There's no doubt that engagement is one of the hottest subjects in marketing communications right now. In an unprecedented act of collaboration, virtually all major associations -- ARF, AAAA and ANA -- have come together to crack the engagement code and provide a standard industry definition.
Here is the most current working definition of engagement according to the association taskforce:
Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.
Unfortunately, beyond that there is very little consensus on what defines engagement and how it can be measured.
Engagement is a highly subjective and variable indicator of the propensity of a brand message to resonate and connect with a prospect and ultimately drive some kind of meaningful action.
The goal of engagement is to break through the clutter and match key messages to key prospects. Alas, this existing set of metrics is difficult to apply against established practices and media, creating a number of problems with measurement.
Why is it so hard to define and measure?
Diverse goals: No two marketers have the same specific objectives and thus will define and evaluate engagement differently. A workable definition of engagement must anticipate a myriad of perspectives and notions of success.
Getting beyond exposure: Many current efforts to demystify engagement focus on exposure alone.
The TV legacy: Current attempts to decode engagement are hampered by a TV-centric mindset, which is dominated by demographic assessment. Engagement must not only take into account the quality of the visitor, but also the quality of the visit.
The question of proof: When it comes to measuring engagement, too much focus on accountability can be overwhelming and even distracting. The pressure to quantify conversions in the form of sales or transactions should not overshadow less concrete elements of engagement. Moving a prospect emotionally, moving them to a shift in attitude, or moving them to an interim action (i.e., an intention to purchase or request for more information) must all be weighed when evaluating performance.
Affinity vs. engagement: A 2006 Starch study divided 25 magazines into high-engagement, low-engagement and middling camps, defining engagement by the frequency with which they are read, time spent with each issue and how much of each issue gets finished. When it examined the percentages of readers who remembered ads across the magazines, it found no link between those scores and levels of engagement.
The Starch study refuted the magazine industry's widely held beliefs that content engagement would guarantee advertising engagement. While a shock to those who hold the generalization, "People buy certain magazines (e.g., Vogue) for the ads," it underscores the important roles of interactivity and technology in the engagement recipe.
The rules of engagement
Clearly, the complexities of defining, let alone measuring, engagement are daunting. A single metric for engagement can't address all the variables and marketing objectives involved. What is needed is a set of standard reporting options that can be measured based on the advertiser's goals and that can apply across a wide range of objectives, industries and media.
Compartmentalizing the elements of engagement gives us a flexible set of parameters by which to assess marketing efforts.
Reach: Clearly, engagement must be wide-reaching and scalable to truly influence a brand in a positive way.
Frequency: Frequency is a balancing act in the advertising world. Too little and engagement cannot be achieved. Too much and consumers may react negatively to the advertiser's message.
Cost: Buying out all of the advertising inventory on the big three portals would be a guaranteed way to engage consumers. But in the real world, marketers seeking engagement must find the optimal balance between cost efficiency and impact.
Interactivity: Interactivity generally means the ability to initiate some kind of sequence within an ad or communication (such as a click or mouseover). Any form of voluntary or permission-based involvement implies an element of engagement. If a prospect has acknowledged the brand message in some way and has expressed interest through interaction, engagement is beginning to occur.
Duration: Duration is the unifying component of engagement. Time spent interacting with an advertisement increases the chances of an advertising messaging being absorbed and acted upon, in turn increasing the time spent on the advertiser's website and the probability that the message was appreciated (consumed) and ultimately acted upon (conversion).
Currently, online is the only marketing medium capable of tracking all these metrics. Online advertising networks, in particular, can provide advertisers with a diverse and dynamic platform for measuring, testing, tracking and ultimately optimizing advertising toward consumer engagement.
Advanced online technologies offer a combination of sophisticated measurement capabilities, multiple ways to drive consumer involvement, and the flexibility to deliver alternative outcomes.
In terms of reach and cost, the online medium delivers a vast audience at a lower per-user cost. It enables marketers to reach consumers in the numbers required to create measurable shifts in brand engagement and the cost efficiency to make it practical for virtually all marketers. No other advertising channel has the ability to efficiently reach the right consumers (based on specific targeting criteria) without sacrificing broad reach.
Online technology also enables marketers to quantify optimal frequency at which engagement can occur for your brand. Advertisers can easily identify the frequency at which other parameters, such as duration, page utilization and site visits, reached their peak. Similarly, interactivity can be measured in real time. Clicks, mouseovers, video plays, game plays-- any action taken by a consumer can be easily tracked and optimized online.
Engagement means different things to different people, but there are certain common threads that weave into any marketer's definition-- and it is digital media that can provide the most useful analysis.
The online channel presents unprecedented measurement tools with which to help marketers make sense of the outcomes/outputs of their efforts. Specifically, the power of network advertising enables marketers to craft, customize and fine-tune their efforts against the specific deliverables, variables and criteria that to them make up engagement.
Mollie Spilman is chief sales and marketing officer of Advertising.com. .