The Trouble With Engagement

Focused. In an unclear sort of way

The headline on one of’s top stories today reads: “Engagement remains key goal for marketers.” The report comments that: “Brand owners.. are all heightening their focus on engagement, but a lack of clarity about what this requires remains widespread.”

We do seem to be making hard for ourselves.

Engagement is not a metric

That ‘engagement’ word just won’t go away. It keeps cropping up. In meetings, briefs, presentations, blogs and even job titles. I found myself using it in a meeting the other day, and now I’m kicking myself because our sloppiness with language irks me more than a little.

We speak of ‘engagement’ as if it were one thing. And as if that one thing were relevant to all brands in all circumstances.

Searching, viewing, enjoying, visits, opening promotional e-mails, completing a survey, page views, reading, linking, bookmarking, blogging, forwarding, following, referring, clicking, friending, liking, subscribing, recommending, rating, recommending, co-creatuing, discussing, submitting inquiry forms, purchasing... All of these and more are potential measures of ‘engagement’. Clearly then, engagement is not just one thing.

When we speak of ‘engagement’ we are not talking about a metric. We are indulging in obfuscation.

We have only ourselves to blame. In 2006, after much deliberation and time the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) presented a working definition of “engagement” at its annual conference in New York City. The definition read:

"Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context."

As a definition of engagement that’s about as helpful as throwing a drowning man both ends of the rope (no doubt we’ll need another working party to come back with a definition of what exactly a ‘brand idea’ is). Equally disturbing was that at the conference plenty of industry professionals when interviewed talked of this as a ‘metric’. Subsequently the ARF refined its definition of engagement and ‘turning on’ as “the amount of subconscious 'feeling' going on when an advertisement is being processed.” So for the ARF, engagement is purely a cognitive, not behavioural activity.

It seems clear to me that when it comes to engagement we have no idea what we are talking about. No wonder clients suspect us of being woolly-minded and not living in the real world.

We berate anyone who tries to reduce the evaluation of creativity to a single number. And we’re suspicious of those who hold all advertising to work in just one way. We would do well do be equally as intolerant of the peddlers of engagement as some kind of Universal Theory.

It always helps to ask what the King (Stephen, that is) would have said. And here’s what he wrote all the way back in 1975 in his paper Practical progress from a theory of advertisements:

“What we need… is not a wholly comprehensive theory of advertising, but a slightly advanced theory of advertisements. A framework for thinking how different sorts of advertisement might work, for different circumstances, at different stages of time.”

Engagement - as with any model of How Communications Work - is meaningful only when it is specific. The form it takes is dependent on the context, brand, audience, objectives, and channels. Which why declarations of How Communications Works are invariably completely lacking in meaning and utility. “How does advertising work?” is a meaningful question only when it is answered in the specific.

Talk therefore of ‘engagement’ is almost entirely meaningless. No wonder then that the web analytics guru Avinash Kaushik was moved to state:

“Engagement is not a metric that anyone understands... Why? Because it is not really a metric, it is an excuse.”

It’s an excuse for woolly thinking.

Engagement is not media-driven

Gordon Pincott of Millward Brown has bemoaned the fact that as he puts it “the engagement debate has been hijacked by various digital media specialists who, by defining engagement on their own terms, have narrowed the focus of the discussion to the ways in which people interact with specific media channels. This has been neither helpful nor productive for the communications business at large.” For once I find myself actually having some sympathy with Millward Brown.

Pincott reminds that engagement is not a media issue. Whatever the definition of engagement - attention, involvement, mental processing, behavioral participation - to appropriate engagement for specific types of content or channel is to miss a rather elementary foundation of what we do. We ‘engage’ with what’s interesting, useful, relevant, entertaining.

There’s lots of terrible TV advertising, heaps of mind-numbing dull digital content, acres of indifferent outdoor advertising. None of them are salvaged by their choice of medium. A dull, irrelevant, unrewarding experience is still dull, irrelevant, and unrewarding - however and wherever we interact with it.

Engagement is a content issue.

