Digital, Marketing, Social

“Engagement”: marketing’s most misunderstood word?

There was an interesting article from Fast Company that I read the other day which spoke about an oft-used word in the age of digital branding: “engagement”. This particular word seems to be important to anyone who conducts business online, but as Jeff Beer wrote, “‘engagement’ is an imprecise term”. So how exactly do we measure its value, then, if it even has any at all?

The story I read was about Burger King Norway and an interesting tactic they employed when re-launching their Facebook page: “In an effort to get a fresh start, [they] offered all of the followers of its previous page a free Big Mac to not join the new page… The rationale: the brand had low engagement and a lot of fans whose activity consisted of making negative cracks and asking for discounts.”

In a culture where many brands and companies still place a massive emphasis on follower counts as a measure of digital success, Burger King’s decision seems bizarre, especially considering that they went from 28,000 to 8,000 fans with the maneuver. Conventional wisdom would say that they just cut their audience down by two-thirds and limited the reach of their marketing messages.

However, the problem with this line of thinking is that it comes from an outdated and frankly, uneducated mindset. Overemphasis on follower counts as a measure of engagement comes from the same school of thinking that says that spending big money on a national ad will always be more effective than a lower-priced local ad, simply because more people will see it. This mentality is rooted in the belief that companies have customers, not communities, and is exemplified by one-way rather than two-way communication tactics.

Instead, I think the better way to measure “engagement” is by looking at “conversion”. That is, how many people are actually taking the desired action that you want them to take with your marketing/sales message? The traditional definition of engagement might tell you that 100,000 people on Facebook saw one of your messages, but conversion will tell you that only 4,000 of them clicked on the link in your post. So if you were asked how many people were “engaged” by your post, which number actually makes more sense?

The difference between “engagement” and “conversion” isn’t just haggling over different numbers, however. It’s also a difference in ideology. Engagement is statically rooted in one-way conversations: “Okay, great, 100,000 people saw our message. Our work here is done”. Conversion, on the other hand, inherently requires two-way communication to optimize: soliciting feedback, crafting messaging with clear calls-to-action, and constant testing and fine-tuning. With conversion as the focus, both parties benefit, as the business understands their customers better and customers interact more meaningfully with the business. Through the narrow lens of engagement, though, achieving either of these is not possible.

Still, at the end of the day, we might not ever be able to come up with a universally-pleasing definition of “engagement”. What we can do, though, is agree that it certainly isn’t measured best through metrics like follower counts. Sven Hars, Burger King Scandinavia’s marketing director, put it best when he told Fast Company, “We stopped focusing on how many likes we had, and put time and resources into finding out what to talk about and how to engage our fans.”

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