One of the most powerful business objectives social media can deliver is consumer engagement. At least that’s what all the social media advocates tell you, right. But what exactly is “engagement,” how do you measure it and why is it all of a sudden the holy grail of marketing?

Frankly, engagement is just a bullshit term made up to apply to making people do something in the online (or offline) space. Sixty years ago engaging a customer meant you said, “Hi. Wanna buy some stuff?” They said, “Sure, whatya got?” Then they bought something.

Successful engagement.

group hug
Image by massdistraction via Flickr

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. We invented specialized professions based around skill sets that most people didn’t want to spend time figuring out. Namely public relations. You could throw today’s umbrella term of “marketing,” customer service and now social media on the list, too. Sans the Internet, all of these “soft” marketing disciplines fell under “sales” in 1950.

Now, the people in charge of these specialties are smart. They had to find ways to justify their existence. So they invented measures and indicators of how successful they were being relating to the public and such. As a result, we have several generations of decision-makers who think things like “impressions” “advertising equivalency” “mind share” and now “engagement” are important indicators of … wait for it … how much stuff you’ll sell.

It’s always about the bottom line to the people who sign the checks.

(I know, I sound like I’m ridiculing PR for throwing out BS to justify its existence. I’m really not. Or at least, as a PR guy by trade, I’m not going to say that I believe the measures do not have merit. They do, but largely only to us. The CEOs have PR because they don’t know who will deal with those annoying journalists if they cut the department. That and PR folks are good at spinning … even many CEOs think impressions are meaningful.)

But … digressing a bit … engagement is being sold left and right as the benefit-du-jour of the social media set. As we saw last week, Business.com’s Social Media Best Practices report on question and answer forums reported that 57 percent of companies involved with social media judge success of their programs based on, “Engagement with prospects.” Another 50 percent determine success based on, “Engagement with customers.”

Amber Naslund, a friend and Radian6‘s defacto engagement director in her role of Director of Community, tossed this in the comments over the weekend:

“It’s one thing to talk about social media driving engagement with prospects. Or to say that it has a positive impact on lead quality. We can probably have a good discussion about how and why these things are true, theoretically.

“The tactical trouble I see is that companies don’t know how to measure engagement with prospects. In other words, what are the indicators that you can tangibly, regularly track that point to increased or decreased engagement? How do you establish criteria for a “quality lead”, baseline that, and continue measuring it moving forward?

“It’s a discussion that’s going to keep coming up, I think, because companies aren’t operationally equipped to do the actual measurement required to show movement and performance, one way or the other, toward these metrics. Time to start diving into the details?”

Why yes … yes it is. Thanks for the thought-starter, Amber.

So, what, pray tell, is engagement?

Avinash Kaushik, Google’s analytics evangelist, has a rather mathematical view of the world and websites. He (nicely) stuck it do the PR folks way back in October of 2007 saying:

Engagement is not a metric that anyone understands and even when used it rarely drives the action / improvement on the website.

Why?

Because it is not really a metric, it is an excuse.

That’s a hard metric advocate’s view of engagement.

Lee Odden, CEO of Top Rank Online Marketing and perhaps the finest SEO-centric public relations professional on the planet had this to say:

“Linking, bookmarking, blogging, referring, clicking, friending, connecting, subscribing, submitting inquiry forms and buying are all engagement measures at various points in the customer relationship.”

Mark Story, digital media guru for the Securities and Exchange Commission and veteran public relations and social media pro offered that engagement depends on your target audience and can equate to time spent on site (for website engagement), active conversations in comments sections (for blog engagement), successful point-of-view covered in the media or on a blog (for PR outreach engagement) and more.

Katie Paine, perhaps the authority on social media and public relations measurement, responded with this pithy tome:

As always it depends on the audience and the goals. If the audience is employees and you want employees to be engaged — we measure it by the percentage of employees that contribute to Yammer, the degree to which people read and comment on our internal blog, the increase in internal referrals, reduced turnover rate, etc.

If you are Georgia Pacific and you want people to be engaged in the Quilted Nortern brand, its both the percentage of items/tweets etc., that recommend the brand — as in “wiping your butt with Quilted Northern is like wiping your butt with a cloud”– and the number of times consumers defend it — as in “I don’t care if its made out of the foreskin of an endangered species, I want the best for my baby.”

The common thread in the responses from those and others I asked was that engagement depends. Whether or not an audience is engaged depends on who they are, who you are in relation to them, what medium or tool the communication is occurring in or on and a whole bunch of other factors that would make this post infinitely more lengthy than it already is.

What successful engagement means to me is this:

Did you get something from your audience that can make your business better?

That can mean profits. You sold stuff = Successful engagement.

That can mean ideas. You got feedback on your product or service you can use = Successful engagement.

That can mean referrals and recommendations. You got customers to tell other people you’re cool = Successful engagement.

That can mean digital merit badges. You got people to link to you, follow you, Re-Tweet you = Successful engagement.

How do you define and measure engagement for your brand? Prescribe that definition in your goals and objectives when planning what you want to achieve with your social media programs. If you don’t do it there, you’ll be spitting and shitting all the same drivel the echo chamber does … “we have 10,000 Facebook Fans … we had 120 comments on the last blog post …”

Good for you. But do those 10,000 Facebook fans do anything or seldom even look at your brand page like most “fans?” Do the 120 comments give you valuable insights on a potential new product feature or did four people get caught up in a flame war over who has the best collection of your refrigerator magnets? That’s what matters.

Do you need to keep stats like a coach’s kid on all that other stuff? Sure. Someone will ask at some point. But the stat sheet only gives you a glimpse of the team. The fans see the all-star point guard scores 25 points per game. The coach sees he favors his right side and is confused by the match-up zone.

Are you looking at the game or the stat sheet?

With that in mind, how do you define engagement? Is there more merit to the specifics than I portray? The comments, as always, are yours.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He 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 CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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