‘Engagement’ is still one of the most overused words in media. It is a slippery snake of a concept, still without a consensus definition and ‘measured’ in a menagerie of random (and often conflicting) ways. Each medium has a different interpretation of it and those interpretations don’t travel well. We have no accepted view of how it contributes to the bottom line. We know very little about it. But we know one thing; it is not attention. We don’t ‘think about’ engagement. So why does it keep getting pushed that way?

Siegmund Freud studied neuroscience, but became frustrated by the limited explanation the physical brain could provide for the complexities of the human experience. When he proposed, more than a century ago, that “‘most of our mental life operates unconsciously and that consciousness is merely a property of one part of the mind” he was vilified by the scientific community. Yet those two hypotheses, that most of our mental functioning happens at an unconscious level and our conscious brain is relatively unimportant in the wider scheme of things, are readily (and provably) accepted by that same community today.

What hasn’t changed is the constant pressure by some within the marketing industry to keep the focus on the conscious brain. It is easy to measure, even easier to predict and understand. It’s the part of the brain we can most easily influence. Unfortunately, in most consumer decisions, including the most important they will ever make, it has very little influence itself.

So what has this got to do with engagement?

Well, over the past decade, ever since the term ‘engagement’ became one of the media industry’s mots du jour, everybody’s been pushing it towards our conscious brain. Part of the problem is the lack of a cohesive definition of what the hell it means. The Advertising Research Foundation committed huge resource to coming up with the definition we all use nowadays: “Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea, enhanced by the surrounding context”

The ARF definition is descriptive but hardly insightful. It tells us that engagement has three component parts – the consumer (the prospect), the content (brand idea) and the context. But it doesn’t tell us how it works. In fact, the best definition of engagement I have ever heard has come from the neuroscientists. They define engagement as “a sense of immersion in an experience, generated by feelings of personal relevance”.

In most neuromarketing studies, including the one I commissioned at Thinkbox last year, engagement is strongly correlated with our long-term memory encoding (LTME), which is where most of our purchasing ‘heuristics’ (emotional short-cuts) are formed. It is interesting that attention levels have no relationship with LTME at all. More relevant to this debate is this; attention and engagement have no direct relationship with each other! It is the cognitive/explicit and the emotional/implicit brains working independently of each other. As usual, we’ve put all of our focus on the part of the brain with which we are most comfortable. So, we have engagement metrics such as click-through rates, dwell time, recall, purchase intent, buzz metrics, website visits and brand preference used with abandon, all focussed on the cognitive side of our brains.

This was brought home to me when I attended the annual Media Research Group Conference a couple of weeks ago. There was a thought-provoking paper from Becky McQuade of Sky and Anne Mollen from the Cranfield School of Management attempting to define online engagement. Anne defined engagement as “a cognitive and affective commitment to an active relationship” which requires three elements
• Utility/relevance
• Pleasure/enjoyment
• Dynamic and sustained cognitive process

My first instinct was to bristle; again, so much emphasis on the cognitive. But then, I thought, this is about online engagement, and when people are in that attentive state of mind, maybe the definition works. But, if it does, it is as a consequence of engagement, rather than as a measure of it.

Online activity is all about attention. It is task-oriented, focussed and goal-seeking. That is one of the main reasons why most forms of online display struggle to generate impact; they are too easy to ‘edit out’ (which is advertising embedded in video entertainment appears to work best of all). It is the predominant mindset, so that even the same content viewed online will be processed with far more attention and far less engagement that if it was viewed on TV.

However, attention and engagement may not be (cor)related, but they are no strangers. I have seen tons of evidence to suggest that, once the engagement has been achieved, it can more easily lead to attention and, ultimately, action. Consumers purchasing cars, furniture, computers, TV sets, games consoles and digital cameras (to name but a few) will all talk about how the TV ad created a sense of engagement and relevance with the brand, that was then nudged forward and harvested via online attention-based actions.

There used to be a significant time gap between creating the engagement and harvesting the attention, but as all media platforms become more interactive (directly or via second screens) that gap is shortening. We saw some great examples at Thinkbox of people going from initial awareness of a product to purchase during the course of a single commercial break. That means they go from engagement to attention to action in a matter of seconds.

The thing is, we still need to understand this process better, and how we can best plan for it. It alters the whole concept of ‘campaign periods’, ‘effective frequency’, ‘point of sale’ and ‘brand-building vs. response’ to name but a few. It means we have to fully understand what we really mean by the term ‘engagement’, rather than just throwing it around as one of those ‘boardroom bingo’ phrases. Most importantly of all, it means getting the measurement right, rather than use proxy metrics that are really measuring something else entirely. We may prefer to measure attention, but unless we understand what has generated it, it will continue to slip from our grasp.

  • Cameron Flary


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