A Formula for Failure

[This pieceĀ originally ran as part of my Mythbuster series in MediaPost Magazine]

Let me engage you for a minute. You’ve made it this far and you’re still going. Stick around for just a bit longer. Honestly, I know you’ll stick around. You’re likely an advertising professional proactively seeking information about the industry that will make you better at your job. You probably stay abreast of the news, educate yourself about various potential opportunities, and listen to what pundits have to say in the hopes it will serve as a catalyst for your own ideas.

You’ve also probably read more articles about engagement than you’d like, but they rarely seem to say anything of value. Why can’t you just turn a page one day and finally see that headline: “We’ve Solved It: Industry Creates Universally Applicable Measure of Engagement”?

Because it isn’t coming.

What I don’t understand is why that’s preventing the majority of brands from letting engagement be their primary decision criterion. (I’m using “engagement” in the over-arching sense of advertising engagement, which includes media engagement.) It’s never been more relevant. Yet there’s a collective belief that until there’s some type of formula, engagement will need to sit on the sidelines of our process.

But really, don’t you already have a pretty good sense of when your target is engaged?

For example, I don’t know you, but I have you engaged right now. I made some assumptions about your current mindset and the environment you’re reading this in. Heck, I even weighed breadth vs. depth of engagement and it’s why I didn’t choose to pick up the phone and call you. Or worse, hope you called me.

We both made many decisions to get to this point. And you know what? It wasn’t too complicated. I just used a bit of common sense. Which is what I’m proposing brands do: Use common sense.

Engagement is subjective. Let’s just accept that. The vast majority of brands let the fact that engagement is subjective keep them from using it to make decisions. They fear this makes things too risky. I have no idea how we’ve convinced ourselves our current system – specifically its laughable planning and success metrics – isn’t subjective. Familiarity does not decrease risk. In our business, it increases it.

So, how can you start using engagement in your planning process? The best place to start is by asking a few questions. The first is, how important is engagement to my communication objective?

The answer can vary drastically, depending on whether you’re trying to build awareness, increase consumption or accomplish any of the other infinite objectives a brand may have. But I would be surprised if the depth of your consumers’ engagement didn’t end up somewhere in your top three.

The second question to ask is, what would engaged consumers leave the communication believing that they didn’t believe before? How is this impacted by the depth of their engagement?

Your response to this question determines how much you need to engage your consumer. If you’re saying something complicated, you’re probably going to need to emphasize depth of engagement over breadth.

Third, ask what assumptions you can make about engagement based on the surrounding media information. I know it’s blasphemy, but media engagement just isn’t as important as most media agencies and vendors claim it is. It’s definitely important (why search is the easiest sell in the business), but it can only do so much when the advertising isn’t engaging.

Finally, ask what metrics can serve as a proxy for engagement. They shouldn’t just tell you how engaged a consumer is, but rather whether the consumer is appropriately engaged. This will vary by campaign, but I’ll give you a hint: If you answered “ratings and impressions,” you’re probably not getting the point.

Now, compare your answers with what your team is currently using to make decisions. Compare it to the little chart that tells you what consumers use each medium for. Compare it to the copy-testing results you use to decide which creative executions to green-light. And finally – this one is fun – compare it to what metrics you use to optimize your campaigns.

Maybe next time the headline will read, “We’ve Solved it: Industry Applies Common Sense.” I know I’d find that article engaging.

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