What Does Feedburner’s “Reach” Really Mean?

What’s the difference between feed subscribers and “reach?”

The popular service Feedburner, which manages and augments feeds (I use it for this blog), offers a wide range of measuring services to tell you how well you’re connecting with people via your feed.

One of its metrics, “Reach,” which is supposed to indicate active engagement by subscribers, was puzzling me. Today Feedburner tells me I have 2333 subscribers to the Feedburner version of the Contentious.com feed (including people who get my e-mail alerts via Feedblitz, which is generated from my Feedburner feed). However, my “reach” is only 206. What exactly does that mean?

I delved into it further. Bottom line: I have reason to suspect that, depending on your subscribers’ habits, Feedburner’s reach metric may be underestimating your level of audience engagement — perhaps drastically. Here’s why…

In this article (about TechCrunch, one of the most popular blogs that uses Feedburner), a Feedburner staffer explained:

“While the subscriber number is a measure of how many people have opted in to receive a feed, “Reach” is the total number of people who have taken action — viewed or clicked — on the content in a feed. At any given time, a certain percentage of the TechCrunch subscriber base is actively engaging with content and this “Reach” measurement provides this additional insight for a given day. Again, to use the example of a newspaper subscription, FeedBurner’s “Reach” calculation is akin to the number of people who have opened the newspaper and actually glanced at the Sudoko puzzle, as opposed to the guy who lets his paper sit out in the rain and get soggy while he’s spending the weekend in Medicine Hat. He’s still considered a subscriber, but just can’t get to his feeds right now.”

I was relieved to learn that my reach-to-subscriber ratio wasn’t abnormally low. That article continues:

“It is not uncommon to see very popular and active feeds with a small percentage reach engagement on any given day, even in a feed where 100% of the total subscriber base is active, simply because most subscribers don’t check all of their feeds every day.”

OK, so that makes sense — I know that my feed reader polls all my feeds a few times daily, but on most days I’m just scanning headlines and only clicking to read (in the browser built into my feed reader Newsfire) a few selected headlines.

Still, I wondered how Feedburner could tell how many people viewed the content in my feed. I can understand counting clicks, but “viewing” can mean a lot of things when you’re talking about a feed.

First of all, a lot of people subscribe to feeds (especially full-text feeds, like mine) for purposes of offline reading. This is especially true for people who prefer to peruse feeds on mobile devices — they’re usually paying for minutes, so it’s costly for them to stay connected any longer than they need to. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to switch to a full-text feed is because several Contentious readers told me they preferred offline reading and thus found my partial-content feed (which required you to click through to read the rest of a post) frustrating.

Secondly, people who subscribe to e-mail alerts often tend to read e-mail (including alerts) when they aren’t connected to the net. Those offline readers wouldn’t show up in Feedburner’s reach metric.

Finally, many people (especially those on dialup connections, and yes there still are a lot of dialup users out there) opt not to automatically download images on web pages or feeds, to speed overall access to content. Apparently, this can interfere with Feedburner’s tracking method.

How do I know that? I posted to the Feedburner support forum this morning to ask for clarification. Rick Klau responded:

Amy, you’re right, we can only measure ‘reads’ when a user is online, and using an application which renders HTML. If they’re not rendering images, or are not online at the time, we’re not going to capture the item view.”

So consider your audience. Are many of them likely to engage in offline reading, or not download images? If so, then Feedburner’s reach metric is almost certainly underestimating engagement through your feed.

Also, remember that a lot of site traffic comes from sources other than your feed — such as inbound links, search engines, word of mouth or discussion list referrals, and more. So if you want to understand more about your audience, it’s important to use web analytics (I use Google Analytics, which is good enough for my purposes) along with feed statistics.

…But engagement isn’t all about numbers. In fact, it’s mostly about quality, not quantity. I’ll discuss that in further posts.

Thanks to Rick Klau for clarifying this issue.

6 thoughts on What Does Feedburner’s “Reach” Really Mean?

  1. So you could artificially increase your reach by offering partial feeds? Sounds like the old publisher’s trick of increasing page views by splitting an article over several pages.

  2. “Reach” has always been a mystery to me as my blog readership increases. The more I read from Feedburner’s “help” information the more confused I get because of its ambiguity. I’m not sure Google knows how they’re measuring reach.

  3. Thanks for this – I only recently noticed the “reach” metrics as we rarely check our feedburner stats – we’ve got stats on site usage in any case, and feedburner was (originally) only intended to reduce server load rather than for any bells and whistles.

    What you say about full text feeds is interesting, however, we have moved away from full text feeds because these are always used by content scrapers whenever we have offered them. At least with a summary, people will have to access our website to read the information (rather than a third party website). Naturally, this depends upon your business model, but if you rely on users actually accessing your website at some stage, then its likely that summary feeds are the best compromise. In my opinion.

    In any case, this statistic does interest me and the main issue is having constantly updating feed as far as I can tell – the sites which have more regular content have more ‘reach’. However, unless you have a team of writers, it is likely this won’t be practicable.

  4. I was in doubt about this “reach” in feedburner. I prefer using the google analytics too, but I think that feedburner completes the analytics, supplying more informations about the readers.


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