Is Anyone Actually Reading? The Results Are In!

Image by LeWeb13 via Flickr
Image by LeWeb13 via Flickr

In February Tony Haile, CEO of real-time traffic analytics company Chartbeat, dropped a bomb that shook content marketing strategies everywhere: “We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.” This statement compelled many of us to ask ourselves the question, is anyone actually reading my posts? So we came up with a plan to find out.

We knew our posts were being shared on social media, and that’s of course very valuable to us on its own. (Thanks! Please keep sharing.) But the whole point of our blog is to inform and entertain our readers in order to extend the reach of our marketing efforts and build the credibility of our brand. That’s hard to do if our readers don’t get past the headline and maybe the first sentence. One tool we implemented to help us learn more about how deeply our readers are engaging with our content is the scroll depth widget you see on the left. It not only tells readers how long it will take to finish a post, but also gives us an average scroll depth metric we can use to improve our posts.

Another tactic we tried was an experiment we ran a couple of weeks ago. It was based on a famous high school pop quiz. The first instruction for the students was “make sure you read THE WHOLE TEST before you do anything else.” Then there’s a series of questions, the last one being, “Ignore everything else; don’t do anything.” We took a post that has performed well in the past—5 Content Marketing Tips We Learned From Our Best-Performing Content, by Evan LePage—and added a sixth “lesson” to the list: “If you’ve gotten this far, great! Please comment below to let us know you read Lesson #6 and share any thoughts you may have about this experiment. Lastly, and this is something you’ll never read on this blog again, please don’t share this post on social media!”

What happened? The experiment post was shared 300 times in its first two weeks, which is about what we would expect from the average post given the timing and the limited promotion we gave it. In our case at least, Haile’s observation appears to be confirmed. There are two ways we can interpret the evidence from this experiment. The first is to infer that our readers and followers are just too busy or maybe don’t have the attention span to read to #6 before they share. I think that interpretation would suggest a dim view of our audience. Call me biased (and I know you will in the comments), but I prefer a different explanation: maybe our strategy is working. If content marketing is about building a relationship with an audience that knows, likes, and trusts you, then the results of this experiment may be evidence of success. I wouldn’t blindly retweet a post from a brand I didn’t know, like, and preferably trust.

We’re all more discerning about the sources we choose to make part of our daily reading habits than we are about the specific content of a sentence or paragraph. That was true long before we had the tools to measure things like clickthrough rate, bounce rate, time on page, scroll depth and more sophisticated engagement metrics. Even at the peak of newspaper readership, few people read every word—they skimmed and scanned, stopping on headlines that caught their attention. What has always mattered is the relationship between the reader and content producer, whether a newspaper or a brand.

While we’re grateful to those who shared our experiment without reading right to the end, and we hope their Tweets and posts are a reflection of their trust in our brand, we are particularly appreciative of those among our audience who do read to the end. We know there are many of you, and some who combine thorough reading habits with a good memory. Nicoley_E, for instance, commented, “I thought this post sounded familiar!” For both readers like Nicoley and those who want to quickly curate high-quality content and don’t have time to get to #6, I promise, no more tricks. We want you to read, but feel free to share even if you don’t. You can trust us.

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