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Should Engagement Really Matter to Marketers Anymore?

Engagement. Our brands crave it, our audiences seem eager to participate in it, and our campaigns are designed to drive it.

On the surface, engagement often seems like an ideal goal for content marketers; but when you take a deeper look at how difficult it is to determine its value, you may want to rethink the role it plays in your strategy.

Marketers’ troubling commitment to engagement

One of the biggest problems with committing to engagement as a top marketing goal is the term itself: Marketers don’t agree on how to define it.

This is a sticky issue that Jonathan Crossfield discussed at length with a panel of experts at Content Marketing World 2019. (You can listen to the full conversation in this Talking Points episode published in Chief Content Officer magazine.)

In the conversation, Jonathan contends that engagement once meant something: capturing and holding audience attention, sparking an interaction, or getting our brand’s message across. But somewhere along the way, the definition got muddled to the point where marketers commonly liken it to “awareness,” lump it in with vanity metrics, or use it as a convenient catch-all for a variety of results they’re tasked with achieving.

“It feels, to me, like people define it in the way that best suits whatever they are trying to prove to someone else,” he says.

People define engagement based on what best suits what they’re trying to prove, says @kimota via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Instead of marketers viewing engagement as a distinct step along the journey toward our business’s goals, engagement has become the goal itself. And this is problematic because there’s little consensus on how to approach it through our marketing strategies, let alone how to measure its impact on marketing performance.

Even worse: All the confusion surrounding engagement has some marketers – Jonathan’s panelists included – wondering if the term has become so meaningless that it should no longer matter to marketers at all.

Mixed measurement metaphors

If “engagement” is becoming meaningless, how did it happen? One theory posed in the panel discussion is that content marketers often lack solid metrics they can grab onto so they fall back on using the analytics available on virtually every social media platform to prove content’s value.

Panel participant Maureen Jann, founder of agency SuperDeluxe Marketing, subscribes to this view: “I honestly believe that engagement, at its core, is a desperate bid of marketers to feel like their content matters. But the reality is, unless it becomes genuinely measurable in a real meaningful way, on a measurable attribution path, it just feels sad.”

#Engagement is a desperate bid of marketers to feel like their content matters, says @SuperDeluxeMo via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Engagement lacks proper standards for comparison and evaluation

An additional issue raised in the discussion by marketing consultant Dennis Shiao is that no industry standard exists on how to take all those individual metrics and calculate engagement. “Everyone has their own definition,” he says. “Then to compound the confusion, each platform and even each analytical tool will measure in a different way. You can take the data from one place, but it’s not comparable from one to the other.”

Relying on “vanity” engagement analytics is also problematic because the marketing value of the interactions can be interpreted differently depending on who’s doing the engaging.

Here’s a personal example: When I’m researching a topic for a CMI blog post, I might visit a company’s social media page several times, comment on their posts, or click a link to interact with another piece of content so I can characterize the information accurately in my writing. But despite all the time I spent “engaged” with that business, it doesn’t mean I’m interested in speaking with a sales rep or have any intention of making a purchase.

It’s hard to resist the allure of social likability

Marketers still contend with the “squishiness” of engagement because clients and executive management insist on it. They get so caught up in the excitement of achieving impressions, “likes,” and video views that they direct their marketing teams to pursue them as a goal without considering what value they provide – or don’t provide – to the business.

As marketing consultant and freelance writer Erika Heald shared with the panel, “I’ve had clients where the CEO would be so excited about posting a very expensive video on LinkedIn and think, ‘Oh, I got 900 impressions on that and from such big important companies.’ And I’d very politely ask, ‘How many comments, how many click-throughs did we get from that?’”

She then would have to gently explain that an impression just means the video showed up in their feed. It doesn’t mean they watched it or took meaningful action on it.

An impression just means the #content showed up in the feed. It doesn’t mean anyone took meaningful action on it, says @sferika via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Salvation may be on the way

Maureen says the big social media platforms recognize the need to provide better analytics and are starting to implement more robust tools to further quantify the value of the marketing experience. These include scroll tracking to gauge how far readers make it down a page and feedback mechanisms that enable marketers to ask follow-up questions about brand sentiment after a user sees an ad.

“For example, when Twitter serves up an ad in your feed, every so often they’ll come back and actually ask you, ‘Do you remember just seeing this ad, and if so, how do you feel about the company?’ They are trying to add in some of that kind of brand awareness data to give back to advertisers,” Maureen says.

A lot can get lost in translation between engagement and “good engagement.” But how are marketers to tell which is which? And, more importantly, how can they establish sound measurement practices around their engagement efforts?

Engagement should be the means, not the end goal

With its very definition arbitrary and the ability to understand its true value in question, it may be time to shift the conversation around engagement. Rather than positioning it as proof of positive marketing performance, think of it as a functional tool that can be used to drive other more meaningful and measurable marketing goals – such as growing your subscribed audience, generating leads, and driving conversions.

Think of engagement as a functional tool, not as proof of #marketing performance, says @joderama via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Understand your audience’s terms of engagement

To accomplish this, evaluate your content’s value from your audience’s perspective. Do your assets hit on the things they look for when choosing what to consume and/or act on?

For example, in a conversation with speakers at CMWorld 2019, Ann Gynn identified desirable content traits that prompt audiences to engage most:

  • It connects emotionally, demonstrates empathy, and speaks to them personally.
  • It focuses on their needs and intentions by delivering valuable information and education that helps them on their journey.
  • It presents an opportunity for them to get involved with or express their passion for your brand.
  • It builds community by creating a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

Deliver the right information, on demand

Of course, linear buying journeys are more likely to be the exception than the rule these days. To address the chaos in decision-making more proactively, Ann suggests creating a platform of content in a variety of formats and delivery options so they can be mixed, matched, and made available to buyers no matter where, when, or how they choose to engage with it.

Create a platform of #content in a variety of formats so buyers can engage with it where, when, or how they choose, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Turn passive engagement into an action-oriented activity

Reaching in-market consumers at the right time and place to guide their decision-making is just the first step on the engagement path. You also need to look at how you’re compelling those readers to act on the content they consume.

Including interactive tools and features in your content – quizzes, configurators, and customizable templates – is one powerful technique for turning initial engagement into active participation. In fact, according to Ion Interactive, 70% of marketers say interactive content is effective at converting site visitors.

70% of marketers say interactive #content is effective at converting site visitors, according to @ioninteractive via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

You can use other types of content to activate the audience in ways that benefit your business as well. For example, according to CMI’s 2020 B2B Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research, the top three content formats for converting leads are in-person events (25%), case studies (23%), and webinars/online events (11%).

How will you make engagement matter again?

No matter how you define engagement or what role you assign to it in your content marketing strategies, make sure you recognize true engagement as something more than your audience reading a piece of your content or hitting the “like” button on all your social posts. As panelist Erika Heald says, “Engagement is when somebody has that moment with your content, where it makes them feel something or do something.”

As long as you keep that top of mind when creating your brand content, you’ll be doing your part to keep the engagement dream alive.

Engage with content marketing experts and grow the value of your content marketing. Join us for Content Marketing World this October. Register to get the best rates. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute