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Reach versus engagement: the new online battleground for PR and media

For decades, PR has been seen by many marketeers as “cheap reach via editorial” – in other words, the goal of PR was to gain editorial coverage that provided the greatest number of opportunities to see – at a significantly lower cost than advertising.

Because the means of providing a verifiable link between editorial coverage and business impact was either prohibitively expensive or just not possible, there has been a largely accepted assumption that positive press coverage is valuable – period.

In the past, the notion of measuring engagement with editorial content was largely theoretical.  Circulation and readership figures were treated as proxies for engagement (if a newspaper has a readership of 2 million, then we assume that a large proportion must be in some way engaged with some or all of the content – we just aren’t sure which content and to what degree. Or whether this engagement results in a meaningful business outcome).

However, you could argue that Google data now provides for a much deeper understanding of editorial engagement. At least online.

For example, by using the Google search “site” command, you can easily see how many pages of a site the search giant has indexed (ie are likely to be found).  And with Google’s Doubleclick Ad Planner tool, you can get a fix on a specific engagement metric – namely, time spent on page. The more time someone spends reading content, the more likely they are to be engaged with – and influenced by – that content (of course, it could mean that people are having difficulty understanding the content – but if that extended to all of a site’s content, you would presume its readership figures would tail off rapidly).

In conjunction with Adam Parker, Chief Executive of RealWire, the online press release distribution service, we took it upon ourselves to analyse a selection of 50 online, newspapers and magazines, examining three core areas:  readership, engagement and UK relevance of content. Adam provides an excellent analysis of the results on his blog, Show Me Numbers.

So what kind of engagement do people have with leading online news sources? (*Full detail and slide presentation of  joint Realwire/Escherman analysis here).

For example, the average UK visitor to The Economist site spends around 122 seconds per page. While the average UK visitor to the Reuters site spends around 214 seconds per page.

So what does a difference of 92 seconds per page mean? If you accept that a typical reader can consume around 200 words of content per minute then in principle, a Reuters UK visitor is going to consume around 713 words vs 406 words for The Economist – in other words, a Reuters visitor is going to consume nearly 75pc more content than the typical Economist reader.

If you look at the average number of pages consumed per visit, there are some interesting things to be drawn out. Across the whole sample, the average number of pages consumed per visit – either globally or in the UK – is around 4.  And if the average number of visits per month per visitor to a site is around 3, then the total number of pages consumed per month by a typical visitor is around 12 pages of content. Clearly, some site’s visitors will come back more often than others. But the likelihood that the majority of news site visitors will consume more than 20 pages of content in a month is low.

However, before Avanash Kaushik beats me up, I’ll be the first to say that all averages lie – and this analysis rests upon averages. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that this is a useless exercise. If the average engagement time per page is 60 seconds, that almost certainly means that some people spend longer reading a page, while others spend less time. By definition, the number of people spending longer reading a page is going to be less than those spending a shorter time than average. Which means that the vast majority of people visiting an online news site are engaging less with the content than the average. The same applies for average views per URL. Some URLs are going to get more views than the average (clearly a big story is going to get significantly more than the average). This means that the majority of URLs are going to be viewed less than than average. Which means an 80/20 principle applies – namely, a minority of a news site’s content, is going to get the majority of the engagement.

The implications for PR are clear. Getting positive client messages into the first few hundred words of a piece is going to be nigh on essential for sites with lower average page visit times – otherwise, the likelihood is that your message just won’t be seen by many of a news site’s readers – all in spite of the effort you put in to get a journalist to write about your client in the first place. Having said that, as a general rule, specialist titles seem to have lower numbers of visitors and page views, but tend to have far higher engagement with content. And what of offline media? In spite of dwindling circulations, a case could be made for the fact that engagement time with a print newspaper may well be much longer than that of an equivalent site visit – and thus the chance to be exposed to more content is higher (then again, the average shelf life of a daily national newspaper is a few hours. At least web content is in theory available continuously – assuming of course that Google indexes it).

Looked at another way, if you are really interested in maximising engagement with a client’s message (as opposed to maximising its theoretical reach), then this kind of analysis may well help you clearly delineate where the ability to genuinely create a causal impact may lie.

Engagement or reach – what will you be advising your clients to focus on?

11 replies on “Reach versus engagement: the new online battleground for PR and media”

Hi Andrew,

Can you clarify how time on page is determined? I’m talking specifically about time on page that turns out to be an exit page (or even a bounce page) because, as you’ll know, if someone doesn’t click to another page on the same website then no web analytics service can attribute a time on page to it.

How does this affect the analyses?

Hi Phil – for better or worse, we’ve used data provided by Google’s Doubleclick Ad Planner tool for this analysis. This provides a figure for average length of visit per site. With other average figures, you can work out an average time per page per visitor.

