The Problem With Engagement

Engagement is not a goal. It's a result.

by Jason Falls |

Until about eight years ago the word “engage” was what snooty people said at the start of their sporting events. You engage to start a fencing match, for instance. (Or I assume so. I know nothing about fencing. I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk will condescendingly scoff at my lack of fencing intelligence, which is fine. But when I think of the word “engage,” I think of some turtle-necked dork with slicked back hair dressed in all black motioning for two awkwardly dressed in all white people with flimsy swords and colander masks to start fighting by saying, “Engage!”)

But the age of social media has brought forth calls to action from marketing wizards everywhere: “You must engage your customers!” Brian Solis even wrote a very good book with the word as its title. And brand managers, public relations hacks and social media types everywhere commenced to engage.

Foil fencing
Foil fencing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But no one really knows what the hell it means to engage. Primarily because we’ve decided to label it with such an awkward word. Shall we slash at them with Épées?

The problem, I believe, lies in the silly word itself. Marketers get caught up with a new buzzword (something had to replace “synergy” for christssake) and go through whatever motions the current best practices of performing such buzzwords are. They don’t actually think about what they’re doing. They just “engage.”

Marketers today engage by:

  • Posting stupid shit about themselves on Twitter
  • Posting lengthier stupid shit about themselves on Facebook
  • Writing stupid shit about themselves on their blog

Oh, and if they’re creative enough, they produce videos or podcasts or nifty apps that over-promote their stupid shit and post them wherever it’s appropriate.

By focusing on the buzzword of the day and not the actual definition of it, today’s marketers have juxtaposed their to-do list onto this new world so it conforms to fit their needs. They need to sell things. They need to justify a budget generally wasted because they’re stuck in meaningless meetings and can’t get real work done. They need to feel like they’ve done good by the advice of the experts of the day so they don’t give up the marketing dream and settle for selling pharmaceuticals.

I hear it’s good money, if you’re interested.

If the marketers were focused on the definition, not the word, they would actually engage. By having conversations with their customers. By asking about them, not tooting their own horn. They would take off their marketing hat and actually be humans, not pretend to act like them.

Brands everywhere — even those that are allegedly doing social media right — are just doing social, not being social. (Thank you for that clarity, Jay Baer.) They’re focused on an end result, not the actions that go into making it so.

And when I say “they,” for the most part I mean, “we.”

Borrowing a bit of an idea from Steve Denning, who was writing about profit, here’s the salient thought marketers need to really think about:

Engagement is not a goal. It’s a result.

It’s a result of actually understanding the philosophical tenets of social media espoused by the evangelists through the years. When you join the conversation, make your communications focused on the consumers and not your brand, when you build relationships not billings, engagement happens.

And when it does, your precious metrics hockey stick, your boss loves that his golf buddies are saying, “I saw what you did on Facebook,” and if you’ve built a sales focus into your social efforts, your revenue meter starts moving.

If you’re practicing social media marketing and you aren’t happy with your results, there’s a good chance you think engagement is your goal. You’re focused on the end result and not seeing the actions that go into making the result happen.

You’re faking it. And your customers can tell.

Take a step back and ask yourself if that’s why you’re not happy. I’m willing to bet it is.

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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).