Phillip Smith

10 learnings for those obsessed with user engagement

Our May 19th event in New York was just the beginning

(Scroll down to continue reading)

With the benefit of a few days to reflect, review and receive feedback, one thing is clear: our “Breakfast Engagement” event was just the beginning of a very necessary conversation. What advertisers and publishers measure and what matters to the people they’re trying to reach is still evolving rapidly.

(If you’re in a rush, just jump to the list.)

The question we were trying to push forward

When we dived into producing A Breakfast Engagement, we were convinced that – just as the conversation about new ways of measuring engagement was coming to a head – was still a fair bit of “fluff” and very few good answers about what the shift toward measuring engagement vs. measuring clicks or page views means. And publishers were at a loss on how they can take advantage of it.

We know this: we live in a page view world. The majority of the Web’s advertising infrastructure is set-up to work that way and that’s what advertisers and agencies are familiar with. At the end of the day, as much as the problems with the model are obvious – click farms and fraudulent clicks, low user engagement, and so on – it’s a model that scales impressively.

At the same time, many people are troubled by the way that advertising is moving: more publishers are launching non-standard ad units, native advertising, and so on. The pressing questions for publishers and advertisers is how to make an honest buck in a world of increasingly distracted and fickle consumers.

More aspirationally, how to move from cramming as many ads as possible as quickly as possible in front of people toward something that is fundamentally more honest.

In a nutshell: how to not piss off the people we’re trying to reach, while continuing to recognize the fact that – for the most part – advertisers continue to pay for a large share of content that is produced and consumed every day.

The experiment

So where does that leave things? Well, as far as we can see, most people are saying “it’s the advertising industry’s job to change” if the model is broken. But we don’t see that change happening yet, so we set out to ask:

  • What can we do to bring more attention to these questions & challenges?
  • Who’s actually doing great work already? Who’s taking action? Who are the role models?
  • And, if it’s not an issue of technology anymore – i.e., thee technology is there. We’ve got the tools! We’ve got the experience! – why isn’t change happening more quickly?

Those questions in hand, we set out to push the conversation further down the road.

To do that, we brought more than 100 people together for three hours of discussion in the heart of New York’s “Silicon Alley.” In addition to the line-up of smart folks we gathered from Union Square Ventures, Disqus, Chartbeat, Quartz, Mashable, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Etsy, Sunday Dinner and Comedy Central, we also had a whole room full of representatives from the industry: Edelman, NBC, Martha Stewart, Huffington Post, Conde Nast, Business Insider, Quantcast, Mediacom, Digitas, Harvard, The Guardian, CUNY journalism, and the IAB, to name just a few.

What we learned

Starting with the evocative Fred Wilson interview and concluding with the incredibly informative head-to-head with Tony Haile and Jay Lauff, here were my key takeaways:

  1. Paywalls vs. user engagement. Fred Wilson doesn’t believe they can co-exist. This played out as one of the more interesting dynamics that was debated that morning.
  2. When you’ve got engagement nailed, you’re able to tell a story that’s meaningful and users don’t have a shitty experience.
  3. If we can put a new focus on what the goal is for everybody, maybe we can get away from the unproductive debates about new forms of advertising, like native ads or branded content, and get to work experimenting instead.
  4. A person’s “attention” is definitely one of the more valuable measurements we have. Let’s start sharing that story with advertisers.
  5. However, on the flip side, measuring attention isn’t easy! As Tony asked “What’s worth more: when a user views all of short video, or half of a long one?” Each publisher is going to need to figure that out.
  6. Resolving the tension between “viewed ads” (the ideal) and “delivered ads” (what is currently measured) also isn’t easy. There’s only so much above-the-fold real estate to go around.
  7. More and more publishers are finding that it’s not about the amount of time someone spends during one visit to their site but, instead, the total attention captured over time. Getting people to come back has to be part of the equation, and part of what’s pitched to advertisers.
  8. Premium quality content works when you get the right audience & their attention, and impact their experience.
  9. We too often confuse user engagement with social sharing. We need to define what good engagement really is: it should be memorable, relevant, and eventually drive some kind of action.
  10. And as several people mentioned during the event: clicks can’t possibly measure the reach of a good campaign with thoughtful and engaging creative. The same goes for good content.

Steve Roy, VP of Marketing at Disqus has also done a good summary of the event, which includes videos from the Fred Wilson interview and the Tony Haile & Jay Lauf debate.

If you were at the event, let me know what your key takeaways were in the comments below or on Twitter.

Where this can go next

Looking back – if I were to do it again from scratch – I would push to invest a lot more time getting the folks who were not on stage actually wrestling with the questions we were hoping to shed light on.

We started with the mandate of “No. Boring. Panels!” and I think we achieved that to a degree. We heard from the people in the audience frequently and repeatedly and their questions and analysis were bang-on. What I really longed for was to have the people in that room talking to each other, trying to figure out some solutions.

I’m more convinced than ever that we’ve just touched the surface of this conversation. I’m convinced that there are solutions within reach. I’m confident that we just need to get the right people in the room one or two more times to see this conversation move forward with some impressive momentum.

And a key learning for me, gleaned in those anxiety-ridden moments of creative constraint – as the clock ticked toward 9:30AM, realizing that Christina Warren our star interviewer was still stuck in traffic – we ran through the options in the case we needed to start without Christina. In seconds it was clear what the best option would have been if we had to choose: let the people in the room lead the interview.

That learning will be at the core of our next event – which we hope to announce soon – as we continue to try to close the gap between publishers, advertisers, platforms and people, by actually bringing them together to get their hands dirty. If that’s appealing to you, please stay in touch.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


Want to launch a local news business? Apply now for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp

I’m excited to announce that applications are now open again for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp. And I’m even more excited to ...… Continue reading

From the future

Data Boot Camp B.C.