Defining Engagement

by · April 25, 201239 comments

Apparently, my little tome on Engagement Monday worked a few folks up. From some questioning my credibility because I used a swear word a few times in the post (Have you seen my book? Heh.) to some really intelligent discourse and discussion, the comments and even the ensuing back-and-forth with folks on Twitter was a nice stroll down memory lane. It’s neat to see a blog post spark real conversation again. It seems like few do these days (mine or otherwise).

Rachel Kay even went so far as to use the topic to inspire her own reaction in which she declared that conversation wasn’t enough for paying clients who want metrics. (I love it when smart people add layers of perspective to my blog posts.)

Rachel said her clients, “want to see subscriptions, referrals, reviews, sales, etc. You know, engagement.” Her point of disagreement with me was that if I defined engagement as conversation, then it wasn’t a result.

While her argument was sound, I think there’s some reason to better define some of the nuances here. The metrics her clients want to see aren’t engagement, per say. They’re the measurable outcomes of calls-to-action. Dell Outlet can spit out links to discounted products all day, never really engaging their audience (other than the brief moment of attention paid to the Tweet in question … more on engagement in a moment), and drive sales. While these measures of marketing success can certainly result from high levels of engagement, they alone are not.

Conversation is engagement, but engagement isn’t solely defined by conversation. Rachel challenged me to better define engagement, so here goes:

Engagement is communicating well enough that the audience pays attention.

This is inclusive of the calls-to-action which drive the metrics Rachel’s (and all of our) clients covet. If I Tweet or post or email a 10% off coupon to my audience, that communication engages those who see the information and pause to click or print, then trade it in for their discount.

This definition allows for a passive audience member who simply watches, reads, learns and occupies their mind with our blog posts, Facebook statuses and Tweets, even if just for a moment, then moving on. It also accounts for those who take that engagement further and comment, Like, +1 or share.

This definition certainly accounts for the conversation. The audience is paying so much attention they’re actually participating in the exchange of ideas as a result.

To engage an audience is to hold their attention. It doesn’t require a reaction from them, though certainly that spells a greater level of engagement.

Rachel was caught up on my statement that engagement isn’t a goal, it’s a result. By result, she thought I meant that’s what you measure. I was actually speaking philosophically about how brands approach engagement. It’s become apparent to me that many are looking at engagement as a goal. So they manufacture lists of posts to make that will hopefully get more likes and shares so they can produce metrics of more likes and shares for their bosses or clients. Their goal is to drive more metrics, which they look at collectively and call “engagement.”

My argument is they shouldn’t focus on engagement as if it’s some sort of task on a check list. They should actually have conversations, ask questions and present ideas that the audiences will find interesting and react to. If they do that, rather than checking off the tasks they’ve invented to create “engagement” … or better said “engagement metrics,” then the metrics happen naturally and probably at higher rates of success than the other approach. And yes, you can mix in your calls-to-action and even sales opportunities in your conversations. I’m not advocating chit-chat for chit-chat’s sake.

The difference between thinking of engagement as a goal (bad) and a result (good) is subtle easy to blur. Sometimes the checklist presents results you can live with. But if you just approach the audience as people you want to inform and entertain with your content, even so much so they respond, rather than meeting your Tweet-per-day quota, you don’t have to wonder if the results are satisfactory. They will be.

It’s like the difference in pressing forward with your right foot, then your left foot, turning the wheel at a slight angle to rotate your position from a current position to a perpendicular position 45 feet ahead … and riding a bike around the corner. Sometimes you just need to ride a bike. You’re still going to get around the corner. You can still measure the distance you rode. But why clutter your brain with all the motions and miss the scenery?

