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How much do you love me?

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Will you hang on my every word? (www.weblogs.com ) Will you see the world through my eyes? (www.flickr.com) Will you follow my every movement? (www.youtube.com) Will you follow along, absorbed while my thoughts flit from topic to topic? (www.twiter.com)

I need to know if the effort of all my narcissistic outpouring is worth the pixels that give their all for me. I need to know how many times a day you think of me, write my name on a napkin, and sigh deeply while looking off into space. Because if I can't tell, I'm going to go back to standing in the middle of the street, screaming, "Stella!"

Tortured, twisted pleas from the inner heart of teenage angst? No, this is the conversation that's happening where advertising meets Web analytics meets social media. It's the discussion about the E word—Engagement.

In the good old days, engagement was a promise between two people to marry. Today, it's measured in seconds and proven by clicks and posts. Did you watch my ad on TV? Did you see it again online? Did you go to my Web site? Did you post a comment on my blog? Did you e-mail my name to your friends? Has any of this had an impact on whether you'll buy my products?

As trifling as this sounds, brains with many more synapses than mine are digging deep into these issues. If this is where you are spending your money, or reaping your compensation, then you need to tune in to:

A) The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) which provide a working definition:

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

B) Jeremiah Owyang (www.web-strategist.com) opines:

  • Engagement indicates the level of authentic involvement, intensity, contribution and ownership.

C) Eric Peterson (www.webanalyticsdemystified.com) suggests:

  • Engagement is an estimate of the degree and depth of visitor interaction on the site against a clearly defined set of goals.

How you capture the right data elements in order to calculate a metric is the stuff of long, deep discussions. Follow the threads of the three listed above, and you'll come across several dozen people who have differing—and interesting—opinions. But they are determined to come up with a solid, universal definition.

While Eric goes to extraordinary lengths to calculate his own Web site's Engagement factor, Charlene Li from Forrester takes a more generic view that feels a lot more like that place where PR meets branding. In her report, "The ROI of Blogging: The `Why' And `How' Of External Blog Accountability" described on her blog), Charlene discusses measuring the increase in brand visibility, the savings on customer insight, the reduced impact from negative user-generated content and increased sales efficiency.

I fear that Engagement is a number that will only be useful for navel gazing. It's important to understand that I was born and raised in California, so I firmly believe that there is a valuable place for navel gazing, but one cannot compare one's navel to another's. There will never be a universal navel standard.

There's a need for "a clearly defined set of goals." And aye, there's the rub. Goals are unique, once you get past the Big Three:

  • Make more money.
  • Spend less money.
  • Increase customer satisfaction.

As an Internet marketing strategy consultant, I am constantly asked, "How do we make our Web site better?" My immediate response is always, "Better at what? What are you trying to accomplish?" That invariably kicks off days of political discussions exposing me as a corporate therapist who uses the Internet as the conversation starter.

Now that I am focused on online marketing optimization, my clients ask, "What should we measure?" My response is, "That depends. What are you trying to accomplish?" and we're right back to discussions about goals and priorities.

What is true for one site may seem appropriate for all (recency). But most others are very much in the "it depends" category.

If you spend a lot of time on a Web site designed for customer care, it may indicate that you are dazed and confused. Alternatively, you may be frequently interrupted by phone calls or friendly cube-farm visitors. A two-click stay for 17 seconds may have been a wildly successful visit if your prospect found the specification they were looking for.

Were they engaged? If depends on how they feel after the fact.

The number of clicks, the amount of comments, the frequency of visits and many more hard numbers are subject to my favorite David Weinberger quote, "The universe is analog, messy, complex and subject to many interpretations."

The hard numbers people are due for a reunion with the fuzzy numbers people. Branding folks have been at this a long time—it's called talking to your customers and listening to your marketplace. The goal is to ask people their opinions and measure how many of them feel one way or the other about your company and your offerings. These time-honored metrics include:

  • Unaided and aided awareness.
  • Message association.
  • Brand favorability.
  • Intent to purchase.

A poor Web experience may have a larger impact on a company's brand than a poor telephone call, a disappointing stock-on-hand experience or a bungled presentation by a field sales representative. These may be considered unfortunate incidents that can be remedied by the next call or visit.

But a Web site visitor knows that the Web site has been planned, prepared and produced by teams of smart people who were tasked with expecting the needs of each visitor. If, after years of development and testing, the Web site does not deliver on the promise, then visitors leave with a sharply diminished opinion about your company—and your brand.

How your customers feel is central to whether a Web site is successful. You could say that all other metrics are simply there to drive customer satisfaction. Higher satisfaction will lower costs and increase revenues. It will encourage people to talk about you in a positive light and you will reap the benefits of a positive reputation.

How many times they look at your Web site does not reveal their level of engagement. It's all about how they feel about it.

The future of Engagement as a metric is not to be found at a universal level, an industrial level, within a company or even within a department. Engagement needs to be codified at the project level, the campaign level and useful only in comparing this project's progress to itself. Narcissistic, indeed.

And this is where navel gazing comes into its own. If, for a given product, you track what people are doing on your site as well as ask them how they feel about your site and your products, then the true measure of Engagement is found in visitor contribution.

Engagement will be measured by the number of people who respond to your outreach for feedback, provide input, answer the survey, suggest product improvements or contribute to your product manual wiki. We will consider click traffic the same way we consider foot traffic in the mall. They're interesting, but not necessarily interested. They may even be curious, but they are not engaged. Not until they reveal some information about themselves and their attitude. If you care enough to express an opinion, you are engaged.

So even if we agree that Engagement is the ratio of opinion-sharers to visitors, it will never be a metric we can use to compare one property to another. We can only use it to compare our own numbers over time. That means somebody must already be using this equation somewhere. As William Gibson put it, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed."

Jim Sterne is the president of the Web Analytics Association, producer of the Emetrics Summit (www.emetrics.org) and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies and Internet entrepreneurs. He can be reached at jsterne@targeting.com.

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