I recently walked out of a meeting with a potential advertiser who uttered a familiar refrain: "We're looking for engagement." Their stakeholders, they explained, look for them to buy media on sites with strong metrics for "time spent" and "page views per visit," pieces of data that are unrelated to the success of the ads themselves.
We need to stop looking at those engagement metrics as the sole qualifiers of a successful Web site and start looking at how the site fits into the user's overall Web (and consumer) behavior. In an age of granular data collection and analysis, it's time that engagement lost its relevance.
Google's AdWords is often credited with delivering users based on intent rather than engagement, redefining "quality" as utility, an amalgam of click-through rate, relevance and a variety of other factors. Now, all sites seek that recursive loop, with links imploring users for feedback at the bottom of ad units and Facebook asking for thumbs up with their messaging.
It's not that those previously mentioned metrics shouldn't be tracked; they can give insight into the success of a design, the navigation experience and the depth of the content. But the prevailing status quo of engagement is a positive experience with a passive content consumer, whereas we should want to target usefulness -- a positive experience with the task-driven consumer.
The goal is to attract these task-driven visitors with incredibly specific informational needs. These consumers are unlikely to click to a related piece of content that's not relevant. But as they continue to pursue a specific informational need, they're often driven to click on ads.
Several recent studies have quantified an old refrain: online is more effective than general offline marketing. And a study by Magid Research showed that sites with task-driven consumers are more than three times more effective than advertising on more engaging Web sites.
When I spend an hour reading stories on ESPN or listening to music on Pandora (or, often, both at the same time), I'm exposed to a lot of brand advertising, but do not click on a lot of ads. I have contributed significantly to the sites' engagement metrics, but I fear I haven't done much to support their bottom line, nor those of their advertisers. In a misguided effort to prime the engagement pump, far too many publishers rely on tricks such as aggressive pagination, slide shows and top 10 lists. But what's more valuable -- engagement on the site's and advertiser's terms or engagement on the user's terms?
During my time at Google, it became immensely clear to me the importance of aiding users in their specific informational quests. But just because you're not a search engine doesn't mean you cannot provide that same level of pointed relevance. Search advertising succeeds because users are primed to click on the ads, as their intent is explicit in their actions.
Obviously, there's an important place for sites that are deeply engaging. Such sites dominate my Web history. The very valuable market that content should aspire to, however, is not engagement, but priming. We want to put the right piece of content in front of the right user at the right time. That relevance is key, and that utility is what makes our site valuable to users, our ads relevant to their experience and our site successful for advertisers. All sites should aspire to be like that -- the large, blinking billboard leading wanderers further down the avenue of intent.
Patrick Keane is CEO of Associated Content.