Are We Clear About Engagement In Social Media?

If you have read more than two or three articles or blog posts about social media, you almost certainly have discovered claims about engagement on social media. Whether it is specifically about customer engagement, prospect engagement, client engagement, or follower engagement, most people writing about how businesses use social media hold up engagement as the goal. Yet for all of this writing, are we clear about the meaning of engagement in social media?

To engage means essentially to occupy the attention of someone. Most people would agree that this is the basic meaning of engagement. From there, the definitions can become fuzzy. For some, engagement means getting someone to read your tweet or status update. For others, it means getting someone to act on your tweet or update (beyond reading), to visit your website, to “like” you, etc. Still others want to define engagement as a two-way conversation.

As a community, social media marketers, services providers, and others need to be both clear and consistent when we discuss engagement. After all, some of the social networking sites and metrics providers claim to be measuring and scoring engagement. These companies have algorithms and formulae, but are they really measuring what we think we mean by engagement?

For those of us who earn our living by creating social media presence for our clients and manage their interactions with customers, clients, prospects, etc. in social media, consensus about the meaning of engagement is important. It is certainly important to our clients.

The global PR firm Weber Shandwick recently published the results of their scientific analysis of engagement ( Here is the summary of the essential principles of engagement:

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1. Engagement is a finite resource, not an infinite commodity.
Engagement with one thing is always at the expense of another. Attention and effort are limited.

2. Engagement requires reciprocity.
Engagement costs people time, effort and energy. The brain processes this cost in relation to the expected reward.

3. Engagement is not binary.
Engagement is not a light to be switched on and off within people. How brands choose to capitalise on the right types of engagement across various channels and topics is the key issue.

4. Engagement is about what we want or what we like.
Our brains process all decisions as potential rewards driven by two systems, what we want and what we like.

5. Immediacy delivers engagement.
Our brains have evolved to make snap decisions based on the anticipation of immediate reward. These decisions are not always conscious.

6. Engagement decisions are post-rationalised.
People are often unaware of the reasons behind their decisions. Communications equip the conscious brain with a rational story justifying subconscious impulses.

7. Engagement can be divided into “capture” and “build”.
For example, you can be more engaged with a piece of furniture you assemble than with a piece ready-made. Professor J Norton, associate professor of business administration in the Harvard University Marketing Unit termed this the “IKEA effect”.

8. Engagement benefits from being multi-layered
Neuroscience tells us that the sheer number of associations that a person has with a brand leads to a positive effect on engagement.

9. Negatives always outweigh positives.
Our brains are more driven to minimise risks than seek potential gains. Studies suggest that negative emotions carry roughly twice as much weight as positive ones.

10. Engagement marries experience with expectation.
Any engagement decision is shaped by an individual’s personal experience and also their expectations. Over-delivery is a surprise and under-delivery a disappointment. Over time, individuals grow to expect what they have previously experienced.

Discussing these rules of engagement, Adam Mack, chief strategy officer EMEA, Weber Shandwick, says that they allow organisations to amplify and direct their communications for maximum effect, which is difficult in a society where there are so many channels available to consumers, and so many types of messages: “In the UK, there are more Twitter users than newspaper readers. More video is uploaded in 60 days on YouTube than the three major US networks produced in 60 years. As Facebook nears one billion active users, it is clear that people are hugely engaged with each other – but are they really engaging with brands and businesses (and the causes they hold dear) as much as they could be? What drives people to spend time, effort and energy on some things, but not on others? Why are we more engaged with kittens on YouTube than uprisings against dictatorships in the Middle East?”

Mack believes that an engaged audience is a must for any organisation, and concludes: “engagement starts with people. People choose to engage. Their choices result in advocacy, shares, attention, likes, followers and purchases.”


Weber Shandwick collaborated with behavioural insights practice Canvas8. The principles were developed by a team consisting of anthropologist Dr Grant McCracken, author of Culturematic, Culture and Consumption and Transformations, psychologist Dr Olivier Oullier, professor of behavioural and brain sciences at the Aix-Marseille University and neuroscientist Dr Thomas Ramsoy, head of research at the Decision Neuroscience Research Group at the Copenhagen Business School.

When I asked a few of our firm’s clients what they think an engagement score measures, their definition of engagement was very close to incorporating at least eight of the ten principles outlined in the Weber Shandwick study. It is also the working definition used by our staff. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that this is what is being measured and reported or scored as engagement by the social media platforms or by the metrics companies.

For my money, this is the kind of attention and interaction I believe is worth measuring. The interaction/engagement is substantive and clearly requires the attention of both parties to the conversation.

My question to the social media community is this: If we are measuring and reporting something less than an interaction involving the 10 principles of engagement and calling that an engagement score, what is its real value to the business owner? If we can agree that an engagement that incorporates all 10 principles is worth measuring, how do we measure it, and what shall we call it?

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