When your company is growing at full speed, it's tempting to assume you're doing everything right. It can be both tough and terrifying to slam on the breaks or suddenly shift gears. But companies like Zynga and Groupon offer cautionary tales of what can happen when you assume that what made you successful to begin with will work forever--you run the risk of ignoring early warning signs and falling off a cliff.

Upworthy, if all goes well, will not be one of those companies. In a new blog post Thursday, the insanely fast-growing purveyor of inspiring video content, wrote that it was taking a new approach to gauging success, one that's based not on unique visitors, page views, or time on the site, but user engagement. They're calling this metric "attention minutes."

Shifting Gears

One reason for this new tack may be that Upworthy's leadership has noticed the sudden backlash against clickbait that's spreading among consumers. What made the site so successful originally was its hyperbolic and mysterious headlines ("At First You'll Be Confused By the Story In the Beginning, But Then It Hits You Like a Ton Of Bricks"). The trick helped Upworthy grow from 5 million monthly unique visitors in January 2013 to more than 45 million by October 2013. But gradually, readers have figured out the formula--it's one used not just by Upworthy but also on sites like Buzzfeed and ViralNova--and clickbait fatigue has started to set in.

Upworthy makes no mention of this trend in the blog post, but judging by its shifting focus from quantity of clicks to quality of engagement, the team over there seems to see the writing on the wall. "We love thinking this way because it rewards us for sharing content that people really enjoy and find valuable--not just stuff they click on a lot," the post reads. "It may mean that we don’t do quite as well on uniques or pageviews, but that's a tradeoff we're happy to make because this is a metric focused on real audience satisfaction."

The Long View

It's a lesson in the importance of paying attention to the numbers in business and of listening not only to what the numbers are saying, but what they're not saying. Upworthy, the post says, had been monitoring page views and unique visitors, but one thing neither of those numbers told them was how engaged people were. Maintaining engagement, after all, is the key to longevity for any business. 

And so, Upworthy has come up with "attention minutes." More accurate than "Time on Page," a metric Google Analytics provides, attention minutes are based on data like whether a video is currently playing or which browser tab is currently open. "The result is a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or whether they’ve moved on to the next thing," the post reads.

The very cool part of all this is that Upworthy is making its source code public for other companies to use in the coming months, in hopes that they, too, may be able to adjust their strategies before it's too late. "The media landscape is constantly changing," the post reads, "and how we judge success needs to evolve constantly, too."