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Ask 10 digital marketers what the goal of their next campaign is, and they’ll probably all respond with some version of “increase engagement.” But what do they really mean by that? Are they after something more than just page views? Is it the quality of the interaction—the amount of time the audience spends visiting, the number of posts that they click on—that matters most? 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade body focused on online advertising, defines engagement as “a spectrum of consumer advertising activities and experiences—cognitive, emotional, and physical—that will have a positive impact on a brand.” And while that’s a fairly useful definition that broadly encompasses any type of interaction a person has with content—likes, comments, retweets, shares—it only scratches the surface of what forms engagement takes and why it matters so much.

Every year, companies spend millions to create impressive digital content for the sake of engaging with the people who matter most: their customers and evangelists. According to Harvard Business Review, not even the U.S. State Department is above the fray—it reportedly spent $630,000 from 2011 to 2013 to garner Facebook likes and sway people’s perception of Uncle Sam. 

Yet, it’s not out of vanity that companies interact with their audiences online. “Word of mouth” is still our strongest form of marketing—even when it happens online—and content is the catalyst that gets the conversation started. Each interaction is a meaningful moment and personalized experience distinct from the often impersonal nature of the internet.

How is engagement measured?

There are a number of metrics that quantify engagement. You’re familiar with retweets on Twitter, saves on Instagram, and likes on Facebook, to be sure. Engagement metrics track things like how often a unique user visits a given web page, how long users spend on a page, how many interactions they have once they’re there, which content is considered high-quality, and more. Depending on your industry, you might care about one more than the other.

At Ceros, for example, we create interactive digital experiences. Our editorial team cares a lot about the time that our audience spends with our pieces. If a story of ours has an average time on page of 20 minutes, we know we did a good job building an immersive piece that our audience enjoys exploring. If people click dive deeper in a number of sections, we know that our CTAs worked, and that we designed them in a way that invited exploration. That’s success for us, but it might not be for someone else who wants to inspire quick action.  

Jenny Rothenberg is the former director of growth at Morning Brew, a business-oriented newsletter with over 2 million subscribers. She wrote in Entrepreneur’s Handbook, a publication dedicated to helping entrepreneurs succeed, that her team viewed unique email opens—which refers to the number of individuals that open the email—as the gold standard for measuring their audience’s engagement. This metric factors out the readers who open the same email multiple times, giving the team a better sense of the daily email’s wider appeal.

“Our goal from the onset was to build, grow, and retain a hyper-engaged audience,” Rothenberg said. “To keep ourselves pushing toward that north star, we measure ourselves not on our list size, but on subscribers that are actually engaging with our content—most cleanly measured by unique opens.”

For other organizations looking to drive website traffic as opposed to newsletter traffic, overall page views might be seen as the most fundamental metric of success. That number acts as an indicator of just how many people are out there hitting your site or content—so we might presume that the more views you get, the better your site is. But no metric is perfect—page views can be manipulated to show desirable results without any of the underlying success. 

Pages per session is also an important metric—it shows that your site did more than simply offer a solution for the reader’s initial search, but piqued interest enough for the reader to explore more information on your site.

However, to many in the software industry (and surely to any salesperson), the absolute most important metric of engagement is form submissions. That’s when a website visitor requests a product demo or agrees to speak with a member of the sales team. These forms are the basis of inbound leads for most SaaS sales divisions because they pair prospective clients with knowledgeable colleagues who can answer their questions. It’s the job of the overall marketing team to keep people engaged with content on the site enough to want to reach out for a more meaningful connection. Keep form submissions flowing and marketers become the heroes of the workplace. 

Ultimately, engaging content entices visitors to take the next step in their customer journey and hopefully solve their problem with your organization’s presumably fantastic solution. Without it, organizations are flying blindfolded.

Seth King is a writer and editor based in Boston.

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