'Engagement': Fashionable Yet Bankrupt


“How do we make it die?”

Withnail and I

A caveat

This is not an argument against the new tools and methods we have at our disposal.  Only a fool or a Luddite would attempt to shut his or her eyes to the possibilities and opportunities that technology continues to open up for us.

But it very much is an argument against some of the sillier and more excessive claims being made for what’s termed ‘engagement’.

Those who take an absolutist black-and-white position, claiming that the world has turned on its axis, that whole categories of human behaviour are dead (and with it the industries that have peddled them or fed off them), that humanity has adopted an entirely new mindset, that the old truths are outmoded, and that we must sign up to a new and universal truth, simplify the world too much. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Some make their arguments out of ignorance. More do so out of self-interest. And perhaps that is not so surprising. We are after all, an industry whose output celebrates the newest as the best. 

But it doesn’t make ill-informed rhetoric right. Or helpful. 

And it is that with which I take issue.

Calling Bullshit on the bullshit

Authored by a very big, very well-known media company, I had the dubious pleasure of reading a report that claimed to rethink how we approach paid, earned and owned media.

It made the claim that consumers are becoming increasingly active in all (yes, all) their purchase considerations, and then went on to pronounce that marketers must seek to increase the level of “engagement” they have with consumers across all (yes, all) channels. Unfortunately it chooses not to define what 'engagement' is. Thereby rendering the utility of this piece of ‘thinking’ to zero.

And there it is again. That ‘engagement’ word really will not go away. It’s making some people who really should know better talk utter nonsense. It’s diverting precious energy and focus away from what matters. Furthermore, while it might endear us to some clients’ marketing departments, it risks actually taking us further away from the commercial agendas of businesses. And it’s all so tragically tedious, vacuous and self-regarding that I worry it brings our industry into disrepute.

It really is time to call bullshit on ‘engagement’. Better, to bundle it into a coffin labelled ‘Agency Puffery’ and put a nail firmly in it once and for all.

This is admittedly a long post. And I have drawn upon some previous posts - particularly those relating to brand loyalty. I hope those who have already read these will forgive me for revisiting some of the arguments. But such is the quantity and sheer volume of empty rhetoric on the subject of ‘engagement’ that I thought a substantial ripost was in order.

So here for starters, are 9 bad habits of engagement thinking (I am sure there will be more, so any and all additions are most welcome): 

  1. Assuming engagement is a metric

  2. Claiming 'engagement' is something entirely new

  3. Failing to recognise 'engagement' is an intermediate measure

  4. Assuming that interruption is dead

  5. Assuming that more 'engagement' is the route to more loyalty

  6. Overestimating people’s appetite for participation

  7. Treating 'engagement' as if it had intrinsic value

  8. Assuming that people care deeply about brands

  9. Staring down the wrong end of the telescope

Bad habit #1: Assuming engagement is a metric

Let’s be clear. ‘Engagement’ is an unworkable and meaningless concept. It means everything. And absolutely nothing. And as such it cannot possibly claim to be any kind of metric.

Searching, viewing, visits, spending time on site or page, opening promotional e-mails, completing a survey, page views, linking, bookmarking, blogging, forwarding, following, referring, clicking, friending, liking, +1-ing, playing, reading, subscribing, posting, printing, reviewing, recommending, rating, co-creating, discussing, submitting inquiry forms, uploading, downloading, adding an item to favourites, joining a group, installing a widget...  All of these and more are potential measures of ‘engagement’.  

And quite apart from these dimensions to ‘engagement’, many forget that that ‘involvement’ or ‘engagement’ can be a cognitive not just a behavioural response. We can like or enjoy communications content. We can find it compelling, exciting, gripping, surprising, shocking, unpleasant, boring, soothing... and all the other myriad of other emotional responses to communications stimuli.

Given the multitude of ways in which ‘engagement’ can be defined and measured, how on earth anyone can claim that it is a ‘metric’ is quite beyond me. 

For a metric to be a useable one - and an industry-accepted one at that - demands that there is one  clear commonly-understood, accepted, and used definition. But when it comes to the dread word ‘engagement’ it’s fairly obvious that it’s a free-fire zone with agencies and clients inventing their definitions left right and center. Consequently, when someone uses the word ‘engagement’ we can be confident of only one thing - that we have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. When we speak of ‘engagement’ we are not talking about a metric. We are indulging in obfuscation.

One need only look to the ARF report - ‘Engagement: Definitions and Anatomy’ - to see that everyone has their one definition. Not surprisingly, there’s no consensus. But there is an oversupply of vague theory and tortuous rhetoric.

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. 

