audience engagement


It’s one of the biggest marketing buzzwords of them all; the term du jour for inbound marketers, social media mavens, and content gurus alike. Marketers everywhere tout it as the golden ring, the key to conversion. But what exactly is it that we’re all grabbing for? Does anyone know what audience engagement definitively looks like?

Round and round we go on the content marketing carousel, monitoring metrics and tracking interactions, keeping our eyes peeled. Wait, what’s that? I think I caught a glimpse of something behind the page views. No, look! Over there, a flash of case study downloads and retweets. Look now, a signup to our newsletter and a fresh thread of comments on our blog. There it goes! Engagement — did you see it? That was it, right? Wasn’t it?

To trade in one metaphor for another, in the alchemy that is today’s customer-centric marketing, engagement is the essential but mysterious chemical reaction that turns base awareness into sold. There’s much talk about it in excited and reverent tones, but few are able to explain exactly what it is let alone fork over a tried and true formula for success. Maybe it’s because there are too many variables for a one-size-fits-all formula for audience engagement to exist. Or maybe someone has figured it out and they’re just keeping it to themselves (if that’s the case it’s never too late for them to change their stingy ways in the comments section below).

What does “engagement” even mean?

Winning miracle formula aside, at this point I’d settle for a simple, solid definition. Unfortunately, scouring the web for it is a little like visiting grandma at the nursing home — what you find are a bunch of meandering answers and a lot of “Depends”.

B2B marketing strategist Ardath Albee shares her frustration with the term in general in her recent post, Debunking B2B Marketing Buzzword “Engagement”. “What does engagement mean?” she writes. “I hear it being used in reference to clicks, email opens, page views, time spent on page, new followers, retweets, and a variety of other point-in-time activities.”

Albee isn’t alone. Likewise, in her post, The Social Metric Myth, for Digiday, Giselle Abramovich asks, “What is “engagement” anyway? The definition would be different for all brands. For a link that, let’s say, Adobe posts on its Facebook page for a free trial of Photoshop, engagement would mean clicking on the link and downloading the trial. But for a video that a brand like Club Monaco posts on Facebook, engagement may mean video likes, views, shares and comments.”

I followed up with Giselle via Twitter and she confirmed what’s so tricky about pinning “engagement” down. It loosely implies some kind of action or involvement on the part of the reader/visitor, but until that action or involvement is specifically defined, “engagement,” itself, could mean anything (or nothing).

Next, I decided to put the question to B2B content marketers Joe Chernov, VP of Marketing at Eloqua, and Amanda Maksymiw, Content Marketing Manager at Lattice Engines.

It’s no surprise they came back with two different answers, but it’s interesting to note just how different they are. On one hand, Joe’s response hits the nail on the head of the sentiment I was trying to express above: Engagement is the reader/visitor doing the thing you want them to do. A piece of engaging content, therefore, is something that successfully inspires the action it was designed to instigate.

Amanda’s response, however, hints at another way of thinking that also feels true (if less convenient for marketers). Engagement isn’t necessarily always about what you want, it’s also about what the reader/visitor wants and what they walk away with. This gets to the core of why the concept of audience engagement can be so difficult to define — let alone measure and formalize. A customer may read a blog post and receive a nice amount of value from it. And in that sense, they may find it truly “engaging.” But unless they somehow indicate that, the company has no way of knowing it for sure.

What Marketers Talk About When They Talk About Engagement

For the most part, therefore, definitions of engagement tend to emphasize further action. In other words, what many marketers talk about when they talk about engagement is a measurable form of follow up.

As Albee puts it, “Engagement is about what comes next. Are [customers] interested enough to click, read, and respond when you send the next email or publish your next blog post?”

In a great post titled What Is Engagement and How Do We Measure It? CEO of Social Media Explorer Jason Falls describes his own web-wide hunt for a definition of engagement, sharing the following definition from Lee Odden, CEO of Top Rank Online Marketing:

“Linking, bookmarking, blogging, referring, clicking, friending, connecting, subscribing, submitting inquiry forms, and buying are all engagement measures at various points in the customer relationship.”

Falls, who was exasperated with the term back in 2010 (he must be beyond fed up with it now), can’t resist throwing his own multi-part definition into the ring:

What successful engagement means to me is this:

Did you get something from your audience that can make your business better?

That can mean profits. You sold stuff = Successful engagement.

That can mean ideas. You got feedback on your product or service you can use = Successful engagement.

That can mean referrals and recommendations. You got customers to tell other people you’re cool = Successful engagement.

That can mean digital merit badges. You got people to link to you, follow you, Re-Tweet you = Successful engagement.

What these answers indicate is that engagement is clearly what you make of it. As Giselle noted, it’s different for every brand, for every campaign. That’s because it’s dependent on the individual piece of content and what it is you want it to accomplish. If you’re looking at your content and wondering how you can measure how engaging it is you’re in trouble. Every form of content you publish should be designed with a clear follow up action in mind, whether that be signing up for your newsletter or RSS feed, downloading an eBook, driving traffic to another page, sharing the content with others, requesting additional information, or closing a deal.

Unlike the vague notion of engagement, in general, those are specific things that you can measure to determine whether your content is accomplishing what you’re setting it out to do.

Come back next week when I’ll tackle measuring audience engagement in more depth, highlighting the most important metrics to track to determine whether your content is “working.”

photo by: Libertinus

Sign-up for our Free Weekly Newsletter to get the best new ideas for building technology companies.

Read more: