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Can Anybody Really Measure Engagement?

Can Anybody Really Measure Engagement? Jim Meskauskas

In what now feels like the Neolithic period of internet advertising -- having followed the Mesolithic period of hits and clicks -- the talk used to be about the branding capabilities and how metrics catering to measuring a brand impact needed to be developed and deployed.

And they were. Dynamic Logic (now a Millward Brown company) innovated the online pop-up survey -- the equivalent of the mall intercept -- and gave the industry data and information that told us something about how online advertising affected the way people remembered, considered and thought about a brand. They brought quantification to a highly qualitative occurrence.

But while this kind of information is interesting, it only speaks to where one's advertising has been and only limited predictive application.

Since the Neolithic age, reach, frequency and -- most recently and most notably -- engagement have been discussed, developed and advanced as ways to get at the more sublime aspects of an advertising campaign. And this is not just online but in all media. Reach and frequency serve for most as a proxy for engagement, while engagement is seen as an even deeper determinant for advertising's effects, serving more as the Kantian "thing in itself" (or "ding-an-sich" for you German speakers).

But is this accurate? Is engagement deeper than reach and frequency?

Can engagement even be called a metric at this point?
There have been several articles within this publication in the last six months addressing engagement. Most of them have been sanguine about engagement's usefulness as a measure for how advertising influences audiences and its application for planning media (see, for examples,  Brian Manning's ""), however, seem to see engagement as word describing an experience.

It may be an important experience, but that's all it is. Mr. Pilotta calls it an act of communication. Mr. Smith suggests it is more of a psychographic word, belonging with other descriptors such as "attentiveness, communication, persuasion or response."

The truth of the matter is that for the purposes of media planning -- yes, the actual practice of the discipline…

Reach and frequency are far more useful and meaningful than engagement.
At present engagement is simply a word describing an experience. It isn't actually a metric. There are metrics used as surrogates by which it is determined: time spent, responses made, actions taken. But engagement doesn't really mean anything concrete.

Engagement is an idea that -- insofar as it has been adopted technically by the advertising industry -- is defined as "turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context." 

Reach and frequency at least lay out the possibilities for predictive behavior. Why? Because they set the parameters of what I like to call your action pool.

Some X number of persons necessarily have to be communicated with some Y number of times in order to get the volume of action (i.e. purchases) necessary to make a business and yield a return on investment.

X = reach, Y = frequency.

Engagement would still rely on at least reach to be useful as a metric.

Even if it were quantifiable as a metric, engagement cannot really be used as a guide for planning.
Like brand favorability and message recall, engagement only tells you about where you've been-- not where you are going. It doesn't even lay out the possibility for action in the way "purchase intent" does. 

Before engagement can be more than just a cool label for what is admittedly an important concept it has to be causally associated with an opportunity for action. For an advertiser, that action has to be buying stuff

Engagement, if properly measurable, may someday tell us something about a person's propensity to buy the good or service being advertised. But it seems more likely that it will be best used to describe experiences had rather than actions taken.

And isn't that what it's really about? 

At the beginning of Ogilvy on Advertising (still the greatest advertising book ever written), he quotes: "When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'"

What this means: it doesn't matter how much you like the advertising, what matters is that you buy the product.

If engagement can lead us to knowing this, then it would be engaging, indeed.

Media Strategies Editor Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International, Inc., an Omnicom Company. .

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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