So having begun its consultative process with the observation that “As our industry grapples with the profound changes in media, marketing and the emerging empowerment of consumers, the concept of engagement has emerged as more of a demand creation paradigm than the reach or awareness focused paradigm of the past twenty five years” one of our industry’s more august institutions arrives at a definition that’s as old as the hills. Brilliant. As Rob Campbell puts it, “Adland is the only industry that could make a paper plane and claim they discovered flight.”

It‘s fairly clear then that when it comes to ‘engagement’ we have no idea what we are talking about. It’s just more vague and fashionable adland puffery. 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 is 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. Small wonder then that no less than 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 and smokescreen for woolly thinking. 

The fact that the word ‘engagement’ is so meaningless should alone be enough to make us consider if we really should be using it at all. But with the word comes a host of other assumptions that are worth addressing.  Necessarily, in calling out below the other bad habits of 'engagement' thinking, I’m using the word in its vaguest, most all-encompassing and unhelpful sense.

Bad habit #2: Claiming ‘engagement’ is something entirely new

There’s a curious mythology being peddled in some parts of ad- and marketingland. 

It goes a little like this.

Until the internet arrived people were passive, manipulable, gullible, unquestioning and generally stupid consumers of marketing content. Their role for decades as Clay Shirky has put it, “had been nothing more than a giant maw at the end of the mass media's long conveyer belt”. Media was something that was “done to them” and without people having access to channels through which to express themselves, “the media's message could pass unchallenged by the viewers”.

Then the internet arrived and put power in the hands of ordinary people. Today, people are no longer passive consumers of marketing communications. They are  no  longer willing to accept being interrupted by advertising. Instead they want to be actively involved in the creation of brands.  They want their time and attention rewarded. All this is new, we are told.

Consequently, the only means to success today the argument concludes, is to stop interrupting people and create ‘engagement’ with consumers. This is the ‘new model of communications’. 

Aside from the rather unpleasant implication that people used to resemble nothing more than a herd of dumb cows, the argument is deeply flawed. Because advertising never worked by doing things to people. As Alan Hedges put it in his seminal work Testing to Destruction

“Advertising is too often seen as a one way process, an instrument which an advertiser uses to do things to people. This is not only a socially undesirable view of advertising, it is also unrealistic. Advertising has very little specific power to make people do things. Perhaps one should think less about what advertising does to people and more about what people do with advertising.”

Participation and ‘engagement’ are not new. They’ve always been a part of human behavior. Once upon a time if a teenager liked say, the Levis ‘Launderette’ commercial, they could have bought the reissued (vinyl) single of Marvin Gaye’s  ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. Or they could have hung a poster of Nick Kamen on their bedroom wall.  Or gushed to their friends about how dishy he was. Or actually bought a pair of 501s. All of these are forms of participation. 

Technology simply affords people many new ways in which to respond to marketing communications. Searching, viewing, visits, spending time on site or page, opening promotional e-mails, completing a survey, page views, linking,...  All of these and more are potential ways in which people can ‘engage’ or interact. Many of these did not exist before the age of the internet. 

And - unlike how many teenagers hung a poster of Nick Kamen on their bedroom walls -  many of these new ways are easy to monitor and measure in realtime. 

But quite apart from these newer more behavioural dimensions to ‘engagement’, many forget that that ‘involvement’ or ‘engagement’ is also a cognitive not just a behavioural response. We can like or enjoy communications content. We can find it interesting, compelling, exciting, gripping, surprising, shocking, unpleasant, boring, soothing... and all the other myriad of other emotional responses to communications stimuli. And there’s absolutely nothing new in any of these dimensions to ‘engagement’.

As Paul Feldwick - always a good source for anybody wanting to cut through the bullshit of marketing- and adland - reminds us:

“... The best campaigns of the past (Hovis, Hofmeister, Levi's, Barclaycard... fill in your own favourites) always 'engaged' in exactly the right way with their audience... in any medium, engagement ought to be the better principle. Shouting at people and jumping up and down to get their attention is frequently counter-productive. But charming them, entertaining them or interesting them seems a much smarter strategy if you want them on your side. And if they're not on your side, why do you expect them to give you their money?” 

Good marketing content has always been ‘engaging’. 

For better or for worse, ours is an industry that has always operated and moved itself forwards through suggesting that That Stuff over there is old-fashioned and doesn’t work any more and This Stuff here is better and represents the future. So while there are undoubtedly many more ways today in which people can encounter and interact with our communications, claiming that ‘engagement’ is an entirely new phenomenon is just more self-serving industry rhetoric.

