Understanding Reader Engagement and Loyalty

When I first started in digital marketing I was focused almost entirely on social media and blogging. Because it was so new, a lot of people/clients were happy with the high-level engagement metrics that were offered from each social network and I was fresh out of college and not wise enough to really question it.

Within a year or two, businesses started asking their teams to translate all of the engagement metrics into real business value — usually leads or revenue. Fundamentally this was a great step for marketing but a messy step for content and editorial.

Over the last 5-10 years we’ve seen traditional print publishers shift over to digital and start to look at metrics a little differently than SaSS marketers, growth hackers, etc. look at them. Publishers still rely heavily on ad revenue and with the amount of data available, there’s a new level of accountability in place for publishers to deliver valuable ad placements to their advertisers instead of just the placement itself and some high level circulation numbers.

Spider man reading. He’s not Batman but that’s OK.


Now that I’ve started working as the Head of Community Growth at WordPress.com, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about bloggers and their current and future needs, their ambitions, and their frustrations. I also had a chat with a friend who leads the startups program for the Google News Initiative and he brought up that most news publications really started or will start as blogs.

Heads up: I actually think the News Consumer Insights project does a good job of helping to identify reader loyalty and engagement but it’s something you need to take the time to understand if you aren’t actively looking at analytics and data.

All that being said, I wanted to step back and outline some simple ways to think about reader engagement. To do that, we should start to think about why you want your readers to be engaged. What is the actual result or “output? Most of the time it comes down to a few specific things:

  • I want engaged readers because I want more trafficand I’ll get that if they read more content and come back more often.
  • I want engaged readers to help me grow my audience by sharing my content and having thoughtful discussions about it.
  • I want engaged readers because I want to connect with people who are interested in the same things I am. I want validation that I know what I’m doing and I want the chance to learn more about this from others.

Now you can measure some of those things directly like “more traffic” but understanding how the traffic got there, who makes up that new traffic, and how to keep scaling it up requires a look at supporting metrics.

Luckily, most of the data points and metrics you would want to use come out of the box with all the big web analytics players e.g. Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Parse.ly, etc.

Not to say you couldn’t really dive in and track a lot more actions or data points, but you probably don’t need to.

Time on Page + Scroll Depth

Time on page measures how long someone was on a specific page. Pending on the tool you are using, it may start on initial load of the page or once the page is rendered and it will stop sometime between when they click another link and when that page starts being loaded — or obvs when they close the browser. Scroll depth measures how far down the page a user scrolled.

Either of these metrics are pretty useless on their own, here’s why:

Scroll depth:

  1. People can scroll quickly through a page of nothingness and get to 100% even though they haven’t engaged with the content consciously.
  2. Bots can also trigger scroll depth tracking if you aren’t actively excluding them.
  3. Sometimes the most engaged readers scroll down and up and down again – which isn’t always tracked and/or can cause some of your reporting to look odd.
  4. When you have shorter posts e.g. video/audio embeds, you might trigger a higher scroll depth without the user doing anything.

Time on Page:

  1. People open windows or tabs and totally forget to go back and read the content – I have something like 22 windows open right now and that is only in my active Workona workspace.
  2. Someone who is engaged for 1-2 minutes might get a lot more out of your content than someone who comes back periodically to try and read it without ever absorbing or comprehending it.
  3. If you use pop up marketing tools, sidebars, or other widgets/features on your site, your user might not even be paying attention to the core content on the page.

Combining the two

If you start to look at users who achieve specific criteria related to each of these metrics, you start to filter down to a more engaged audience. Users who spent 2 minutes on a page and made it to 100% probably read or engaged with your content, while users who spent 10 seconds on the page and made it to 100% probably did not.

This is still a very high level way of thinking about reader engagement but I wanted to start with the more simple idea before we go too far down the rabbit hole.


Add In Pages Per Session

This metric probably has as much to do with your site design as it does with how engaged your reader is. Here’s a quick checklist of VERY basic things you can do to make sure readers will see more of your content:

  • Make sure you have related content presented on the page where the reader can find it.
  • Use internal links to reference other content you’ve written that is related to the topic you’re covering.
  • If you have a sidebar, consider keeping a widget of newest or most popular posts.
  • Add a social stream to show what content you’ve been sharing.

The hypothesis here is that engaged readers will want to keep reading your content. I’ve seen that proven right and wrong in different scenarios, for example:

Scenario 1: Most of your content revolves around a few connected themes/categories so, if your reader is interested in one of your articles, they will likely be interested in another that you’ve written.

Scenario 2: You tend to cover a wide range of topics and the likelihood of someone being interested in all of them is low. I’m a good example of this because I have posts about marketing, leadership, analytics, 3d printing, parenting, and more.

If you’re like me, you might want to consider finding a way to curate the related content you present to readers to help make sure it’s relevant and interesting.

Now we have readers who came to your site, read the content, and were impressed enough to look at more content you’ve published.


As a creator, loyalty might mean different things in different contexts. When it comes to your website and engaging with your content, I really like to think about how often a user engages with you.

Note: Frequency is really relative to how much content you have and how often you’re posting new content. “Once a week” isn’t a great frequency for a site publishing 20 articles a week but it’s fantastic for a site publishing one article every week.

We can start to outline the experience for the most engaged user with the pieces we have in place. :

  • They came to my site (and this specific post) from channel/source
  • They read 90% of it, which is great because it’s 3000 words!
  • They were on the page for 5 minutes, which is great because that means they probably didn’t just skim it.
  • They clicked through to another piece of content I wrote as well, that’s awesome!

Once you have readers really engaging with your content, you want. to make sure you are bringing them back for more. People are busy so while some readers might try. to remember to come back on their own by typing in your domain, most will not. They need things like email, notifications, and social media to remind them that you’re out there making content they love.

For this you really want to look at people who are voluntarily signing up to be more connected with you and to get your content in a more direct way. Things like:

  • Signing up for your newsletter/email updates
  • Following you on social media
  • Subscribing to your site via an RSS Reader
  • Opting to receive browser notifications

Matching those actions up with your web visitors is complicated and generally expensive so use a high level view to evaluate what percentage of your audiences are actually loyal enough to take that next step of engaging with you directly.

For example: if you have 1000 visitors in a month and you have 250 email subscribers you know about 25% of your readers are “loyal” at some level. Noting that you can make this much more complicated by setting compounding criteria like “users who come to the site at least x times, spend at least 2 minutes per session, see 2 pages per session and are subscribed via email.”

Data is hard and overwhelming, so start simple and work up.

I’ll probably write more things and you might just want to read those too.

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