Engagement is a two-way street

Max Kalehoff writes of marketing’s conundrum with new media in an interesting piece in today’s MediaPost Online Spin. He laments the lack of any clear definition of a term that’s been bandied about for the last couple of years, engagement. Marketers are hoping we’ll all agree on what that means, and Kalehoff has done a nice job of summarizing the problem. The commentary cites Robert Scoble’s contributions to the discussion:

Scott Karp (Publishing 2.0) correctly noted how new-media people “may be ahead of the curve on formats and hip notions like ‘conversation,’ but they’re actually playing catch-up on the deep, intractable problems of media– like how to prove the value.” Scoble validated this, but, to my delight, he also tackled the monumental elephant in the room. Yes, the one that so many avoid: the connection among engagement, action and sales.

Scoble wrote: “So, why should engagement matter to an advertiser? Well, as an advertiser I want to talk to an audience who’ll actually DO something. Yeah, I’m hoping to get a sale. Yesterday Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of Active Words, was driving me around and told the story of when he was in USA Today. He got 32 downloads. When he got linked to by my blog? Got about 400. My audience was (and is) a lot smaller than USA Today[‘s], but the engagement of the blog audience got his attention. How could we measure audience engagement?”

There is no be-all solution to measuring engagement; heck, the advertising and media industry is having a hard enough time agreeing on a definition! But the lack of action, sales or a defined business outcome in all the pondering is a problem.

Well, it’s a problem, but I view this quite differently, and to explain my view, I’m going to have to backtrack a little to properly frame it.

“Marketing” is a one-to-many term that can usually be interchanged with “manipulating.” This is what marketers do; they use creativity and statistics to move, drive or otherwise cause people to take an action they might not have taken otherwise. It’s called sales, and it’s the most essential tool of our capitalist culture. The more money you have, the more you can sell, because you can hire smart people to craft sophisticated “marketing” and put it everywhere.

I also think “marketing” assumes a mass, whether that is assembled in a television audience or through millions of direct mail pieces. After all, getting your message to as many people as possible is the mission.

But Media 2.0 turns this on its head, and this is why I don’t think “marketing” people will ever come to agreement on any new term or metric (a fancy word for a measurement guess) that can be used to play one-to-many in this new world.

Google provides many definitions of the term “engagement,” but most involve the connecting of one thing with another. It is decidedly not a one-to-many concept, and that’s why we cannot twist it into something that fits contemporary marketing. If we could, it wouldn’t be engagement.

Which brings us back to Kalehoff’s “monumental elephant in the room.” The reason we’re having problems connecting action and sales with engagement is that those trying to make the connection want it to be something that supports the status quo — a “new” and measurable, therefore manipulable, mass marketing metric. This is the same kind of blindness that keeps media companies (remember, they’re “driven” by advertising) trying to pull Media 2.0 back into their model. It won’t work.

I want to see everybody succeed in the disruption, but if we’re going to do that, we’re going to have become a part of the disruption. Buzz Bruggeman’s 400 downloads thanks to Robert Scoble are a measure of the way those downloaders feel about Robert and that is engagement. It’s THEIR choice, not Robert’s, Buzz’s or anybody else’s, and that is what scares the crap out of marketers. After all, if the customers are in charge, who needs the marketers?

And here’s the marvelous simplicity of engagement: It’s a two-way street, and rather than wringing our hands over how to get people to engage with us (so that we can manipulate them), why don’t we spend our time engaging our customers? As the blogosphere has learned, that process begins with listening. When we honestly listen to customers, guess what happens? They’ll do our advertising for us.

As Steven Covey says, “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.”


  1. Actually I have a handful more stories like this one which I think would be worthy of discussion. Grab me off line some time!


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