Image by epSos.de via Flickr.

Image by epSos.de via Flickr.

Like it or hate it, Upworthy is undeniably good at attracting visitors. Over the past two years headlines have touted the startup’s impossible hockey stick growth.

But the startup doesn’t pay much attention to those numbers. Instead, Upworthy and others are rejecting metrics like pageviews and unique visitors in favor of “attention minutes” to measure their success. And marketers should pay attention.

Since the early 1990s, publishers have tracked the all-important pageview and unique visitor metric because they were relatively easy to capture.

Thanks to emerging real-time tracking technologies, however, a publisher now has the ability to track how long a reader spends on an article, whether the reader finished it, and where she goes after reading it.

These new technologies enable us to track an enormous amount of data about our audience, but marketers need to identify the most important information to track before falling victim to data overload.

Active duration can tell a content marketer how much time a reader spends looking at his content and absorbing his brand message and what types of content resonate the most.

In other words, measuring unique visitors versus active duration is similar to measuring people who walk past your store in a mall: If you’re just measuring pageviews or unique visitors, you’re counting window shoppers and those who walk in to your store as the same.

But what you really want to know is how many people walk in to your store, engage with your store experience, and ultimately, make it to your cash register.

Pageviews and unique visitors are vanity metrics

Content syndication increases traffic, but doesn't guarantee site duration. Image via Outbrain.

Content syndication increases traffic, but doesn’t guarantee site duration. Image via Outbrain.

It’s easy to inflate your pageviews and unique visitors through acquired distribution via sponsored posts on social networks, search engine marketing, and through content syndication platforms like Outbrain and Taboola.

With a large enough budget and some clever copy, you can drive enormous flows of traffic to your content. As ViralNova, BuzzFeed, and Upworthy have shown, a clever title and sponsored posts can lead to hundreds of thousands of unique visitors for old content.

But what happens when people arrive at your content from these sources? A recent study from the Pew Journalism Research Project found that traffic coming from social and search to the world’s largest media companies has significantly lower duration rates than direct visitors.

This data demonstrates why it’s misleading to measure success with pageviews and uniques. You might be attracting a lot of people from social sites, but unless you optimize for duration, there is a good chance many of them won’t stick around.

As The Verge points out, even your most popular content on social networks doesn’t necessarily indicate that your audience is spending time on it. And as we’re learning, it’s time that matters most. This means that optimizing the experience for duration requires different design and distribution choices.

Duration on an article is time spent with your brand

Fact: We’re an attention-starved culture. Case in point, Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn reports that the average attention span of an American is now even shorter than that of a goldfish.

If you can overcome this attention deficit and keep people on your site and reading your content, you’ve driven enormous value to your brand. Looking at it another way, if the average reader spends more than 30 seconds on your content, you’ve captured his attention for longer than a standard TV commercial.

In 2013, Chartbeat proved that as you increase the time a person spends with your brand messaging, her recall of your brand increases.  So, you should be focusing on the right metric, time, to maximize your content marketing budget and brand awareness.

This Chartbeat graph shows that as engagement with branded content increases, so does brand recall.

This Chartbeat graph shows that as engagement with branded content increases, so does brand recall.

Your brand’s message sticks with increased duration

Getting people on your site or reading your content is one thing, getting them to keep coming back is another. But if you can manage it, and as BuzzFeed case studies show, engaging content increases brand awareness and affinity.

The trick, then, involves continually testing the types of content that keep your visitors actively engaged with your content longer. Dissecting your audience based on the referral source (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) and the topics your content covers can reveal what’s most interesting to each of your audience subgroups.

Once a marketer understands how her audiences are engaging with her content (rather than just what they’re clicking on), she can spend her distribution budget more effectively.

You should be spending your budget on content that your audience will stop and read, rather than just share or click on. When your audience stops and thinks about what you’re saying, they’re actually absorbing your brand message.

Don’t be fooled by vanity metrics like pageviews, uniques, shares, and retweets. Liking a status or clicking a link takes a lot less attention and thought than reading an article, watching a video, or contributing feedback.

And as startups like Upworthy and Medium are advocating – and proving – it’s not the click or pageview that matters, it’s the time spent on the page that really makes the difference.