5 tips for publishers to significantly increase reader engagement

Esra Celebi

The digital publishing world remains extremely competitive. Today's most successful publishers have therefore been investing more in reader engagement than in new customer acquisition for some time.

The digital publishing world remains extremely competitive. Today's most successful publishers have therefore been investing more in reader engagement than in new customer acquisition for some time.

The Financial Times (FT) now even spends around three times more on reader engagement than on new reader acquisition. However, 59% of all publishers do the opposite. When it comes to content creation, large publishers like the FT see that less is almost always more. The aging strategy of maximizing clicks and page views has failed. Instead, reader engagement is increasingly taking center stage.

In this article, I'd like to take a more in-depth look at reader engagement. In particular, I will cover the following topics:

  • Why reader engagement is important
  • How to properly measure reader engagement
  • Best practices for increasing reader engagement

1 Why reader engagement is important

Reader engagement is crucial these days for several reasons. But one of the most crucial reasons is that it can significantly increase a publisher's revenue.

According to media analyst Thomas Baekdal, readers are increasingly less interested in the number of articles published. Instead, they are looking for quality and articles that pique their interest. Eliminating the unnecessary ballast and offering high-quality articles leads to more subscribers and advertising revenue, according to the report. This makes sense. Because readers who see your articles as relevant and professional will continue to engage with them. They'll return to your site again and again, knowing that you're providing top-notch content. In parallel, they are more likely to spread your articles via social media and among their circle of acquaintances. This leads to a cascade effect and thus increases sales growth.

In practice, there are numerous examples of this. Publishers such as The Guardian, The Times of London and Le Monde have taken it upon themselves to reduce the number of their articles. This has led to growth in hits, dwell time and subscribers. The Post and Courier of South Carolina, for example, saw a 250% increase in digital subscriptions from 2017 to 2019. It achieved this growth by shifting its focus from page views to dwell time and minutes spent on its website.

"We could eliminate half of our journalistic offerings and our traffic would barely change - even if we didn't replace our offerings. What if we replaced it with content our readers really want?"

Josh Awtry, Editor-in-Chief News Strategy at USA Today Network.

2 How to properly measure reader engagement

So it's clear that reader engagement is something that many publishers should take more seriously. However, that's only part of the solution. Not only do you need to recognize the importance, but you also need to create a plan for how to measure and improve reader engagement.

To better understand how you can do this, it's helpful to study some successful publishers. Although your publisher doesn't have to adopt these metrics, of course, they are often a good place to start.

Financial Times & Wall Street Journal

The Financial Times, for example, has developed its own engagement score based on a mix of recency, frequency, and volume. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, takes a slightly different approach. It measures its reader engagement by relying on a metric called "active days." Active days is essentially the number of days a reader engages with content on the Wall Street Journal's website. In addition, the Wall Street Journal's so-called "Habit Project" is also worth noting. It uses 16 different "engagement opportunities" to increase the time WSJ readers spend on the site.

Reader Engagement: Habit Adoption Graph
An interesting finding from WSJ's "Project Habit" was that habits are formed very early.

The Telegraph

The Telegraph takes a different approach. The London publisher attaches great importance to the number of subscribers in order to measure its own reader engagement. The Telegraph has never publicly explained why exactly they place so much emphasis on this one metric. I simply assume that the newspaper's management believes that the number of subscribers indicates how many readers are so satisfied with the newspaper's offering that they are willing to pay for it.

Seattle Times

Furthermore, the Seattle Times is another great example of a publisher that takes a mixed approach. For example, the publisher measures three different types of metrics: Engagement, Ad Visibility, and Dwell Time. However, the newspaper goes one step further. It tracks 45 different actions when readers consume its content. Some of these actions include scrolling on the page in question and mouse movements. According to the Seattle Times, these metrics have helped the publisher generate over $30,000 in additional revenue.

Of course, there are many other KPIs that can be helpful to you. For starters, it's best for your team to focus on things like dwell time (also known as session duration), bounce rate, and returning visitors. Whatever you decide, the list above is a good start to help you measure reader engagement on your website.

3 Best Practices for Increasing Reader Engagement

Maximizing reader engagement also requires a significant amount of small-scale experimentation and analysis. Your team should always keep an eye on how your readers are responding. Then you can put more resources into what works and what doesn't work adjust.

Le Monde

The first way to increase reader engagement, as mentioned above, is to publish fewer but high-quality articles. Le Monde provides a good example of this. In 2017, the newspaper started to focus more on engagement. In this context, the French publisher decided to reduce the number of its articles by 25% while increasing its staff to 500 journalists. In the past, such a decision would likely have caused a lot of head-scratching, as publishers ultimately aimed to maximize the number of clicks. However, by reducing the number of articles, Le Monde was able to increase its online audience and, moreover, its print and digital circulation.

Times of London

The same applies to the Times of London. In summer 2019, the British newspaper published 15% fewer articles in its main digital news section. This came after it found that articles with additional or exclusive content performed above average compared to those that did not have such content. By focusing on these types of articles, the newspaper saw a 25% increase in dwell time.

Times of London screenshot showing that additional video content leads to high reader engagement

This example illustrates that a few, high-quality articles are better for reader engagement than a high number of lesser articles. In addition, be sure to consider the frequent use of emails. Emails are a critical component in any engagement strategies because of the relationship they build between the reader and the publisher. Whether you choose to use onboarding emails, regular newsletters, or something else, building this direct relationship with readers can pay off in spades for you. At this point, I'd like to mention Les Echos and the New York Times in particular.

Les Echos & New York Times

Les Echos, for example, found that readers who receive emails are more loyal than those who came to the Les Echos website via search engine or social media. The New York Times also found that newsletter subscribers are twice as likely to become paying subscribers as non-newsletter subscribers. So be sure to think about email in your efforts to increase reader engagement.

4 What are the main conclusions?

It pays to increase reader engagement. You should keep the following points in mind in particular.

  1. First, help build habits and reward those readers who visit your site regularly. NiemanLab's article provides some helpful tips. Building habits goes a long way towards creating sustainable reader engagement.
  2. Next, make sure you target your email subscribers. Specifically, target subscribers who have the highest tendency to unsubscribe. Publishers like Canada's Globe and Mail have had great success with this tactic.
  3. Third, delete the content that no one reads. You're just cluttering up your site and not helping anyone. The Times of London did this and found that deleting content that doesn't work is a great way to dramatically improve user experience.
  4. Fourth, surprise your readers with unexpected gifts. This way, you show your readers that you value them. Just one example: The Atlantic, for example, sent out small rewards to all readers - including a personalized baby gift for the birth to a particularly deserving reader.
  5. Finally, think about how you can improve reader engagement with new technology. For example, Die Welt, the German news giant, uses AI-based technology to automate and optimize article links. This approach significantly increased dwell time as well as engagement. In addition, publishers can consider text-to-speech technologies such as Amazon Polly to further increase engagement.


Increasing reader engagement is one of the most productive things your publisher can do. Not only does it make your readers happier, it also leads to higher sales. In other words, it's a win-win for your company and your readers.

So take this task seriously. Make sure you are listening to your readers. Remember that fewer articles are often more. Highlight particularly valuable articles and have the courage to delete poorly performing content. At the same time, make sure you're measuring key KPIs and take advantage of new technologies.

If you'd like to learn more about how to increase reader engagement with AI, check out our free webinar here. Want tips on how to take your reader engagement to the next level with Purple DS? Then contact one of our experts today.

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Kevin Kallenbach
Head of Sales