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Engagement ain’t nothing but a number – why 1% isn’t good enough

The headline calls attention to everything that’s wrong with how businesses measure engagement in social media today. Businesses that invest any level of marketing resources in networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like (get it?) are being groomed to focus on soft metrics instead of the relevant activity that signals the strength and worth of a community. By weighing conversations, interactions, and views, businesses are fed raw numbers that demonstrate KPIs but they do not offer the insights necessary to glean ROI or deep understanding of what people do and do not want, need, or value. And that’s part of the problem as marketers and developers are focusing on stimulating movement, which by default becomes a game of competing for attention, moment by moment.

A recent study published by Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, an Australia-based research group found that less than 1-percent of Facebook “Fans” actually engage with brands. Researchers looked at the top 200 brands using Facebook’s “People Talking About This” metric as a proportion of overall fan growth over a six-week period in October 2011. As a result, the team discovered that the percentage of People Talking About This compared to overall fans was only 1.3%.  While this metric and approach is only one way to measure supposed engagement, the truth is that even by Facebook’s own standards of measurement, marketers are already boxed into a reporting process where each report serves as a benchmark for future activity. That’s the problem though. Engagement is confused with incidents and not outcomes or influence, the ability to cause desired effect or change behavior.

Businesses Take a Medium’alistic Approach

Brands and their marketers suffer from what I refer to as medium’alsim, a condition where inordinate value and weight is placed on the technology of any medium rather than amplifying platform strengths and ideas to deliver desired and beneficial experiences and outcomes.  Said another way, businesses are developing for the sake of development and establishing supporting presences without regard for how someone feels, thinks, or acts as a result. In doing so, “engagement” programs are calculated, brought to life in the form of an editorial calendar that, by its very nature, isn’t not designed to really engage people at all.

See, engagement is not defined through likes, comments, shares, RTs or impressions. This activity is simply a result of engagement.  Focusing on soft metrics is at the detriment of the customer experience and is potentially a distraction away from developing more meaningful connections and relationships. Engagement is by design. And, this is why businesses that are attempting to drive engagement numbers are benchmarking against lower standards. Instead of benchmarking against themselves, marketers and developers should consider benchmarking against the opportunity. Doing so is far more ambitious and as such, aspirational in the development of future strategies.

For example, I ran a quick experiment with a global beer brand to prove a point. We looked at the 1-percent engagement rate and decided to run a non-scientific experiment to not only debunk the value of the engagement number as defined, but also demonstrate the need to think through desired actions and outcomes. In the middle of a business day, I posted a picture of a frosty mug filled with said beer with an ocean view in the distance. I added one word to the post, “cheers.” Within minutes that 1-percent engagement rate was eclipsed with people uploading pictures of their favorite moments while enjoying their favorite beer. Along with comments, Likes, Shares, etc., the marketing and digital teams were temporarily elated but quickly realized that the engagement they witnessed was only fleeting. While a simple example, the lesson is that engagement must mean something more to groom the community toward desired sentiment, outcomes, or to simply serve the needs of the community based on stated expectations or desires.

Redefining Engagement to be More Engaging

It starts with redefining engagement as we know it today to ultimately improve experiences tomorrow. I spent some time exploring existing definitions and I was surprised to find a lack clarity around such an important word. Since we spent so much time talking about what engagement is not, I invested time in researching the best practices of brands that were clearly driving communities in a particular direction through digital, social, and mobile channels. Those companies include Virgin America, Dell, TOMS, Whole Foods, Giant Nerd, among others. As a result, a working definition for engagement came into view…

Engagement is defined by how a brand and consumer connect and interact within their networks of relevance.

Simple. But, it’s also incomplete. It’s not just about the moment or competing for attention, it’s about the aftereffect.

Engagement is measured by takeaway value, sentiment or feelings, and resulting actions following the exchange.

If we look at the nature of the community in which brands are investing today, editorial programming, contests, gimmicks, campaigns, etc. lend to only one of the multifaceted sides to customer engagement.  Community is much more than belonging to something, it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter. This is why businesses must think about investing engagement by defining experiences, journeys, feelings and outcomes. Without doing so, they by default introduce experience divides that disrupt flow, hinder sentiment, and obstruct clicks to action.