Bad habit #3: Failing to recognize ‘engagement’ is an intermediate measure

Too many ‘engagement’ zealots take the easy path, choosing to measure what’s easy to measure, but sidestep the far harder task. They focus on intermediate measures (communication and brand responses) at the expense of hard business and purchase behaviour measures.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Relative to the complex and difficult task of interrogating the impact of integrated marketing activity upon actual purchase behaviour, sales and profit, measuring ‘engagement’ (particularly behavioural engagement) is relatively easy. After all, if there’s one thing digital stuff is good at, it’s leaving behind it a vast trail of data.  

And as Les Binet and Peter Field note: 

“Intermediate measures are seductive as a focus for marketers, because they tend to move more quickly... and impressively, and are easier to link to marketing activity. For these reasons, marketers pay too much attention to them.”

‘Engagement’ advocates are risking treating ‘engagement’ as the objective, overlooking the fact that measures of engagement (cognitive or behavioural) are but intermediate measures. As such, while they are evidence that something was happening in response to our communications, they are not evidence of effectiveness. There is after all, a world of difference between communication effects and effectiveness.

One of the more worrying aspects of this approach to ‘engagement’ is the touting of the number of views content received. As if the delivering of an audience were something new and radical. “Look how many people saw our content!” the case studies trumpet. It’s just counting eyeballs. And there’s absolutely nothing new in it.

Since they are merely measures of audience delivery, we would more than raise an eyebrow at anybody who would choose to build an entire case study on the reach and frequency numbers achieved by a TV campaign. Imagine the nonsense of a case study that say, paraded the number of viewers their Super Bowl spot delivered.

Of course understanding how much the reach was driven by consumer pull and dissemination versus paid for media can give us a sense of how popular, relevant, newsworthy, fame-generating, etc. our content was. If views are being driven by consumers themselves rather than paid-for media, then they are probably an indication that people found our content in some way useful, interesting or entertaining.  

And understanding the reach achieved relative to marketing spend can give us a picture of how efficient the investment was. A million views with a spend behind it of $10,000 after all is very different from a million views supported by $1m. 

But just because you are able to make efficient use of media monies to reach an audience, does not mean you are having a positive impact on a business. Efficient audience delivery is not the same as impact on a business's revenue and profit.

Views and interactions on their own are but an indication that people came into contact with our content.  Yet the way some people speak, you’d think that audience contact was the endgame. Not merely the beginning of something. 

In part this is a consequence of the vast amount of new data we now have at our fingertips. The new digitized marketing world gives us as Greg Grimmer has written, ‘gives us great measurability and, crucially, immediate measurability.”  This new world thus gives us lots of new things to count - searches, views, visits, linking,  forwarding, following, referring, clicking, friending, liking, +ing, and so on. 

But many of these new  and immediately measurable things are simply intermediate measures. And as I’ve already noted, intermediate measures are just that, and as such are not measures of effectiveness. 

The focus on intermediate measures should trouble us. In their their analysis of the IPA’s databank Les Binet and Peter Field observe that “campaigns that are set hard objectives (business or behavioural results) are generally more successful than those working only to intermediate consumer response targets (e.g. attitudes or awareness). 

Indeed according to their analysis, campaigns that set hard objectives enjoyed an effectiveness success rate of 50%, while those that only set soft, intermediate objectives enjoyed a success rate of 11%.

Binet and Field conclude that “marketing metrics should aim to measure changes in the real commercial world of the brand, not just the in the mindsets of the people who buy it.” 

To focus exclusively on intermediate measures is to completely miss the point of it all. As Jennifer Taylor has noted:

“Proponents of engagement have missed the point. If much of the discussion about the relative effect of engaging media, vehicles or message types is about the relative impact of these media options on sales, why not just measure the actual impact of these options on sales, rather than trying to capture an intermediate construct such as engagement?... Behavioural measures such as time spent looking at/ reading/ listening, or repeated usage of a media or vehicle tell us little about the end result that advertisers seek – sales. “

However defined, ‘engagement’ is the beginning of something, not the endpoint. And to stop our investigations and understanding at counting intermediate measures is to abdicate our responsibilities. The endgame after all, is work that actually works.

Bad habit #4: Assuming that interruption is dead

We are, we are told, living at the end of the ‘age of interruption’. Interruption marketing we are told “isn’t working”.  One digital guru mocks ad agencies for thinking that “you can still market with interruptive messages.”

Despite claims that interruption as a marketing approach (irrespective of the medium) doesn’t work at all any more, the supply of convincing cross-category longitudinal evidence is rather scant. However inconvenient it might be, simply repeating other people’s sweeping generalizations doesn’t make a thing true.

Certainly citing the volume of clutter does not mean that interruption is a broken model. Just that it’s harder.

Whether it’s Old Spice’s the man your man could smell like from the US, or Compare The Market’s meerkats from the UK, there are still compelling examples of ‘interruption’ marketing that has demonstrated proven business results.

