shares don't equate to reads

Why Social Shares Don’t Really Equate to Reads—And What Does Matter to the Success Of One Piece of Content

20 shares.

That’s all I had to show for a new blog post I’d worked three weeks on.

I stared at the screen in frustration.

8 hours later, a decent amount of promotion, and just 20 shares.

I’d assembled key automation strategies I’d learned over a 9-month span and laid out the information, with many accompanying screenshots, in a blog post that went live on my site that morning.

What happened?

content social shares don't equal reads

The Day I Learned the Truth About Social Shares

As I twiddled my thumbs, I decided to randomly email the blog to my list. I’d already shared it in all the social groups I’m in, and our online profiles (my promotions done at 10 am that morning).

So, at 2 PM on a Tuesday afternoon, I sat down and scheduled a very simple campaign in ConvertKit. It took me <10 minutes. The email content was dead simple, just a few lines about why I liked this blog post I wrote (straight from the heart, because I put my heart into writing it):

email campaign convertkit

2 PM rolled around. Sent.

I hit refresh in ConvertKit’s broadcast section. 25 people read the email in the first 5 minutes of sending. 5 people clicked through. Refresh. 55 people. Refresh. 60.

I checked back in an hour. 200 reads. Over the next twelve hours, 557 people on my list opened that email. In total, 12.5% of my 4,444 email subscribers read it. 60 clicks. 12 unsubscribers.

sending a convertkit email

On average, I’ve been getting a 10-11% open rate on the same list, and a 1% click rate, so those stats were good for my list. (This list is five years old and needs some serious cleaning).

P.S.: It since climbed up to 13% open rate as of September 16.

That evening, an email and a comment on the piece landed in my inbox from a marketer I revere—the CEO of Scoop.it, Guillaume Decugis. The comment he left was very well thought-out and added a lot to my blog. That same hour, I received another reply asking about our writing services.

The next morning, a chat message came in thanking me for the article and asking me to explain a step I’d detailed near the end. Another comment came in the article discussing how the tool I’d mentioned, Commun.it, looked like it should be avoided. Buffer even came in and left a comment on the blog post, thanking me for mentioning them. On LinkedIn, I had several more messages from readers and group comments.

The comments I was reading told me these people had read my article—to the very last word. I was ecstatic. This piece I painstakingly put together had actually helped several people.

I looked at my social shares again after the whirlwind of messages from readers.

25.

Really, though?

And then it hit me…

Why am I looking at the number of social shares?

Why am I sitting here, counting numbers?

Isn’t it nothing more than…a figure?

What does it represent? What does it mean?

Relationships and conversations is what I really want to happen around my content.

And wait, didn’t some of that already start around this very content piece already?

Why Shares Don’t Matter a Fragment as Much As Real Conversation Does

Another content piece on my site has had over 1,000 shares since it was posted live last December.

But not one comment. Or a real inquiry dropped in my email. Or a chat message left from a reader on what they learned from it (or what they didn’t learn–I welcome both).

Not anything like what I’d received in less than a day on yesterday’s piece.

24 measly shares on my about carefully written and planned blog on automation in content marketing, and yet there was real conversation and even some ROI happening from it.

So, which content piece returned in more value for me?

The one with 24 shares, or the one with 1k? You can guess my answer.

What if we have it all wrong—it doesn’t matter how many social shares you have at all, what really matters is are you reaching real people, are they reading the whole thing, and are they gaining something from it?

Shocking Fact: What If A Lot of People Sharing Aren’t Actually Reading What They Share?

I write content for several highly sought-after guest blogs. On one site, each piece gets on average 800-1,000 shares. The minute the new pieces go live, I get incoming Twitter notifications like nobody’s business: “@JuliaEMcCoy wrote a new piece on XYZ at Acme.” Times that by 200-300 people in the first hour it was published.

I’ve asked myself, have any of those people read my piece?

It’s especially suspicious when the tweet goes out literally moments after my piece went live. Wait, you can’t read THAT fast, can you? A 1,500-word piece read in 30-60 seconds?

Hey, I’ll admit it. I’ve shared content I haven’t read in full—but, I can tell you truthfully, I’ve never shared a content piece I haven’t read at least a part of. And I mean more than just the headline. I’ll even share a content piece if a major statistic stands out from it in the body.

But, what if the majority of the shares going out are from people that haven’t even consumed a part of your article?

This scary theory has already been put to the test…and here’s what was found.

In 2014, NPR ran an experiment. They wrote and published an article entitled “Why Doesn’t Anybody Read Anymore?” to Facebook.

npr joke

The results were overwhelming, in the comments and shares. People pointed fingers, debated the topic, accused the rise of cell phones and the use of ebook devices as the reasons why reading was on the downtrend. Society had fallen. Everybody confirmed and summarized the worst about the new generation.

The content of the article, if people had actually clicked through and read before commenting or sharing, was:

Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day!

We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’

Hah!

Another study, a global survey by SurveyMonkey and [email protected], found that people share for two reasons: to promote an issue or a cause, and secondly, to keep in touch. Another big reason (13%) was “because it defines my personality.” Wait—not because of the content itself?

