Engagement Metrics, Pt. 2: The Importance of “Anchor Content”
Last week I wrote about how The Atlantic, Mic.com, and Quartz use engagement metrics to drive editorial growth strategies. This week I want to dig further into what can be learned from the most read article of 2015, The Atlantic’s “What ISIS Really Wants” (which saw nearly 20 million pageviews between February and December of 2015, averaging over three minutes of engaged time per pageview.)
The ISIS article is extraordinary in many ways. It’s extraordinary in its depth and quality of reporting and storytelling. Its impact and popularity is extraordinary, partly the result of the tragic Paris terrorist attacks that made ISIS the focus of the global community.
But although the magnitude of the impact of The Atlantic’s ISIS article was in part the result of an unforeseen event, there are many forces at play that are not unique to the piece and predictable. Though it’s certainly extraordinary, the metrics behind it also reveal how content behaves online, particularly a certain kind of content. I call this kind of content “anchor content.”
The Role of Anchor Content
Let’s use the ISIS article as a study on how anchor content works. (The full rundown on the data behind the blog can be found on Chartbeat’s blog post here.) The Atlantic launched the article on the cover of the magazine and followed up with social media and publicity. The article saw a huge traffic spike on its release and then a subsequent spike coinciding with the Paris attacks.
The source of those spikes are telling. Most of the referral traffic for the initial spike was from Facebook. The second and largest spike occurred during the Paris attacks in November 2015. The biggest referrer was again Facebook, but the Facebook spike was preceded by a Google spike by about 12 hours.
I think a fair assumption is that when the Paris attacks occurred, many people felt compelled to learn what ISIS is really all about. They Googled, read, and posted The Atlantic’s article to Facebook, spurring the viral spike. As Chartbeat notes in the blog, "while Facebook often delivers more traffic over the long term, Google is often the leading source of traffic in the first few minutes after an event.”
Google is for active searchers and learners and they often initiate the conversation that takes place on social.
That’s how anchor content should perform: as a definitive piece of content on a specific, important topic. As James Bennet, editor-in-chief and president at The Atlantic, puts it: “When we’re on our game, this is exactly what The Atlantic should do.”
The Atlantic will continue to write about ISIS, and it will no doubt continue to link back to the “What ISIS Really Wants” article to offer readers additional context. Many, many other sites that continue to cover ISIS, terrorism, and Middle East news will link to it (The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, CNN and others have already driven hundreds of thousands of pageviews to the ISIS piece.) And readers (many of them new readers) will come to the piece through search. The anchor has been dropped.
Anchors Must Be Predictive
Good editors write about the world’s concerns. Great editors write about what the world will be concerned about.
As Bennet puts it, at the time the ISIS article was published, the Obama administration was downplaying the threat of ISIS, but “clearly there was something drawing people into this perverted form of Islam. We thought the story would be big, but within two weeks it would be the most read story The Atlantic has ever done.”
The Atlantic’s editors were successful because they anticipated the growing geopolitical importance of ISIS and understanding the underlying motivations of the group would be important for both political leaders and citizenry grappling with the issue.
It’s a clear demonstration that if you wait around for your audience or the analytics to tell you what to write about you’ll fall behind. You can predict what topics will perform well based on historical analytics on that topic, but new, not yet fully explored topics are the game-changers. Phenomena that will be important, that tap into the zeitgeist and anticipate a wave of interest, or better yet, create a wave of interest, are ideal anchor content.
Engagement Metrics Reaffirm our Best Editorial Instincts
Of course content analytics can reveal new insight, but just as important is how analytics can confirm existing editorial instincts with empirical evidence. So anchor content is not a new invention, but engagement analytics clearly reveal how certain, often long-form content works. The term anchor content is just an explicit way of thinking about what publishers of significant journalism have been doing for years.
However, knowing how anchors behave should change your behavior – making an effort to consistently link back and build on anchors and then looking for the next anchor on the subject. As an editor, I’m striving to identify the topics that matter and will matter to my audience, drop anchor content, and then create a conversation around those anchors, always linking and referring back to the anchor.
Not surprisingly, magazine covers continue to serve as the perfect tool for anchoring content. “One old fashioned device -- the cover -- is the most powerful platform for [entering] a big idea into the national or global conversation,” said Bennet.”
FIPP has also recently wrote a piece on why long-form pieces are important for online publishing. Though I’d argue that the term long-form doesn’t capture the type of content I’m talking about. It describes the form, but not the ultimate function this type of content plays in the world. That said, check out that piece to see how anchor content pays off in search and social.
Engagement, Always Engagement
The keyword-stuffing, early-day SEO strategies caused nothing short of insanity in the online publishing world that rocked the best journalistic instincts of publishing. We’re only now coming back to our senses and realizing that indeed cat videos and epic fail Vines GIFs generate clicks and shares, but truly meaningful content matters, and engagement metrics bear that out.
As a final testament, I want to borrow an example made by Adam Felder, associate director of digital analytics at Atlantic Media during a recent webinar we hosted. It’s a perfect example of the difference between traffic and engagement.
Felder compares two articles: One is an article that at the time was The Atlantic’s second most-viewed article of all time, which was about the best way to type the shrugging emoji ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The other article is an in-depth cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.
The shrug article drove tremendous amount of traffic due to people Googling how to create the shrug emoji, clicking through, and leaving. The article has .4 minutes of engaged time per visitor.
The Coates piece has 5 minutes of engaged time per visitor.
Guess which content is most likely to attract readers that become loyal audience?
In an ideal world you have content with a lot of pageviews and time spent, said Felder. And certainly a mixture of quick-to-create, high-pageview content and high-effort, anchor content is probably healthy. But at least publishers know which foot to put forward these days.
At no time have we had a better ability to see how content performs, which supports both good journalism and good business. That’s a huge relief as an editor. All I can hope now is that this article on anchor content becomes a piece of anchor content on anchor content.
Denis Wilson is the content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.