And the fact of the matter is that we’re wired for interruption - our brains are wired to take notice of the new and surprising.

Wolfram Schultz, the professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge University has done much to uncover the workings of dopamine neurons in the brain. In experiments with monkeys, Schultz would sound a loud tone, wait for a few seconds and then squirt drops of apple juice into the subject’s mouth. At the outset of the experiment, dopamine neurons fired only when the juice was delivered, but the monkey soon learned, and the dopamine neurons would start firing at the mere sound of the tone. If there was no reward accompanying the tone - in other words if the brain system had made a false prediction - then the dopamine neurons would decrease their firing.

Schultz’s work has demonstrated that dopamine neurons work to detect and signal to the brain the presence of new and therefore potentially rewarding things. Consequently, they respond and get very excited by surprising stimuli and events, and are uninfluenced by predicted events, or events that are worse than predicted.

As Jonah Lehrer puts it, the dopamine system is a system that is all about expectation. It predicts (sometimes incorrectly) the possibility of reward. Because objects and events in our environment carry all manner of potential for our welfare, survival and reproduction, our brains are wired to respond to the presence of potential rewards.

In other words, we respond to the unexpected - the stuff that interrupts us - because there might be something in it for us.

There are of course a lot of things that interrupt our behaviours, habits, or consciousness. E-mails interrupt, tweets interrupt, phone calls interrupt, SMS texts interrupt, outdoor billboards interrupt, point of sale messages interrupt, on pack offers interrupt, and so on. Indeed anything that isn’t solicited and intervenes in the flow of my day and consciousness is technically, an interruption.

We all know there are e-mails, tweets, phone calls, texts, outdoor billboards and so on that feel like an invasion of our space, time, privacy or consciousness. And yet there are also those that clearly don’t - because they offer us something valuable - whether that's information, entertainment, distraction, solace, connection, or whatever.

The difference isn’t between stuff that interrupts and stuff that doesn’t. The real difference is between stuff that’s a relevant (i.e. useful and/or entertaining) and timely interruption, and stuff that isn’t. And while some might claim this sort of marketing is ‘dead’, there is plenty of good evidence that it still can work:

Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ spot for example, interrupted people’s viewing and reading, with a spend of ₤4.5m in paid-for media behind it. The campaign generated £5.22 million incremental sales, and delivered a 5% margin improvement.

In 2008 Hovis in the UK saw sales grow by 14% year-on-year, and up to £90m in incremental profits generated, using a largely interruptive campaign consisting of TV, cinema, newspaper advertising, doordrops, inserts and outdoor. So not much permission marketing, conversation, or participation there, then.

Econometric analysis has proven that an extra 700 tonnes of Bisto gravy were sold in the UK due to the TV campaign that was launched in 2005 alone.

The old model of marketing is dead! Advertising is dead!  Interruption doesn’t work! Broadcast one-way communications is no longer effective! The shrill voices of the prophets of the new age of communications proclaim. Yet it seems to be a curious phenomenon that more somebody vehemently and categorically argues that something “doesn’t work anymore” the less likely they are to actually marshall any convincing data to support their claims. 

Whatever the gurus might tell us, the IPA Effectiveness Awards (from which examples above are sourced) as well as the EFFIES and now the Cannes Effectiveness Lions - are full of examples (with data) of demonstrably effective work being driven largely (and sometimes even exclusively) by so-called ‘interruptive’ media. Those who claim that the ‘traditional’ methods don’t work are clearly not paying enough attention. 

The IPA’s dataBANK contains all the submission to the IPA’s Effectiveness Awards. To date there are over 880 effectiveness cases in this data bank, and as such it provides us with an invaluable source of data. Certainly a lot more data than the Prophets of the New ever manage to muster in support of their generalisations.

In their analysis of the dataBANK - published as Marketing in the Era of Accountability - Les Binet and Peter Field draw three conclusions that those foretelling the end of ‘traditional’ marketing would be well-served to consider:

“Campaigns that have used TV have significantly outperformed those that have not.”

“Using TV makes a campaign much more efficient, regardless of budget.”

“The effectiveness of TV actually seems to be increasing over time.”

Again, so much for the death of anything ‘traditional’ or ‘interruptive’ or ‘one-way’. 

It would seem to be an obvious point. That one of the transformative powers of creativity is to turn what would be otherwise an interruption, into something that is altogether more welcome. However unexpected.

Bad habit #5: Assuming that more ‘engagement’ is the route to more loyalty

The  concepts of ‘engagement’ and loyalty - with their implicit assumptions of intimacy, attentiveness, high involvement, permanence, and longevity - perhaps not surprisingly find each other enormously attractive. Here for example, is how Saatchi’s defines ‘Lovemarks’:

“Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever. Take a brand away and people will find a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a mere transaction. You don’t just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately. That’s why you never want to let go. Put simply, Lovemarks inspire: Loyalty beyond reason.”

