If you&rsquo,re an average reader, I&rsquo,ve got your attention for 15 seconds, so here goes: We are getting a lot wrong about the web these days. We confuse what people have clicked on for what they&rsquo,ve read. We mistake sharing for reading. We race towards fresh trends like native advertising without fixing what was wrong with the old ones and make the same mistakes all over again.
Not an average reader? Maybe you&rsquo,ll give me more than 15 seconds then. As the CEO of Chartbeat, my job is to work with the people who create content online (like Time.com) and provide them with real-time data to better understand their readers. I&rsquo,ve come to think that many people have got how things work online fairly mixed up.
Here&rsquo,s where we began to go wrong: In 1994, a former direct mail marketer called Ken McCarthy came up with the clickthrough as the measure of ad spectacle on the web. From that moment on, the click became the defining activity of advertising on the web. The click&rsquo,s natural dominance built large companies like Google and promised a entire fresh world for advertising where ads could be directly tied to consumer act.
However, the click had some unfortunate side effects. It flooded the web with spam, linkbait, painful design and tricks that treated users like lab rats. Where TV asked for your undivided attention, the web didn&rsquo,t care as long as you went click, click, click.
In 20 years, everything else about the web has been transformed, but the click remains unchanged, we live on the click web. But something is happening to the click web. Spurred by fresh technology and plummeting click-through rates, what happens inbetween the clicks is becoming increasingly significant and the media world is scrambling to adapt. Sites like the Fresh York Times are redesigning themselves in ways that place less emphasis on the all-powerful click. Fresh upstarts like Medium and Upworthy are eschewing pageviews and clicks in favor of developing their own attention-focused metrics. Native advertising, advertising designed to hold your attention rather than simply build up an impression, is growing at an incredible rhythm.
It&rsquo,s no longer just your clicks they want, it&rsquo,s your time and attention. Welcome to the Attention Web.
At the core of the Attention Web are powerful fresh methods of capturing data that can give media sites and advertisers a second-by-second, pixel-by-pixel view of user behavior. If the click is the turnstile outside a stadium, these fresh methods are the TV control room with access to a thousand different angles. The data these methods capture provide a fresh window into behavior on the web and suggests that much of the facts we&rsquo,ve taken for granted just ain&rsquo,t true.
Myth 1: We read what we&rsquo,ve clicked on
The data gets even more interesting when you dig in a little. Editors pride themselves on knowing exactly what topics can consistently get someone to click through and read an article. They are the evergreen pageview boosters that editors can pull out at the end of the quarter to make their traffic goals. But by assuming all traffic is created equal, editors are missing an chance to build a real audience for their content.
Our data team looked at topics across a random sample of Two billion pageviews generated by 580,000 articles on 2000 sites. We pulled out the most clicked-on topics and then contrasted topics that received a very high level of attention per pageview with those that received very little attention per pageview. Articles that were clicked on and engaged with tended to be actual news. In August, the best performers were Obamacare, Edward Snowden, Syria and George Zimmerman, while in January the debates around Woody Allen and Richard Sherman predominated.
The most clicked on but least deeply engaged-with articles had topics that were more generic. In August, the worst performers included Top, Best, Thickest, Fictional etc while in January the worst performers included Hairstyles, Positions, Nude and, for some reason, Virginia. That&rsquo,s data for you.
All the topics above got toughly the same amount of traffic, but the best performers captured approximately Five times the attention of the worst performers. Editors might say that as long as those topics are generating clicks, they are doing their job, but that&rsquo,s if the only value we see in content is the traffic, any traffic, that grounds on that page. Editors who think like that are missing the long game. Research across the Chartbeat network has shown that if you can hold a visitor&rsquo,s attention for just three minutes they are twice as likely to comeback than if you only hold them for one minute.
The most valuable audience is the one that comes back. Those linkbait writers are having to begin from scrape every day attempting to find fresh ways to trick clicks from hicks with the &lsquo,Top Richest Fictional Public Companies&rsquo,. Those writers living in the Attention Web are creating real stories and building an audience that comes back.
Myth Two: The more we share the more we read
As pageviews have begun to fail, brands and publishers have embraced social shares such as Facebook likes or Twitter retweets as a fresh currency. Social sharing is public and suggests that someone has not only read the content but is actively recommending it to other people. There&rsquo,s a entire industry dedicated to promoting the social share as the sine qua non of analytics.
Caring about social sharing makes sense. You&rsquo,re likely to get more traffic if you share something socially than if you did nothing at all: the more Facebook &ldquo,likes&rdquo, a story gets, the more people it reaches within Facebook and the greater the overall traffic. The same is true of Twitter, tho’ Twitter drives less traffic to most sites.
But the people who share content are a petite fraction of the people who visit that content. Among articles we tracked with social activity, there were only one tweet and eight Facebook likes for every 100 visitors. The temptation to infer behaviour from those few people sharing can often lead media sites to hop to conclusions that the data does not support.
A widespread assumption is that the more content is liked or collective, the more engaging it must be, the more willing people are to devote their attention to it. However, the data doesn&rsquo,t back that up. We looked at Ten,000 socially-shared articles and found that there is no relationship whatsoever inbetween the amount a chunk of content is collective and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content.
