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A sure-fire way to boost engagement (seriously)

A sure-fire way to boost engagement (seriously) John Capano

In a world where consumer attention is finite and ads are infinite, how can brands effectively drive engagement?

We know that most people go online with a specific purpose, whether it's to converse with friends, read the news, play a game, or make a purchase. This is why the digital channel, whether online or mobile, is so different from more traditional media such as TV or print. Digital is much more active for consumers, and this presents a challenge for brands and advertisers. The self-directed consumer motivation of digital makes it especially difficult for brands to place themselves into the consumer attention path without disrupting the experience. We believe this is why display advertising has such low rates of success, except in instances when the ads have been made relevant or creative through applying technology (e.g., retargeting, page takeovers, etc.). It's also why advertising that is based on some degree of user initiation (e.g., search, value exchange, etc.) is often more successful at getting the consumer's attention and garnering results.

A sure-fire way to boost engagement (seriously)

The dynamic at play between the consumer and the brand is probably not going to change. In fact, it's probably going to get worse for brands as consumers become more adept at cutting through the clutter and adopting technologies that help them ignore unwanted advertising. For this reason, we believe brands that can enhance a user's online experience, while communicating a specific brand message, are best positioned for success as media and consumer attention continue to fragment.

Due to this clutter and fragmentation, the most valuable commodity for advertisers that want to build brand value -- in any medium -- is engagement. We define engagement simply as when a consumer is actually paying attention and actively interacting with some piece of media, advertising, or messaging. It's what you get when you combine attention with experience, and it's much more powerful than either is alone. The challenge for brands is that in today's age of media immersion, much of it digital or mobile, engagement continues to be one of the most difficult things for advertisers to capture. Faced with attention as a finite resource, advertisers are too often turning to reach and frequency as proxies for engagement -- when in reality, those are more often measures of a media planner's willingness to spend than of a consumer's intent to buy. The good news is that marketers who understand this finite "attention economy" can take advantage of the technology behind it and use it as a powerful tool for engaging an audience.

Much of the push in our industry is toward strategies and technologies that help the advertiser reach consumers and gain their attention. It's not a big leap to see how shifting your budgets more toward email marketing (opt-in, not spam), search, social, rich media, and retargeting are all ways to gain and isolate a consumer's attention. These strategies are typically more effective and efficient than simple display advertising at identifying and targeting a consumer that is inclined toward your brand message or call-to-action. That said, each comes with unique disadvantages: Opt-in email has to compete with spam and is often ignored, search puts you "on the list" with all of your competitors, social tends to be disruptive to a user's intent in that channel, rich media is expensive and hard to scale, and retargeting, although effective, brings with it the limitations of most standard display formats. What is needed is an ad strategy, or technology, that combines the best of these methods, while minimizing the disadvantages inherent in each.

Luckily, that strategy -- value-exchange advertising -- exists and is gaining traction across more and more of the web and mobile. Value-exchange advertising is simply the idea that you offer the consumer something of value in exchange for them paying attention. In its simplest form, such as offer walls, value exchange is paying for attention and quickly becomes something for the consumer to endure to get what they want. But in its more advanced form, value exchange is a compelling and effective way for brands to gain and hold consumers' attention. This advanced form requires several factors: access to premium placement on premium inventory, the ability to create rich media-like experiences at display pricing, the flexibility to deliver various user actions, and the ability to target and track the audience you want. When you combine these elements, what you get is one of the most effective and efficient forms of online advertising available. And it's a great way for brands to engage audiences.

When considered in this light, there are two primary components to value-exchange advertising: the opt-in offer and the experience. The opt-in offer is your call-to-action for the consumer to willingly pay attention. The engagement experience is what happens after that. Until recently, these have both presented challenges to the advertiser.

When it comes to offers, scalability has been an issue. It has been difficult to find enough environments (i.e., inventory) that can support an economically feasible value exchange. Sure, offering credits for a social game is a great way to get the attention of online gamers, but what about all those consumers that don't play social games? Now, with the proliferation of social gaming, music and video streaming, paid content, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other digital "pinch points," there is almost no limit to the scale of value-exchange advertising and targeting. Why this is important goes back to the disruptive factor: If the offer or benefit is relevant to the environment where the consumer has chosen to be, then it is more likely to be effective.

The second component, creating engaging experiences, has been even more of a challenge for advertisers and agencies. Not because they lack creativity -- they have that in spades -- but because the costs and the lack of scalability for truly creative digital advertising are prohibitive. It has simply been too expensive to create a rich media experience that will drive enough engagement across enough audience segments. What has been needed is an inexpensive way to create this same robust, dynamic experience at a reasonable price and time. Luckily for brands and agencies, ad tech companies are starting to tackle the issue.

A great example of how brands can leverage this strategy is a recent campaign from healthcare provider Anthem BlueCross. It used augmented reality to tout the health plans' free check-ups. The ads invited users to take a "virtual check-up" in which they literally saw themselves displayed on the screen via live webcam so they could interact with medical tools like a thermometer and ophthalmoscope. On screen it actually looked like the light from the ophthalmoscope was shining in your eye. The innovation paid off, too. Consumers spent an average of 71 seconds with the ad, and 71 percent of those who took the virtual check-up clicked through to Anthem BlueCross' landing page. By bringing the doctor to the consumer, Anthem was able to engage consumers in a personalized conversation around an emotionally relevant topic: their health. Best of all, there was no "interruption" -- everyone who participated willingly opted in to the ad experience and earned a benefit endemic to the site they were on -- the best way to tap into attention and create engagement.

Although these results may seem extraordinary, they aren't for engagement advertising. High engagement rates demonstrate the value of consumer attention, and also prove the level to which you can take the creativity of your message when you work with a flexible, scalable platform and network. Once you have value-exchange and engagement advertising in your media plan, there's only one question to ask yourself. Now that you have the consumer's attention, what are you going to do with it?

John Capano is chief marketing officer of SocialVibe.

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"Image of female hands pushing keys" image via Shutterstock.

As SocialVibe's Chief Marketing Officer, John Capano brings to the company a unique combination of marketing, brand-building and technology experience. John was most recently the Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy at Wunderman, one of the...

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