Loyalty and ‘engagement’ seem made for each other.  Assuming that because the concepts of engagement and loyalty sound somehow related, leads some to conclude that there must be causality. It’s easy to find language such as  “Customer engagement drives loyalty”... “Customers need engagement to become emotionally loyal”...  “Engagement for loyalty”.

This logic makes a certain sort of intuitive sense. Loyal consumers the logic goes, drive the majority of brand purchases. Loyal consumers love our brand. Therefore all we need to do is keep them ‘engaged’ and they’ll stay loyal. Or even become more loyal. Quod erat demonstrandum.

But the relationship between 'engagement' and loyalty is more than just a semantic fallacy. It misunderstands how brands actually grow. Because brands are not built upon ‘loyalty beyond reason’.

It might not be very fashionable to pore through Nielsen or Dunnhumby data but if one looks past the inherited wisdom and the careless rhetoric, it’s clear that brands are not built upon zealots, or upon passionate loyalty. Even those brands we like to regards as ‘iconic’ brands.

Irrespective of the category one looks at, the recurring pattern is that while market shares vary widely between brands, loyalty rates are roughly equal.  Loyalty, the data shows, is not the most significant discriminator between brands. Size is.

Look at brand loyalty in the UK sportswear market. The data source is from the TNS Superpanel, which comprises over 15,000 households. Participants record their purchases using in-home electronic terminals. If we look at share of people’s sportswear requirements, we see that no brand receives ‘loyalty beyond reason’:

1. SOR.001

So from the above we see that:

Buyers allocate roughly 60% of their category requirements to one brand over a year

Brands vary considerably in market share - Adidas has a market share of 33%, Umbro a share of 9%

But there is much less variation in loyalty - so while it is almost four times the size of Umbro, the gap in loyalty is less significant: Adidas captures 68% of requirements, and Umbro captures 50%

This same pattern of widely varying market shares and roughly equal loyalties is observable across categories. 

Take for example, Charles Graham’s analysis of six years’ of TNS buyer data in the coffee category. Here we see that although penetration and share values move in line, average purchase per buyer for any brand remains roughly constant:


The conclusion therefore is that “since large and small brands have roughly equal loyalties, then penetration must explain brand size”. 

Looking at at how sportswear buyers spread their purchases across competing brands:

4. overlap.001

So here we can see that:

Adidas buyers allocated on average about 68% of their requirements to Adidas,14% to Nike, 8% to Reebok, 5% to Umbro

Nike buyers on average allocated 63% to Nike, 18% to Adidas, 9% to Reebok, 6% to Umbro

In other words, brands share their customers with other brands, and they do so roughly in line with their market shares. 

So it’s not that loyalty is non-existent in markets. People are loyal. But they are polygamously loyal over extended periods, buying habitually from a repertoires of brands.

That all brands share their customers with other brands in proportions reflecting their market share should tell us that chasing the creation of exclusive relationships is a futile and misguided endeavour.

That there is a much greater variance in brand size than brand loyalty should tell us plainly that marketing will doom itself to banging its head against a brick wall if it thinks it can significantly improve loyalty.

Small wonder then that the analysis of the IPA’s DataBank conducted by Binet and Field shows that campaigns which had increasing penetration as an objective had much greater business success than campaigns that had increasing loyalty as their objective.

We need to get our heads round the fact that the real battle is not for loyalty but scale. And in that battle being mentally available - known, famous, salient, top-of mind - and physically available - findable, recognizable, and accessible - are marketing's key levers for success.

Customer acquisition should be the primary objective for brands. Our ultimate audience therefore consists of people who are not devoted zealots, who do not think about us all the time, and who don’t have an exclusive relationship with us.  If we focused a little more on how brands actually grow, we might be a little more careful about throwing around that ‘engagement’ word.

Bad habit #6: Overestimating people’s appetite for participation

It’s easy to find claims that people actively want - even expect - be participants rather than merely receivers in brand communications.

Thus, the Seth Godin has heralded the end of the ‘age of interruption’. Similarly IBM’s ominously-titled report The End of Advertising As We Know It, argued that the consumer was becoming “tired of intrusions”. 

Paul Saffo of Institute for the Future in California argues in an Economist article on the new media environment that:  “In this new-media culture, people no longer passively ‘consume’ media (and thus advertising, its main revenue source) but actively participate in them, which usually means creating content, in whatever form and on whatever scale.”

