Behind the reader engagement data that’s helped stories rise above the rest

After releasing 2019’s list of  Most Engaging Stories, we wanted to see if our reader engagement data pointed to attributes other than Total Engaged Minutes that elevated certain pieces of content above all others.

Our Data Science team jumped right in, comparing our Top 100 articles against any article published in 2019 with at least 10,000 pageviews for two main purposes:

  1. To see how the most engaging stories compared to other high-traffic articles last year, and
  2. If those types of stories have qualities that will still ensure their rise to the top

More on our findings below.

How does Engaged Time differ for the Top 100 articles?

To begin, we wanted to see how much time readers spend with “Top Stories.” We found that the 100 Most Engaging Stories have a much higher Average Engaged Time compared to the other articles we analyzed, as we see below. 

average reader engagement for most read stories

Does this imply that longer reads will automatically command more time on the page? Not quite. While reviews are mixed on whether writing longer pieces is the best SEO tactic, we’re more focused on its relationship to engaged readership. On that level, our data suggests that readers placed a higher value on this content, or understandably, spent more time with the captivating pieces. 

In fact, readers spent an average of more than two-and-a-half minutes (141 seconds) with Top Stories compared to an average of nearly 39 seconds with articles that had more than 10,000 pageviews.

A note from our Data Science team on methodology:

The plot above shows the distribution of Average Engaged Times for the two groups of stories, normalized so that the total area under the distribution curve equals 1.0.  We see that about 40% of the Average Engaged Times for stories in the Top 100 group take values greater than 150 seconds, while almost none of the stories in the other group have an Average Engaged Time greater than 150 seconds.  

We can interpret this to mean that the probability a Top Story has an Average Engaged Time greater than 150 seconds is about 0.40, while the probability a story with 10K+ page views has more than 150 seconds Average Engaged Time is practically zero. If we take the average of each small bin of Average Engaged Times weighted by the probability that the Average Engaged Time falls within the range of the bin, we can get  the mean Averaged Engaged Time for each group. 

Additionally, Most Engaging pieces had slightly lower proportions of mobile traffic and correspondingly higher traffic on desktop, as we show below. 

pageviews from mobile traffic for most read stories

This suggests that, although by a slim margin, readers spent more of their time to their desktops to experience this type of content.

Why this matters to publishing and media organizations

Content creators will likely feel validated by these findings. In fact, some publications have made it a focus to produce fewer, yet more substantial, pieces in lieu of cranking out lightning fast content. When it comes to being Most Engaging, those efforts appear to be rewarded. 

(For further reading on mobile, see: How mobile homepage optimization deepens engagement for content creators)

Was social media a notable contributor? In general, yes

We also saw that the Most Engaging articles have much higher proportions of social  media referrals, which suggests that their offsite success contributed to their Engaged Minutes tally.

pageviews from social traffic from most read stories

In general, the Most Engaging articles also had higher search traffic as a percentage of total pageviews, as shown below.

pageviews from search for most read stories

Why this matters to publishing and media organizations

Yes, “going viral” isn’t necessarily a goal for content publishers. Yet, those referral characteristics helped boost engagement for the Top 100 stories. We see that organic channels (i.e. getting the eyes of multiple outlets or social media influencers) significantly contributed to the Engaged Minutes tally of these pieces.

(Related: When’s the best time to post on social media? It’s later than you think)

Did the Top 100 attract more loyal or new readers? 

We then compared trends among new vs loyal visitors. We found that our top 100 have higher proportions of new visitors. This suggests that Most Engaging articles manage to transcend a site’s typical audience and draw new readers’ interest.

pageviews from loyal visitors from most read stories

The data also reflects our network-wide insights showing that new readers spend more time on the first article they visit, but are unlikely to Recirculate.

Why this matters to publishing and media organizations

Today’s publishers are need to balance their efforts between acquisition and retention, especially for sites that are focused on on reader-driven revenue. In this instance, a Most Engaging Story gives them a chance to introduce new readers to their content and, with the right in-page optimizations in place, give themselves a better opportunity to create returning (i.e., loyal) readers.

Our takeaways: Comparing the best to the rest

Overall, the Top 100 stories displayed the qualities we would expect from stories that garnered millions of Engaged Minutes:

  1. They had higher Average Engaged Time among readers.
  2. Search and social media referral traffic contributed to its higher-than-most engagement.
  3. New visitors gave these stories a longer look.
  4. Even with mobile’s rise, desktop was slightly more favored among audiences.

What does this mean for content creators trying to create the next Most Engaging piece?

  1. Longform, as we mentioned in our initial piece, still resonates with modern readers. Audiences made more time for long, captivating narratives, albeit primarily on desktop.
  2. The Top 100 stories were given a boost by social media. This may have been on the backs of their organizations or influential readers that elevated them.
  3. Engaging pieces are not just for the loyal reader (i.e. retention) — content creators can use these marquee pieces to acquire new visitors as well.

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