Defining Engagement

Is it capturing attention or more?

by Jason Falls |

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 the Author

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).