Does Bounce Rate Really Matter in Content Marketing?

In my opinion, content marketing’s most misunderstood metric is bounce rate. As Contently’s manager of distribution services, it’s a data point I deal with on a daily basis. Time after time, clients come to me with the same troubling question.“Our engagement metrics look great,” they say, “but our bounce rate is so high. Isn’t that bad?”

Not necessarily.

Google Analytics defines bounce rate as the number of “single-page sessions divided by the number of total sessions.” In other words, it’s the percentage of all sessions on a site when a user leaves after viewing a singular page.

A bounce occurs in a handful of common situations: when a user clicks the back button, navigates to a new URL, or closes the browser. The only time a bounce does not occur is when a user clicks through to a second page on the domain.

So how does this knowledge impact marketers? When planning a paid distribution campaign, one of the first considerations I discuss with a client is the objective. Bounce rate can be an important indicator of success. But it doesn’t have to be. It ultimately depends how a brand wants to define success.

If the goal of the campaign is to move the users through the funnel and drive leads, a high bounce rate could be cause for concern. If the objective is to drive more top-of-funnel awareness and engagement, however, then a high bounce rate may not mean much.

Brand Awareness vs. Conversion

Take a thought leadership blog post. A visitor could come to the site, read the entire article, and leave. Even though this session would have a high finish rate, the session would have a bounce rate of 100 percent. That’s just what happens when you have a binary metric. You either bounce or you don’t.

To add meaning to brand awareness campaigns, Outbrain suggests modifying the bounce rate parameter in Google Analytics. By adding a little code to your site, you can ensure that a bounce only registers if a user spends a certain amount of time on that page (say, 15 seconds). This adjustment helps distinguish a true bounce, where a user immediately leaves a page within a few seconds, from an engaged session, in which a user eventually navigates away after giving you some attention.

Now, let’s say the goal of the campaign is to generate subscriptions for a weekly newsletter. A high bounce rate could indicate that users aren’t converting. In this scenario, that would be cause for concern. But even then, you can make some tweaks to get a more accurate reading on how bounce rate affects your brand.

Social channels and content discovery platforms typically offer users a chance to define the “conversion window,” which sets the number of days after the initial click you use to track your audience. If you extend the window, you may end up with a higher conversion rate while the bounce rate would stay the same.

Bounce rate can be an important indicator of success. But it doesn’t have to be.

All marketers want a user to read one article and immediately convert. But that rarely happens. More often than not, brands have to build trust with their audience and nurture them along. By mapping content and KPIs to each stage of the funnel, marketers can ultimately use content distribution strategically to compel the right actions from the right users at the right time.

Keeping this in mind, bounce rate takes on different levels of importance depending on the stage of the funnel. In the discovery phase, a high bounce rate is much more common as readers are exploring and retaining new information. As readers move toward the decision making phase, however, a high bounce rate begins to indicate that users are considering other options (and possibly selecting them.) At this stage of the funnel, you will need to adjust and optimize.

A few months ago, I was working on a brand distribution campaign for a finance client. This company had a very specific audience profile and wanted to pursue advanced targeting to hit traffic and engagement KPIs. At the start of the campaign, we saw a low clickthrough rate, which told me that we were reaching the audience too far along in the decision-making process. What alarmed the client, however, wasn’t the poor engagement metrics; it was the high bounce rate.

We agreed to open up the targeting to reach a wide audience. As expected, the engagement metrics skyrocketed. The campaign reached users at the beginning of the discovery phase. The bounce rate didn’t change at all.

By looking at the data, the client came to understand the relationship between content distribution and bounce rate. They were pleased that the adjustments had helped increase brand awareness. Now armed with the experience and expertise, there was one finally takeaway that should help them for years to come: They were able to discern when bounce rate really matters.

Image by iStockphoto

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