Engagement is Dead. Long live Engagement.

CC Image 'High Smile' courtesy of Yacine Baroudi

Believe me, I'm with you. I find 'engagement' as a measure of social media success unsatisfying, at best. For years it's been the cure-all for everyone, the salve smeared on the sores of each social media campaign or always-on strategy, to vaguely answer the question 'did that go well?'

"Uh huh", you'd respond, "Our engagement was through the roof".

For years, it seems, we didn't know the house well enough to inquire about the roof, what it was made of, what height was an acceptable height. So - pretty much any hyperbolic statement backed by 'high engagement' delivered in a pretty-looking presentation, sufficed. And for years, it has obscured our ability to truly assess the success of our work across social media.

But despite this, engagement still matters. In the first half of 2016, consumers in the U.S. engaged with brand content over 40 Billion times, and this continues to grow each year. Used strategically, here are the three reasons why engagement is more meaningful than ever. Don't worry - there is still ONE reason why you should disregard it completely, as well.

Three Reasons Why Engagement Still Matters

1) If your content (or your ad) doesn't engage people organically, it's probably not any good (and you shouldn't put dollars behind it).

The social web is the best opportunity that we have ever had, to understand in real time what our audiences do and don't want to hear about, talk about, or share. If you post something that underperforms compared to your category average, or to your own brand's average, then don't blame the platform for 'hiding' your content. Maybe it should have been hidden, because it wasn't interesting, or valueable. Maybe your audience has changed and you need to rethink what you're crafting for them. But whatever the answer, don't miss the opportunity learn from what does float your audience's boat. They're showing you in real-time exactly what you need to do.

UNILAD, one of the most socially engaging video publishers in the world, had this to say about content that underperforms, 'When I look back at when we first started, if our post didn't receive a certain number of likes, comments, and shares in the first couple of minutes then we would replace it'. They never wanted to keep something up that people don't want to see, or force content that people didn't like out into the world.

Low engagement is a cue for you to make better stuff, craft more relevant creative, try harder - rather than just amplifying crap that people didn't want to see in the first place. That's a TV advertising mindset that doesn't belong in a world where content is predominantly consumed on people's phones. They just won't tolerate it.

2) Engagement is the best metric the digital world has to measure market-share and mindshare

Rather than getting bogged down with the nuances of sentiment, sheer volume is truly the best place to start. If there were 20 Million social interactions in the mass automotive category in the U.S. last month, how many did you own? Is that going up or down? Who among your competitors own a greater share of your category's addressable audience this year than they did last year. What about your share of the actions that consumers are taking?

Calculating what percentage of your audience and your audience's time you own is the single best way to understand your performance in a category, and is the strongest leading indicator of consumer enthusiasm and preference that has ever been available to marketers. Impressions and reach are also important, but are often more a function of dollars spent rather than consumer preference. If you're still committed to impressions, consider also weighting consumer interactions against exposures (something simple like dividing your and your category's impressions by their consumer interactions), so you can understand effectiveness more clearly and control for spend.

3) Engagement can be used consistently to measure multiple platforms, just like impressions

With the barrage of platforms and pins, regrams, views, retweets, hashtags, likes, favorites, reactions, etc it can be overwhelming to distill all this activity into concise, consistent metrics. 'Engagement', or 'consumer interactions' can be measured more or less consistently, platform to platform. (I say 'more or less' because people tie themselves in knots wondering if a retweet is equal to a comment or a share, etc, but the right place to start is to count them all equally).

Impressions are also a good proxy for cross-platform measurement, but data availability (particularly for competitors on platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram) means it cannot be applied consistently, which for now disqualifies it as a cross-platform currency.

And the one reason you should disregard engagement completely?

With engagement as your north star, it can be tempting to 'game' the system, by posting and crafting content that has no brand relevance whatsoever. For a short while, you can justify this by saying that the 'positive association' is worth something from a branding perspective, and perhaps you'd be right. But over time, if you're posting funny baby memes and you sell adult diapers (true example), you're going to be disappointed by the efficacy of social.

If you're a passion brand like the NBA or Ferrari, this caution is unnecessary, because you have what people want, already. But for everyone else, it's easy to fall into the trap of modeling popularity on the internet. Think instead about what people love about you, or what you enable. If you're a cable company, maybe people love that you empower them to binge-watch all their favorite programs, or to stay connected to their loved ones. If you sell insurance, maybe people love the feeling of safety when it comes to family, to the peace of mind they now have that they will be taken care of no matter what happens. What else could these feelings or experiences be if you springboard content creation from these themes? Then, watch your performance and keep iterating until you find what your audience loves.