Are Engagement Believers In Denial?


As I’ve mentioned perhaps too often, I was heavily involved at the ARF/AAAA Consumer Engagement conference last week. Well, after a week of pondering, here’s my conclusion, delivered via my MediaPost Spin column. The advertising Engagement initiative is making good progress — I’m a believer! But it is plagued by denial of fundamental questions. The leadership must be careful not to let Engagement turn into a distraction. What do you think? Comment right here on the Spin Blog.

Are Engagement Believers In Denial?

by Max Kalehoff, October 6, 2006

Engagement is “turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.” That’s the Advertising Research Foundation’s definition of the hotly debated buzzword, as well as the focus of last week’s Consumer Engagement conference, led by the ARF and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The impressive gathering of senior media, marketing and research execs fostered smart discussion about incorporating engagement measures into our advertising models. But I believe progress is tempered in part by denial and avoidance of some tough and fundamental questions.

Why? If last week’s conference was an indication, the discussion too often gravitates toward packaged, controlled contexts, with as much attention directed to paid media and television brand advertising as ever before. There’s nothing wrong with these traditional tactics in the marketing communications mix, but their failure to perform in a more cluttered, complex, consumer-empowered, Google-juiced world is precisely why we’re having this engagement discussion to begin with–isn’t it?

If we presume marketing communications’ ultimate aspiration is to drive and sustain sales–whether directly or indirectly through brand loyalty, awareness, involvement or direct response–then we need to thrust this engagement discussion further. It needs to go way beyond the margins of the traditional paid-for and interruptive attention models that we all seem to agree are broken or eroding.

Where do we start? I’d like to propose six new dimensions that advertisers need to inject into this engagement discussion right away:

1. Uncontrolled context. How should marketers approach turning on a mind when the context is uncontrollable and unpredictable, like social networks where word of mouth propagates? Ignoring context in these circumstances won’t cancel out reality. What happens when context is not orchestrated, but stumbled upon? Consider a brand being discussed in a gathering of friends, an increasingly important channel in a wasteland of clutter. Who’s in control then? The brand now exists not on the marketer’s terms, but the consumer’s terms.

2. Unfavorable context. How does context change when conditions become unfavorable for a brand? Similarly, what happens to brands when consumers become so annoyed by advertising context that they truly go out their way to avoid you? Why is it that TiVo users tend to skip you and record what we call programming? Why can’t you improve your context and messages so TiVo users actually record and time-shift your advertising as relevant content?

3. Product as context. What is the role of the product itself in creating context? Surprisingly, advertising still serves as life support for products that are mediocre, undifferentiated or simply don’t work (, i.e., the gel that takes scratches out of eyeglasses; trust me, it never worked!). In a Google world–where search engines connect passionate information seekers with passionate information speakers, truth and relevance–that crutch tumbles. Conversely, good products frequently sell themselves. Perhaps, sometimes, the problem of engagement has nothing to do with media and messaging and everything to do with product.

4. Customer service manifesting in media. What about customer service? With consumers in control–and empowered to self-publish and spit back–customer service and experience is increasingly manifesting in the most prolific kind of media: consumer-generated media. As people express themselves through democratized publishing, positive and negative experiences with your brand equate to positive and negative GRPs, or brand credits and debits. CGM ultimately competes against the traditional cadre of media that advertisers think they control. But the world just works more holistically than that. Customer service, in essence, is becoming a media department.

5. Consumer Control. What about control? Are we looking at consumer empowerment as an opportunity, or something to stubbornly fight? One major publisher at the Consumer Engagement conference talked to me about the importance of keeping users engaged within his walled garden. As a consumer, I consider that an attempt to hold me hostage, not empower me. If this publisher really wanted to be a relevant, useful entity to me, it should seek to empower me–not try to monetize me by keeping me inside of its cell. That’s not engagement!

6. Respect of consumer’s attention metadata. Finally, media are going digital, and consumer attention and behavioral metadata will become the lifeblood of advertising research, profiling and relationship management–arguably the new core building blocks of engagement. This is especially true considering massive audience fragmentation and serious declines in traditional research panel response rates. As we move more to a direct model, any discussion of engagement must embrace a newfound respect for the fact that: 1) consumers’ attention is a valuable commodity to them, 2) consumers own their attention data, and 3) consumers are becoming more aware of how precious it really is.

Now can we talk about engagement?

Join the debate on the MediaPost blog here.


Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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