What a multi-year analysis of engagement tells us about the year ahead

There was a time when the effectiveness of content was judged primarily on pageviews, regardless of what happened beyond the page load. Part of our mission at Chartbeat has been to move publishers past this metric toward a deeper focus on engagement. Because while clicks can tell you how many visitors have the opportunity to engage with content, post-click actions are the real indicators of whether or not visitors are on the road to becoming loyal readers.

This isn’t to say that traffic sources aren’t part of the equation. In our last blog, we analyzed traffic patterns from the past three years to better understand how readers have been discovering content. Here, we’ll turn our focus to engagement during the same period to see how it’s influenced by — and independent of — traffic. Ultimately, the most effective strategies demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which reader behavior flows through discovery, engagement, and eventually, loyalty.

Where traffic and engagement diverged

Our research of traffic trends over the past three years showed that while overall traffic declined in 2021 after a major spike in 2020, it remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. While we expect 2022 to largely trend back toward the stability of 2019’s news cycles, we also expect overall traffic to retain some of the growth of the last two years. 

What will this mean for engagement? Let’s look at the same three-year period with a focus on Average Engaged Time. As we do, keep in mind how we measure Engaged Time and how it differs from the more traditional time on page metric that you’ll find in other tools like Google Analytics. The main difference is that Engaged Time measures the amount of time that readers spend actively engaging with a page — scrolling, clicking, or moving their mouse, for example — while time on page simply measures how long a page has been open whether or not it’s the tab a reader currently has open or they’re even still in front of their computer.

Average Engaged Time per Quarter 2019-2021

At first glance, we see two years with similar patterns from quarter to quarter bookending one outlier in the middle. If we look closer, 2019 followed a typical pattern for engagement in that it trended higher in the first quarter and then saw a steady decline through the end of the year. 2020 appeared set to repeat the pattern as engagement again started higher than it ended in the previous quarter, but instead of decreasing in Q2, we saw the highest Average Engaged Time of the whole three-year period.

Though high traffic doesn’t necessarily beget high engagement, knowing what we know about traffic during the same period, it’s not surprising to see a similar spike in engagement at the onset of COVID-19 coverage. The collision of a globally relevant topic and an audience eager for answers drew readers in and kept them engaged through a combination of continuously updated live blogs and longer-form reporting that tried to demystify the public health situation.

While traffic retained some of that momentum in 2021, engagement returned to the familiar pre-pandemic pattern – a high water mark in the first quarter followed by declines each quarter thereafter. Between January and October, Average Engaged Time dropped by more than 7%.

Paired with our analysis of traffic over the same period, it’s clear that though more clicks can create more opportunities to engage readers (as was the case in 2020), raw traffic doesn’t always translate to sustained engagement without a strategy to encourage new readers toward loyalty

Engagement by region

Just as traffic trends can vary in different parts of the world, we also looked at engagement by region to see where worldwide trends were more or less pronounced. When it comes to Engaged Time, while the worldwide average never reached 33 seconds in the last three years, there was one region, Latin America, that outperformed this mark. 

Its high of 34.9 seconds bested North America, which was closer to the worldwide average at 32.4 seconds. Asia / Pacific and Europe, Middle East, and Africa had lower engagement with 29.8 and 28.9 seconds, respectively.

Average Engaged Time by Region 2019-2021

Asia / Pacific has also seen the largest drop in Average Engaged Time since 2019 at -9%. Latin America and North America saw modest growth at about +1%. 

Key takeaways from the research

When almost half of the readers who load an article will leave in the first 15 seconds, looking deeper than pageviews is necessary to understand how engaging your content actually is. As you evaluate your strategy moving forward, take the following into account:

1. Traffic alone does not lead to engagement. Outside of Q2 2020, engagement levels have not kept pace with traffic increases.

2. Engagement varies by region and site size. While Latin America had more Engaged Time than the worldwide average, North America, Asia / Pacific, and Europe, Middle East, and Africa all had less.

3. Even for publishers who have experienced modest growth in engagement, now is not the time to stop experimenting with new content formats and presentations. The methods for sustaining engagement are unique to every site, but optimization tools like headline and image testing can surface the data necessary to inform decisions that improve engagement and lead to increased loyalty.

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