In this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Project report, “Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2016,” Author Nic Newman said that this will be the year of audience engagement — with more than half of all respondents in his study acknowledging that improving audience engagement would be the highest of their priorities in 2016.

Audience engagement is a catch-all phrase that digital publishers have used to describe . . . what, exactly? Number of comments? Social shares? Time on site? It is clear that the industry is divided on how to define audience engagement, and even measure it.

To help define this broadly used term, Parse.ly launched a survey and asked thousands of digital media professionals to share their definitions of “audience engagement.” More than 130 responses from a range of digital publishers provided the following conclusions.

There’s no common definition for “audience engagement” among digital publishers

Fewer than half of digital publishers have established an agreed upon definition of the term. That means that newsrooms, globally, are pushing writers and editors to achieve goals that have not been clearly defined.

Question 1

This lack of focus can be dangerous for an industry searching for monetization and fighting off advances from Facebook for audience ownership. Sachin Kamdar, co-founder and CEO at Parse.ly, recommends: “Digital publishers are now more diverse than ever; however, with diversity comes a need for focus. That means focusing on goal setting before measurement.”

Lack of definition for “audience engagement” doesn’t stop measurement efforts

Although the majority of digital publishers lack a clear understanding of how their sites define audience engagement, nearly 77 percent consider the ways that they measure engagement to be average or better.

Question 2

Perhaps one reason that digital publishers are so confident in their measurement is that they have more access than ever to analytics that can help them to better understand their audience. While some publications have a clear sense of how to use this data to help meet their goals, other media outlets are struggling because they don’t have a universal sense of what goals they are trying to reach.

Using analytics to determine what content is driving visitors to your site, and why, is a good first step; but, without a clear definition of what audience engagement looks like at your organization, media outlets can only tap into a fraction of the capability that having an analytics system gives them. John Levitt, general manager at Parse.ly, reminds digital publishers: “All audiences and all content are not the same.”

While some audiences may really value being able to get a quick summary of an important news topic, others may be looking for a more in-depth piece. “If you’re giving the audience exactly what they want and they value this experience,” says Levitt, “they will be more likely to come back day after day.”

Measuring “audience engagement” means many things to many people

According to digital publishers, shares and engaged time seem to be the best representation of audience engagement — with 85 percent of respondents considering shares and 82 percent considering engaged time.

To demonstrate the how complicated this definition can get, take the engagement metric, “comments.” In 2013, Popular Science shut off readers’ ability to comment on published posts; the publication cited research that biased comments negatively impact reader perceptions of — and engagement in — specific content. On the other hand, The New York Times has invested in a team of people to moderate its lively comments section and ensure that its audience remains engaged through this channel. The publication pulls top comments directly into its analytics system, Stela.

Another example: Only 28 percent of Parse.ly’s survey respondents considered “offline impact” or “other” a representation of engagement. Yet, when asked to share anecdotes that represented particularly good examples of audience engagement, many digital publishers described audience engagement as a personal relationship or interaction with readers — with one respondent even stating directly that engagement is when “you can see your work having a palpable impact on policy or public opinion, or ‘getting the ball rolling’ on something readers care about, you should, by definition, be engaging your readers.”

Here are other responses our respondents shared to best demonstrate audience engagement:

  • “Personal replies that make me smile or think.”
  • “A two-way relationship with the people in our community.”
  • “To interact in any way with the content or the author — write a comment, answer a poll, follow the author, share, etc.”
  • “When our audience responds with a question, especially.”

Can audience engagement editors bring clarity?

A relatively new job in digital newsrooms, audience engagement editors are now charged with shaping how writers are covering the news, and how readers are consuming it. According to Parse.ly CEO Sachin Kamdar, an audience engagement editor’s goal is “to connect the editorial team to its loyal readers.”

Working at the intersection of analytics and editorial, the role “combines metrics — like how many unique visitors the site receives and how long they spend on the site — with demographics, like who these visitors are and where they come from.” All of this information must then be translated back into an editorial strategy that encourages an audience to take specific actions.

And whether you’re an audience engagement editor or you fulfill a more traditional role in the newsroom, the onus is on everyone to take an active role in defining and achieving audience goals. Analytics go a long way in helping digital publishers to track their audience, but to truly understand engagement, you need to clearly define the problem you are trying to solve and the metrics your team can use to help find a solution.