Research

The Engagement Paradox

Christian Green

Christian Green

5 minutes read

There’s no doubt that "social", from a marketing perspective, is maturing. But the field is still plagued by an untimely amount of BS and confusing terminology. There’s a serious lack of standards for performance measurement and ROI tracking, leaving marketers chasing meaningless “engagement” metrics – and forgetting basic marketing objectives in the process.

Engagement myopia

Let’s start by looking at the term "engagement". It frustrates me. Whenever I hear or read about social media in the context of marketing, the word seems to come up. With the risk of offending an army of self-proclaimed social media gurus, I dare challenge the appropriateness and relevance of engagement in a marketing context.

Whilst I, of course, agree that driving marketing value from social media is intrinsically linked consumer interaction, I fear that the constant focus on “consumer engagement” is (still) making marketers lose commercial focus in a mindless pursuit of likes, comments, and re-tweets. Many still seem to be in a state of engagement myopia, where they fail to connect social media marketing opportunities with business reality.

Pointless interaction

Engagement is indeed worthless - unless it is a means to an end. Engagement really just means “interaction”, and many forms of advertising media can be interacted with; even old school media. Remember when people “engaged” with print ads by writing slogans, clipping coupons and mailing flyers to enter sweepstakes!? But interaction should never be a goal in itself – even if it is a lot easier to achieve with social media than with print ad coupons!

Sometimes it seems advertisers or agencies are producing endless streams of content for social media without purpose or real strategic direction. My aim here is not to point fingers. I think it is only natural to lose track a bit when the marketing toolbox is full of exciting new gadgets. But how can we better keep our eyes on the ball, in a world dominated by social media consumption?

Think marketing!

According to Encyclopedia of Management: "The primary goal of marketing communication is to reach a defined audience to affect its behavior by informing, persuading, and reminding."

I.e. the rationale for investing in marketing communications, regardless of your choice of channel(s), should be a desire to influence consumers, or potential consumers, to take the desired action, favorable to your organization. Be that awareness, driving sales, building loyalty etc.

The primary goal of marketing communication is to reach a defined audience to affect its behavior by informing, persuading, and reminding...

So shouldn’t that also apply to marketing in social media…? Maybe your outdoor and print ads are being replaced by posts and pins - but they are all a form of marketing communication. If a message has been designed, and paid for, by a business - it should aim to achieve some form of commercial goal. Be that soft or hard - short term or long term.

A new set of rules, but…

True, to be effective in social media you must play by a different set of rules and apply new creative tactics compared to traditional push advertising. Partly because consumers are now more empowered and can easily opt out. Thus, marketers can logically benefit from more relevant and contextual communications (that consumers will “opt into” voluntarily, and “engage” with) to supplement or replace traditional one-way advertising messages. Especially as traditional media appears to be losing some of its potency.

But you don’t need a “presence in social” – you need sales and revenue. Social media is just another tool in the toolbox to help you get there. But it is not necessarily the best way.

You don’t need a “presence in social” – you need sales and revenue. Social media is just another tool in the toolbox to help you get there.

Using social media actively and intelligently can be effective, but a mere presence to engage with an audience, for the sake of engaging, is a pointless waste. It all comes down to your goals and your message – or branded content if you like. How you distribute that content is secondary.

The tricky balance

I am in no way implying that social media cannot be an effective marketing tool. On the contrary, it can be extremely powerful and cost-effective, under the right circumstances. Getting consumers to willingly accept your marketing messages and even help distribute them – for free – makes good business sense, of course.

But to succeed, it requires marketers to strike a tricky balance between relevance for your business AND relevance for your audience. Too much focus on the business will make your content spammy and “anti-social”.

But to succeed, it requires marketers to strike a tricky balance between relevance for your business AND relevance for your audience.

Too much focus on entertaining and interacting with the audience will render your efforts commercially pointless and a waste of resources. Finding that balance between business and engagement is the real challenge, and it’s not an easy one to crack.

No standards

But why is it so hard? Why do companies fall into an “engagement myopia” trap? For many marketing departments, adjusting to the world of producing and distributing a high volume of messages in social channels, requires new ways of planning and working, new agency partners etc. Also, budgets for social are often not impressive, leaving managers looking for low-budget solutions and cutting corners. Buy-in is getting better of course, but marketing managers still struggle to explain internally, the commercial viability of social.

On top of that, there are no meaningful standards for success in social media marketing. Possibly the rapid growth of the new social channels and a great deal of overhyping has caused the confusion. For established marketing channels (like TV, email, and display advertising), there are at least meaningful metrics, best practice, and KPI frameworks to lean on.

For established marketing channels (like TV, email, and display advertising), there are at least meaningful metrics, best practice and KPI frameworks to lean on.

In reality, this means that less skilled people are doing more content, faster, on a lower budget, using new and unfamiliar workflows and with less supervision and no success criteria…

Sounds like a recipe for disaster! Or a waste of good marketing budget, at best.

Next stop: Accountability

It again puts pressure on social networks to deliver quality data that companies can rely on for real marketing performance measurement. Currently, Facebook is the only social network that supplies reasonably solid marketing data to work with, yet often with serious flaws in their API.

Hiding behind fluffy engagement metrics won’t work.

Without data, marketers are left “in the dark” on their social media investments. Leaving them with only meaningless metrics to lean on as a measurement of success.

A magic recipe, please

The hard truth is, that there may not be a one size fits all recipe. Businesses are different but hopefully, 2015 will be the year with more focus on securing better data to work from, standards for measuring, auditing and benchmarking actual, meaningful marketing performance in social media.

But this requires that 1) The social networks get serious about supplying meaningful data to help marketers, and 2) More marketers get serious about measuring marketing performance in social media. So we can all move beyond engagement and get back to business.

About the author

Christian Green
Christian Green
Co-founder

Content marketing expert with a passion for disruptive, social and digital businesses. I have built unconventional digital marketing companies and worked across three continents as a senior level consultant for clients such as Carlsberg, Arla Foods, PepsiCo, Fiat Group, Bosch and L'Oreal on social and digital marketing strategy. I guest lecture on branded content strategy and social media marketing, play polo and rarely read books.

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