We Need Quality Time From Viewers, Not Just a Quick 'Share'

As Brands Get Into Publishing, They'll Profit From Getting People Seriously Engaged

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In the last two years, the forward thinkers in Internet marketing have gently (and thankfully) shrugged off SEO as the primary audience-building tactic, in favor of branded content -- the practice of publishing stories, status updates and other media to attract people to a brand via social and e-mail. Many major publishers receive the majority of day-to-day traffic from sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and e-mail, where individuals, eager to impress our own audiences, share millions of pieces of content every minute. As such, many have declared "shareability" the superior measure of a good Internet marketing campaign. Myself included.

But as brands increasingly dive into publishing (recent studies, such as Adobe and Econsultancy's Digital Trends Briefing, put "content marketing" as the most important priority among marketers in 2013), perhaps we ought to ask ourselves, is sharing really the best measure of a brand's content success? The answer depends on a brand's goal, but for many it's probably no.

Good branded content can be divided into two categories: consumable and shareable. They're not mutually exclusive, but neither are they joined at the hip.

Chances are, if my editor puts a splashy headline on this column, half of you will share this without reading the entire way down. That's the reality of the Internet.

If he puts a great big photo at the top, possibly with an attractive model or a red panda doing something funny , even more of you will be inclined to share. Research shows that headlines and imagery boost blind sharing by a big factor. Since headline+photo is what people see on social networks and "related-stories" thumbnails on news sites, that's what will or won't entice people to click, share, and sigh with relief. Stream updated.

But what if I care more about engagement than reach? How much time are you leaning forward and paying attention to me, versus indulging ADD for a microsecond between browser tabs?

Perhaps my brand (me, personally, or my company) will benefit more if you read this post, like what I say and decide one day to investigate what it is my company does, than it will if a million people simply glance at the top of the story and share it. To do that, I need to optimize for engagement: how much time people spend with my material and how enriched they are because of it.

Engagement-optimized content is what I call "consumable content." In recent years, we've seen some advertisers and publishers use CPE (Cost Per Engagement) as an alternative to CPM (Cost Per Thousand Impressions), but I think we're soon going to start seeing CPE measurement based not only on whether or not people "engage" an ad by hovering or clicking on it, but by how much time people spend with what's on the other side of that click. This makes the most sense when what's behind the door is a great branded story, versus a sales page.

Interestingly, Medium.com, the new publishing platform by the creators of Blogger and Twitter, has created built-in publishing metrics around the concept of engagement. Every story a writer (many of the active beta users currently represent companies) posts is tracked by three scores: Views, Reads and Recommendations. Who saw it, Who spent time with it, and Who thumbed it up. Interestingly, the prominent statistic in the current stats dashboard is the percentage of viewers who read a whole story. It appears that Medium/Twitter/Blogger founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone are betting on the future of content being measured by consumability.

How can a brand achieve consumability -- and therefore engagement -- with its content? Tell better stories. Teach better lessons. Surprise us. Keep us reading. That means, often, spending more time and thought in the ideation and production stage in order to make content more original.

For those to whom reach is all that matters, prepping the social package -- headlines, subheads, photos, humor, emotional response -- trumps everything else. Perhaps these brands can be less concerned with length, depth and sophistication. This is why, you'll notice, certain media companies get wicked sharing (and great ad-impression counts) with shallow content and thrive. In contrast, other media companies cultivate trust through deep, consumable stories. Brands as publishers will be no different.

Then again, perhaps consumable vs. shareable, engagement vs. reach, is a false dichotomy. Perhaps we ought to package our consumable content to be more shareable anyway. Perhaps shareability should be inherent to every content campaign, like proper spelling and punctuation.

Perhaps the question every brand should ask itself is, do we want to invest in making our shareable content consumable, too?

Shane Snow is Chief Creative Officer at Contently. Find him on Twitter @shanesnow.