Meanwhile Aaron Barnes of Friendster argues that: “Social network users are already heavily interacting with brands online... Research has shown that more than half of people aged 16 to 30 welcome brands' involvement in their social networks. Users show strong willingness to interact with brands in return for entertaining content, product information and useful tools.”

A social media guru tells us confidently that “No-one sits back anymore and receives”.

And the otherwise very good and very respectable Hall & Partners make the extraordinary assertion that “Today, the old paradigm of the brand as a mythmaker is losing relevance as well as power to generate and sustain customer commitment.” In its stead, they claim that “brand marketers are turning to a host of schemes designed to get people to participate with their brands.”

So what empirical evidence is there for this rising tide of demand for active participation and engagement, as opposed to simply receiving marketing content?

The engagement and participation zealots point to the changes fortunes of TV, citing the shrinking ratings for individual channels and programmes. But audience fragmentation is not evidence of a sea change in people’s relationship with the medium.  And it’s certainly not evidence that “no-one sits back anymore and receives.” It’s evidence of expanding supply and choice. Which is something rather different.

In fact total TV viewing - that most passive of pastimes - is actually rising in most countries. For example, total TV viewing in the US has increased 16% over the past 10 years.

And TV consumption still dwarfs consumption of social media platforms.  

For example, according to Deloitte’s calculations:

Based on BARB data, the UK’s aggregate consumption of TV in May 2011, amongst the 54,5 million people aged 2+ years who watched TV, was about 6.4 billion hours, or 118 hours per viewer

In the same month, according to UKOM/Nielsen data, aggregate consumption of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn was 182 million hours, or 6 hours 39 minutes and 20 minutes respectively per unique user of each platform. 

By contrast, the aggregate time spent on the UK’s most watched channels, BBC1 and ITV1, was 12 times that spent on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Current aggregate consumption of Facebook, across all UK users, is equivalent to half that for BBC2 or Channel 4. 

The current gulf in consumption volumes between the two media is of course down to the fact that there are still far more people who watch television than are on social networks. And as BARB and UKOM/Nielsen data show, the average television viewer spends far more time watching television than the average social network user spends on social networks.

The market for ‘passively’ consumed media would appear to be very much alive and well.  As Olivia Johnson reminds us:

“People still like [TV]  because it lets them just sit back, relax and veg out. The marketing, business and even normal press is full of articles about 'engagement' and about the need to cede control to 'active' consumers, who want to create, control and dictate in their turn. I am not so much of a Luddite as to deny these things are happening. Consumers have always had opinions and ideas, and the internet lets them express these as never before. But, people do not always want to be in 'active' mode. Sometimes, people want to be in passive, lean-back mode. By the time you've spent a day organising and feeding your kids, working in an office, tidying up the house and booking the car in for its next service, a few hours on the sofa with your feet up and your mind in neutral is just the ticket. Roll on TV.”

So much for the claim that “people no longer passively ‘consume’ media.”

Looking to the world of social media it becomes quickly evident that much of the data touted by 'engagement' pundits disguises the real depth and breadth of people’s involvement. 

Analysis conducted by Futurelab for example, shows that while Facebook fan pages can garner vast numbers of “likes’, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of “fans” don’t actually interact with the Page.

Futurelab’s analysis of the the 20 most-fanned celebrities on Facebook reveals that the number of “core fans” is significantly lower than the actual fan count. 

To compute the core fan count, the number of times each fan has commented on the page was calculated, and then the average taken -  any fan whose comment count is higher than the average was classified as a “core fan”.

As of 12 May 2011, Eminem had over 41 million fans and Lady Gaga over 39 million fans. On their own, these sound like mightily impressive figures. 

But the picture changes when one digs into the depth of people’s ‘engagement’:

The average number of posts per fan for Eminem’s fan page was 1.17. The average number of posts per fan for Lady Gaga was 1.82.

Eminem’s core fan count (i.e. fan whose comment count is higher than the average) is a paltry 575 and Lady Gaga core fan count is just 1,231. That’s just 0.001% and 0.003% of their overall fan numbers.

So much for the claim that people are hungry to participate. It would appear that deep ‘engagement’ is a minority preoccupation, not a mass-market phenomenon.

As an aside, and as Futurelab point out, these numbers are significant because of the way content from fan pages syndicates into Facebook users’ news feeds. Unless someone has actively interacted with your page, they won’t receive your updates.  Getting “liked” simply isn’t enough.

What’s been termed ‘participation inequality’ is everywhere to be found.

For example, the average number of unique visitors received by wikipedia for the 12 months to April 2011 was 391,000,000. According to wikipedia, it has 15,247,556 registered users, 86,900 active editors and 10,900 ‘very active editors’. 

In other words just 3.9% of visitors are registered, 0.02% are active contributors, and 0.003% are very active contributors.