To back that up, a study by Adweek shows that 68% of people share to get a “better sense of who they are and what they care about.”

Now check out this. The CEO of Chartbeat, a major measurement tool for content creators, said this a couple years ago:

He shared this graph:

do we read what we share

If attention spans are on the downtrend—from 12 seconds to 8, how much more true are Tony’s findings today?

How To Know For Sure Your Content Has Been Read, Not Just Shared

So, how do you know if you’re creating content that’s being read, not just shared?

Two reasons. Simple.

One, if your content sucks, it won’t be read. Sorry to break it to you. Jon Morrow has a fantastic list of 20 warning signs of sucky content so you know if you’re in the red (or not). Not breaking up your content enough, a high bounce rate, focusing on SEO not great content, not capitalizing on your best ideas, are a few of those signs.

The biggest sign your content is being read is if you are actually hearing from readers. You’re on the right path, if so. And I don’t care if it’s one comment or fifty. One real comment from a real reader tells you that someone out there thought your content was good enough to not only click through, but read the whole thing and then leave a comment. You’re on the right path. Aim for more of that every time.

Real reader feedback, in the form of comments, emails, and messages means that your content is worth being read. And that’s worth more than just the figures on your social share bar.

A Few Ways to Create Content That Actually Gets Read

1. Create your best content, consistently

Once you find real readers, they’re going to want to have a reason to read.

And you have to be creating darn good content to keep them coming back. Your best, in fact. Nothing less.

It’s been said once…

It’s been said twice…

And it’s been said way more than twice around the web….

kissmetrics

Screenshot of this Kissmetrics article

neil patel

Screenshot of Neil’s article here

(Yes, the tweets shown may in fact be a blatant promotion of our amazing #ContentWritingChat that happens Tuesdays at 10 AM CST on @ExpWriters. You’re welcome. 😉 )

And, you can’t just create your best content one time — you have to repeat that over and over, to provide consistency that readers will come back for.

joe pulizzi quote

Joe Pulizzi, CMI

How do you know you’ve created your best content?

Well, how proud are you of it?

Would you share it with every last person in your lists, and say proudly, this is what I wrote!

Being immensely proud of what you create often means it really is your best.

2. Create useful content

Right next to asking yourself if it’s your best, you need to ask yourself, how useful is this content piece to my audience?

You can be really proud of something that isn’t fully audience-relevant and useful, so make sure whatever you put together in the form of a guide is long-form, addresses every question, and goes in-depth enough.

Satisfy curiosity and offer complete answers.

Did you tell us about a tool? You better show us what that tool does, how it worked for you, and any ROI or real results you got from it. And include screenshots along the way. Oh, and if the tool costs money, it would help us to know what constitutes a free trial and what the paid subscription looks like.

Go in-depth.

More on this in my 12 step guide on creating engaging content.

3. Get visual–and go beyond general or average

If we were in the ‘90s, you could probably get away with just a well-chosen stock image per content piece. But today, you better have a king and a queen in the game with visuals if you want to win at content marketing chess.

One thing I’ve noticed in the blogs I love, as well as those that rank the most in reads, are the amount of graphics they add. We’re talking screenshots of every single detail they talk about. And where it applies, embed codes for even more interaction: embedded tweets, like I’ve done in this piece, not just screenshots of a tweet. Embedded Facebook, Instagram posts. Custom graphs to represent the numbers written down.

In this post by my friend Joanna Wiebe at Copyhackers (shared almost 4.9k times–and featuring 139 comments), there’s even a visualized, linked table of contents so you can get around the massive content quickly. And check out the images. Man. You’d almost think it’s full of ads till you realize she’s talking about how copywriting formulas happen real-time in common ads, and she’s visualizing every ad she’s talking about. Killer!

Here’s some unique ideas for visuals, besides the requirements of visualizing (screenshots, charts, etc) everything you talk about.

Never say never, because the opportunities for visuals in your content are endless. Truly.

never say never

Stop Counting the Numbers On Your Social Shares Bar

What if that detracted you from things that really matter?

As in going and getting more readers?

I could have stopped at the dismal 20-share count. But instead, I sent a random email at 2 PM to my list. We’re also emailing the piece again to our list in a newsletter roundup going out soon. And emailing it in a couple weeks to another separate list. (Email is where it’s at. I have a guide on email copywriting here.)

With every comment, email, and chat message that came in, I took the time to reply and thank every single person.

And that’s what made the difference.

Focus on actions that result in real traffic, reads, and more ROI–and don’t just think about a number that increases or decreases, but doesn’t mean squat in the end goals your content should be focused on.

Get content to fuel your online presence from our talented, proven writing team at Express Writers.

6 replies
  1. Edanry
    Edanry says:

    In social media marketing, this topic is akin to the discussion of reach v. engagements. Just because you reach the eyes of many does not mean they have engaged with and read the content. Also, a HUGE, HUGE piece of this puzzle has been missed, and it actually confirmed one of my own theories! Looking at the graph by Tony Haile, and analyzing the fork of clusters going outward, we’re able to extract three conclusions.

