Time Spent Is The New Impression

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Engagement just got a whole lot more interesting.

Facebook made a major update and announcement this week. They’re going to tweak their algorithm based on how long a user looks at a piece of content. It’s something that marketers need to think about. Deeply. There have been some brands looking to transcend engagement as a metric in social media (they’re not getting enough value out of it). These brands believe that they can be more transactional or direct response-driven in social media platforms. It’s not a zero sum game, but it’s also not something that many brands will be able to achieve, with the current flow of social media usage… which is mostly centred around links being shared, private groups and messaging. Time spent isn’t a new metric in media, but it’s an interesting one in a media format that allows users to interact, share and create with media.

Does this metric send media a few steps back?

Prior to digital media, all a publisher had was “time spent” as a metric over an above the simple impression. Did a consumer find your content and spend some time with it? The more time spent on it, the higher the value (or amount) of advertising that could be placed against it. Digital brought with it some newer (and more interesting) metrics. Suddenly, digital media could get a consumer to be engaged with the media… it meant something.

  • Did they like the content so much that they would be willing to acknowledge it to their social graph (a “like” or a favorite)? 
  • Did they like it so much that they are willing to share it with their community? 
  • Did they like it so much that they added their own comment to the piece? 
  • Did they like it so much that they went off and created their own piece of content inspired by it (a blog post, a podcast, a video on YouTube)? 

What’s most interesting about this move from Facebook, is how they’re now evaluating the physical actions that people take once they consume content as not being as relevant as what they simply see. From the Business Insider article, Facebook is watching how long you spend reading a story to decide what will appear in your news feed: “even though people may not ‘like’ or ‘share’ an item, they may spend significantly more time on it than the majority of other stories. This is still considered a good sign that the content was relevant to them.”

It’s human nature.

Be honest, how many times have you liked or shared something without spending much time with it? Maybe you acted on it because you liked the headline, or you thought it might impress those you are connected to, without really spending any time on the content and what it means to you. There’s a depth of understanding that happens when you stop and spend time with content in such a digitally frenetic paced world. From this point of view, Facebook is – without question – on to something. Still, without the user physically acknowledging a piece of content, and knowing that Facebook is tracking our every move and able to manipulate the feed not based off of what we do, but by simply understanding – in a very profound way – what we’re spending time on, has a distinctly Orwellian feel to it. 

Knowing the user better than the user knows itself.

As strange as this may seem to consumers, this is what all media has done before. The media monitoring companies have been looking at how many viewers are spending time with content forever. The fact that Facebook is going back to this metric as a way to continually feed content that will (hopefully) keep the user on their platform, is what makes this most interesting. We’re no longer talking about how many people cared for a thirty minute sitcom at 8 pm on a Thursday night. We’re now using this traditional metric to continually pump at consumers in a non-stop, always-on, real time and in the palm of your hand pace. It all feels so overwhleming.

Seeing only the things that you want to see.

The balance of this content is also something to consider. If a user is constantly spending time with a handful of friends – and the content that they’re creating/curating – it’s reasonable to assume that Facebook’s algorithm tweak could very well dampen people’s world view. Instead of being exposed to differing opinions or cultures, this algorithm has the capacity to shrink people’s world views as well.

So, what’s a brand to do?

Facebook was quick to point out that this shift in algorithm should not significantly impact Pages operated by brands, but it will. It makes perfect sense. Much like Google AdWords began kicking off advertisers that were not getting clicks, this Facebook move feels similar. If a brand can’t get their content to gain traction – especially in a newsfeed that is continually being optimized based on the consumer’s usage – what do you think will happen? Facebook can’t afford to tolerate these half-baked brand “posts” that are little more than a glorified banner ad. The ability for a brand to create a compelling piece of content, have users spend time with it and then willingly share it has never been more important. Regardless of whether or not a brand has to pay to get consumers to see their media, Facebook is making a bold statement with this adjustment. They want people to spend time there. If people are annoyed or disengaged, Facebook fails. 

The brand imperative for Facebook seems clear. We have been given our marching orders. Let’s tell better stories.