depth to measure, and a more complete picture of the total value you’re providing to readers.

For brands, the secret is to weigh your content metrics—readers, pageviews, shares, average finish, average engaged time, and total engaged time—to create that proxy measure of the overall value you’re delivering to your readers while also tracking how that data corresponds with conversions that are important to your business. Because, as Williams notes, it’s not just about time; it’s about making an impression on someone’s mind. Following a reader who takes an action is the only way to know you’ve accomplished your mission.

This requires a sophisticated synchronization of marketing software and a company culture that prioritizes figuring this kind of complex content marketing question out. But the smartest brands will get there with “depth not breadth” as their rallying cry. And when they do, we can finally leave “engagement” where it belongs—with the romantics.

Image by Rich Carey

Get better at your job right now.

Read our weekly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories