In the days following Brexit and the weeks following Donald Trump’s victory, numerous articles were written calling for journalism to do a better job and explain the political landscape more effectively to a newly invigorated readership. However, a new study shows that readers are still struggling to engage, although editors are unlikely to realise the depth of the problem.
Content Insights, whose blog this piece was originally published on, are the only analytics company that are making use of genuine “read depth” as a compound metric to better understand reader behaviour. Other companies use “scroll depth”, a relatively singular metric that merely looks at the distance a page has been scrolled to, rather than the genuine engagement that took place en route. “Read depth” takes into account a variety of metrics (including scroll depth, word count, time spent on the page and actions subsequently taken) and looks at the ratios between them to get a solid understanding of how engaged the reader really was. Whereas “bounce” may tell you that a reader left your website somewhere on a single page, read depth takes the page as a whole and tells you at what point, on average, your audience actually bounced.
Throughout the end of October and into the early weeks of November, we used the read depth angle to examine the topics that our clients had been writing about. Examining websites from across our client base, we found that real depth of interest in the subject still left a lot to be desired, with an incredible 63% of readers dropping out within the first tenth of any article that extended beyond 800 words. The average read depth for this subject at this length was 18%, with 30% of readers leaving the page without reading anything at all.
“63% of readers drop out within the first 10th of a political article, with 30% leaving the page without reading a single word”
For a political writer, the current ideal article length is somewhere between 300 and 800 words, in which case the average read depth for your readers is 45%. For anything less than 300 words, the read depth drops back down to 40%.
The message seems loud and clear: readers are still not engaging with publications, especially in the ways their editors believed them to be, and that should come as no surprise. If you’re using outmoded metrics such as pageviews and scroll depth to analyse your reader engagement, you’re not really analysing very much at all. A cursory glance at cursor movements and browsers triggered is not an accurate way of measuring engagement. We need to be measuring content with more editorially-focused tools and measurements, we need to move away from vanity metrics and we need to get a lot better at knowing what action to take when the analytics point to problems.
As indicated earlier, this should not be taken too solemnly – we’re not sounding the death knell on long form political reporting just yet. However, it does show that, as an industry, we’re still looking for answers in the wrong places. As a former journalist and editor myself, I can see how easy it would be to look at read depth figures of this nature and think, “seriously, what is the point?” But if I’ve learnt anything through working with Content Insights it’s that editorial analytics are at their most useful when sounding alarm bells rather than massaging your ego. They might be telling you that there’s something wrong with your page architecture, or that a rethink is required around the way your standfirst works. More worryingly, it might be that you’ve simply taken to reflecting the buzz in the hunt for pageviews. You wouldn’t be the first.
*It should be noted that science and lifestyle articles also achieved significantly higher read depths than politics, and in some cases, football. However, the number of articles available for analysis on those topics was considerably lower than politics or football, so – all things considered – we feel our career advice is dependable.