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Does engagement need a common definition?

Does engagement need a common definition? Tom Hespos

Several presenters at the iMedia Breakthrough Summit, which wrapped up yesterday, carried a common theme throughout their presentations. Quite a few of them touched on how advertising's history is characterized by standards and standard definitions. Whether it is reach, frequency, GRPs, or even early-stage interactive success metrics like clickthrough rate, adoption is contingent on the industry deciding on a common definition that is accepted by all.

This is how the ad industry has approached the notion of engagement. The three- and four-letter ad organizations have been bickering for years about how to define engagement precisely in the context of an ad campaign. It is thought that a standard will make it easier for marketers to dump money into engagement campaigns. And yes, standards would accelerate this.

But standards aren't necessary.

Marketers are certainly free to define engagement any way they want to. If, to your brand, "engagement" means that someone went three pages deep or more on your website, or that they responded to a blog post or played around with a Flash game for more than 30 seconds, that's fine. What matters is not how a brand defines engagement, but what that engagement does for the brand and its success metrics.

One of the ways we've been determining impact of engagement on brands at Underscore is through the use of what we call a "3D Brand Study." You're likely familiar with the run-of-the-mill brand studies from the likes of FactorTG, Dynamic Logic or Insight Express. Their exposed-control methodology is widely accepted as a way to gauge lift in key brand metrics for online brand advertisers.

A 3D Brand Study executed through any one of these vendors recruits an extra exposed group. That group answers the same survey questions as the control group and the group exposed to banner ads, but the respondents in that group also happen to meet the brand's criteria for engagement. Thus, we can see not only what exposure to advertising does for the brand, but also how much additional lift we get when prospects are engaged.

3D Brand Studies allow marketers to set their own criteria for engagement and not wait for the industry to set standard definitions. Determining what impact engagement has on a campaign isn't going to wait for those standards. Most marketers know intuitively that engagement does a lot more for the brand than mere exposure, so they can't afford to wait for the bickering to end.

So don't wait. Work with your brand teams to define engagement your way, then work with your agencies and research companies to structure campaigns, such that a 3D Brand Study can recruit enough engaged respondents to gauge a lift in metrics.

Let me know what you think in comments.

Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com. Read full bio.

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: John Gray

2008, March 20

Great post Tom. I've found myself spending a fair amount of time educating clients that engagement isn't one of our communication objectives, like increasing consideration or purchase intent. Rather, it's a means to achieving those objectives, and as such its efficacy should be measured so it can be accurately evaluated.

Commenter: Sarah Potemkin

2008, March 20

I agree. The notion that better standardization is the key path by which digital media will be able to truly move forward/breakthrough/[not be hindered] is one that is deeply flawed. This includes the methods by which we measure engagement.

One client's version of engagement may be through widget involvement through social networking, but another client may not care about that. They may have other studies that define how an engaged individual acts or doesn't act, say or doesn't say, and it may differ from whatever stock metrics that are already at hand.

We have shown our ability to be nimble - just because digital is gaining a larger share of the pie doesn't mean we can't adopt and evolve any longer.

Commenter: Tom Kasperski

2008, March 20

When I use the term "engagement" I'm referring to a user experience that has at least one of these characteristics:

1) creation and participation - e.g. UGC uploads, online digital creations (art, apps, music, etc.), game plays, comments, etc.
2) time spent (extended passive consumption) with brand relevant content
3) Word-of-mouth - I consider WOM as an important characteristic of engagement - e.g. blog/podcast mentions, reviews, messages/invites sent, widget/app installs, viral pass-alongs, etc.

It seems to me 'engagement' is far too complex to boil down into a single formulaic definition. We also need to keep in mind there is a qualitative aspect to what we measure.