Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

Engagement lessons for publishers, from the Moon landing story

Astronaut Graffiti on Semi-Trailers

You know the story. 

On 20 July 1969, the Eagle module from Apollo 11 landed at Tranquility Base.

Hours later, at 21:56 CT (02:56 GMT), Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Although it may have been spurred on by the US’s Cold War-era rivalry with the Soviet Union, the motivations have become almost secondary: it was the moment itself that mattered. And what an iconic one it was: people from all over the globe gathered together to witness this awe-inspiring endeavor. The Moon landing became an event people of that era set their personal histories by: where were you when it happened?

The Moon landing was a huge moment for the press, too. According to many publishers and TV stations, it is still considered as the event of the century. Back then, almost every single newspaper in the world wrote about Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, and the Moon landing. 

On its 50th anniversary, the Moon landing and all its protagonists have once again found themselves in the spotlight. Unless you’ve been living under a rock on the dark side of the Earth’s biggest satellite (bad pun fully intended: we’re really leaning into this one) you have probably noticed a lot of articles online in the past weeks that recall this historic event and give an extra glimpse behind the curtain of what was going on in NASA during those seminal days.

We love the story behind the Moon landing, and we noticed that our clients do too. We also love analyzing trends and crunching data, so in agreement with our data science team, we decided to go where no content intelligence solution has gone before: jump into the content performance data of the domains within our network that wrote about the Moon landing, Neil Armstrong, and Apollo 11 in this anniversary year, and analyze their engagement.

Data sample and methodology

For this particular study, we collected non-aggregated data from 8 different publishers. Most of these publishers have audiences in different parts of the world. The stories we analyzed here were written in EnglishGerman, and Spanish

We looked at tags such as the Moon landingApollo 11, and Neil Armstrong.

Although July 20 was the day that the events of the Moon landing actually occurred, we decided to grab a bigger sample and focus on content published between June 1 and July 18. That way, we were able to see all the articles that were published on the subject: as a teaser before the anniversary, during the anniversary, and after (articles that talked more about the Moon landing and its protagonists).

In our sample, we saw 71 articles that generated a total of 74,911 article readsand 2,366 social actions, with an average true Attention Time of 87 seconds, average Page Depth of 2.58, and an average Read Depth of 54.59%.

While going through the data, we noticed that certain articles greatly outperformed others. In fact, it often went further than this: articles were either a total hit or a complete miss. 

Curious beings that we are, my colleagues Mia, Bojana, and I decided to investigate and look for patterns that indicate why that should be the case. We hope that our findings will help publishers decide how to cover other events and anniversaries like these.

Here goes.

Long-form still works

The majority of articles that generated more than 1,000 article reads in our study have proven to be lengthier than usual news content. Most of these articles have 700+ words in them. 

In today’s attention-deficit era where publishers need to bend over backwards just to earn a casual scroll down their content for the readers, this is a fact that bears repeating: people are not sick of content; they are sick of unengaging content that has no value for them. 

Once again we are presented with evidence that readers don’t mind investing extra effort into consuming bigger – and longer – articles if they deem them to be worth their time.

Looking at some of the lengthier pieces in our study, Article Reads is not the only metric that indicates the success of these particular pieces. In most cases, Read Depth is around 80%, which tells us that most readers actually read the pieces in their entirety. 

Yes, these pieces often demand more effort and time to create, but as our current study proves – readers are sending us the message that they think they’re worth the trouble.

As Earl J. Wilkinson, the CEO of INMA, once said: “90 percent of traffic is driven by 10 percent of your content.

The trick, of course, is to find that 10 percent and do your best to replicate only those successful formulas that speak to your readers and get them to commit to reading your content. So, grab that magnifying glass and start analyzing your existing content from every angle. Invest more time in building bigger, more informative pieces that capture the reader’s attention. Our study has shown that publishers who invested more into setting up the story and covering the topic from A to Z brought home the biggest and juiciest pieces of bacon.

Authenticity is what people care about

While analyzing the pieces that were the best in Article ReadsRead Depth, and Page Depth, we noticed something interesting: 8 out of 10 articles in this category contained authentic photos that helped readers visualize the story and really see the protagonists. They helped them feel the atmosphere behind the camera lens. 

In these articles, we saw not only photos of Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, and the whole NASA team that worked together with the astronauts to ensure the crew’s safe arrival on the Moon’s surface; we also saw captures of original documents like, for example, the letter Richard Nixon wrote in case there was some kind of disaster with the spacecraft. 

These images surely helped keep readers engaged and invested in the content that was laid in front of them. They added a whole extra layer to the stories and helped people connect the dots and make everything more real. The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is – it seems – more than just a cliche, and for good reason.

