How I Feel About Engagement Numbers

This Week In Writing, we discuss what engagement means and if I get discouraged by a perceived lack thereof. Plus, a look at the future (again).

How I Feel About Engagement Numbers
Photo by Tech Daily / Unsplash

Last week, I shared that my writing is about building community. Like I do all newsletters for now, I published it to my website, Medium, and Substack. Here's how things broke down, based on metrics available to me that are relatively similar across platforms:

  • Website: 56% open rate; zero comments
  • Medium: 47% read ratio; four comments
  • Substack: 35% open rate; one comment

Yes, we can argue that open rates and read ratios are different. And, yes, the numbers above don't factor in people who reply to the email (roughly six across platforms last week). But my point in sharing this is twofold:

  1. Substack is increasingly not worth my time, and
  2. I engaged with approximately 11 people (five comments and six emails) from last week's newsletter.

One of those comments on Medium asked if I get discouraged when posts get low engagement. Let me share my answer and then expand a bit:

I don't worry about the number of claps or responses. I value each response given by everyone.

Yes, it's a diplomatic answer. But it's also what I believe. I write to engage, and some posts will land with more folks than others. I have stories with hundreds of responses and some with zero. I've been around Medium long enough to remember when claps were hearts, and each reader could only give you one.

The reality is that I don't put a lot of stock in most metrics. What matters to me is getting to connect with others. Medium claps are basically impossible to derive any kind of meaning from. Email opens don't account for things like Apple's email tracking protection (which you should turn it on) or offline reads. Yes, these numbers tell us something, but if we put all of our stock in them, we're likely in for a bad time.

Instead, it's important for all writers to determine what metrics matter. Maybe it's read ratio, maybe it's claps. I don't know, you do you. For me, it's people I connect with and direct subscriptions on my website. These are two different numbers that provide two things:

  1. A feeling about what lands and what doesn't by the amount of people I connect with (comments/email responses), and
  2. A trackable metric that directly translates to people who value and support my writing.

At the end of the day, writing online and audience building is a long-term process. There are highs and lows -- plenty of lows. But, over time, it's a net positive filled with growth and connecting with awesome people.

In my book, I share the following very important and relevant anecdote:

Anyway, in early 2014, I rejoined Medium and did everything wrong. I didn’t start reading or following people. I didn’t start commenting. Instead, I joined and immediately published something I copied from my Tumblr.

The story didn’t do well. A month after publishing and ready to give up on the Medium experience (after a month? Who was I kidding!), I looked at the stats, and the story skyrocketed. It went from three views to 400 overnight. I was floored. The truth is, I got lucky. A Medium editor saw the story and curated it (before that was an official thing on the platform), bringing my words in front of new eyes.

Feeling good, I published another story. I did not get lucky twice. Years later, that second story remains largely unread. Posting a complete dud helped me realize that I needed to engage with people to build a dedicated audience.

I went back to my original story and looked at who clicked the heart button (before the clap), highlighted, and left notes. I responded to those people, followed them on Medium, and started reading what they wrote. In other words, I started engaging with people before expecting them to engage with me.

My first brush with “going viral” made me realize that none of us are entitled to an audience. We may like to think that people will come to us because of our greatness. In reality, we need to put in the work.

It's easy to let the numbers distract you. Don't get me wrong, metrics are important. But they're only important in aggregate. My advice? Determine what metrics you care about and pay attention to those. Ignore the rest and focus on writing instead.

About Website Subscriptions

Next week's issue of This Week In Writing will not be sent through Substack. Part of my ongoing transition away from the platform includes one monthly issue sent exclusively to my website subscribers and cross-posted to Medium. That issue is next week.

Now is a great time to move your subscription to my website so you don't miss out on the issue. Plus, if you're into a paying subscription, sign up with a 10% discount.

Curiously, a 10% discount on my website still nets more income than the equally priced Substack membership after their 10% cut. I'm decent at math, but I cannot figure that one out.

Anyway, the original plan was to carry out this once-a-month exclusivity for a few months while I finished building out the details. However, thanks to reader Arpit, I might just be able to speed everything up significantly. We'll see.

Either way, if you enjoy my writing, please consider moving from Substack to my website. Your information is safe, and I won't start algorithmically recommending things you probably don't want to read. Yeah, that's coming to Substack. And, given what they allow on the platform, I can't see it going well.

Ok, I'm off my soapbox.

Is the writer's strike over?

News broke yesterday that the WGA leadership agreed to a tentative deal with the producers. I hope this is good news for unionized writers in the entertainment industry. Legal reviews, language disclosures, and votes still need to take place, so it's not over over, but this is a positive development. If you have insight, I'm all ears. But, if you're in the WGA, I hope this is good news for you.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!