Attention and Timing Are the New ‘Clicks,’ Chartbeat Says

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chartbeatAs digital analytics have become more powerful, publishers have more choices to make about their content and how to maximize its impact — in readership, social sharing and revenue.

Analytics firm Chartbeat digs deep into how users behave at their computer, smartphone, and tablet. Then it flows the data points (including visitor frequency, top pages, referrers, and traffic sources) to the client’s dashboard, where editors, in real time, can see how their users are behaving at a number of levels, and then, based on that information, take steps to increase traffic and engagement.

The process reminds me a bit of  “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise stands in front of a huge screen, modifying what people are doing at certain locations around the city. (Not to worry — Cruise was working with specific people; Chartbeat works with aggregates totaling in the thousands and millions.) Here, Doug Benedicto, who heads the editorial product side at Chartbeat, talks about how analytics are helping transform editorial strategy for local sites.

Clicks don’t tell much that’s really revealing about user engagement, Chartbeat says. What’s wrong with clicks, based on your evidence?
Clicks only tell you about the effectiveness of your link promotion–that a headline link was enticing enough to get someone to the page. It says nothing about the user’s experience on the piece itself. In a world of clicks, there’s no difference between someone who opens  a click-baity story and immediately closes it, and someone who is engrossed and spends ten minutes reading it.

To show that all clicks aren’t equal, we ran a study last summer of the most-clicked articles across Chartbeat client sites. There were big differences in the headlines of stories that actually got a lot of reading time versus not. Essentially, the pieces geared strongly toward clicks rather than engaging content ended up with less reading time.

-2The right thing to focus on, Chartbeat says, is “attention.” Why is that?
We measure attention in terms of engaged time–the amount of time that a user spends actively reading and interacting with a given piece of content. We’re not looking purely at time on page, since a user can leave a tab up for hours while going to grab lunch or check out another site. We’re measuring their attention by paying attention to scrolling, mouse movement, and other behaviors that indicate they’re actually present on the page.

Separate studies by Chartbeat, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft show that engaged time is correlated with greater propensity to return and higher brand recall.

What’s an example of where one of your local/hyperlocal news clients was able to use attention to engage with users?
When The Journal News in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley first published a longform story on a 19-year-old’s recovery from spinal trauma, it didn’t win over the attention of their audience. Days later, though, the story saw a big resurgence coming from Facebook, starting with a share by a local high schooler. Through Chartbeat, they saw the audience for the article quickly grow as it picked up steam from social media, giving the story the attention it deserved. This allowed The Journal News to immediately repromote the piece though it was days after publication, and even publish a wildly successful follow-up piece a few weeks later, and then another a few months after that. With Chartbeat, they were able to assess the attention the original story was getting when the time was right, and to react to that attention quickly through promotional efforts as well as additional editorial content.

Chartbeat says timing of a story can be crucial. But news happens when it happens. How can a site control timing?
Of course, huge breaking stories need to be reported as soon as the information comes in, but with many others a ton of editorial judgment and knowing what data can help guide that judgment goes into deciding the right time to publish and promote. A crucial thing about timing is the ability to react in real time to what your audience is actually engaging with. With a large breaking news story, that can mean knowing when that big story isn’t getting the attention it deserves and needs better promotion on the homepage or on Twitter, for example, or deciding it should continue to be promoted hours later because it’s still winning over readers, and finally knowing it’s time to move on because interest has waned. It can also mean knowing immediately that an older story is picking up a huge amount of attention via social shares or organic search–giving you an opportunity to repromote that piece, update it to have more timely links, or write a followup.


Your client websites can consult a dashboard you provide. What kind of data does the dashboard track that helps a site make decisions about attention, timing and audience?
There are a number of tools with different focuses in the Chartbeat Publishing for Editorial suite. Our real-time dashboard allows editors to view and slice their site’s data according to the metrics that are important to them, with a focus on both promoting quality content and developing a loyal, returning audience — what are our longest-read stories, which of them are the most popular, how are visitors getting to those stories, how are they engaging with content on different device types, what are visitors in this region reading, what is our most loyal audience reading compared to the new ones, and so forth. Our Big Board is another tool to highlight the most popular and engaging stories on large displays within newsrooms, helping to create an environment of data in which the entire newsroom can understand the pulse of what resonates with their audience, which can be particularly helpful for editorial teams who are new to using data to make decisions. We also offer tools like the Heads Up Display to visually intuit your homepage’s performance; the Daily Content Perspective to break down each day’s most-read stories, sections, and authors; and video analytics for editorial to make similar data-driven decisions about video content.

What would Chartbeat services cost a new site serving one community? A network of, say, three sites in the same metro area?
Plans for Chartbeat Publishing start at $299 per month, with costs tied to the amount of concurrent real-time traffic. Since concurrent traffic — the total number of people simultaneously on your website at any given moment in time — can vary quite a bit from site to site and concurrents are a metric unique to Chartbeat and difficult to predict, we offer free trials to really understand your site and its traffic.

If a site focuses on attention instead of clicks, is there any evidence the shift can improve revenue from advertisers?
Measuring attention with time gives a single metric for quality that can satisfy all sides of the content equation. For editorial, that means knowing that users really are spending time with the content they’ve spent a while creating and curating, and allows editors to build an experience more likely to bring those users back. For native and display advertising from the brand side, that means knowing how long users are actively seeing the ads they’re putting money against–and that time leads to higher brand recall, according to studies by Chartbeat, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft.

How many local-hyperlocal news clients – like Journal News-LoHud – do you have?
We work with over 4,000 paying clients across 37 countries and, while that includes 80% of the top news sites in the US, a good many of them are local sites. Often, they’re owned by a larger network, like Gannett in the case of The Journal News in the Lower Hudson Valley. In those cases, we’ll either work with the network and all of their properties in tandem, or we’ll partner with the local properties individually. It’s really case by case and changes as we bring on new properties each day.

It looks as if news sites are using new strategies with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to do some of the same things Chartbeat does, but without having to pay for your services. Is this a threat to your growth among news providers?
Not at all. While understanding what resonates on social is important, most sites are using us as complements to their social platforms, as social media is just one of a number of traffic sources they’re focused on. News sites need to know exactly what’s happening on their site every second–which outlets are driving an audience to them, what that audience is doing on the site once they get there, and is that audience quality and monetizable based on a loyal readership, or are they one-off non-target visitors flooding over never to be heard from again.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.