Redefined engagement opens the door to new strategies and resulting metrics that lend to meaningful experiences and results. By designing more meaningful initiatives, businesses can now focus on causing effect, changing behavior, or reinforcing value where previous engagement metrics can now document the progress of progress. The ultimate measure however is now something more substantial, such as…

– Shift in sentiment
– Satisfaction
– Acquisition
– Referrals
– Conversion
– Leads
– Brand integrity/Reputation

Thinking through experiences, journeys, outcomes, and sentiment will at the very least improve the number of customer interactions and overall allegiance. It is in the relentless delivery of value that extends moments beyond merely competing for attention. Engagement is about cultivating community behavior against a defined vision, mission and most importantly, purpose. Step back to gain perspective and to see new possibilities that your competitors are missing. You are an architect of experiences and as such, you must begin with the end in mind. Then, reverse engineer the outcomes and experiences your community will value and in turn, your management will value as well.

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63 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Engagement ain’t nothing but a number – why 1% isn’t good enough”

  1. Brian why is it so hard for people to wrap their brains around talking with each other in ways that is valuable to the end user?

    This so reminds me why I dislike dating.  You see it all the time.  Someone will go out and spend a majority of time talking about themselves, thinking they are helping you get to know them. Can you say no second date.  Businesses are you listening?

    This is exactly why big business has missed great opportunities for being able to have their customers be a part of the conversation WITH them.

    So much so, we as customer got pissed off and had our own conversations in social media platforms because it allowed us to be hyper connected and “LEAD” the conversation.

    Why is it so hard for Brands to realize some of their best “data” to improve will come from listening to what we like and DISlike about how you serve us, what you serve us or where you serve us.

    And like my Papa who was a Farmer all his life ( and then became the town mayor in his wise years-because he was one of the few who could find solutions and hear each person’s side without judgement) PAY attention to if you are tilling the soil, putting in nutrients that will help your crops grow and produce well.

    While that analogy will not land with everyone without more explanation, hopefully it will open their eyes to question their assumptions.

    Now to go write that blogpost explaining my farming analogy deeper.

    • briansolis says:

       I love when you chime in Michele! Please do write that post and share it here as well!

    • Craig McGill says:

      That talking about yourself thing is so true Michele but I suppose it’s a tricky balance. After all, *you* may want to know all about *me* (if we’re on a date) but *I* don’t want to talk all about me and you don’t want to talk all about yourself (because you know it all already and vice versa) – it’s a tricky balancing act.

  2. Dave Sachse says:

    Thanks for sharing Brian! Quick question

    Thoughts on why Facebook or newer social platforms (ie Stamped) do not offer ability to express dissatisfaction?

    Thanks for your insights!

    • briansolis says:

       Hello Dave…I think it’s because businesses are still trying to manage the “Likes” 🙂

    • Dave Sachse says:

      I “like” that comment :). Thank you Brian.


    • Dennisgalayda says:

      Social Media has put enormous pressure on Brands to fall out of love with themselves, and, instead, fall in love with their customers, or face, as Brian says – Digital Darwinism. The soul of Social Media may just be encapsulated in this email excerpt below, (the gentleman supplies pest control services):

      “Thanks for the tip Denny, you are right,
      helping people is a good business. Last week I started to write a brief flyer,
      helping people to keep their home pest free. The response has been good.
      Getting emails from agents, and that will carry a long way.”

      Thanks again, John, Apr. 18th,

  3. Great article on understanding what constitutes engagement, creating exceptional customer
    experiences and how to measure success.

    Once a company is able to put the right outcomes-based metrics in place (whether it be sentiment or
    acquisition), social media not only becomes one source to measure results – it also provides an incredibly rich source of consumer behaviour to further tie those results to the “why?”

