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Social Media “Engagement” is Not a Strategy

Social Media “Engagement” is Not a Strategy image conversation calgary

Back in the early days of the social web, the leading “gurus” were actively anti-business.

They made fun of measurement, strategy, objectives and any hint of trying to monetize a social media effort. I know that sounds weird today, but it’s true. The mantra was “Social media is not about your stupid company. It’s all about the conversation.”

We’ve come a long way and even the “purists” have relented. Today, social media is being mainlined into the traditional marketing, PR and advertising initiatives, for better or for worse.

But despite this progress, every now and then I catch a whiff of the old days hanging around. Such was the case on a recent blog post when commenters vigorously defended the “true goal” of social media as being “engagement.”

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I am sufficiently disturbed by this conversation that I think it’s time for a reality check. Here we go.

Engagement is not a strategy

A strategy is a direction that ideally capitalizes on a unique value proposition that serves un-met or under-served customer wants and needs. In other words, are you creating something that would be difficult or impossible for your competitor to copy? Is it possible to truly be strategic by “engaging” with customers in a singularly unique way? Difficult, I think.

I do believe it is possible to create strategic advantage by delivering great content and executing a social media initiative well. But the entry barriers to creating a Facebook page and initiating engagement, for example, are so low, I think it is unlikely that this can truly be “strategic.” Engagement should more likely be viewed as a tactic that supports an over-arching marketing strategy, unless you truly have some super-human community management skills that consistently bring customers in the door.

Social media’s place in the marketing mix is to provide consistent, small provocations and conversations through content that lead to engagement and interactions. Skillfully done, that engagement ultimately results in consumer interest, and hopefully loyalty and meaningful activity (like a purchase).

Engagement must lead to stakeholder value

The most valuable brand in the history of the world, Apple, has no social media engagement. By comparison, Dell, the gold standard of social engagement, is floundering and has a stock price hovering near a five-year low. So “engagement” in and of itself is not a predictor of success, is it? That’s why “engagement” is not a valuable activity unless it is tied to some organizational goal such as:

  • Customer acquisition
  • Brand awareness/defense
  • Investment
  • New product development
  • Registrations
  • Service
  • Employment/recruiting

I would not invest in a company that is driving engagement as a goal without tying it to some business objective that moves the needle. Engagement, yes. But only in the context of business results!

You can talk yourself broke

One commenter on my blog argued that a company’s goal should be to drive engagement ever upward and pointed to her success in moving a brand from a 10% engagement level to 25%.

Again, without the tying this to a goal, that seems like a silly way to describe success. In fact, you could be hurting your customer.

Let’s not forget that all that engagement comes at a cost! We have to be careful that we’re ready to staff-up to effectively meet those demands. And for some companies, that may not be a good business decision.

Let me give you a micro-example. Last week I wrote a blog post that had more than 100 comments. As a small business owner, if I had this level of engagement every day, I would not have time to work on the consulting and teaching activities that feed my family.

Now if I really wanted to, I could pump up this level of engagement all the time … but it would be foolhardy for me to do so. I need to strike the proper balance of commercial activities across my customer base that optimize my business results. In fact, I purposely plan my blog postings to DEPRESS engagement on days when I don’t have the time to properly handle it.

In other words, if you’re not careful, you can talk yourself broke.

There is a level of diminishing returns to any economic activity and engagement is no different. Having a goal to “increase engagement” for every customer in the absence of strategy is irresponsible.

The conversational brand

Finally, a successful engagement level must also be considered in the context of the type of company and product. An engagement level which would be disappointing for Disney might be thrilling for a niche B2B chemical manufacturer because it is not a very conversational brand. There are no absolutes in this business.

Likewise, not all conversation is created equal. A company may drive an artificially high engagement level simply by posting inane polls and cat pictures that don’t contribute to business objectives in the least.

So if you’re striking out on a new social media strategy, I hope you’ll consider these take-aways:

  1. “Engagement” needs to be evaulated and supported in the context of company objectives
  2. Engagement level alone is not necessarily a meaningful indicator of marketing success or financial performance
  3. Engagement comes at a cost and must be considered as balanced part of an optimized marketing mix

Those are a few observations on engagement but I would welcome your views, dissent, and additions in the comment section! It’s your turn (and yes, I want the engagement!).

Illustration: “Conversation” statue in Calgary

Mark Schaefer is an educator and marketing consultant specializing in social media workshops. He blogs at {grow} and is the author of several best-selling marketing books including Return On Influence.

Comments on this Article: 2

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  1. Luke says:

    Love the read. It helps provide context to two pieces of content our sports nutritional company executed recently. Two infographics generated from responses from questions we posed. The first asked our consumers what was in their gym bag and the second asked what their fitness goals were for the coming year.

    The first question would not provide us valuable data but the second would in the sense we could tailor a supplement stack to meet the consumers fitness goals (shred, bulk, ripped).

  2. Mark great read and great advice!

    We tell clients when thinking strategically about Social Media and Online marketing the principles are the same as any other business activity. Work backwards from your goals and objectives!

    Engagement isn’t what social media is only about, not for business anyway. It’s about leveraging the network you have to meet your goals. Whether that’s research, awareness, sales and so on.

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