Engagement is not dependent on devoting cognitive resources

There is a suggestion in some quarters that engagement is manifested by people spending time with our idea, or by attending to it more actively.

To subscribe to this view is simply to seek to escalate what we expect people to do in response to the stuff we produce. We’re not satisfied with people simply watching (often while doing other things at the same time) or reading stuff. Now we expect people to put their cups of tea down, pay close attention, devote additional seconds and become actively involved. In the full and certain knowledge that they’re being sold to. It seems to forget that one of the most basic reasons why brands are useful to people in the real world is that they simplify, streamline, and accelerate purchase decisions. So we can get on with the stuff that really interests us.

Although Millward Brown continue to argue the case that attention does indeed matter, as anyone who has followed the work of Robert Heath on low-involvement processing will know, communications can be effective even when not paid much attention to. In fact we now have evidence that creativity in TV advertising doesn't increase attention – it decreases it.

Heath reminds us that it is now universally accepted that emotional stimuli are processed automatically, pre-cognitively and without the need for attention. Measuring attention through monitoring the rate of eye fixation, his studies provide evidence that TV advertising requires very little cognitive resources to process. People don’t pay a lot of attention to TV advertising. Which given the nature of emotional stimuli one would probably have expected.

We know that creativity can mediate the relationship between consumers and brands. In the light of his studies, Heath’s hypothesis is that emotive creativity may work by reducing what he calls message counter-argument:

“Emotive creativity might facilitate communication, not... by increasing attention, but by lowering attention, promoting open-mindedness and effectively encouraging the consumer to let their guard down.”

Emotional advertising it would seem, seduces us. It bypasses our rational faculties.

There is no doubt plenty more work to be done in this area. But let’s beware of insisting that all our creative output make demands upon people.

Engagement is not the objective

Viewing, enjoying, visits, page views, reading, linking, bookmarking, blogging, forwarding, following, referring, clicking, friending, liking, subscribing, recommending, rating, discussing... All these are effects. As our industry gets every more sophisticated in presenting slick case studies of how our work worked, we’re accustomed to seeing apparently impressive figures for each and any of these metrics. But they are not proof of effectiveness. Often they are simply proof that people saw our content. Which is a bit like presenting GRPs as the case for broadcast advertising’s effectiveness.

All these metrics are intermediate effects just like advertising recall.

But unless we convincingly link these to business results we have only listed effects and not made the case that our creativity was effective. And the fact that sales, profits or whatever went up at the same time is not on its own a convincing case. Unless we go beyond that it’s just a coincidence of timing.

Getting specific

Engagement is one of the most unhelpful pieces of language we bandy around. At best it is entirely meaningless. At worst, it encourages all manner of dangerous assumptions about how people consume communications.

Let’s get specific. What do we need to do for this specific brand, in these specific circumstances, at this specific moment in time, for this specific audience that achieves these specific results? What, specifically, are the triggers and barriers to effecting behavioral change?

Enough with ‘engagement’ already.


Robert Heath, ‘Creativity in TV ads does not increase attention’, Admap, January 2010

Robert Heath, ‘Emotional Engagement: How Television Builds Big Brands At Low Attention’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 49, No. 1, Mar 2009

Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick , ‘Fifty years using the wrong model of advertising’, International Journal of Market Research, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2008

Robert Heath and Agnes Nairn, ‘Measuring Affective Advertising: Implications of Low Attention Processing on Recall’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 45, No. 2, June 2005

Robert Heath and Pam Hyder, ‘Measuring the hidden power of emotive advertising’, Market Research Society, Annual Conference, 2004

Jon Howard-Spink and Robert Heath, ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’, Market Research Society, Annual Conference, 2000

Stephen King, Practical progress from a theory of advertisements, 1975

Gordon Pincott, ‘Rules of Engagement’, Millward Brown Points of View, 2009
Joe Plummer, Bill Cook, Don Diforio, Bert Schachter, Inna Sokolyanskaya and Tara Korde, Advertising Research Foundation White Paper, March 2007, ‘Measures of Engagement: Volume II’