Mark Higginson

How attention flows on the web


21 January 2013

Following on from my last post in which I emphasised the importance of evidence to support your assertions I have provided the following for review.

I’ve looked at the analytics of all sorts of websites. The chart below shows a typical distribution of page views to posts on a site set-up as a ‘content destination’:

Posts against views

This particular site followed a blog-style format on which several posts a week appeared. The salient points are:

I do not have the data to tell how many were ‘readers’ as this was not defined at the time but it was clear the format was not working at attracting people. This was a shame as waht was being posted was great! There were no pushy sales messages. It was that elusive thing: ‘quality content’ professionally produced. No one cared.

It was this observation that set me off investigating this pattern, especially as clients were being advised to spend money on creating and publishing content that was not specifically about their core products or services. This project was the first of several, for very different brands, that demonstrated the same pattern of audience behaviour, for which I have the data. This formed the basis of my view that generalising about ‘brands as publishers’ on the web, along with the volume of content production that implies, is not a sustainable approach. Yet many marketers are recommending precisely this even though it will not help meet business objectives. This distribution is not a one-off and is a pattern followed by all content destinations, the difference is that successful sites receive massively higher amounts of attention and possess a regular readership, something that requires both significant resources and a perception of independence by the audience. At higher volumes the pattern still exists, but the critical mass of readers sustains even the long-tail of what’s being created.

This approach is useful in certain circumstances. Friends of mine run a very successful music label and as genre experts the things they post about their artists are not only popular with their customers, they’re directly attributable to sales. This does not mean their posts do not follow a similar distribution to the above. The difference is they write about their products for people who are likely to buy them so the cost of producing the posts is covered and they are very careful about ensuring this is the case; their time is precious, as should be yours.

What frustrates me is how often basic and observable behaviours are ignored and how often assumptions lead to the repetition of the same mistakes over and over again. Partly this is to do with vested interests; there are a lot of agencies out there who carry out content marketing functions who see this an opportunity to move from tactical and valuable one-off activity to an expensive and retained model of constant generation of new ‘content’. Yet these people remain wilfully ignorant of how attention flows on the web, despite the data being easy to collect and interpret.

Here are some examples of brand ‘content destinations’ that are completely ineffective at reaching an audience. The mistake in each case is to assume ‘if we build it they will come’ and that the ‘brand’ is strong enough to own a website with a readership in line with the definition of a ‘reader’ given in my last post.

Tech Page One from Dell:

“Technology. Business. Lifestyle. Those are the three pillars of Tech Page One’s content streams. Under those categories, we’ve commissioned and curated blog posts, in-depth articles, and infographics to keep you current on the major conversations in tech.”

The major question that should have been asked here is why, given the limited time people have, would they turn to a Dell-owned property for tech opinion when there is Engadget, Gizmodo, The Verge, et al. Their Twitter profile is following more people than they have followers. The design is poor as is the use of stock photography. It is doomed.

mb! from Mercedes:

“mb! by Mercedes-Benz is a magazine that documents and reflects contemporary culture and a clever, fun way of living. If you like personal and intelligent stories, reports and interviews as well as inspiring visuals reflecting the current Zeitgeist, then you’ll love mb!”

mb! from Mercedes by contrast is nicely designed and focused on a particular lifestyle with which the brand presumably wishes to be associated. In some ways this makes it worse as it is likely an even greater input of time has gone into something no-one is reading. Once again, there are any number of lifestyle destinations that do the same thing more authentically, with a more frequently updated and diverse array of feature articles. The danger is in the association; I don’t actually genuinely believe Mercedes Benz as a business has any interest in skateboarding or any of the other topics featured on this website.

What is bonkers is that Mercedes Benz seems to also be paying for a site with video content on a similar theme called the Avant Garde Diaries.

Frankly, I would love to run these sites for Mercedes Benz, but I could not in good conscience take their money because I know what little return is likely being generated. When someone at Mercedes Benz cottons on these sites are doomed.

Take a look at the number of video views generated by Avant Guard Diaries YouTube channel. The top rated video has about 4,500 views, the second 2,000, then it drops off a cliff (remember the chart above!). There are countless videos here with less than a hundred views!

mb! is likely receiving no more than a couple of thousand visits a month in the UK(*). How many are readers?

Energy Forecaster from uSwitchforBusiness:

“That’s why Business Juice started Energy Forecaster. We want businesses to be well-informed, well-prepared and most importantly, involved, when it comes to energy. The site is full of content that we hope will help businesses like yours get to grips with the importance of energy, and on-going changes to prices, legislation, government schemes and more.”

This site is a resource for businesses. The notion of ‘guides’ to selected topics is a good one. The idea of regular blogging by a panel of ‘industry experts’ is a good one. The idea of hosting this all on your own content destination is diabolically appalling and dooms this site to failure.

The worst part of this for me is that I found this site via a blog post (since removed though slides available here) about agile content strategy in which it is clear a lot of effort has gone into creating it. There was a lot of stuff around ‘thinking about the user’ with no consideration that this user is an entirely imaginary person and that, because of how attention works on the web, it is going to take vast resources to develop a readership for this content.

Apparently the site launched in May. As of writing the affiliated LinkedIn Group has 29 members, the Facebook Page has 11 Likes and the Twitter profile has only slightly more followers than followed. Many of the profiles look less than human. Doomed.

These situations have all occurred because of the vested interests that arise around a brand having a presence on the web without properly understanding whether anyone is going to be genuinely interested in coming back to these websites time and again.

What is depressing is that by collaborating with independent sites that already are destinations a far better effect could be achieved, far more simply, with far less overhead and allow for tactical campaigns that actually support measurable objectives.

tl;dr - if you are reading a post about ‘content marketing’ and there is no data to support the examples given then what you are reading is an anecdote. This is useless from a decision-making point-of-view. Challenge people on this, do not just accept their assertions.

(*) This figures were based on the anonymised data of the websites UK households are actually visiting taken from the records of UK ISPs.

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