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Increasing engagement: dos & don’ts

Getting people to spend more time on your site and to do the things you want them to do, is what publishers are increasingly focused on. John Barnes looks at how you measure engagement, and then how you go about improving it.

By John Barnes

Increasing engagement: dos & don’ts

Attention and engagement has been a topic of much discussion amongst publishers and marketers alike since 2015, when a study commissioned by technology giant Microsoft claimed that human attention span had fallen from twelve to eight seconds, since the year 2000.

This fall was, it was claimed, a direct result of the impact smartphones had had on human attention. The report, which had surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada, using electroencephalograms to measure brain activity, concluded: “Canadians [who were tested] with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed”. This much-reported statistic prompted a raft of headlines across the media claiming that humans now had a lower attention span than goldfish.

Despite the sensational headlines, the back story was that these same users are better at identifying what they want, or more importantly, don’t want to engage with, and need less time to process and commit things to memory.

Five years on, attention is still a much discussed topic, but now it is very much in the context of how media owners and publishers can compete for attention in an overcrowded and noisy digital landscape. According to the business book Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, by Joseph McCormack, the average professional receives 304 emails per week and checks their smartphone 36 times an hour and interacts with it for over 38 hours a week. In addition, according to a much quoted Eric Schmidt soundbite, “More content is being created in 48 hours than what was produced from the beginning of time until 2003.”

The Brief book, whose title is an acronym for Background, Relevance, Information, Ending, and Follow up, explores the challenges of inattention, interruptions and impatience that every professional faces, outlining strategies for individuals to simplify and clarify complex communication.

Inevitably, such focus on attention and engagement has prompted media owners and marketers to look less at quantity and more at the quality of visits which has put engagement, and the desire to increase it, at the heart of most media strategies.

Engaging users is the crucial first step in the conversion process.


But what is ‘engagement’ and how do you measure it in the first place? Every website is competing with rival brands to increase its engagement levels. Even if you attract a huge amount of traffic, this won’t mean much unless you’re able to engage visitors and get them to perform your desired outcomes. Engaging users is the crucial first step in the conversion process. You must engage your audience before you can convince them to buy or subscribe.

The most effective way of measuring engagement is to produce some form of index. This really begins with understanding what normal or average engagement is for each of the variables you want to include in your calculation. The normal or ‘n’ value is a yardstick you set for each variable to make the calculation relevant to your brands. Your ‘n’ values should be different for every index, and every business will have different ‘n’ values, based on their brands’ data. This makes the engagement index truly comparable across titles and it normalises results.

Whilst each brand is different, a typical engagement index would use the following variables to get a rounded view of a user’s engagement with the site:

  • Ci (Click Depth Index): This is the number of sessions having more than ‘n’ pageviews divided by the total number of user sessions.
  • Ri (Recency Index): Number of sessions having more than ‘n’ pageviews that occurred in the past ‘n’ weeks divided by the total number of sessions by the user.
  • Di (Duration Index): Number of sessions longer than ‘n’ minutes divided by the total number of sessions by the user.
  • Li (Loyalty Index): Scored as 1 if the user has come to the site more than ‘n’ times during the time frame being considered (otherwise scored as 0).
  • Bi (Brand Index): Number of sessions that either begin directly with your website (have no referring URL) or are initiated by an external search for a branded term, divided by the total number of sessions by the user.
  • Fi (Feedback Index): Number of sessions where the visitor gave direct feedback divided by the total number of sessions by the user.
  • Ii (Interaction Index): Number of sessions where a user completed one of any specific tracked events (but not full conversion), divided by the total number of sessions by the user.

Using these variables, the engagement index calculation would be calculated using the following formula: (Ci + Ri + Di + Li + Bi + Fi + Ii) / 7 x 100 = % Engagement. The higher the percentage, the higher the engagement and if variables are reduced or increased, the dividing number, in this case 7, would reduce or increase to reflect the number of variables.