    There are so many facets to building communities and fostering engagement that being able to
    pinpoint what worked well or what needs to be improved is not necessarily immediately apparent.  When sentiment, satisfaction or acquisition rises or falls, it becomes difficult to understand what actions need to be taken to repeat or improve.

    I do believe when companies get past counting “likes” and put the outcome-based metrics in place – those who go the next step to analyze and act on behavioural patterns in social media will have the advantage.

  4. SharelOmer says:

    Hi @briansolis:disqus ,

    Thank you for the insight… as many business try to measure social media ROI, they lack this metric, it’s not trivial to understand from the # of friends/followers/like you have with how many you engage with and why this people and not the others….

    Just having this metic measured on a weekly basis could help better understand the ROI we get from Social Media…

    It feels that the more tools we have that provide “Social CRM” metrics of who is more high-value engagement, the more we could gain real ROI from SM 🙂

    Thanks for this great post!

  5. Zoe Sexton says:

    Thank you Brian for your forward thinking. This reminds me a bit of personal relationships and the one businesses want with their prospects. We are redefining seduction in fact, are we not? Medium’alism is actually mediocrity, the criminal behavior of any relationship defined by laziness and assumptions. Engagement needs only two things: attention to detail and energy which creates attraction.  How about we advise our companies FLIRT with their prospects? Engage energetically with things they relate to? This is where story-telling (le chic term d’jour) comes in. Humans want to relate and see ‘sameness’ to themselves. They want humans to illustrate those stories. They connect when they find something evocative or compelling in these stories. The new 18 minutes of illustrated story-telling by Coke in their latest efforts is not compelling in my mind. Humans see humans- clearly the more real the better.
    No one really wants to engage with their brand unless there is a human attached to it. Target, Coke, Walmart, Whole Foods…. etc etc. Brands that attempt to engage with people as if they are people themselves will begin to fall behind the ones who attach faces and personalities. Everyone knows a brand is not a person and it is offensive to be approached by one from a very biological/physiological level. It is the fastest way to get unpopular. It’s basic human nature.
    I have been watching the useless ballooning of twitter followers with folks who are unrelated to the industries they are following… they are a commodity. Commodities are capital assets. Twitter followers are of that ilk if when they are bought and have no relationship to the one they are following or are follower by.
    Not to go on. so let’s cut it short with a very natural obvious response. The companies that play on the strengths of their consumer clients will benefit more strategically that those that play on their weaknesses when the final round arrives. There is a reason for the saying that ‘water seeks it’s own level’. Transparency can’t be faked.

  6. Craig McGill says:

    In fairness, one per cent isn’t anywhere near great but pre-digital many marketing firms were happy with anything around even four per cent engagement. This isn’t a digital only problem – it’s a quality issue.

  7. Smart assessment and sage advice. Thanks for this. Tis most valuable!

  8. Very nice. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Just change gears and try a different approach and monitor the outcome. The engagement numbers are always vital but if no one is watching and collating towards a refined process, nothing will ever be a proven method. I did particularly appreciate the erector-set style info graphic. Reminds us that if it doesn’t work one way, make modifications and get it working. I miss erector sets. Now kids will build an app to do it digitally. 🙁

  9. Yewande Noah says:

    Love your insight, Brian!  

    Those best practice companies you listed seem to have given us something to care about that may not have a direct impact on our life, but allow us to have a direct influence on and I’m thinking.  TOMS, for example, showed us a problem and left the solution in the consumers’ hands.  Whole Foods provides an alternative source of everyday items that are generally better for your health and the community – again leaving the decision up to the consumer.  They’re giving us something to care about and a reason to care, rather than just something to buy.

  10. Simply amazing and thought provoking post. I regularly read your posts and share it on my Twitter handle, but stopped by today to thank you for some great content you provide us. 

  11. Drawvolution says:

    Brian you nailed it!
    For me the keyword for engagement is at the end of the arrow:

    *!FEELING!* (should make that bold)
    I think one reason why people are not able to build up engagement on social media, is because they are not “feeling” when they act. But this is a hard task to do for most of the people working in enterprises these days! Just think, when you felt something outside your family?

