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by Gillian
on April 15, 2014

Last month, Time.com published an article from Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile, with the provocative title "What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong." With a title like that, he could be referring to a lot of things (e.g., the web is not, actually, a series of tubes invented by Al Gore). But if you actually take the time to read the article (which the average web user would not! Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself) it becomes almost immediately clear that what he has to say is indeed, relevant to our interests as digital marketers.

Haile doesn't mean that everything we think we know is wrong, but rather that a lot of the assumptions that marketers deign to make with their analytics do not necessarily represent reality.

Pay Attention to Attention

The crux of Haile's argument is that we should pay less attention to clicks (and shares, tweets, reblogs, etc.) and more attention to, well, attention. Hence the term, which as far as I know Haile himself coined, "The Attention Web." This is the web of today and of the very near future, where instead of tricking users into clicking a moving frog or getting them momentarily interested in the top 25 gifs that describe the state where they grew up, the best brands are getting people stay, read, and pay attention, thereby cultivating an audience that really cares about what your company has to say. Says Haile, "the most valuable audience is the one that comes back."

Of course, the advice that Haile might give to Time.com is not precisely applicable to companies that are not, by their very nature, content publishers. Time has always been in the business of creating and publishing content, even before it was called content. Most of our clients utilize digital marketing brand content as a way to establish their brand in an entirely different industry. But we can still take a lot away from Haile's analysis.

What Sharing Really Means

The most relevant piece of this article for social media marketers comes in Haile's analysis of social media shares. A lot of brands assume that the more likes and shares any pieces of content generates, the more engaging it is. It makes sense, right? Why would you encourage your friends and followers to read and engage with content unless you already read and engaged with it? Well, I don't have the answer that. But I do know (thanks to the Chartbeat research) that people do exactly that. According to Haile:

there is no relationship whatsoever between the amount a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content.

Well. That's surprising. At least it is to me. And I think it will be to a lot of social marketers.
But we only need to take a look at a recent April Fools prank to know that how someone reacts to an article has a lot more to do with the headline than the actual content.

On April 1st of this year, NPR published an article with the title "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" Check out the entire post below:


NPR April Fool's Prank NPR April Fool's Prank

The post generated hundred of comments insisting that Americans read! NPR was wrong! How dare they! Of course, if those commenters had bothered to read even past the headline, they would have been in on the joke.

Clearly, the number of clicks, comments, and shares on this article were not at all indicative of how much time people spent engaged with the actual content. This article was a prank, but it clearly shows us something about actual user behavior.

What This Means for You

So people aren't actually engaging with your content as much as you thought. What does that mean? And how can you fix it?

No one is arguing that content and social shares are irrelevant. Both are still an essential part of social media marketing and lead generation. But how we extrapolate consumer behavior from simplistic metrics like "clicks" and "shares" isn't giving us the whole picture. Rather than focusing on writing pithy headlines (like some of the headlines on, ahem, Time.com), we need to focus on creating content that really establishes the reputation of your brand - as a thought leader, an innovator, an expert. Find your audience and give them something that won't just make them share one piece of content, but that will make them keep coming back for more.

What do you think about The Attention Web? Is clickthrough rate going extinct? Let us know what you think in the comments below.