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Michael Bayler 

What we talk about when we talk about engagement

Michael Bayler, strategist and author, Bayler & Associates, slices through the confusion around the nature of engagement to reveal a new model for brand building in the post-Facebook era...

"Please don't interrupt me while I'm ignoring you." Anon. online meme

A very current conundrum

Scratch any CMO, chances are you'll find someone who's understandably confused about this 'engagement' thing. How do we measure it? What's it worth? Where do we find it? How do we sustain it?

Above all... what the hell is it?

Engagement holds the key to an awful lot of issues. The heat around Facebook's IPO - once you get past the frankly unsurprising scale of the thing - comes from a profound and entirely appropriate sense of uncertainty.

Marketers need to know both the meaning and value of all that high-quality consumer attention, not to mention how to get a piece of it. And on that subject, there's yet to be agreed any kind of basis for attribution: does "brought to you by brand X" still mean anything in the new social ecosystem?

There's a Gordian knot here that demands cutting. Let's see what we can do.

Trading places

Well, for a start, if a respectable definition is best derived from the usage of a word, there are in fact two engagements, one for media and one for brands.

Engagement for media is, at its most basic, a flip from quantity of impression to quality of encounter. It's an historic metric, which typically describes a combination of consumer time spent vs depth of attention allocated.

Where attention, as so often now, is splintered - TV on in the corner, kids supposedly on a laptop doing their homework but in fact updating their Facebook page, while texting friends about something that relates to none of the above - this is quite useful. Did we get (will we get) the attention we thought we'd get from a campaign or tactic therein?

Engagement for brands, however, is quite different. I argue it's best viewed as a future-focused measure of consumer and tribal predisposition to participate in contact and communication with brands.

Degrees of brand engagement are in fact degrees of intimacy.

Intimacy and Return on Attention

Intimacy is a useful metaphor here. As an attribute of a personal relationship, it implies (quite naturally) some historic engagement, although few people one hopes would judge the intimacy they happen to share with another, by the number of rich impressions achieved!

Intimacy speaks to a relative warmth of disposition, an attitude of instinctive trust, a shared or partially-shared set of cultural references, and above all, in terms of this discussion, a willingness to, at some future time, prioritise attention paid to the person, object or idea (or brand) in question, above the myriad demands of others.

Looked at in this way, brand engagement manifests a clear anticipated "Return On Attention" for that cranky despot that is the connected consumer. (Positive brand engagement in turn bodes well for the next round of media engagement... An interesting dynamic begins to emerge, which we'll come back to shortly.)

Good news for planning?

So we see how attempts to plan, execute and above all value brand engagement by focusing on media engagement have merely led further down the wrong path. The latter is really about history, while the former is based entirely around future intent.

But there's more here. Valuation is, pleasingly, far less of an issue when we split engagement in this fashion. Media engagement's rather simple dimensions of time vs depth become, well, less frustrating... They pass the Ronseal test.

More interesting, and far more satisfying, is that consumers' individual or tribal engagement - intimacy - with a brand is, now it's released from the analytical trap of past media encounters and pointed at the future, quite simple to understand, research, measure, and most important of all, attach plausible values to.

And ironically, it's by separating these two definitions - one that looks backwards, the other forwards - that we are able, eventually, to reunite media and brand engagement.

Simply put: To what degree does media encounter A contribute to a relative increase or otherwise in intimacy shared between Consumer #1 (or indeed Tribe #1) and brand X?

A new cycle of engagement

We might, another time, explore the angle that - in this tricky age for advertising - the vexatious question of Return On Investment could be usefully linked, at least in part, to this notion of intimacy, as the degree of expected Return On Attention for the consumer.

For now, when I'm asked: "What's my engagement strategy?", what I hear is: "How do I get my brand out from the social wilderness of random Likes and LOLs, behind the velvet rope into consumers' and tribes' precious Zone Of Intimacy?".

Even with this new-found clarity, engagement is, before it becomes any kind of an opportunity, a quiet struggle for power between wrong-footed brands and a consumer who, too often for comfort, is otherwise engaged.

The good news is that, having sliced through the knot of confusion around the nature of engagement, we can begin to see an embryonic new model for brand building for the post-Facebook era.

This is a familiar dynamic, one which can, I believe, be retrofitted onto the still-small number of truly successful engagement cases to date. Consumer experience feeds consumer expectation, which in turn sets up the next experience... and round again, in an ongoing virtuous cycle. We might call this 'The Cycle of Engagement'.

Newsline readers can get exclusive free access to Michael Bayler's Otherwise Engaged digital mini-book by emailing

Michael Bayler will be speaking on one of the four panels at this year's Media Playground event. For more information and to book your ticket, click here.

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