How does Google determine average visitor length? They don’t say. Although for those publishers who choose to share their Google Analytics data with Ad Planner, you do at least have a measure of confidence in the figures.

Are Google’s overall figures 100pc accurate? Probably not. But at least it is a starting point.

I guess one of the key points we were trying to get across is that PRs (and publishers) who rely on using topline reach to justify their value are probably doing themselves and their clients a disservice.

The implications for PR are clear. Getting positive client messages into the first few hundred words of a piece is going to be nigh on essential for sites with lower average page visit times – otherwise, the likelihood is that your message just won’t be seen by many of [the] readers

Surely it was ever thus, even for print publications?

Not entirely – obviously it has always been preferable to get PR messages early in a piece – but at least in the past you might have expected more people to read the whole thing.

And another point springs to mind – ‘engagement’, in digital/social media circles tends to mean people actually engaging with the content (rather than just consuming it).

So ‘engagement’ in digital display means the number of people who interacted with the ad (a subset of those that consumed it, which again is a subset of those that were exposed to it).

And in social media circles ‘engagement’ tends to come from the number of people who have bookmarked, tweeted about, commented on, linked to (etc..) the content.

So perhaps you should use the word ‘consumption’ (or similar) instead of ‘engagement’ to avoid confusion (and, let’s face it, justified criticism).

Avanash Kaushik seems to think that time on page is an engagement metric. He seems to know what he is talking about.

I agree that there is a difference between the degree of engagement and the kind of engagement. All media has to be “consumed” first, before you can “engage” with it. The point, as ever, for PR (in the sense of editorial coverage) is showing what effect (if any) it had on the reader.

Are you saying that all editorial coverage is merely consumed ie that PR is inherently useless?

Are you saying that all editorial coverage is merely consumed ie that PR is inherently useless?

No, I’m not saying that.

A better idea of how many people consume things is really useful. But I do think we need to be careful about over-claiming by calling it engagement AND we should try to use a common language, so as not to confuse clients (and our peers).

I think Adam puts it well:

Hi Robin thanks for stopping by and “engaging” with the content I take on board your points but I am not wholly in agreement with them.

Being engaged by something, such as a piece of news media content, is clearly as you would know better than I, a very difficult thing to measure in itself without asking the people who view it about their experience afterwards or without them providing evidence that they were interested in it.

The keyword being evidence. The things you mention as evidence of “engagement”, are only in themselves indicators not proof. I agree that a comment, such as yours, is strong evidence of engagement, but this is not always the case with others.
If I tweet a link to an article does that prove I was engaged by it? It could be that I just RT someone else because the article sounds like it might be of interest to my followers but I don’t actually read or engage with it myself.

With so many RTs often not incorporating any edits from the party RTing how can we know that the person was engaged?

The same could equally be true of bookmarking. I might bookmark an article to come back to read later and never do so. How can one be sure?
I would humbly argue that if engagement effectively means interest (as others more qualified than I have suggested) then spending a great amount of time on a particular web page is equally evidence that an article is of interest to someone. All things being equal if you’ve stayed with me until this point in my comment it will have taken you longer and arguably you are less likely to do that if you think my comment is not of interest to you.

So on the one hand I agree. Is time spent *the* measure of engagement – no not in the slightest and perhaps we should be making that more clear. No more than our calculation of views per url is *the* measure of readership. On the other hand are tweets, bookmarks, links etc *the* measures of engagement – no, but like time spent they provide evidence.

But only through real in depth responses can we truly assess engagement and the issue there is the time and cost involved. Hence we all seek cost effective proxy evidence instead.

It would be interesting to expand the analysis to include other metrics such as tweets, links, bookmarks etc (perhaps using another free tool like Social Mention that anyone can access?) that provide further evidence of levels of engagement. If you were up for assisting with such an exercise that would be great.

Thanks again

Hi Andrew,

A lot to say about this fascinating, possibly globally important, piece of research. As you correctly point out the godawful reporting tools and services of yesteryear are just like torching PR spend.

However, there are issues with engagement in the online world too.

1) If, like me, you normally have eight browser tabs open at one, using them as virtual bookmarks until the end of the day, how is ‘time on site’ relevant.

2) I simply cannot beleive that anyone except news professionals (who are unlikely to be large tech buyers stay for longer on Reuters than their own trade press. How is this finding accounted for?

3) As I just blogged (, the rise of Social Media makes content more important than either distribution, or even expensive measurement.

Overall though, this is the sort of research which PR teams need to grapple with if they are to reclaim budget from the SEO landgrab of recent years. Write good copy, use the web efficiently to distribute it and measure as much as you can afford to.

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