I've just finished reading an interesting article on engagement, The Open Mind, written by Erwin Ephron. As always, Erwin seems to have a better grasp than most on the issue of engagement.
If you read between the lines of Erwin's article you'll find he argues that the industry is using the pretense of trying to define engagement as a decoy, so that they don't have to change their current business models.
Is Erwin right about this? I think so. After all, trying to find a way to define engagement without knowing if that definition will ultimately be measurable, is a fool's errand. Going about it in the exact opposite way seems to make more sense. In other words, what if we took what already can be measured and see if that doesn't offer up a working definition of engagement?
So what does it mean to be engaged?
To be engaged with an ad message we know that we 1) need to be exposed to the message, and 2) spend some time with the message. Both exposure to a message and involvement in a message can be measured on today's digital platforms.
Can exposure and involvement add up to engagement? In a simple sense, yes. Sure, there are emotional factors to engagement, etc. etc. but we're looking for a working definition here. We can always complicate it later.
The problem is that both exposure and involvement (i.e. time spent with a message) can only accurately be measured after the fact. Which means this definition would allow advertisers to pay for both media and message based on how well they actually work, rather than how well everyone predicts they will work.
(Engagement, at least by this definition, becomes less like reach and frequency - media planning tools, and more like sales - an ROI tool.)
There is little argument that exposure and time spent with an ad message can be measured. All cable companies have this data. TiVo is currently selling this data. So why won't the industry agree that these two metrics define engagement?
Is it because it means that the industry will be held accountable for results? (As we all know, it is far more lucrative to be paid for the possibility of success than it is for the actuality or results.)
Of course not.
There must be some other reason that the industry keeps demanding that they need to find out how to create engagement rather than how to measure it.
But what is it? The argument - but that's what advertisers want - is no longer valid.
What advertisers want is accountability. And if exposure and involvement can now be measured and monetized, then they will have their accountability. And, in my opinion, their definition of engagement.
Whether the rest of the industry wants to call it that or not.