When we combined attention and traffic to find the story that had the largest volume of total engaged time, we found that it had fewer than 100 likes and fewer than 50 tweets. Conversely, the story with the largest number of tweets got about 20% of the total engaged time that the most engaging story received.
Bottom line, measuring social sharing is good for understanding social sharing, but if you&rsquo,re using that to understand which content is capturing more of someone&rsquo,s attention, you&rsquo,re going beyond the data. Social is not the silver bullet of the Attention Web.
Myth Trio: Native advertising is the savior of publishing
Media companies, desperate for fresh revenue rivulets are turning to native advertising in droves. Brands create or commission their own content and place it on a site like the Fresh York Times or Forbes to access their audience and capture their attention. Brands want their message relayed to customers in a way that does not interrupt but adds to the practice.
However, the truth is that while the emperor that is native advertising might not be naked, he&rsquo,s almost certainly only wearing a panty. On a typical article two-thirds of people exhibit more than 15 seconds of engagement, on native ad content that plummets to around one-third. You see the same story when looking at page-scrolling behavior. On the native ad content we analyzed, only 24% of visitors scrolled down the page at all, compared with 71% for normal content. If they do stick around and scroll down the page, fewer than one-third of those people will read beyond the very first one-third of the article.
What this suggests is that brands are paying for &mdash, and publishers are driving traffic to &mdash, content that does not capture the attention of its visitors or achieve the goals of its creators. Simply put, native advertising has an attention deficit disorder. The story isn&rsquo,t all bad. Some sites like Gizmodo and Refinery29 optimize for attention and have worked hard to ensure that their native advertising practice is consistent with what visitors come to their site for. They have seen their native advertising perform as well as their normal content as a result.
The lesson here is not that we should give up on native advertising. Done right, it can be a powerful way to communicate with a larger audience than will ever visit a brand&rsquo,s homepage. However, driving traffic to content that no one is reading is a waste of time and money. As more and more brands embark to care about what happens after the click, there&rsquo,s hope that native advertising can reach a level of quality that doesn&rsquo,t require tricks or dissimulation, in fact, to sustain it will have to.
Myth Four: Banner ads don&rsquo,t work
For the last few years there have been weekly laments complaining that the banner ad is dead. Click-through rates are now averaging less than 0.1% and you&rsquo,ll hear the words banner blindness thrown about with abandon. If you&rsquo,re a direct response marketer attempting to drive clicks back to your site then yes, the banner ad is providing you less of what you want with each passing year.
However, for brand advertisers rumors of the banner ad&rsquo,s demise may be greatly exaggerated. It turns out that if your goals are the traditional brand advertising goals of communicating your message to your audience then yes, most banner ads are bad&hellip,. but&hellip,. some banner ads are good! The challenge of the click web is that we haven&rsquo,t been able to tell them apart.
Research has consistently shown the importance of good ad creative in getting a visitor to see and reminisce a brand. What&rsquo,s less well known is the scientific consensus based on studies by Microsoft [pdf], Google, Yahoo and Chartbeat that a 2nd key factor is the amount of time a visitor spend actively looking at the page when the ad is in view. Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.
So, for banner ads to be effective the reaction is elementary. You have to create fine creative and then get it in front of a person&rsquo,s face for a long enough period for them to truly see it. The challenge for banner ads is that traditional advertising heuristics about what works have been placing ads on the parts of the page that capture the least attention, not the most.
Here&rsquo,s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content not the cruft is. Yet most agency media planners will still request that their ads run in the places where people aren&rsquo,t and will overlook the places where they are.
Savvy web natives like Say Media and Vox, as well as established players like the Financial Times, are driven by data more than tradition and are shaping their advertising strategy to optimize for practice and attention. A petite cadre of innovative media planners are also launching an insurgency and taking advantage of their peers&rsquo, adhesion to old heuristics to benefit from asymmetrical information about what&rsquo,s truly valuable.
For quality publishers, valuing ads not simply on clicks but on the time and attention they accrue might just be the lifeline they&rsquo,ve been looking for. Time is a uncommon scarce resource on the web and we spend more of our time with good content than with bad. Valuing advertising on time and attention means that publishers of fine content can charge more for their ads than those who create link bait. If the amount of money you can charge is directly correlated with the quality of content on the page, then media sites are financially incentivized to create better quality content. In the seeds of the Attention Web we might ultimately have found a sustainable business model for quality on the web.
This budge to the Attention Web may sound like a collection of petite signals and switches, but it has the potential to convert the web. It&rsquo,s not just the publishers of quality content who win in the Attention Web, it&rsquo,s all of us. When sites are built to capture attention, any friction, any bad design or eye-roll-inducing advertorials that might cause a visitor to spend a 2nd less on the site is bad for business. That means better design and a better practice for everyone. A web where quality makes money and fine design is rewarded? That&rsquo,s something worth paying attention to.
Tony Haile is the CEO of Chartbeat, a data analytics company that counts Time.com and more than Four,000 top publishers and brands as its clients.
More: A Look At The Deep Web
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