Clearly some people want to be actively ‘engaged’. At least some of the time. With some content. And there will be times when harnessing their involvement and enthusiasm (as Old Spice did with its YouTube ‘Responses’ campaign) can be an enormously impactful and efficient means of reaching much broader populations. 

But to suggest that there has been a wholesale change in people’s relationship with media, that passive consumption of any kind is at an end, that “no-one” wants to ‘merely’ receive, and that the market for active participation is a mass market one is to overstate the case to the point of willfully misrepresenting the truth.

Bad habit #7: Treating ‘engagement’ as if it had intrinsic value

Some have claimed to be able to put a monetary value of say, a Facebook fan.

Last year Syncapse, for example, issued a report- ‘The Value of a Facebook Fan: An Empirical Review’ claiming that on average, fans spend an additional $71.84 on products for which they are fans compared with those who are not fans, and that “the average annualized value of an individual fan is $136.38.”

Somewhat stretching the bounds of what constitutes ‘empirical’, they conveniently ignore the fact that their research is based upon claimed propensity to recommend or buy rather than actual observed behavioural data. And we all know that we’re unreliable reporters and witnesses of our own habits and behaviours, past, current, and future.

Pointing out that Facebook fans are more likely to recommend, or more likely to buy a brand, the report makes a claim for causality, arguing that these people buy more because they’re fans.   Therefore  - the argument goes - marketing should stimulate the acquisition and retention of fans. 

It is the sort of logic that in some of more naive parts of marketingland leads to communications being tasked with the bizarre objective of Facebook fan acquisition.

But this kind of research is nothing but a sloppy reading of the data. Correlation does not imply causality. It’s a logic fallacy one would expect of a schoolchild.  Not for one moment does the analysis consider the possibility that people might sign up as fans of a brand because they buy it more. 

It is a fool’s errand to try and place a value on a Facebook fan in terms of their impact on retail sales.

While by no means easy or straightforward, putting a financial value on a Facebook fan in terms of their media value does make sense, in as much as fans obviously provide brand owners with a free and direct line of contact with people who’ve declared their interest. Provided of course that they’ve done more than “liked” and have actual interacted.

But the impact on sales revenue of any version of engagement until it leads to purchase is - lest there be any doubt or debate - zero. 

Until it leads to actual purchase - and indeed until you've calculated the incremental retail sales value generated, deducted the retailer’s cash margin, deducted any incremental costs incurred (e.g. materials, wages, etc.), deducted the cost of the marketing activity (media and production) and convincingly factored out or accounted for the impact of any changes in product, price, distribution, and share of voice... as well as competitor activity and any other contextual influences (e.g. weather, news stories, etc.) - you simply cannot make any conclusions as to the value of 'engagement'.

So those who put a retail sales value on a Facebook fan misread the data, ignore the fact that markets are dynamic, overlook all the myriad of factors (some of which are under our control) that can and do influence purchase behaviours, and forget that the end point of our efforts is not engagement, but actual purchase behaviour. To assume that there is a direct line of causality between becoming a fan and purchase behaviour is simplistic to the point of naivety.

‘Engagement’ - just like a good old fashioned ratings point - has no intrinsic value until it affects purchase behaviour.

Bad habit #8: Assuming that people care deeply about brands

The rhetoric of ‘engagement’ - particularly that which argues for more ‘engagement’ - rather obscures the fact that one of the most fundamental (and overlooked) roles of brands is to help people NOT think very much about their purchase decisions. 

Branding helps people make quick, easy, intuitive and confident purchase decisions. Without thinking about them that much. Or worrying about the price. Or the quality. Or the competitive offers that might be available.

Indeed people really don’t care that much about their choice of brand. 

Despite the language of commitment we bandy around, most people are are actually polygamous, with split loyalties to several steady partners. 

As Ehrenberg put it:

“In general there are relatively few 100% loyal or sole buyers of a brand, especially over any extended period of time. A typical and predictable finding for frequently bought grocery products is that in a week, 80 or 90% of buyers of a brand buy only that brand, that in half a year the proportion is down to 30%, and that in a year, only 10% of buyers are 100% loyal. To expect any substantial group or segment of consumers to be uniquely attracted to one particular selling proposition or advertising platform would therefore generally seem entirely beside the point.”

Examining loyalty patterns exposes the truth that idea of ‘our consumer’ is a merely a myth. It’s a figment of our imaginations. People’s polygamous purchase patterns mean that ‘our’ consumer is in fact simply a buyer of another brand who sometimes happens to buy you. 

In general then, most people really aren’t that bothered about brands and much of the time they are not that bothered about ours. 

As Robert Heath - who introduced us to the notion of low involvement processing - reminds us, “learning about brands is generally not seen as being very important. As a result we tend to process anything to do with brands at very low attention levels, using a process called Low Involvement Processing.” 