  12. loucovey says:

    This goes back to thinking about what makes content valuable.  If you have a product that was designed to solve a particular problem, the sales/marketing people want to turn the problem into a universal experience and sell if to everyone as though they have the same problem.  But what makes the experience valuable is how the problem was discovered and how it was solved.  Then you open up the possibilities of placing your product in a broader context and solving more problems.
    i just finished an engagement with a company that could not get past the desire to “sell more stuff” using social media rather than finding and solving customer problems with it.  All they cared about was doubling the number of clicks every month with no concern about who, or what, was doing the clicking.

  13. PJSweeney says:

    Brian – interesting perspective. I just wrote in my blog yesterday about how GoPro is so much better than Red Bull at engagement and used the Brand Audience Rate of Engagement (BARE) as the metric. 

    I think Facebook is fantastic from a marketing perspective because you can see how _one_ ingredient of your marketing recipe is doing compared to your competitors. The 1% is highly valuable because if you can sustain 4-5% you are much better at listening, engaging, and getting customers to return and see your brand. This is building brand equity. BARE on FB is measurable and people can be rewarded, careers made and ROI’s calculated based on that score; ultimately it’s a good thing. The key thing that companies with high BARE scores must not forget is the call to action – (click to action in your case) but that can be at an event where you give people an online incentive to go someplace. I look at the success of Vail Resorts EpicMix – a game that has several hundred thousand active users as a benchmark in the ski industry of engagement beyond the mountain. 

  14. Elaine Joli says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for the articles you write – always meaningful, thoughtful and useful. I saved this one to my desktop.

  15. Becca says:

    First time here, I’m glad this post
    could help us define where do we need to focus on. thanks for this great post.

  16. Thanks Brian – the engagement model is certainly  on a deeper level than the top line stats derived from many Social Analysis programs provide – its a tough task to define the real ROI ….nice article – I have put this on our FB page , thanks

  17. Crisp says:

    Hi Brian,

    I think this is a very interesting piece, but.. You try to define engagement as something more than a social action, which I wholeheartedly agree in, yet you don’t provide a metric able of capturing this essence. If social media is to be taken seriously, we need to start thinking in the type of data that either provides actionable business insight, ROI, ROMI or some other value recognized by organisations. This could be in the form of actually defining what an community is or what amount and sort of engagement is needed to call something an ecosystem. Point is, first step is defining the metric as more than an abstract term, and providing the data that signifies that term.

    We do this for some global brands, and I think we are seeing a paradigm shift towards deep consumer insights and engagement analytics, that transcends social media, and instead is used for TV, sponsorships and strategic brand management.

    Best regards
    Benjamin Borch Hansen
    Managing Director
    Crisp Social

  18. Todd B says:

    The comment “you must begin with the end in mind” is a Steven Covey quote.  I think it’s unfortunate that you did not give the author credit.

    • briansolis says:

      Well Todd, I’m not a reader of Covey’s work, and though I’m sure he made it popular, he is not the first to say it. Many who use this expression or something close to it, like me, will say that they were inspired by Euripides, “A bad ending follows a bad beginning.”

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  20. leonardwaks says:

    Brian, you risk confusing engagement with marriage. There are many brief engagements. My point is this: you expect the definition of a word to carry too much weight. To engage is just . . . to engage. In this context, it is not much more than to gain attention. What you do once you have it is something different. Now you might ant so respond that HOW you gain attention in the first place will affect what you CAN do with it afterwards. Right, so now we are talking about something that is not merely semantics – i.e. how to get attention in a way that furthers your goals.

    There is a further problem with your analysis. The world is complex. Some events are dependent upon many factors – some of which may be unpredictable. The attempt to “work backwards from the end” may fail because of this – there literally may be no such “backward path.” As a result, sometimes it is exactly the sort of engagement you disparage that is really important – laying in a background of attention, so that that PLUS some more focused drivers + some lucky chance events may affect the final results. I think that this is what Geico is trying to do, or Aflac. Their ads don’t get anyone to do anything, but their ads + other messages + chance events probably do.

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