    1) Most articles are neither read nor shared.
    2) Of articles that are highly shared, they are mostly highly unread.
    3) Of articles that are highly read, they are mostly are highly unshared.

    This drives us to the point that social shares may not always be a good statistic. I have theorized for awhile that if someone truly reads an article, they are not as compelled to share it once they are finished. They are satisfied with what they read, and once this fulfillment is reached, the urge to share may dissipitate. Alternatively, we live in a world of readers and sharers, followers and leaders. Leaders like to read and followers like to share. I am under the impression that leaders are compelled to know and understand content that is shared, while followers are compelled to share information without giving much regard to whether they’ve fact-checked or thoroughly understand what they’ve shared.

    Looking at it from a simpler point of view, people aren’t sharing articles. If I share an article on Facebook, I’m not sharing a piece of paper. I’m sharing a picture, a title, and a short meta description; that is literally what you see when I share. A post is a piece of content all its own, and an article behind a link is content behind content. It’s not that people are reading less, is that they are reading nuggets of words across a news feed instead of opening several tabs and diving in. People prefer beer flights instead of a big cup of their favorite draft.

    To take this one step further and to avoid the assumption that high shares almost always equals low reads, we need to then analyze our medium. The medium in which you share through defines the psychographic of your audience. Two mediums may have the same demographic, but these demographics certainly have different behaviors. Your email subscription list and the readers of Associated Press might belong to similar demographics, but your email subscription list has no intuitive share button like you’d see on Facebook. Chances are that what would normally result in a share may end up being a lack of action or a simple “open” interaction, and nothing more. People’s aversions to reading their email differ from their addiction to scrolling a news feed just as well. But those who actually want to read their email are more likely to click on what you share with them and read it, quality readers who don’t mind diving into content they’ve subscribed to in the first place.

    The platform on which you share has a large effect on whether people read, share, or simply scroll by. I would much rather share an article about choosing a dog breed, equipped with a cute thumbnail, on a Facebook page with 1,000 dog lovers than a Facebook page with 1,000,000 music lovers. The latter may in fact result in more reach, shares, and even clicks, because music lovers may love dogs just as well, and the cute thumbnail with flashy headline is the majority of the content they’re actually enjoying, not the article. But the dog lovers have the true incentive to click and read the piece through, because actually selecting a dog breed interests them just as much as the headline and picture.

    You may receive information via mail, phone call, email, text, or word of mouth, but you have preferences in which medium you prefer to receive that information, and it’s dependent on the type of information as well. People don’t like mail if they’re used to seeing bills. I myself love a phone call because I prefer talking instead of reading. Optimizing your content marketing for reads instead of shares is all about going deeper into the understanding of the demographic, and analyzing the characteristics of the psychographic, a lesser known and lesser used framework that is very useful if you learn to aggregate the data and create your marketing strategy around it.

    P.S. Depending on how you generate your money, shares may be more important than reads. Most of us here at EW and friends prioritize reads due to conversion of leads and more reads. However, those who rely on advertisement revenue may not care whether something is read or not, as long as it is clicked and leads to a click on one of their ads. The way you generate income plays a big role in whether people reading your article actually matters or not.

    To revisit the dog breed article example, I would actually share it on the music lovers page if my goal was to get people to click and be distracted by ad revenue. On the other hand, if I am advertising a service that assists people with the selection and adoption of a new dog, I would use the dog lovers page. But the former is what content mills do, and it’s an uglier side of content that feeds on people’s squirrel-like attention spans instead of enriching them with a wholesome experience. As writers who prefer a good read all the way through, we must fight a hard fight and work against the people who are good at creating eye candy but back it up with mediocre content.

    Reply
    • Julia McCoy
      Julia McCoy says:

      ….And this is why you’re an editor at Express Writers. 😉 THIS is an amazing summary…

      2) Of articles that are highly shared, they are mostly highly unread.
      3) Of articles that are highly read, they are mostly are highly unshared.

      and this is a wonderful observation…

      But the dog lovers have the true incentive to click and read the piece through, because actually selecting a dog breed interests them just as much as the headline and picture. & To revisit the dog breed article example, I would actually share it on the music lovers page if my goal was to get people to click and be distracted by ad revenue. On the other hand, if I am advertising a service that assists people with the selection and adoption of a new dog, I would use the dog lovers page. But the former is what content mills do…

      I love your analytical brain, E! Thanks for leaving this thoughtful comment – it adds so much to this content piece as a whole.

      Reply
      • Edanry
        Edanry says:

        Thank you for the feedback! To leave off on a simple note, a share is still important, because it’s the opportunity for others to read or continue sharing that content. So shares will always be an important part of getting your readers to be your marketers too.

        Reply
  2. PrimitiveStarQuiltShop
    PrimitiveStarQuiltShop says:

    Great article and I actually did read it all the way through! However that is most often the case with the inbox messages I get from Express Writers. Thanks so much for all content advice you share with us!

    Jacki

    Reply
  3. David C. Smith
    David C. Smith says:

    Great post Julia. You’ve been moving up on my reading list and I’m much better (a) marketing professional and (b) writer, because of it. Thanks for the honest look at what really matters and how that isn’t always represented by a number or graph.

    Reply

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