What do you think about engagement? Is my definition too simple? To vague? The comments, as always, are yours.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/ViralTech Viral Technologies

    Engagement IS conversation! And responses to engagement (conversation) is in itself a great metric. For start-ups, a response or RT is a great sign that your brand is gaining awareness, and that people care enough about what you are saying to respond. Though engagement as a goal doesn’t directly bring in dollars, what results FROM engagement could be more traffic to your site, an increase in SEO and inbound links to your site which are great leaders into getting money in your pocket.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Agreed. I think we’re on the same page here. 

  • Erin McMahon

    Mmmmmmm… I don’t think I can get on board with that definition. I mean, I could perform varied shocking, titillating or horrifying acts to get and hold an audience’s attention, but none of that means my audience will respect me, have a genuine interest in me, buy my stuff or anything else of value. 

    I’m not trying to beg the question of action, necessarily, but I guess I am suggesting that not all attention is equal.

    So maybe some reference to the quality of the attention would help. For me, anyway. :)

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Ah … keep in mind the definition is of engagement, not positive engagement. While most people want the good, some people want to engage their audience in what we might perceive negative ways. (Tabloids, etc.)

      • Erin McMahon

        Fair enough. :)  I typically understand “engagement” in the context of the social media realm to imply positive, and I would suspect that most folks do. So that might render this definition meaningless to the common usage of the term…

        Just sayin.’ :)

  • http://www.adamsherk.com/ Adam Sherk

    Enjoying this conversation (no pun intended!) on both of your blogs. Jason a quick heads up, you’re linking to the wrong Twitter URL for Rachel.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Oops. Fixed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexander.jaya Alexander Surya Jaya

    I completely agree with your definition of engagement.  There is always that temptation to just pass it off as a goal because its the ‘easy’ way to go, but if you get to know your audience then that engagement can also go both ways.

    • http://twitter.com/MackCollier Mack Collier

      Shouldn’t engagement go both ways?  Sure, I can be ‘engaged’ with the content without the content creator knowing me from Adam, but if the engagement works both ways, doesn’t that lead to loyalty, sharing, and a whole lotta neat-o stuff that Social Media’s supposed to be all about? ;) 

    • Amelia Perches

      Take, for example, blogs like these; even if someone doesn’t reply to your comment, aren’t you engaging by reading how others respond to the article?

  • http://twitter.com/goonth Gunther Sonnenfeld

    It all depends on the business and marketing context. What are you actually trying to do?

    You can measure just about anything (I’ve developed tools that do). I would say that many brands think of “engagement” as a goal because they’ve never sustained interactions beyond a campaign, or initiated and maintained a real conversation in a social media environment, regardless of whether they were selling something or not.

    You’re right, Jason, the metrics will vary based on the level of “engagement” (which, BTW, don’t have to be conversations per se). I don’t agree at all with Viral Technologies that a response or a RT is in fact a conversation — that’s an exchange, often times with limited awareness and spread effect. For example, you can respond to or share an ad or a webisode or even a TV show without having any sort of dialogue (which begs the question: Is that still engagement?) Not to get all geeky (or preachy) about it, but if you look how viral coefficients actually work, you’ll see that the spread effect takes place when exchanges move into real conversations that shift and grow according to who is doing the talking and the types of content they might be generating and sharing. Hence, just one standing issue with “engagement” ;)

    Another thing to consider: Is engagement about “paying attention” or “maintaining interactions”? I would argue that the latter is far more important; the brands and media companies I’ve worked with don’t pay us just to get the word out, they pay us to build an audience, and find out how that audience will either buy their products, or, how they will contribute to the development of those products through conversation, sharing, content co-creation, etc. Big difference.

    Net-net: Engagement is an ongoing process involving a story, a purpose and a series of outcomes. And what that looks like entirely depends on the context.

  • http://www.c7group.com Jeff Marmins

    I like your “Net-net” Jason: Engagement is an ongoing process involving a story, a purpose and a series of outcomes. And what that looks like entirely depends on the context.
    Engagement is now a required stop on the journey from being an aware suspect to being a qualified prospect. You may get engagement, however, from a fan, friend or constituent that is not interested in your product or services, but yet they become a vocal (engaged) brand/message proponent. 

