Is Anyone Actually Reading? The Results Are In!

Image by LeWeb13 via Flickr

By David Godsall | 1 year ago | No Comments

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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Joanne Nye
Joanne Nye 5pts

Although, there maybe people who did read #6, but didn't want to comment or decided to share - humans are funny creatures, you can't tell what to do, which is what makes us all so fascinating! A great experiment, thanks for sharing

therealtwit 5pts

I could have skimmed and scanned - but didn't - this is info worth sharing!

AnnaFranklinVP 5pts

Thanks. Great post. I'm going to have a look at our blog posts and see how far people get. Gives me another bit of data for when I remind my bloggers to keep it short, sweet and to the point.

AlexGold2 5pts

One of the best interpretations of this kind of thing I've seen is Jon Goodman's theory that people share stuff that they think represents them well amongst their peer group.... So yes, technically good that it's happening.... As long as you don't really want anyone to read point #6!

VeronicaAthanasiou 5pts

This is something I've always wondered. Thanks for thinking of this experiment and sharing your findings and thoughts. The online world just gets more and more crowded and I wonder if hand picked content isn't more valuable. I think tools are there for a reason but if you don't take the time to read and skim for your followers, the response should be the same. 

I'm a big HootSuite fan but I don't share any post until I make sure it's relevant to my audience. That, at least, has to be done. After reading these results, I'll continue on that path even more, as what I suspected has been confirmed. 

Thanks again for a job well done.

Tom Bevan
Tom Bevan 5pts

I don't see that as a biased view at all: the internet is so saturated these days that a quick glance is all anything normally gets. For me there are two major reasons a person shares a post:

1. They feel such a connection to a brand that they want others to get involved.

2. They see benefit in others associating them with that brand.

Mission accomplished!

Adrianna Guillot
Adrianna Guillot 5pts

Well that was interesting and I have 0 attention  spam.

SalConca 5pts

This is a great content marketing experiment, I like the scroll depth widget, I'm going to have to give that a try ...


I'm guilty of this. Nice scroll widget!

rmukeshgupta 5pts

I must applaud you for doing this experiment and now sharing the results.. Though I agree that there are sometimes that you just retweet a tweet someone sent out, mostly because the topic is interesting and we trust the judgement of the person/brand sharing the content. 

However, this does not necessarily lead to a better engaged community as you have inferred. This just means that TLDR is truly getting mainstream and getting true engagement is getting tougher and tougher.. 

What this also means is that the importance of building a personal brand, that our followers can trust is getting more and more critical.. 

From your experiment, I have learnt my lesson and will try and make sure that i only share content that i have read and think is relevant for my tribe, and do so with my commentary along with the content. 

I hope that this will lead to a better brand for myself! 

Thanks to you, your team and the experiment! 

BicycleComics 5pts

Oh man. I hope you're right about the "blind retweets = faith in our brand," but that interpretation seems more faith than fact. One of your competitors just unveiled a product seemingly designed to allow people to queue up 20-40 items to re-tweet, seemingly based only on the tweeter's first-glance impression of the headline/cover image.

We're getting to the point where:
1. Scheduling robots and algorithms decide the content others post.
2. Advertising robots and algorithms decide the content we see.
3. Filtering robots and algorithms decided the content we retweet.
4. Twitter is all set without human activity.
5. We all go outside and read books and talk to one another.

Hey, if mine is an optimistic interpretation, so, too, is yours.

Twiens 5pts

Unfortunately politicians depend on this.  Their success is based on people only reading headlines and ignoring details.

Tim Ludy
Tim Ludy 5pts

Very interesting post. With everyone looking for content to share it's tough to know if they are actually reading the articles before broadcasting them out.

Is the Scroll Depth Widget something created for your site or is it a plugin that is available? Would be great to have on our site!