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Should You Pay Attention to Attention Metrics?

Upworthy, the site that brings you articles like If I Told You What This Is About, You Almost Definitely Would Not Click On It and Boy Meets Girl. Girl Reveals Secret. That’s When Things Get Int...
Should You Pay Attention to Attention Metrics?
Written by Josh Wolford
  • Upworthy, the site that brings you articles like If I Told You What This Is About, You Almost Definitely Would Not Click On It and Boy Meets Girl. Girl Reveals Secret. That’s When Things Get Intimate. And Beautiful, is moving away from the pageview as a primary metric for judging an article’s performance. Upworthy, the site that has its own clickbait-heavy headline generator and that The Onion has devoted an entire site to parodying, says the ‘click’ is an outdated and unreliable way to measure engagement.

    Upworthy, the site that built a small empire on the back of Facebook, whose actual tagline is “Things that matter, pass ’em on,” now says that the ‘share’ is also ill-equipped to truly measure an article’s success.

    Should you pay attention to attention metrics? Let us know in the comments.

    So, what gives? What should we measure instead of clicks and pageviews? How can we measure performance without looking at how often something is shared across the social landscape?

    According to Upworthy and a handful of others, the answer is the Attention Web. Or Attention Metrics. Or to Upworthy specifically, Attention Minutes.

    Whatever you want to call it, the point of the new metric theory is that looking at the amount of attention a reader devotes to an article is a much-improved measure of engagement. Upworthy announced in February that they were ditching uniques and pageviews and opting to measure Attention Minutes, saying,

    “We dabbled with pageviews, but that’s a flimsy metric, as anyone who’s suffered through an online slideshow knows (20 pageviews! Zero user satisfaction!). Pageviews are only a great metric if you’re being paid for each pageview; we don’t run banner ads, so they’ve never meant as much to us.”

    Thus Attention Minutes were born, wherein Upworthy began to look at ‘Total Attention per Piece’, which is a “combination of how many people watch something on Upworthy and how much of it they actually watch,” as their primary metric. That made waves at the time – as other properties began to take a look at this ‘Attention Web.’

    Blogging platform Medium decided to start paying some contributors based on total time spent reading their collections – instead of paying them based on clicks. Speaking of the latter model, Medium’s Evan Hansen said,

    “We…learned (surprise) that high quality posts do not automatically garner attention and audience commensurate with the effort of producing them. As a result, our payment model failed to support some really terrific contributors.”

    Analytics company Chartbeat also went all-in with Attention Metrics, as the company’s CEO, Tony Haile, took to TIME magazine with the bold but rather linkbait-y headline What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong.

    His thesis, of sorts?

    Here’s where we started to go wrong: In 1994, a former direct mail marketer called Ken McCarthy came up with the clickthrough as the measure of ad performance on the web. From that moment on, the click became the defining action of advertising on the web. The click’s natural dominance built huge companies like Google and promised a whole new world for advertising where ads could be directly tied to consumer action.

    However, the click had some unfortunate side effects. It flooded the web with spam, linkbait, painful design and tricks that treated users like lab rats. Where TV asked for your undivided attention, the web didn’t care as long as you went click, click, click.

    In 20 years, everything else about the web has been transformed, but the click remains unchanged, we live on the click web. But something is happening to the click web. Spurred by new technology and plummeting click-through rates, what happens between the clicks is becoming increasingly important and the media world is scrambling to adapt. Sites like the New York Times are redesigning themselves in ways that place less emphasis on the all-powerful click. New upstarts like Medium and Upworthy are eschewing pageviews and clicks in favor of developing their own attention-focused metrics. Native advertising, advertising designed to hold your attention rather than simply gain an impression, is growing at an incredible pace.

    It’s no longer just your clicks they want, it’s your time and attention. Welcome to the Attention Web.

    To Haile and Upworthy, clicks, shares, and even time on page are unreliable metrics. Attention Minutes as a metric, according to Upworthy, “a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or have moved on to the next thing.”

    The reason to give this a look, and the reason you’ll likely hear something about Attention Metrics over the next few days is that Upworthy just released its code for Attention Minutes tracking.

    In the most Upworthiest of headlines (The Code [Literally] To What Lies Between The Click And The Share. Yours, For Free… Really), the site says that “you’re more than welcome to use our code as a starting point to build Attention Minutes into your system.”

    Ok, so they’ve convinced you. Clicks are bullshit. Now you’re ready to jump over to this new metric.

    Well, hold on a second.

    Buzzfeed, Upworthy’s co-target of The Onion’s clickbait ire and co-purveyor of clickable, shareable content, recently asked “What does an attention-obsessed media look like? And do we want it?”

    “Adopting a new media metric dredges up a host of concerns: What does an attention-obsessed media look like? What kind of content does it produce? What does it mean to readers? If previous metrics are any guide, unscrupulous publishers will be quick to game the system as they did with SEO. In a time-spent world, attention optimization is a very real worry,” says Buzzfeed’s Myles Tanzer.

    Tanzer quotes others who shoot down time on page as a “silver bullet” metric for engagement.

    “We publish four to five longforms. If someone is spending 20 seconds there and leaving, it’s not good,” he said. “If you’re reading a breaking item about Eric Cantor losing his race, 20 seconds on the page is probably OK,” says The New Republic labs director Noah Chestnut.

    True. Valid point. But Upworthy would argue that their Attention Minutes go well beyond time on page – and that’s precisely the point.

    “Our implementation is far more precise than ‘Time on Page’ as it’s usually measured. Time on Page generally relies on a very sparse set of signals to figure out whether viewers are still paying attention. And especially on the last page of a visit, it can be hugely misleading,” says Upworthy

    “We built attention minutes to look at a wide range of signals — everything from video player signals about whether a video is currently playing, to a user’s mouse movements, to which browser tab is currently open — to determine whether the user is still engaged.”

    Ok, but even so – that argument is for Attention Minutes as an effective metric. Effective or not, the other and possibly more important discussion revolves around whether or not we want to adopt a new attention-based metric for success.

    What do you think? Is it worth paying attention to the attention metrics? Let us know in the comments.

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