To get a fuller picture of the value of engagement, it also makes sense to evaluate how a user arrived at the page or site, ‘Pre’, and what actions they go on to perform as a result, prior to or after leaving, ‘Post’. The interaction index (Ii) takes this partially into account as it measures any specific tracked events. Examples of ‘Pre’ events that will give a higher score would be arriving from a registered newsletter account, or directly to the site through the use of a top level domain, vs, say, a visit from a search engine or a referral, which would score lower. Valuable ‘Post’ visit actions would include, saving, commenting, printing or emailing an article, as well as some personalisation functions like using postcode to filter news or weather content, or selecting topics to follow, like the ‘My FT’ functions.

Once the index is in place, you can start using it to improve engagement.

Quite often, navigation can reflect the way the media owner sees the site rather than how users expect to use it.


Here are eight things you can do to improve engagement:

  1. Use the index as a management tool
  2. The index can be used as a live management tool to score individual users (adding the score to their customer view), personas or archetypes, to track differences between different user subsets, or to score the site or sections in aggregate.

  3. Work out why they visit
  4. What is critical for any focused engagement work is to recognise what your users visit the site for. If the site is a news source, it is likely to have more visits with less time on site throughout the day or week. If it is a long-form or data site, users might visit, find content of value to them, then save it to return to at another time when they can devote greater attention to it, maybe even reading it on another device like a tablet.

  5. Optimise load times
  6. Whatever the function of the site, optimising page load times will also be a crucial component of increasing better engagement.

    Everyone will have experience of an interesting or useful website that has slow loading pages. It is frustrating, so the likelihood that the user will give up and leave is higher. A recent study found that pages loading just one second slower can experience a 56% increase in their bounce rate, which is terrible for user engagement.

    There are many tools you can use to test page load times, so it is recommended that you test your pages to ensure they load within two seconds, and that if they don’t, remove unnecessary elements that are slowing it down. Lazy loading of pages may also help load elements of the pages as the user scrolls down to them, and if applied to ad units, can also improve the in-view time for display.

  7. Improve navigation
  8. Many websites are difficult to navigate, resulting in a high bounce rate and poor user engagement. Simplifying and re-thinking your navigation structure is a useful exercise to perform and also then test with users less familiar with your site, giving them pre-specified tasks to complete in order to find different articles or types of content.

    Quite often, navigation can reflect the way the media owner sees the site rather than how users expect to use it, particularly by highlighting content types, like video or features, rather than what these articles types are actually about using topics or categories. This is known as the ‘Conway’s Law’ effect. Conway's law, named after computer programmer Melvin Conway, who introduced the idea in 1967, states that organisations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures and language of these organisations.

  9. Tell users what to expect
  10. With all content, but particularly long-form articles, it’s useful to give the user a heads up about what to expect. Many publishers are now introducing read or watch times at the top of pages, and it is also a good idea to use an executive summary or need-to-know box, which gives the user a sense of the content’s worth.

  11. Suggest related content
  12. Linking related articles is commonplace but typically this is automated by category or topic. If you have personalisation tools, use personas to suggest content based on who they are, as much as on what they are reading. Similarly, use topic tags more extensively; often, sites have one or two tags on articles, but try to ensure content has as many tags as are needed and try to design your tag structure to cover authors, key themes, regions, key people and key companies, particularly if your site will be developing followable topics.

    Topic tags can also become unruly, so having a taxonomy manager who approves the use of new topics, can ensure you don’t build up a raft of duplicate or similar topic tags.

  13. Use more graphics
  14. Increasingly, the use of pictures or graphics to tell stories is a useful way of engaging users, through picture carousels or infographic articles.

  15. Chapterise the progress bar
  16. Finally, if you have a great deal of video / audio, ensure you have chapterised the progress bar to make it easy to skip to key segments, which will also help increase video and audio completion rates.

It is worth remembering that increasing engagement is a continuous and long-term task. Whilst there can be quick wins, typically engagement increases through continuous monitoring and improvement. It is much more of a marginal gain game, but over time, hugely valuable and rewarding.

Whilst there can be quick wins, typically engagement increases through continuous monitoring and improvement.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.