In a recent AdAge article, Chartbeat presented interesting data about which parts of a content page receive the highest user engagement. A key take-away from their study was that the area of the page below the fold has higher engagement than many realize, higher in fact than areas of the page typically considered premium by advertisers (like top center). As a result, they conclude, marketers have been “placing value in the wrong place” by buying ad inventory where people are less engaged.
While the data Chartbeat showcases is incredibly useful, the conclusion they are drawing from it is misplaced. User engagement is not a fixed asset that designers and marketers can plan around. In fact it’s the reverse: the design and structure of the page, and especially the decision of where to feature content versus where to feature ads, dictates user engagement and has the potential to change the heatmap Chartbeat has created
I’ll provide an anecdote to help illustrate this point. When we started working with publishers at Outbrain about five years ago, the article footer area beneath the fold was basically a superfund site. Publishers were using that real estate to dump as many sponsored links and direct response offers as they could (“Lose 30 lbs with Acai Berry Diet!”, “Billionaire Predicts Financial Ruin!”, etc.) to monetize below the fold.
We came to them with a different proposition; the end of an article was the perfect place to feature additional content and help users “turn the page” to another great story. When we first launched in 2008, the click-through rate we recorded on links to additional content was about 1 percent. But over time, we saw this engagement metric rise dramatically, on some sites over 5-10 x its initial baseline.
While much of this progress was due to algorithmic advances we made in selecting what content to feature, another more subtle shift was also apparent: we were retraining users to look at that part of the page, to trust it again as an area to discover something worthwhile and interesting. We were reclaiming the land for users and making it vibrant again.
We saw evidence of this in our data. We saw that 30-40 percent of people who clicked on our content recommendations would scroll to the end of the subsequent article and then click another one, building trust in the experience and using this part of the page repeatedly for serendipitous navigation.
The lesson we learned was that the tie between user engagement and page position is not fixed – it can be molded and changed by the publisher. Publishers can breathe life into any area of their page by consistently using it for the one reason people come to their site in the first place – for reading, watching and finding great content. The opposite is of course also true. Cordoning off parts of a page for material that users find irrelevant—or worse, false and untrustworthy—is a sure way to create a barren desert that will take time to resuscitate down the road.
There is a very positive message in this learning for advertisers, too, in that they can actively participate in the ecosystem that drives and molds user behavior. The rise of digital content marketing, including brands’ growing sophistication in creating, curating and aggregating world class content, allows them to work side by side with publishers to produce value for both parties in the right way– by producing value for the end user. At the end of the day, the opportunity for marketers is much larger than simply locating user engagement on a heatmap and placing a banner there – it’s the ability to create that user engagement themselves, through the production and amplification of content those users will love.