The Content Marketing Metric You Absolutely Must Know

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (October 21, 2014)

Clickbait headline aside, this metric actually was a major shock to me and fundamentally changed AlleyWire's business model. I first heard of it from rockstar entrepreneur Kevin Ryan—Gilt Group Founder, and head honcho at Business Insider. Over coffee at his office I told him about the business plan for my media startup. He thought for a minute and then matter-of-factly said, "The one thing you have to remember is that more than 50% of your views for any piece of content will typically come three months or more after its posted." He added, that looking back at six months after posting we'd see even more audience compared to the first three months. At the time, I was incredulous, to say the least.

First, this statement flies in the face of much of the logic currently deployed by content marketers, digital ad companies, and media outlets. Specifically, that the front page matters above all, and, more generally, that expensive paid-for campaigns are required to skew viewership towards an earlier segment of the content's lifecycle. Second, I too was a victim of my own rationale and marketing education, imagining that AlleyWire's posts would receive a massive bump in their first week or two on-site and then have some trickling views for the remainder of their life.

How wrong I was. As the truth was revealed I began calling this phenomenon the Time-View Paradox.

As we dove a bit deeper into some of our other top-viewed stories we started to notice a general pattern—about three-quarters (75%) of all views for a piece of content come between the 4th and 9th month after posting.

Practical Applications of the Time-View Paradox

It is important to note the illogical reality of the Paradox applies both to evergreen content sites like AlleyWire as well as day-of/topical media sites like Business Insider. So long as the content hasn't become completely stale or untrue, the Paradox also applies to content marketing, especially thought leadership.

So what does this mean about user interaction and pathway architecture for websites? Quite simply, that very few people are actually typing in URLs like "www.alleywire.com" into their browsers, and instead are looking for certain keyword search strings to locate content. They then navigate to that content organically through their search engine of choice— Google by several orders of magnitude.

Further, this indicates that most traffic to a particular piece of content is done post-campaign (i.e. organically). Very few outlets I know engage in paid-for SEM and related tactics for specific pieces of content for more than a month or two. Ultimately, a well-planned and thoughtful organic SEO strategy (e.g. site architecture, metadata, H1 tags, etc.) will outweigh the upside of lower-RoI paid-for campaigns that generate up-front traffic "bumps" with dramatic fall-off—the sugar rush of the digital marketing age.

The downside of taking this purely organic approach, of course, is that if you are looking to monetize your content as part of a PPC or CPM ad-based campaign your revenue may not materialize immediately. This leads to a fascinating tangent about why ad-based monetization is the most ridiculous strategy for content plays and kills good journalism. While we'll save that conversation for another day, I can say that Mr. Ryan's statement did help push AlleyWire towards its current business model, which emphasizes revenue from long-term sponsorship, creative agency (AW/CS) projects, and subscription to its Thought-FULLTM technology platform. This in contrast to an audience-based CPM.

Furthermore, we architected our site with the idea in mind that the front page, while still an important part of navigation, wasn't the sole hub of on-site discovery. Rather, article landing pages, and category and subcategory landing pages, were given equal weight in terms of design and information architecture to ensure navigation flowed just as seamlessly from these landing spots.

Putting the Paradox to the Test 

The version 2.0 of the AlleyWire site, which applied the theory above, has been up since May 2014. What we found was that while around 15-16% of traffic from new users landed on our homepage, the rest (75-76%) were variations related to our corporate pages and specific article or category/subcategory landing pages. Further, while about 33% of our traffic was "direct or uncategorized" another 33% deposited from organic/Google search (the remainder made up of social referrals). AlleyWire is also an odd case in that we have put about $0.00 into any type of paid or promoted marketing, so our numbers skew a bit. But still, we start to see a microcosmic proof about site architecture not needing to be so heavily dependent on navigation through the home page.

More interestingly, was what we found in the analytics related to our top pieces of content. The three most viewed pieces on our site since launch were coverage about Instagram marketing app FollowMe, men's underwear company Flint & Tinder and feminine product firm HelloFlo. All have been on the site for at least nine months, posted at different times,  and represent a cross-section of subject matter—helping to weed out certain exogenous factors that might throw off our findings. Social media and any other external marketing for each piece was also usually done within the first week of its life on site.

The data was all rather surprising, and a bit more bell-curvey than we expected. And as we dove a bit deeper into some of our other top-viewed stories we started to notice a general pattern—about three-quarters (75%) of all views for a piece of content come between the 4th and 9th-month aggregate after posting. We further found that the first month typically makes up less than 10% of total traffic in the first nine months and that it was between the 4th and 6th months that viewership usually seemed to spike.

Now this all seemed very odd. We had informed the companies that their piece was live in the first week of its posting. Google typically crawled our pieces immediately. Any external media/marketing related to the piece was usually done in the first month or prior to posting. All of this seemed to defy standard reasoning, and to this day, I don't have a reasonable explanation for the Paradox—I simply bow to its power and adjust my plans accordingly.

A Few Parting Thoughts on the Paradox 

As the pieces sit on the site for additional months and years I imagine these numbers will spread out a bit, but the overall skew for the bulk of viewership will remain post-the first three months of on-site life. Anecdotally, having worked in both daily hard news and topical time-dependent digital media, I can recall similar analytics in terms of the discovery timeline. Similarly, as a marketer, organic content-based campaigns had discovery played out over a longer time stretch.

I'm certain that if I had put a heavy emphasis on paid social media, Google AdWords, paid linking/distribution that I could have skewed my curve a bit more towards a left-leaning distribution, i.e. more viewers earlier in the story's lifecycle. And perhaps these techniques would have raised the overall viewership.

I would contend, however, that this is a bit of fallacious reasoning. The numbers show that after the paid campaign would wear off that, over time, organic numbers would likely vault above that initial paid-for bump, albeit perhaps at the nine or 12-month mark.

The point of all this is to help you understand the somewhat unpredictable psychology of organic viewership and content discovery. On the one hand, this discussion may reframe your understanding of how website architecture and organic SEO occurs. On the other, this should help you manage your and your partners/clients expectations, i.e. that its more likely that discovery will happen over time. Of course, there's always the chance that something goes viral and takes off with lightning speed, but that's the exception, not the rule. In general, patience and persistence are what will drive the bulk of your viewership—a bit unsexy, I know.

The final point to drive home is that banking a media business model on ad-based 1-3 month PPC or CPM campaigns is folly. So too is banking a content marketing campaign on paid discovery efforts. Both scenarios put you in the unenviable position of having to (over)pay for additional eyeballs to prove "value" to your advertisers and c-suite executives (in turn lowering your RoI).

Now, if you had simply waited, high-quality organic traffic would have flowed over time—assuming your content is engaging. I would further posit that the low-quality referrals made through paid-for discovery have less organic engagement/sharing habits than those users acquired over the long-haul, which is why AlleyWire's organic-only traffic is continuous and steady months after posting.

When it comes to the Time-View Paradox, patience is a virtue, and I remain thankful to Kevin Ryan for his early words of wisdom that helped lead me away from the standard (and expensive) audience-mongering, home page-heavy model. My hope is that my words here will have the same effect on you.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair