February 13, 2018

Engagement Metrics vs Vanity Metrics: What We All Got Wrong and How It’s Changing

Artists and creators for centuries have focused on creating content that engages users. They’ve done this through a variety of different mediums, from music and books to periodicals and, more recently, podcasts. In the digital era, the mediums have continually evolved and allowed content creators to further engage their audiences with highly interactive media like VR and AR.

Monetization and distribution were relatively simple at the start. When Elvis Presley did his concerts, he would be paid per event, and comedian Jackie Kahane would often open for him. People enjoyed Jackie’s performance, but they were there for Elvis. That’s who they bought the ticket for, and that’s who they wanted to engage with. Elvis and Jackie didn’t get the same paycheck. In today’s digital world, paying John and Hank from “John & Hank’s Crash Course” the same amount as a prank video creator on YouTube because they both have the same number of impressions and subscribers is equivalent to paying Jackie the same as Elvis. We wouldn’t do that to the King, would we? Then why have we stopped focusing on the value of engagement in the digital world?

As we have moved forward in the digital era, the way we consume content has completely changed. At some point, the focus drifted towards driving vanity metrics instead of engagement metrics. And that is when it started to go all wrong.

We turned content and monetization into a math problem instead of looking at the story behind the numbers and focusing on engagement in the digital world.

Time for Change

It’s time for the Media industry to take a step back and rethink how we drive business growth. Our revenue models need to evolve to meet the realities of how media consumption has evolved and to recapture our focus on true engagement.

The digital world has to embrace the value of engagement if we are to move away from the current declining revenue streams.

One of the declining streams with the most impact is advertising. Facebook and Google combined controlled 63% of the digital ad spend in the US in 2017 according to eMarketer, and that percentage is projected to continue to rise to 66% in 2018 and 68% in 2019. Couple that with the increase in the use of ad-blockers and the actual revenue controlled by digital platforms and publishers is on the decline. If you are not Google or Facebook, it is crucial for you to not depend on advertising as your main source of revenue in the digital world.

Direct subscription revenue is also under threat, with users leaning towards subscribing for aggregated content via Netflix, Blendle or Spotify. An individual subscription in today’s digital world is equivalent to an individual CD or book sale from a decade ago.

The digital ecosystem does give us leverage in our ability to better understand user engagement. To understand real user engagement, product and editorial/curation teams need to work together and look at data not just as numbers but truly understand the story behind it to find threads of data that shows real engagement. Focus on the creators and content that are driving true engagement on your platform. To understand engagement, you have to go well beyond single interactions of views, shares or replays.

If the feedback given to curation teams or a machine learning recommendation engine is only based on vanity metrics, then the content will move away from engaging to click-baiting. The result: platforms and creators experience bursts of engagement without providing a truly engaging experience, losing those users over time.

It is important to not only learn from the user engagement behavior but also to validate if your current engagement model is aligned with your company and product values. This helps you to ask yourselves, “Is this the kind of engagement we want to build the future of our company on?” If the answer is no, you can make active efforts to change it.

Finding Engagement Metrics-Driven Products & Revenue Streams

Telegraph Media Group focused on creating a sustainable amount of travel content and created an e-commerce revenue stream aimed at overtaking the advertising revenue in the next 3 to 5 years. [More details on the Telegraph Travel Story]

Engagement behaviors are what drives growth. Therefore, it’s important to be able to measure real engagement to build different monetization basis for everyone involved. And everything in your ecosystem, from your applications to your rights and asset management to your analytics platform, plays a crucial role in it.

There are three major trends that have recently emerged:

New User Registration

The first is focusing on new user registration as a primary metric. Focusing on serving your existing users is not good enough – you need to focus on driving new user growth.


Second is building data-driven personas of your diversified user groups and building unique, dynamic and engaging experiences for them. Creating a unified view of your customer and personalizing their interactions based on their personas to engage your users. Just a few examples of this would be serving different content on the homepage on every refresh for millennials from major cities to providing more in-depth and immersive content for your Sunday visitors. The digital world enables you to build these diverse experiences within one platform.

Next User Interactions

The third is focusing on the next interactions of a user after the user ends their engagement with a piece of content. Focusing on these next interactions helps you to understand what kind of content is driving true engagement. Mapping these interactions to engagement would be unique to your platform, but become quite obvious once you start looking for them.

An example here is periodic content – increased user interaction during the release of specific periodic content is a key sign of engagement, like a new series of Sherlock on the BBC or the Super Bowl in the US.

Interactions that are based purely on similar content recommendations without any strong engagement patterns are indicative of inflated vanity metrics and unengaged users. It’s your scenic, forgotten programming that can get users to stumble across once a month but not engage with your content on a periodic basis.

Focusing on engagement metrics over vanity metrics becomes crucial at this point. What you need to focus on is being to able to differentiate your content type between what is driving primary engagement and what is driving eyeballs only.

Look for engagement behaviors outside of just the digital ecosystem. Any link between digital or physical commerce and a piece of content is a sure sign of engagement and area of investment. Finding these threads across different products are often powerful signs of engagement threads, such as streaming listeners who engage in an online fan community or sports fans who also read the daily news on the same platform.

What to do next?

Content trumps technology any day but in the digital world both need to work hand in hand. With content creators focusing on creating engaging content, the industry needs to move to more diversified revenue models that bring forward engagement and reward creators accordingly.

Focusing on user engagement is key to driving new revenue models. The question is – What data are you looking at to find what engages your users?

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[bctt tweet=”As the digital era continues to change, @Adi_ads argues businesses need to build the future of their company on engagement metrics, not vanity metrics.” username=”3pillarglobal”]