For most of of the time and for much of our needs, we do not actively scan and research the market. Not only is this because it just isn’t that important to us, but it isn’t practical. Conducting a cost-benefit analysis of every breakfast cereal brand and SKU available with screaming children in tow and a whole shopping list to accomplish is not only not fun, but unfeasible.

‘Decision-making’ is a poor description of what happens in real life when it comes to choosing which brand to buy because it overstates the degree of conscious evaluation involved. As Byron Sharp puts it: “Marketing theory pays insufficient attention to this coping behaviour. Instead,  theories about buyer behavior are obsessed with brand evaluation.”

We’d do well do remember the words of Alan Hedges:

“An advertiser and his agency are very closely bound up with the brand and its advertising. They spend a large part of their waking life thinking and worrying about it. They know a great deal about its market. They are vitally interested in its future. They read and work over the advertising copy many times in the various stages of its evaluations. It is very difficult but very important for them to remember that the consumer generally shares neither their interest, nor their knowledge, nor their anxieties, nor their preconceptions.”

Bad habit #9: Staring down the wrong end of the telescope

We complain in adland when a client insists on finding an audience for a new product just because the factory can make it. Or a doctor tells us to take some aspirin, irrespective of our ailment. Yet much of engagement thinking is little different. 

Despite the fact that it’s so vague as to be meaningless,  and the lack of any agreed (or useful)  industry definition, ‘engagement’ is treated as a one size fits all solution in search of a problem. 

Without interrogating the specifics of a brand’s circumstances, needs and audience, 'engagement' is held up at the panacea - “whatever your problem, 'engagement' is the solution”. 

But as Alan Hedges noted all the way back in 1974: 

“Any discussion of ‘how advertising works’ which implies that all advertising works in the same way does nothing but disservice to its subject. It is simply not true except at a very high level of generality. Different campaigns aim to reach different objectives over differing time-scales against different market contexts by having different effects on different groups of people. To suggest, as many theorists have tried to do in the past, that this diversity can be encompassed by a single rule of thumb is naively unrealistic.”

Given that ‘engagement’ advocates start with the solution, not the specific of a business problem or challenge it is perhaps small wonder then that so much of the confident rhetoric fades to awkward, embarrassed silence just at the point where one would hope to see the impact of ‘engagement’ on business results convincingly demonstrated.

Starting with intermediate measures and then searching for problems to solve is to look down the wrong end of the telescope. 

As Stephen King advised, we’re better off when we don’t deal in broad generalizations and comprehensive theories of how communications works.  Rather, we’d be better served dealing with the specific, rather than the general, working back from the business objectives, to the desired behavioral change sought, to the specific role for communications, to the hard and intermediate measures to be tracked. 

Gary Duckworth has eloquently argued that advertisements - just like books- are intrinsically specific:

“Both advertisements and books are designed to be specific. An advertising campaign is designed with respect to the particular brand's circumstances, its strengths and weaknesses, competitive positionings, its intended target group etc. Similarly, a novelist does not set out to tell a general tale of people in general in a town somewhere. We get a specific tale, set in a time and geographical context, with characters who are different from one another, and events happen to specific people in the narrative. This specificity has major implications. Once we move beyond the specific it rapidly becomes difficult to provide meaningful generalisations about advertising or literature. There is most meaning in advertising discourse to be gained by the particular and the specific because when we create advertising we do it with specific aims in mind. 

As soon as we move from a set of individual instances (i.e., this advert, that campaign, or this novel, that novel) to the collective assertion (advertising is, or literature is), we are inevitably heading for tricky ground.”

To argue that communications must work through ‘engagement’ is to offer up a uniquely unhelpful universal theory of how communications works. To cite Alan Hedges one more time: 

“It is... axiomatically impossible to say that advertising which does such-and-such will be effective, since effectiveness depends mainly on suitability of the advertising to the occasion and not on its own intrinsic properties.”

Calling an end to talk of ‘engagement’

Talking about ‘engagement’ is as about as helpful as demanding that communications be ‘good’. 

Meaningless and bankrupt, when we talk of ‘engagement’ we reveal ourselves as victims of industry fashion. Or in pursuit of our own self-serving agendas. Or in love with pontificating and generalizing at the expense of understanding the specific and actually being useful. 

In his book Welcome to The Creative Age, Mark Earls advocated never using the word ‘brand’, as a way of freeing ourselves from the baggage and some of the more lazy and unhelpful assumptions that came with the word. 

I’d like to suggest that we all try not to use the word ‘engagement’ ever again. It might just help us focus on what really matters. 

And free us from having to endure yet more vacuous bullshit.


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