    Occasionally I smell confusion around engagement vs. conversion, which is an entirely different metric.  

    While there is value around arriving at a common language, I feel like I’m seeing way to much conversation around the semantics of our revolution.  I think our forefathers were too busy throwing tea into the harbor to know they were having the Boston Tea Party. Thoughts?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Awesome metaphor Jeff. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Volker

    Naa, its a question of you’rre pour righting skills “(Have you seen my book? Heh.)”

  • http://weboutsourcing-gateway.com/ Diah Abida

    Just an additional thought: the word “Engagement” came from the Latin word “Fides” that means “promise.” When I am to define Engagement based on the Latin Word and the Online Milieu, Engagement is a two-way communication between you and your target assuring the latter about the value or benefit they can get from the former (you–of course you need to commit). On the first place, there will be no engagement if the users are not convince and engagement stops when the users feel no satisfaction. Thank you Jason for this. Keep posting.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the additional context. Great stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/sMoRTy71 Shawn Morton

    First of all, loved the original post on engagement, especially the description of what most brands are doing in social.

    In terms of this discussion, It feels like there is still some distinction needed between being “engaged” (as a passive viewer or “lurker”) by interesting content and actually “engaging” in the conversation or taking the call to action. To me, the former seems close to what we traditionally think of as “reach” (and “frequency” if they do it over time) while the latter seems like an expansion of the definitions of “awareness” (if you’re reaching new customers), “loyalty” (if you’re reaching existing) or “conversion” (if there is a call to action involved). I wonder if using “engagement” and treating it like something new is the way to go. Or do we need to update our definitions of terms we’ve used to measure audience attention and action for decades?I don’t know the answer. I just know that engagement has been giving people fits for a couple of years now. Could it be that we’re trying to define something that has already been defined elsewhere?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Awesome perspective, as always, Smorty.

  • http://paradisesocial.wordpress.com/ Mike Poynton

    I think your definition of engagement is right on, Jason. And, for the record, I enjoy the occasional peppering of your posts with mild profanity – it gets my f*cking “attention”.

    I’m gonna throw a wrench into the conversation here and share a definition of the word engagement I found at http://www.thefreedictionary.com (lamentably, yours does not appear): “The condition of being in gear.” I’m a visual learner and this definition resonnates with me. It reminds me of the expression for a call to action: “Let’s get it in gear!” In other words, let’s work together and make something happen here!

    The result (not the goal) is moving something forward (i.e. a machine) via its condition of being in gear. If you’re at a standstill and suddenly start moving, your attention is piqued and you are engaged. Way to get it in gear, bro!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Awesome, Mike. Thanks for that perspective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marmy.kodras Marmy Kodras

    I just love how in this day and age of uber technology, companies and executives want to quantify, even more, things that truly have a more dynamic, free flowing, organic relationship to them.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for showing proof, counting tangible things when you can, and diagramming for the visual impact.  As you mentioned there are measurables tied to the goal that come with specific milestones to indicate whether or not we are getting closer to our destination or have arrived altogether…that’s a given.  You can’t write a goal without being specific and including your measurables…but somewhere along the way, you may stop, smell the roses, visit a state monument, reflect on past experiences, hear a song that takes you right back to your childhood, which puts you in a totally new frame of mind, and at that same time you just happen to come across a sign for a 50’s diner that makes your mouth water and you pull over at the next exit.  So everything that just organically happened along the way after your goal of driving from point a to point b…all played a part in you eventually stopping at that diner.  It wasn’t the sign pointing to the diner itself…but all of those dynamic touchpoints along the way that built upon one another…

    Now I don’t know how in the hell one would measure that type of experiential process but the more we continue to truly connect to people like that…down to the core…the less people will be sooooo anal about reaching some arbitrary engagement number…

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