Which Comes First in Audience Engagement: Content Quality or Data?

December 22, 2014

If you’re a publisher considering a change in your approach to better suit your content engagement strategy (like selling time-based ads, for instance) it’s helpful to remember what drives that strategy. As Matt Boggie from the New York Times deftly points out: it’s easy to get caught up in metrics and disregard substance. The truth is, sometimes publishers forget which came first—the data or the content.


  • Data Measures are evolving:  Boggie argues that data gathering and interpretation can be really complicated in our fast-paced, ever changing, digital world. Determining what factors are responsible for a particularly successful piece of content is still very much a hypothetical endeavor. Publishers have gotten really good at the best guess and there are certainly solid threads you can follow, but testing and retesting your approach in a dynamic environment is not a means to an end—it’s a means for moving forward. The answers are never presented in a neat little formula that you can apply until the end of time.
  • Measuring content value can take many forms: time, shares, return visits, other actions?  Boggie drives home the point that engagement and impact aren’t necessarily the same thing. This is not to say that engagement isn’t an important goal—especially in the context of time spent with content—because effectiveness is dependent on at least some time spent with the content. But, at the end of the day, predicting effectiveness isn’t something publishers have ever been able to do. And, this is where the layers of metrics and engagement peel away to reveal the core of what you do as a publisher: compel readers with valuable content.

The point?

You want your readers to be affected or influenced by your content. You want them to benefit from it. You want them to look to you, repeatedly, for engaging content and products that make their lives and professions easier. A data-driven approach that compromises quality or results in empty promises is missing the mark. It must be driven by superior, relevant content—your crown jewel, your reason for existing.

We are not saying that you need to dismiss your data or question the value of engagement, but we are saying that it’s important to ask yourself this simple question, every time you make a choice regarding either your investment in data measurements and content quality:

Does this article, format, topic or other tactic compromise the quality of our content or the value of what we offer to our readers?

If the answer is yes, you may be lost in the land of the chicken and the egg. Quick! Get out of the hen house and into greener pastures, where content comes before data—every time.