Engagement vs. Exposure

I can be an absolute addict to Google Analytics. It’s often the only measure of effectiveness for things we’ve made. It used to be that all I would stare at would be the number of people visiting a site, charting the rising and falling of that little blue line with my heart in my throat. Whenever the number of visitors went up, I rejoiced, and was similarly downtrodden to see a decline in the graph. Especially with new projects: if you didn’t have previous data to compare your analytics to, the only thing you could hope for was the number of visitors continue to rise.

In recent years, we’ve all gotten smarter with the weight we given different measures in analytical data. We’ve realized that just because someone saw your website doesn’t mean that it was successful. Think about your own web browsing: how many websites do you think you’ve visited once that you’ve never gone back to? You probably can’t even remember them now, but I’d imagine that your gut reaction says that list of sites is large.

Just like brick-and-mortar business, we’re not looking for someone who is going to stop by then leave. Digital window shoppers aren’t the kind of users we need. We need users who come in and are enamored with exploring all of the content or products on offer, who, even if they don’t purchase something this trip, are so excited by what is on offer that they’ll come back. Repeatedly. With friends.

These are what we call engagement metrics, as opposed to exposure metrics. When you’re talking about exposure, you’re talking about the of users informed of your product. Exposure, for the longest time, was how we dealt with success or failure on the web: how many people visited your website, how many impressions did your banner ad have, etc. In the analog advertising world, exposure translates directly to ads in a magazine, or on a billboard, and how many readers or eyes those ads pass in front of.

Engaged to be Engaged

Engagement is a deeper measure of how successful a project is. Whatever the type of digital project, engagement helps you determine what you did right, and what you can do better. Looking at engagement metrics, we’re trying to understand how invested a user is once he or she visits your site. How many pages did he or she view? How much time was spent on the site? Did the user come back?

This is why you often hear designers talking about adding moments of delight or anything else that gets users immediately invested. The more time a user spends interacting with your product, the higher the likelihood that user will become a customer. Hopefully not just once, but repeatedly. So what kind of things are we looking for when we talk about engagement?

  1. Page views and time on site: The more time people invest interacting with your site, the more likely it is for them to invest their money. This is why content strategy, information architecture, and enjoyable design is so important: you have to give people something to connect to. A great story helps support all of those initiatives.
  2. Returning users: Giving people a reason to come back to your site time and time again gives you more chances to show off your brand and make them love it. Make your design memorable, and your content worth revisiting. Publish new content to give people an incentive to return. This is why we say that you can’t just tell your story once: it’s an ongoing effort.
  3. Bounce rate: If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘bounce rate’ is the percentage of people that visit just one page on your site, and then leave. Decreasing your bounce rate is vital to building an online community. The longer you keep those eyeballs glued to your site, the more chances you have to connect. If you have an individual page with a high bounce rate, maybe it’s time for a new design or content for that page. If your entire site is plagued with high bounce rates, maybe you need to offer those visitors an easy way to keep interacting with relevant content: related pages, special offers, or any number of other incentives to dig a little deeper.

Is Engagement Really That Important?

In a word: Absolutely. There’s a long-standing theory that the core of success is building 1000 True Fans. The basic idea is that no matter how many casual fans you have, it’s the 1000 True Fans that provide the basis of your income. While the original post was geared towards artists, it’s undeniably true for all businesses that engaged users are the true revenue driver. Think about why so many software-as-a-service companies give away a base level plan for free: the people casually using their service aren’t the kinds of people who would pay a small fee for it, but by growing the connection among those casual users, they can become the kind of engaged users that absolutely require that product, and are willing to pay a bit more for additional features.

Our recent work with San Diego bike shop The Bike Revolution provided the kind of engagement numbers that we love to see in a product launch: increases in users spending time on the site, and a decrease in bounce rate. Through thoughtful design and storytelling, we created not just another bike shop website, but a place on the web that cyclists can find value. That value translates to brand engagement and loyalty, and pays dividends as the shop cultivates 1000 True Fans, or more.

This is why we encourage brands to connect with users through a powerful story. You can purchase exposure through any number of methods: traditional advertising, Google AdWords, or social media, whether paid or free. You can’t, however, buy engagement directly. You have to invest in what users want to interact with before you’ll see a real return. That return, however, is the core of your ongoing revenue.


Want to tell your story in a way that engages your users? We want to help. Get in touch with us, and let’s tell it together.

Header photo from Cameron Kirby via Unsplash

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