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For years, I've claimed an "ultimate metric" for content. My claim went something like this:

The most important metric is internal search terms. When someone comes to your website and searches for something, it's like they came to your desk and said, "This is the thing I need most from you."

It was a pretty good elevator pitch, and mostly I stand by it. Not enough organizations track their search metrics.

(Lou Rosenfeld has written an entire book about this. I took his workshop based on the book, and it was revolutionary.)

But I've come to understand that there's another metric that matters.

We are what we consume.

I stole that sentence from Andrew Davies. He said it to me in a London conference room while we were doing due diligence on the acquisition of Idio, the company where he was CMO until late last year when Idio became part of Episerver.

It's a simple sentence, but a profound point. The content we choose to consume is a reflection of who we are as people. It tells the world what we like, what we dislike, what we want to learn more about, and how we choose to do that.

When we talk to privacy issues, they pretty much all boil down to "I don't want people knowing what I look at on the web." And why is this such a sensitive point?

Because we know that the content we consume is a window into the soul. It's the most telling story about what we hold dear.

We actively associate and disassociate ourselves with content to manipulate this perception. I'm reminded of the episode of Friends where they did the quiz show.

Ross: Rachel claims this is her favorite movie...
Chandler: Dangerous Liaisons
Ross: Her actual favorite movie is...
Joey: Weekend at Bernies!

[cut to Rachel looking sheepish]

And, of course, how many of us have put smart books on our coffee table -- books we'd like people to think we've read, but simply have to dust around every week? (If you're looking for suggestions, there are book lists on Goodreads for Pompous Books to Read in Public and Books I Read Just to Look Smart.)

I'm reminded of The Bradley Effect in politics. What people say they want is often not what they actually want, because what they actually want is something they can't or won't articulate. Usability testers see this all the time. Users will tell us they like or don't like some feature, but there's no substitute for sitting over their shoulder and watching them use a system to find out what they really do.

Likewise, when it comes to content, it's the content we actual consume that matters. We make time for the people, hobbies, and content that's important to us. And watching these consumption patterns are the trick to figuring out what your customers hold dear.

As marketers, we're forever in pursuit of the elusive concept of "engagement." Ask 10 people to define that word, and you're likely to get 11 definitions. No one can agree with any precision, but in general terms, it means that someone has slowed down their day just to think a bit longer about something we've produced. They took one extra minute to smell the metaphorical flower of our content.

I hate to use the overly dramatic word "savor," but it comes to mind. Given the sheer volume of content the average digital citizen is pelted with every day, if we can simply measure any level of measured consumption, well, that's something in this day and age. Three minutes to read an article is "savoring" in relative terms, and qualifies as "engagement" in the parlance of digital marketing.

What we can draw from content consumption patterns is intent, in both the singular and aggregate senses.

Singularly, our goal is to determine the intent of this user. What does this user want? If we accept that this user has a journey they are on, from first contact to conversion, how do we figure out that intent and move them down that journey?

(Right now, my aged cat is meowing at me incessantly. She has food, she doesn't need to go out, there's nothing wrong with her. She's just meowing at me, loudly and pointedly. Not 10 seconds ago, I found myself looking at her and saying, desperately, "What do you want?")

Our content strategy for each user boils down to the almost-mythic idea of "related content." Two words that sound easy in conversation (and -- frustratingly -- on wireframes) but are maddeningly difficult in practice. If a user looked at Content A, how do we use that to figure out what Content Z should be at the end of that line of engagement.

We can't, of course, so we need to connect the dots between Content A, B, C, D and so on. One piece of content might be an accident, two might be coincidental, but 20 is a pattern.

In aggregate, content consumption tells us what our audience wants, and lets us measure how far we are from a body of content that reflects that. If we categorize what our audience is consuming compared to what we have, then this is the most realistic gap analysis we could undertake.

At this point, it's worth mentioning that Idio (now Episerver Content Recommendations) does exactly this. It tracks what your audience consumes and categorizes those content habits by topic. Once we have this categorized, we can do two things:

  • Examine all the topics Visitor X has consumed, and match them to other content that reflects those topics. Whether they like it our not, the collective topics they have consumed accurately reflects what they want to see next.
  • Examine the topics all visitors have consumed, and compare those to the topic volume in all of our content. If we have lots of content about ferrets but people are consuming content about lemurs, that tells us something important.

Using this, we can more clearly direct our content strategy. We can stop speculating on what content a specific user might want, and use their history to guide them there. And we can stop speculating on what content we should produce next, and instead use the collective wisdom of our users in aggregate to make that decision for us.

Comedian George Jessel is quoted with, "Give the people what they want, and they'll come." (Hilariously, we were quipping about attendance at a rival's funeral.)

And this is fundamentally the core question of business in general, not only content in particular. The key question for each visitor and all visitors is "What do you want?" And the way we answer that is by looking at what they're actually consuming.

And therein lies the ultimate metric. The content we consume answers the question of what we want. Any content strategy that ignores that fundamental question, is irrelevant before it even starts.

Circling back to my original metric, I'm absolutely not indicting search metrics. Watching what people are searching for on your website is critically important.

But it belies the fact that what people say they want might not be what they actually want. The words they type into a search box might be a wild guess are what they think they want, but the search results they choose to engage with are a more informed statement of fact.

Remember, if we believed what Rachel told us, we'd have too much content about pre-revolutionary French romance and not enough about beach houses in the Hamptons.