2018’s Content Metric of the Year: Time

The click is better than the impression. As a metric, it gives us more clarity. In the past few years, every online experience or product has been optimized for clicks, and brands have A/B tested and adjusted in search of the best headline, image, and tone of voice. But the click’s reign may slowly be coming to an end.

As marketers and publishers become more sophisticated, companies have looked beyond the click for something more meaningful. Brands and publishers don’t just want you to go to a page, they want you to stay on site and remain there.

You can see that gradual shift all over digital media. In 2018, Quartz redesigned its site, specifically to improve time spent. The New Yorker ranked its 25 most popular stories by time, not readers. Reddit started wooing brands as it topped Facebook in time on site. YouTube creators even started posting longer videos to increase time metrics favored by the platform’s algorithm.

In December, it was clear the industry was shifting toward deepening relationships with audiences and keeping them around. The Nieman Lab at Harvard University noted that many publishers had set pageviews aside in 2018, opting instead to focus on quality time and time on site.

For all of those reasons and more, the metric of the year is time.

Time is money

Every marketer should find a way to tie content to revenue. But getting there requires a gradual process, and there are different checkpoints to hit along the way. Time-bound data offers marketers a path to the hard ROI they crave.

Time your audience spends on your site is an indicator of a deepening relationship, which you can’t capture if you’re just focusing on gathering readers or their impressions. As Contently’s head of strategy Joe Lazauskas is fond of saying, if content doesn’t help the user enjoy their lives more or do their jobs better, it probably sucks. Bad content is relative, though, so the tricky part is knowing what to measure.

Let’s say 100,000 people visited a brand blog last month. You might look at that big, shiny number and conclude that you’ve created something fantastic. But if most of that traffic comes from one piece of content that took off, odds are time spent will be down relative to your average post. Also, most of those people probably won’t come back if they’re coming from a wave of social momentum or a press mention. You can bet your site’s engagement metrics won’t seem as sexy the next month.

Now let’s look at a different brand blog that gets 50,000 readers per month. A lower aggregate number, but with a better balance of traffic. The audience comes regularly, and they spend more time with the content than the first company’s audience. This team is actually closer to proving ROI, but there are some people who will fixate on the big number and think otherwise.

When your data shows that people stay with your content and come back for more regularly, that signals they may be ready to progress from the top of the marketing funnel to the middle. Some brands new to content aren’t ready to get to this stage yet. However, based on what we’ve seen from our customers and the market at large, many of them are actively tracking and reporting engagement metrics that get at the quality of the content.

Time metrics you can measure

If you’re concerned with the amount of time users are spending on your site, or you want to measure the quality of the time they’re giving your content, here’s a short list of metrics on the rise that you can evaluate.

Average time spent

This—also known as dwell time to some—is simply the amount of time a visitor spends actively reading, watching, or engaged with your content. For example, your audience may spend an average of three minutes with your content. (According to Taboola, the average page session duration on publisher sites was a shade under two minutes by the end of last year.)

Google also uses the metric to rank search results, which means it presupposes that users are trying to answer a question or learn about a subject they’ve typed into the search bar. As John E. Lincoln writes for digital marketing agency Ignite Visibility, “Longer dwell times are better for business. The more time a visitor spends on a page, the more likely they are to have read and understood your content. It’s a signal that your content strategy is working and appealing to your intended audience.”

Average finish/scroll depth

To truly gauge time spent data, you’ll want to check it against this companion metric. Average finish or scroll depth is how far down the page a person gets when looking at your content, with 100 percent being the perfect score.

This metric is a great way to study the quality of your users’ site visits, especially if you publish more short content than longform. If you publish a 4,000-word article that takes 20 minutes to read, then an average time spent of four minutes isn’t all that great. Conversely, if people spend 90 seconds with a short piece, that could be a great sign that your team is giving the audience what they want.

Bounce rate

This is a pretty simple metric that measures whether or not people visit other pages once they arrive on your site. A 50 percent bounce rate, for instance, means that half of your audience leaves your site after looking at one page. Users who bounce could be responding to bad UX, misleading headlines, or lackluster information.

The lower the bounce rate, the better. And if people are looking at other pages on your site, odds are their time spent will increase as well. However, a high bounce rate doesn’t necessarily mean the apocalypse is coming—especially if you’re just starting a content program. As Contently strategist Felicity Blance explained on this site: “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.”

Time between visits

This metric is a little tricky. It’s not just a case of increasing or decreasing time between visits, but studying the metric can tell you quite a lot about your audience. If you have a pretty good return rate, but users often let weeks go by between site visits, the audience may be telling you that they find your work useful at times but don’t trust you as a go-to source on a consistent basis..

For example, I’m a Marvel nut, which means I’m constantly on the prowl for new information about Disney’s superhero movies, and more often than not, I get my updates from The Hollywood Reporter’s nerd blog, Heat Vision. If there’s no news, however, I don’t tend to spend any leisure time on the site. My time-between-visits probably looks pretty erratic, and bursts of activity can be pegged to trailer releases, casting news, and announcements from Disney and Marvel.

On the other hand, I read superhero content on io9 more regularly, especially on slow news days, because the site’s editorial team publishes evergreen work too. I know from experience that every day, io9 will post something related to my interests, so I type in their URL regularly, and my time-between-visits is usually less than 24 hours. Adobe would say that low time between visits suggests a site’s stickiness. If users engage with a site every day, something is compelling them to search for updates.

The quantitative approach to quality

All the metrics above can be combined into a comprehensive study of quality of time, and statistics can be very persuasive when framed correctly. However, marketing hasn’t been completely taken over by artificial intelligence and Google’s algorithm, so it’d be a mistake to ignore the human element.

Shifting your brand’s focus from clicks to quality of time spent with your content nudges you closer to thinking about conversions. After all, a high number of monthly uniques doesn’t mean that all those readers have committed themselves to your brand. On the contrary, an audience of regular readers is more likely to engage with your brand deeply and purchase something, even if your total readership is smaller. Time spent on-site supports lead generation, because an audience that depends on you for interesting content values what you have to say. And value, of course, is the name of the game.

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