I wonder if some of the latest thinking on measuring engagement with online brands is something akin to recording the eye color of job applicants.
There's no question that we can come up with ways for people to pass time visiting web sites: great, creative content and contests are tried-and-true tools for capturing and keeping someone's attention, whether accomplished via crude hand-puppets on a makeshift stage, or through slick digital transmission.
But the variable of "time spent" is a rough stand-in for meaning, conclusions and, ultimately, sales. All sorts of engagement -- whether marital, warfare, or marketing -- need to lead to a conclusion in order to reveal an ultimate value. Engaging is a verb that requires the purpose of a noun or two.
This chronology must lead to sales for it to matter to businesses, doesn't it?
No amount of brand awareness on the Internet has value independent of eventual sales, any more than it did back in the days of town criers and news broadsheets. Just like it would would make little sense to assign value to tracking the eye color of job applicants if it didn't have an impact of their suitability for job openings.
Companies large and small are attacking this idea of understanding the engagement pathway. Brickfish has already helped a few big companies track messages as they weave their way through social media. Microsoft's Engagement Mapping Service is looking not at the movement of messages but actual visitors, testing ways to portray the pages folks troll as they wade across the web.
These are bright bulb ideas, and they need to get integrated into models for understanding all of the other influences on purchase, not least of which all of the other ad, PR, promotional, in-store, and related channels. The movement of brand messages is far less important that the places and ways people use them to prompt decisions. The Internet is an important input into said decisions, but not the only one.
As this methodology evolves, I suspect the most successful businesses will be those that consistently apply a rigor to any engagement strategy:
- Purpose: Nobody wants to stay engaged forever. There has to be a point to the activity...a fundamental WHY for consumers to get involved (and for your business to spend money for providing the privilege. The just do it argument coming from a lot of the digital marketing firms is a thinly-veiled grab for business, mostly. Only do it if there's a purpose other than, well, doing it
- Context: Whatever purpose you chose to address, it would make sense to also integrate your plans into a broader context, and make your intended consumer engagement relevant to it. They know why we want them to get engaged; the challenge is to understand why they'd want to do so. Right now, the work-around this question is to give them senselessly entertaining content. The utility of time-wasting declines precipitously over time, as do the value of the brands that prompt it
- Outcome: Engagements end, whether with an action or a trigger that leads to the next engagement. So should yours. I'm not talking about a sales promotion payoff (like the awarding of contest results) as much as a natural conclusion to the time and attention you asked for (and, in turn, provided) to your consumers
There are bright bulbs working on ways to understand the differences between wanting to engage with consumers and being truly engaging in a business-critical way.
No company should have to wait for them to figure it out. Experiment like madmen and women. But it might be a good idea to stay focused on purpose, context, and outcome.