Why You Need to Spend Time on Time Spent

Written by Zach Behm

Let’s take a new look at reader engagement and how we measure success. Instead of vilifying digital for metrics that provide true and honest feedback, let’s use it as a competitive advantage.

Something has been happening in digital media, and it’s not cool. We’ve been basing advertising and engagement on the same currency as print and television. Now, before I start ranting about my thoughts on the state of the industry, I want to make something clear. As a professional in the digital industry, working for a technology company built on a digital platform, I am not against print. I want to reiterate that. I am not against print. We are not against print. I don’t think print will be going away any time soon, and I believe that for the right content, there’s still value in a thick, glossy page. In fact, we’re of the ilk that digital and print are meant to complement one another, giving the readers the choice as to how they wish to consume content. Nothing against TV either, I love my TV.


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What I’ve got a problem with is how we measure success. I’ve got a problem with the assumptive methodologies that the industry’s been using and the uneven playing field that’s resulted. It’s no wonder digital is still in an “adaption” phase, that there are so many struggling to impress advertisers, and we can hardly comprehend “lower” numbers than expected.

Aside an industry stubbornly holding onto “traditional” for more than a decade, we’ve just been measuring wrong.

We’ve been setting the wrong benchmarks, getting the wrong results, and we’re now finally feeling the blight and realizing that big change is needed.

Let’s take a look at this. For a long time digital currency has been based on impressions and clicks. Historically, this makes sense because as the internet emerged we needed quick monetization and scale for advertising revenue. So we adopted the impression from print, added the click, and all of those annoying banner ads with 0.07% click-through followed.

There are some inherent problems with using impressions and clicks to measure success. They don’t account for true engagement. They are feeble measurements that miss the mark. They’ve actually caused digital a lot of unneeded scrutiny when in truth, we’ve never before had such a variety of data available to use in making the right decisions.

Impressions have long been the go-to when pricing media for print and television. CPM (cost per thousand) impressions and circulation are widely used in the calculation. This doesn’t work for digital because analytics like visits and page views give true results of how many people opened that digital edition or viewed that page. To measure digital like we do print or TV is starting at the end rather than the beginning. We assume that total circulation multiplied by 2.5 (pass along rate) are the total impressions that an ad will receive. We assume that the number of viewers who tuned into their favorite prime time show all see our TV commercial. However, I still have plastic wrapped magazines sitting in my living room basket and the only time I watch a commercial is during the super bowl.

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Now, I know I’m only one opinionated person, so I’m not telling you to stop imagining that readers sleep by their mailbox waiting for a printed magazine that will sit on the coffee table for all guests to page through. You can keep assuming that every evening millions of TV viewers stay nestled in the couch for the commercial break instead of going to the fridge, the bathroom, or swiping open the smartphone.

Digital needs to stop getting a bad rap just because it’s “more” measurable. Instead, we need to embrace the measurability and use other methods to show the success and inherent value of digital content.

What the industry needs to adopt (and it’s headed there) are engagement metrics. At the forefront is time spent.

Large industry players are beginning to focus on time spent as a key metric. Facebook has updated their news feed algorithms to emphasize the amount of time people are spending with an article. The Financial Times has actually adopted time spent as the currency they use to sell advertising. Here are a few reasons why you should follow suit and jump on the wagon:

  1. Unlike impressions and clicks, time spent measures true engagement by letting you know how long a reader is staying with a piece of content. Have you sparked their interest? Time spent will give you the answer to that test.
  2. Time spent is a further indicator of a desired outcome. The goal of your editorial is to share a message and captivate a reader, keeping them coming back for more. The goal of advertising is to incite an action in the sales funnel, either immediately or when the need arises. Time spent will more accurately tell you if you’re meeting the mark.
  3. You’re able to track average time spent for an entire visit/session or for individual pages.
  4. You can’t measure these things outside of the digital realm. Time spent is real feedback and when used properly can help to make better decisions. You can’t get this from print or TV.

There are of course instances where higher time spent can indicate a negative outcome, but that’s a topic for another day, or another blog post.

Time spent coupled with a clear strategy and a few dashes of gut feeling and intuition can be the real indicator of whether or not you’re delivering what your audience desires. We’ve got these powerful, informative metrics at our fingertips. Let’s start embracing them.