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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?

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What engagement time tells you about the value or otherwise of online press coverage

Consider the following:
1. An average person can read around 200 words per minute on screen.
2. The average UK Guardian website reader spends around 7 mins and 30 seconds per visit (according to Google)
3. The Guardian has monthly page views of around 88 million in the UK and around 21 million unique visitors per month (according to Google)
4. Based on the above, the average visitor will spend around 450/4.2 = 107 seconds per page. In other words, the average reader will read up to 350 words before moving on to another page or off the site completely.
What might we infer from this?
1. Any article longer than 350 words will not be read in full. Not least because on any given page, the reader is also potentially being distracted from reading editorial copy by ads and other elements on the page. In which case, what density of client reference is required within 350 words to have any material impact on the reader?
Is 107 seconds really long enough to make any impact at all?
What about press releases?
Based on Google Ad Planner figures, the average amount of time spent on a page on (a well known press release distribution service) = 151 seconds.
Based on an average reading speed of 3.33 words per second, then your typical Sourcewire visitor (ie a journalist) is going to consume, at best, 500 words per page.
However, based on an admittedly small sample, the average Sourcewire press release contains 800 – 900 words.
In which case, you might argue that putting a release on Sourcewire of more than 500 words is a waste of time because the likelihood that a journalist will read more than 500 words per page is very slim (ignoring the SEO value that you might gain from using Sourcewire).
These are average figures (Avanash Kaushik would roast me alive). Some people may be able to read more quickly on screen. Then again, many people will read more slowly. And clearly some people may spend more time with content. However, that means that an even greater number spend less time. In fact, that probably is the case if the Newspaper Marketing Society’s figures are true (that 56pc of all UK newspaper web site visits last less than one minute).
Google’s figures may be wildly inaccurate too. That was certainly the claim from publishers when Double Click Ad Planner was first launched. However, you don’t hear so much complaint about them now.
Online PR planning needs to take account of engagement in determining what media sites to target and the appropriate content to provide. If a site’s visitors spend barely 30 seconds on reading a page, then crowing to the client that they’ve got 14 paragraphs of coverage at the end of a 3,000 word article is pretty meaningless – whether it is the BBC or the Wheel Tappers & Shunters Weekly.
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Engagement – PR’s lost metric

I was intrigued by a recent blog post from Tom Foremski where he “raised the possibility of PR agencies developing the ability to drive lots of traffic to specific news stories” and suggesting that this would constitute a PR firm’s “killer pitch”.
I immediately thought of a superb piece by Ashley Friedlein at E-Consultancy (New metrics and business models for digital publishing – selling outcomes not inputs).
He may have written it nearly a year ago, but it still makes good sense. His opening question – are publishers using outdated metrics – could equally apply to PR.
And it was this that struck me about Tom’s post.
The implicit assumption in Tom’s analysis is that all traffic is good. And more traffic is better. However, even publisher’s don’t think this. Rupert Murdoch clearly doesn’t think so. Specifically, traffic from search engines. In which case, why is traffic generated by PR firms going to be any better?  In fact, you could argue that they will generate precisely the kind of traffic that Murdoch and other big publishers protest to hate – namely, sporadic, non-loyal readers.
Given that this is 2010, surely the traffic for traffic sake argument is well and truly exploded. Isn’t engagement the name of the game?
What is the point of increasing traffic, or indeed unique visitor numbers as per Gawker, if the bounce rate rises and average engagement time falls?
As per Ashley Friedlein’s post, last year, the Newspaper Marketing Agency in the UK found that 56% of newspaper site visits last for under one minute. That’s not a great deal of engagement with content. If increasing traffic leads to greater numbers of unengaged readers, then who cares. I’ve long argued that only publisher’s have access to the data that advertisers (and PR firms) should really care about eg readership figures for specific stories, engagement time with specific pieces of coverage, etc. However, as Friedlein points out, advertising and PR clients are now in a quite powerful position – they know not only the input they’ve paid for (ads or press coverage generated), but they know the outcomes that these inputs have created (or not). They can now easily compare different input mechanisms and see which ones perform better than others. In the context of PR, those that are focussing on delivering outcome based campaigns are clearly going to fare better than those that deliver inputs.
In short, engagement is the name of the game.
But lack of engagement exists everywhere.  The New York Times has nearly 2.3 million Twitter followers – and yet the click throughs on links to its stories via Twitter often barely break into double figures. Even the best ones are in the low 000s. Massive reach in this case isn’t necessarily translating into engagement with content (at least not on the scale that you might imagine)
To return to Tom Foremski’s argument, I’d be curious to know how a PR might go about bumping up traffic to a particular news story (I have an image of hapless PR execs spending their days furiously opening and re-opening the web page of a piece of coverage to try and bump up the viewer figures – again, it might increase traffic, but engagement time is clearly zero).
If you were going to take this approach, why not just run a PPC campaign instead? (don’t publishers do this already?) Why do you need a PR firm to do that?
As Friedlein aptly puts it: “Too little attention is given to measuring outcomes. Specifically, digital media and digital publishing offer greater opportunity to track and measure outcomes that are not so readily available in ‘traditional’ media.”
Likewise with PR. The sooner the PR sector starts to think about outcomes and engagement rather than inputs, the better for all concerned.