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Everyone talks about audience engagement. But what does it really mean?

December 6, 2016 | By Clare Carr, Vice President of Marketing—Parse.ly @clareondrey

In this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Project report, “Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2016,” Author Nic Newman said that this will be the year of audience engagementwith more than half of all respondents in his study acknowledging that improving audience engagement would be the highest of their priorities in 2016.

And true to this prediction, online media has seen a rise in the title of Audience Engagement Editor. Sites want to know how long readers have engaged with their articles. And above all else, the question remains how to harness this engagement and turn it into results: action, loyalty, monetization.

But what do we mean when we talk about audience engagement? And possibly more important: Do we all mean the same thing?

Digital publishers’ current approach to measuring engagement
Parse.ly surveyed thousands of digital media professionals, asking them to share their definitions of “audience engagement.”

parselyrateFrom the 130 plus responses, we learned a majority of digital publishers are measuring audience engagement. Nearly 77% of survey respondents considered the ways their organizations measure engagement to be average or better.

Perhaps one reason that digital publishers are so confident in how they are measuring audience engagement is that they have more access than ever to analytics that can help them to better understand their audience. While some publications have a clear sense of how to use this data to help meet their goals, other media outlets are struggling because they don’t have a universal sense of what goals they are trying to reach.

parselydefineThat’s one reason that there’s no common definition for “audience engagement” among publishers—or even within organizations. Over half of the survey respondents said that their organizations don’t have an agreed upon definition.

These two findings seem to be at odds. How can publishers be active and confident in their measurement methods but unsure of what exactly they’re measuring?

Do we need a common definition for audience engagement?
One explanation could be that many publishers have access to analytics tools but aren’t necessarily setting a common goal for which metrics to measure.

parselydefineThe survey results showed that many publishers considered shares and engaged time to be the best representations of engagement. Rather than settling on one “golden” metric for defining audience engagement though, many publishers combined multiple metrics, such as “page views per visitor” or “shares plus comments.”

Furthermore, while only 28% of digital publishers considered “offline impact” a representation of engagement, many respondents (when asked to share anecdotes that represented particularly good examples of audience engagement) talked about audience engagement as a personal relationship or interaction with readers.

Take a look:

  • “Personal replies that make me smile or think.”
  • “A two-way relationship with the people in our community.”
  • “To interact in any way with the content or the author — write a comment, answer a poll, follow the author, share, etc.”
  • “When our audience responds with a question, especially.”

Getting on the Same Page About Audience Engagement
A recent audience engagement webinar with panelists from Hearken, MediaShift, and Parse.ly touched on the importance of settling on a common definition within an organization, whether that definition involves one metric or many.

Parse.ly CEO Sachin Kamdar explained, “It’s probably important that you talk with everyone at your organization around how you want to define engagement. But tied into that…is you’ve got to be able to measure it, too.”

He continued, “So, picking the right metrics—and again, that might be a multitude of metrics that are important to you—can help you align your goals of engagement with how you can measure and that can lead towards success.”

clarecarrClare Vice President of Marketing at Parse.ly, which partners with digital publishers to provide clear audience insights through an intuitive analytics platform. She writes and speaks about all the ways companies can use digital analytics to improve their operations and reach their audience goals. Prior to joining Parse.ly, Clare spent five years on the publishing side as the Director of Marketing and Online Operations at Greentech Media. Previous to that, she did digital marketing and business development at ThePoint.com, the precursor to Groupon, and Venus Zine. Originally from Ohio, she graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Environmental Sciences.

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