Click. Like. Follow. Attend.

Or is it attend, follow, click, like?  Non-financial behavior may be useful but there are lots of weak-tea ideas being trotted out under the banner of Engagement requiring Agitator scrutiny.

Here are my top two notions about Engagement that should be relegated to the dung pile where optimists and engagement hustlers look for ponies.  Spoiler alert:  No pony and definitely not a unicorn.

Bogus Idea #1

1.Engagement is a set of behaviors“Engagement is not a metric, it’s an excuse“.  This from Google Head of Digital Analytics, Avinash Kaushik.  Ouch.  He goes on to say, “creating relevant engaging digital experiences is a huge part of my job”.  How to square that circle?

We’ve seen charities or charlatan consultants cobble together non-financial behaviors (click, like, attend, follow) and call it an “Engagement Score”.  Engagement is not an outcome or behavior.  It’s a state of mind conceptualized as a splash of passion, enthusiasm and fascination creating a more mentally involved and engrossed supporter.

The value of Engagement as an emotional concept different from Trust, Commitment and Satisfaction is speculative, at best.  I’m not arguing against the idea that some of your best supporters have achieved this higher level of mental involvement.  I am asserting there’s yet to be any seminal, evidence-based work by academics or practitioners showing what your charity should do differently to foster “engagement” versus what you’re currently (or should be) doing to foster Satisfaction, Trust and Commitment.

Jumping to the end and cobbling together all these non-financial behaviors to track and ponder why you have more or less of this vaporous element is dangerous, circular logic.  If ‘engagement’ is operationalized as a random set of behaviors then the only way to increase it is to bombard people with stuff as a necessary precondition to move your and their engagement score.

There are lots of people who are mentally engaged with your brand who will only infrequently reveal themselves with their mouse or feet.  There are also lots of people who will tune you out in our effort to “engage” them.

If a Click is a useful metric – it is – then it can only be valuable if it’s not buried in a stew of Engagement Score nothingness.  And, the only way a Click or Like or Follow has any value is if you can tie it to business outcome. Good luck with that.

This all leads into bogus idea #2.

2. Engagement metrics cause business outcomes.  If Google says engagement metrics are an excuse, that’s nothing compared to what Facebook’s head of marketing science, Brad Smallwood, says. He calls engagement data “irrelevant”, saying it has “no more chance of predicting actual business outcomes than a random guess.”   Double ouch.

And yet Facebook included an “engagement” metric in their 2007 dashboard, which was a rolled up smorgasbord of irrelevance.  Not to be outdone, Forrester, in that same year, proclaimed “engagement” as marketing’s new key metric.

There is often correlation with non-financial behavior data and other behavior data.  This correlation should be as surprising as it is useful – not at all.   In fact, some of the highest correlation in Facebook’s massive trove of behavior data is between clicks/likes/follows on your friends’ posts and consumer or  nonprofit posts.  That’s right, people who click, click.

A US telecom provider found image ads generated less social engagement than other creative formats, so it dropped them only to find later that image ads drove more revenue than other ad formats.   Treating engagement as a useful outcome doesn’t make our campaigns perform better, and may actually make them perform worse.

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank has a prominent sign in his office, “Don’t forget to sell shirts and shoes”.  This is why they measure purchase intent rather than engagement with their digital advertising.

Engagement is a state of mind, not a behavior or a random set of behaviors.  Many people will be ‘engaged’ without ever having their digital or real footprints affirm it.  And your attempt to force that footprint will cause some who might have become engaged to tune out.

Engagement is neither a causal path nor necessary way station to real business outcomes.

Princeton philosopher Harry G Frankfurt wrote an essay, “On Bullshit”.

The purpose of bullshit, he argues, is “not to communicate, but avoid communicating; to sound impressive while saying nothing too specific; to give you room for maneuver if scrutinized.”

The next time you hear someone talking about making your marketing or fundraising more engaging or needing to engage your supporters more, or wanting to create an Engagement metric it’s probably wise to reflect on Harry’s words.