At Advertising Week in New York, there was probably no more often used term than "engagement." In fact, there was a whole day devoted to it, sponsored by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA). And on the previous day, a panel at MediaPost's Forecast 2007 conference debated the topic for an additional hour.
What was clear is that the industry is very unclear about engagement-- at least the direction that the MI4 task force of the ARF, AAAA, and the Association of National Advertisers are going. A search of iMedia Connection quickly turns up scores of articles with the word engagement in the title. But the authors typically refer to some kind of physical engagement, such as a click through on an ad or an experience on a website. I won't argue that these aren't types of engagement, but they're just one aspect of the more consumer-centric definition of engagement the ARF is pursuing.
Reading more widely, I have found four different uses of engagement:
- Media engagement: Ad-selling media organizations have pounced on engagement like a pride of lions on a wounded wildebeest. They aim to prove that their audience is more engaged with their media property than their competitors. But they typically fall back on old-school metrics like traffic or time spent with the medium. The ARF is trying to move beyond these metrics.
- Ad engagement: Advertisers and agencies have begun to talk about how engaging their ads are but, again, typically relying on old communication metrics like attention or recall. These fall short of the ARF's new definition because they only capture whether the audience saw the ad, while the ARF is aiming for a more subtle measure of whether the consumer reacted to the ad.
- Engagement marketing: An approach that plans a sequence of activities to draw the consumer through the purchasing process, e.g., running an ad that drives the consumer to a website where they sign up for email that delivers additional information over time until the consumer buys. This sequence actually comes after the more emotional engagement the ARF is focused on.
- Brand engagement: This sounds closer to the ARF's idea, but also often defaults to old-school metrics like customer loyalty or the more recent Net Promoter score. Important metrics to be sure, but the ARF is looking to identify when the earliest beginnings of this consumer relationship happen so it can be nurtured and grown.
If these aren't what the ARF means by "consumer engagement," then what is? First the official working definition:
Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.
"The heart of engagement is 'turning on' a mind," according to ARF Chief Research Officer Joe Plummer. This is a subtle, subconscious process in which consumers begin to combine the ad's messages with their own associations, symbols and metaphors to make the brand more personally relevant. A consumer may see an ad, recall it, and even repeat the key benefit, but until they undertake this process, or "co-create" the meaning, they haven't truly engaged and it is unlikely to impact their behavior.
For advertisers seeking the true direction of consumer engagement, here are three key ideas that I took away from the discussions at Advertising Week.
1. Everything we know about advertising is wrong
Well, maybe not everything, but Dr. Plummer did effectively shoot down the "AIDA" model of advertising, in which the sequence of communication is assumed to start with getting the consumer's Attention, giving them reasons that will stimulate Interest, which turns into Desire, and eventually results in Action (i.e. purchase). "Recent research shows this model is wrong," Plummer said. I know that as a direct marketer, I was raised on this model and I suspect direct and interactive marketers still are.
2. Engagement is a new mental model for advertising
Instead, consumers process a lot of new information, including ads, on a subconscious, emotional level first, and later engage their rational mind to lead to action. He noted that research has shown that measures of "brand feeling" are much more highly correlated to purchase intent than ad recall. So instead of a "Think then Feel then Do" process, Plummer stated that consumers Feel, then Think, then Do. In this model, an ad's job is not to provide compelling, fact-based features and benefits of a product, but to seduce the consumer into beginning that subconscious processing of the brand. "Storytelling is more powerful than argumentation," Plummer concluded.
3. The concept of co-creation exposes this non-rational process
When the consumer "engages" in this subconscious processing, he or she creates associations, affixes symbols, imagines metaphors and imbues experiences into the ad message to give it personal relevance. It all sounds rather obscure, but Gerald Zaltman, a member of Harvard University's Mind, Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, and originator of "brand co-creation" has a technique to delve into the process. At the Engagement Conference, he showed the results of drawing out these subconscious elements from a Heineken beer ad.
Starting from this common understanding of consumer engagement, it is now possible to put all the other definitions into their proper places:
- Media engagement provides a context that can facilitate this engagement
- Ad engagement draws the consumer in to begin to create that personalized meaning
- Engagement marketing reactivates the associations and symbols at a time when the consumer is ready to move from the emotional, subconscious form of engagement to an active form
- Brand engagement results when the individual ads, messages and experiences blend into a seamless whole that drives preference, word-of-mouth recommendation, and other loyalty behaviors.
Integrated marketing assumes that each element of the marketing mix has a particular role and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Consumer engagement may be to the marketing mix what gravity is to the physical world: the unseen force that keeps it all together!
Jim Nail is chief strategy and marketing officer for Cymfony. .