There’s a shift afoot in digital media, one that is reshaping approaches to content publishing, advertising and e-commerce.

It’s a shift away from chasing traffic in bulk, towards a more subtle measure of an audience. It is about the quality of a user’s visit – the time spent on a site, the depth of engagement. It is the rise of “attention minutes”, a term coined by one of the rising stars of the digital world.

Upworthy, the fast-growing platform that highlights feel-good stories from around the web, announced in February that it would measure and focus on attention minutes, over sheer traffic alone. The objective was to figure out how and how long users interact with a given piece of content, then to place a value on that interaction. It was, the website said, “a more nuanced, holistic measure” of one’s audience.

“We actually use attention minutes as a core company goal,” Ed Urgola, Upworthy’s head of marketing, told the Columbia Journalism Review.

“Everything from our content strategy, to the design and functionality of our site, to the way we speak to our communities on social platforms and via email is all informed in some way by attention minutes.”

On Monday, Upworthy released its formula, the source code it developed to track attention minutes, which set off a wave of digital media analysis. Upworthy framed the release as “the truth about what happens between the click and the share”.

It’s a direct retort to what could be called the BuzzFeed effect: a rabid play for user acquisition, in which digital publishers clamour for page views and monthly unique visits. As they do so, content like cute cat pictures, assorted fuzzy animals, and top 10 lists (or “listicles”, as they’re known) become more prevalent; they are the “click bait” that attracts hordes of readers, like so many bees to honey.

BuzzFeed stands by its approach, which is projected to bring in 150 million monthly uniques and $100 million in sales this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. But what Upworthy and others like it are doing is creating an alternative model, expanding the spectrum for publishers in how they measure and monetize content.

Part of the logic is that advertisers will come to value more meaningful forms of reader interaction. This is especially the case with the rise of native advertising, where the advertisement comes in the form of rich content embedded into a news site. As a landmark example, The New York Times published an advertisement for the Netflix series Orange is the New Black that came packaged as an in-depth, content-rich look at women inmates in US prisons.

Advertisers increasingly value engaged eyeballs; as a result, so does a growing body of publishers. It has been a trend in the making. In 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer launched an “engagement index”. That same year, Gawker Media said it had a formula to capture “recurring reader affection”. Even Chartbeat, now the go-to tool for audience metrics and measurement, tells us the industry norm is shifting towards engagement time – measures like return rates, time on site and time spent scrolling. The Upworthy announcement simply marked the moment where the trend hit the mainstream.

But there’s another reason for the shift away from clicks and towards interaction: across the media industry, a growing share of digital revenue is coming not from advertisers, but from readers themselves. Income from subscription fees, premium member services and reader donations is posting promising results for online publishers, according to the Pew Research Center.

That puts the user back at the centre of focus – not as a commodity, bought in bulk, but as an individual, engaged in the content experience. A more engaged user is one who is more willing to support a publication, by paying for its content.

“Engagement is repetition. It’s commitment,” writes the Nieman Journalism Lab. More than ever, it is up to publishers to seek out that commitment, to build a bond with its readers and encourage it to grow.

In the old adage, that which can be measured can be improved. So you can expect “attention minutes” and measures like it, seeking out a high-quality audience, to become the new norm.

Part of a series on the top ten trends in social media.

Author: Lara Setrakian is the Founder and Executive Editor of News Deeply. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States.

Image: A woman reads a book at her open air book store in Skopje . REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski