Don't Confuse Engagement for Direct Response

Agencies Need to Help Brands Understand That Brand Building on Social Networks Isn't Done Collecting 'Likes'

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You can't swing an LOLCat these days without hitting a marketing article about "engagement." Interviews with CMOs emphasize the importance of engaging consumers; articles by social-media professionals cite engagement as the Holy Grail; and panel participants at conferences utter the "E" word as if they're getting paid for each use. But for all the enthusiasm marketers have for engagement, there remains a lot of confusion about what it is.

I have nothing against engagement; in fact, like the aforementioned pundits, I'm an advocate for it. However, I don't see the concept of engagement as anything new to the world of marketing, and I don't believe it should be measured in "likes" and "views."

With respect to the formal practice of advertising -- including print, TV and outdoor -- engagement has been a goal of practitioners since the creative revolution sparked by Bill Bernbach in the 1960s. Less formally, marketing maestro P.T. Barnum demonstrated the power of engagement as far back as the early 1800s. Somehow, even in the absence of a "like," "share," or "embed" button, Bernbach and Barnum managed to engage their respective audiences.

These men made people think, made them marvel, made them laugh, made them want and, ultimately, made them buy. When a brand decides to measure engagement in quantifiable terms such as "comment," "like," "view" and "share," it undermines the potential of everything engagement represents. As a result, agencies need to help clients identify measures of engagement that are authentic and sustainable; after all, there are only so many contests, coupons and giveaways a brand can offer in its effort to rack up favorable daily statistics.

The way many brands approach Facebook is a perfect example. For all the mistakes Facebook has made with the words it chooses to describe various user actions, "feedback" -- the number of "likes" and "comments" divided by the number of impressions -- is not one of them. Yet this number is often mistaken for a measure of engagement. Many marketers believe that if a fan doesn't click "like" or post a comment, then he or she wasn't engaged. Consequently, in their attempt to garner as many "likes" and "comments" as possible, brands shift from an engagement strategy to a direct-response strategy -- placing greater emphasis on driving a single, immediate action than building strong, lasting relationships.

While this approach may be appropriate for campaigns designed to promote movies, TV shows, video games and other products with a specific launch date and abbreviated sales cycle, it's not effective for brands that aspire to build their business over the long term.

My point is not that fan feedback is worthless; on the contrary, it's among the most valuable benefits of using social media as a marketing channel. Every social-media strategy should include soliciting user feedback, directly and indirectly, on a wide range of topics. However, the more frequently social media practitioners employ the tactics of direct-response advertising -- analyzing and optimizing everything that affects feedback rates from character count to call to action -- the less opportunity they have to genuinely engage consumers.

Understandably, many clients expect that a real-time medium should deliver real-time results. Furthermore, as data has become more instantly available, so, too has their desire for instant gratification. Which is why it's important for agencies to reinforce the idea that, like any meaningful relationship, the one that exists between a brand and its online community shouldn't be evaluated minute-by-minute, day-by-day or action-by-action.

Of course, when making the case for a different way to evaluate engagement, it's helpful to support it with some objective facts. For example, research shows that the No. 1 reason U.S. consumers "like" a brand on Facebook is to receive discounts, and the top reasons they "unlike" a brand are because the posts are too frequent and the content is irrelevant. As a result, one could argue that looking at the number of fans who unlike a brand or hide its updates from their news feeds each month (in relation to the number of total monthly impressions) provides a more macro-level measure of engagement. After all, most brands don't provide discounts and promotions every week or even every month -- so if fans continue to voluntarily receive and view a brand's content, it's a good indication that they find it engaging.

There is, of course, great value in identifying the specific daily content that resonates with an online community; however, the ability to maintain long-term relationships transforms a brand that extracts likes into a brand that earns love.

Mike Wolfsohn is co-founder and chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome. You can follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Wolfsohn
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