BREAKING: ‘Sharing’ Content Does Not Equal ‘Reading’ Content


We all know that “RTs do not equal endorsements”, but many of us still assume that most people actually read the content they share. For better or worse, that’s just not true.

You may have seen The Verge’s You’re not going to read this” piece floating around over the Interwebz this weekend, because it rightfully got a lot of attention by playing off a basic “viral” truth: people share things they haven’t read all the time. In fact, the more often people share content, the less likely they are to have actually read it.

Tony Haile, CEO of real-time traffic tracking company Chartbeat, started this little debate by stating that his company found “effectively no correlation” between the number of people who share a given piece and the number of people who read it.

Of course that rule doesn’t apply to everything: your friends really did fill out all those BuzzFeed polls that have been popping up all over your social feeds. But here’s the key finding from prime perpetrator Upworthy‘s own data: the people most likely to share a given piece of content are those who skim through 25% of it and those who read the whole thing.

Here’s an example: a few weeks ago we posted on Matthew Keys‘ report that Twitter users would have the ability to edit existing tweets soon. The post got hundreds of shares, but as it spread we noticed few likes or comments. Traffic numbers revealed that, while hundreds did retweet it, very few of them actually clicked on it. The headline was simple enough.

Here’s the point we take from the debate: when we’re talking sponsored content, sharing isn’t enough—because a headline alone can’t convey your client’s story to the average reader no matter how fun it sounds.

So while nothing can quite replace the instant gratification of watching your likes and retweets go up, “total shares” is an inflated and almost meaningless statistic when discussing content that needs to be read to be appreciated. In order to better address the problem, Upworthy now measures the success of each story via “attention minutes” rather than clicks or shares. Marketing Land notes that Upworthy is unique in that users know what to expect from its posts, but the point is that clients need to better understand that “shares do not equal success” and that ROI isn’t quite as simple as the numbers next to your “like” and “tweet” icons.

This is particularly relevant when considering sponsored content, because the very last thing you want readers to do is glance at your piece and move along.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.