Visuals don’t just stand out at first sight; they’re also easier to remember. Visual aids can improve learning by up to 400 percent and can be processed 60,000 times faster than text alone. They are a crucial tool for publishers of all sizes and statures.

Adding relevant images and videos to articles that are more than just placeholders will always add more value to stories. Apart from breaking up the text, images and videos tell a story as much as the words do. The right visuals create connections and help users with shorter attention spans to quickly interpret specific articles and see if they are worth their attention.

So, in the case of the Moon landing, readers had the opportunity to see something that hadn’t been typically available to them, such as real historical digitized images from archives. This is something that truly grabs the attention and has an aura of exclusivity to it, making people stick around and share the content with their network.

Use controversy to your advantage

There’s hardly anything that’s more intriguing than various conspiracy theories regarding the Moon landing and similar great accomplishments from history.

Take a look at the Google Trends data and that spike of popularity in search of the phrase ‘is moon landing fake’, right after the date of the Moon landing anniversary:

Yep, some people are still not convinced. That fluttering flag is still getting tongues wagging, even half a century later.

So, why is controversy so tempting to readers?

It turns out that controversy is fun because it sparks conversations and it makes us think. It might mean confronting different arguments, or tickling our desire to find out something new on a subject that’s so widely discussed. We want to form our own beliefs and opinions by reasoning and critically assessing available facts. We want to participate and step into dialogue, whether it’s with someone else or internally – with what we thought was the truth.

This almost archetypal quest for the truth, combined with curiosity is what dictates the direction of readers’ attention.

Our data study showed that opinion posts and well-argued essays that played with the controversial side of the Moon landing were also exceptional at driving engagement. Some of them laid down factual evidence on why moon landing couldn’t possibly be faked, explained how this was the greatest event in history, opened up interesting questions such as whether or not humans should go back to the moon or discussed what will happen to Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon’s surface. 

The way headlines were formulated played a key part in grabbing audiences’ attention. They were mostly constructed in the form of a question (which certainly pushed readers towards reading the articles in their eternity) or had a ‘why’ in the title – which is the ultimate hook for any human being. We simply can’t resist it.

If you want to incorporate a bit of controversy to your own content, just make sure it’s moderately controversialresearch has shown that if a topic is too controversial, it might be perceived as too uncomfortable to be discussed. People like to take a stand and express their views, but if the topic is too complex or has an element of deputable ethics to it, readers might shy away from discussing it at all.

Expand on the topic: bring new information to the table, pay attention to micro-narratives

Sometimes, the best thing to do when covering a popular topic is to approach it from a fresh angle. 

As our study shows, articles that indirectly talked about the Moon landinghave also managed to generate great engagement. At the top of our list, we saw numerous pieces that talked about the books, music, and films that were inspired by the Apollo 11 mission and space travel in general. 

Of course, this is nothing new. Take every significant event in human history and Google it, and you’ll see similar types of articles. The Great Depression, World War I, World War II, the American Revolution, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall – these were all events that reshaped our lives and influenced art and culture. With a simple search, you will easily find a ton of listicles that mention which films and songs were influenced by, for example, the Great Depression.

This is an interesting approach that at the same time enables you to talk about the magnitude of the events that occurred and how specific moments in history influenced art and pop culture. It offers a different take on popular topics. 

That way, instead of doing what everyone else is doing, a couple of publishers were able to capitalize on the hype from a different angle by including often overlooked micro-narratives and adding context to it. They weighed-in with their take on a trending topic and put their unique spin on it.


To sum it up, those articles that generated a lot of engagement had one great thing in common: they all provoked emotions by making the content human, specific, and relatable.

In addition, it lifts the curtain up and invites readers to become passengers at that moment in history by delving into the social and cultural context in which it played out. Who wouldn’t be naturally curious about the music that was playing at the moment of lift-off, or anecdotes that bring color to grainy black and white footage?

These things remind us that history is not just a record of a sequence of events, but something altogether more extraordinary: telling the stories of humans that make us feel proud and connected to something greater than us. 

Blasting off

As you can see from everything written above, there are numerous different ways to ride the trend wave and generate great reader engagement from stories that everyone else is also writing about. The trick is to closely follow what others are doing and then look for lucrative opportunities that will actually help you expand on the topic and offer unique value – not just repeat what has been already said online. 

Reader engagement is all about understanding the needs of your audience and presenting your ideas so that it matches their taste and expectations. Content Insights helps you monitor the behavior of your audience and fine-tune your strategy to meet your readers’ needs.

by Goran Mirković

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.