Initially the goal of this system was two-fold. The first was to alert our audience of an estimated reading time per article under the assumption that bounce rates on content would decrease if a reader knew in advance how long they would need to spend reading.
The second was internal — that we could use Parse.ly to determine if the length of our content was affecting the average engagement time with different sections, topics, formats, etc. Ultimately we focused only on engagement due to the placement of an article’s tags on the bottom of the page. We’ve since implemented a plugin that displays a minute-read estimate at the top of all stories.
The ultimate question we were looking to answer: Are readers spending less time, on average, with long-form content than shorter pieces?
Readers spend about the same amount of time on all pieces of content, relative to the length of the article.
Average Engagement Time Across All Content
On average, The Brown and White’s readers spend between 0.1 and two minutes per article, depending on a variety of factors. Content between one and 10 minutes shows average engagement times of less than one minute, and content 11 minutes or longer garners engagement between one and two minutes.
The bulk of the content produced by The Brown and White is considered between a six- and seven-minute read. And of the 335 posts published in our study’s date range, 55 percent of the stories were between 600 and 749 words.
The distribution within the two groups — short stories and long stories — is varied and possibly more dependent on content subject matter than length. For example, student and faculty profiles generally perform well related to engagement, regardless of length. Student interest stories also have higher-than-average engagement rates.
What Did We Learn?
At the end of the semester, we returned to our hypothesis that readers spend less time, on average, with long-form content than shorter works.
But the results we explored above tell a different story: Readers spend about the same amount of time on all pieces of content, relative to the length of the article. The slightly higher amount of time spent on short and medium-length articles is negligible when looking at engagement with content overall.
As previously mentioned, the range of average engagement times is small:
- Short- and medium-length stories (1,000 words or fewer) have average engagement of a minute or less.
- Long stories (1,000–2,000 words) have engagement between one and two minutes.
Relatively speaking, these aren’t much different. The biggest variables are the format and subject matter, which greatly influence how long our readers will spend with our content. It’s also important to consider that our readers may be conditioned to reading content from the “short” group because more than half of our publication falls into that category.
The most significant conclusion we can make from using the minute-read tags to analyze our engagement from a static perspective is that The Brown and White has a very short window to capture its audience and convey its message before readers jump off the page.
However, it’s also a testament to the idea that long-form content isn’t dead.
Over the last few semesters, the editorial board renewed its focus on investigative pieces that often require higher word counts. We feared people wouldn’t read the full article and prematurely draw conclusions about the work from the headline and a few paragraphs. But the results of this project indicate that while we must be strategic in how we capture our readers, that conclusion is the same across all lengths of content, not just one format. However, there are fewer long posts than short- or medium-length posts, so it is more difficult to draw conclusions about them.
This is greatly helpful in determining how reporters structure articles, what kind of content we produce (e.g. infographics, illustrations, etc.), and what that content is about. We have identified a few other tools and technologies that could help us further delve into this question in the future.
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