Can we please divorce ourselves from using the word “engagement”?

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Ah, the marketing buzz word of 2011, the kind of term that will seem redundant in mere months and join the dusty doldrums of jargon alongside “the Obama effect”, “generation X” and “web 2.0”. Ofcourse, it’s our old needy friend “engagement”.

The use of the word engagement seems to go hand-in-hand with consumer use of social media and explaining its effectiveness. A click of the like button, or a quick retweet and BANG, a user is engaged with that brand. “Simples”.

The Collins English Dictionary, 21st Century Edition (Even “E-mail” is in it! With a hyphen!), has seven definitions for engagement, but here are perhaps three of the most relevant:

2) An appointment or arrangement, esp. for business or social purposes.
3) The act of engaging or condition of being engaged.
4) A promise, obligation, or other condition that binds.

Michelle Klein, vice president of digital communications at Diageo for the Smirnoff brand, used this analogy when speaking at the IAB Engage conference yesterday (3 November).

She said that until now, when brands spoke about engagement, they were referring to the digital element of their campaigns, but what is most important for Smirnoff is to focus on the promise or the agreement to meet in real time at a real place.

The meetings she refers to are the dozens of events Smirnoff is holding around the globe as part of its Nightlife Exchange project, a co-collaboration campaign, which this year is being fronted by Madonna.

Klein added: “When customers are engaged with a brand there’s a physical example. People are unquestionably engaged when they are passionately involved, or when they’ve had a great time they’ll all remember. That’s the sweet spot for marketers.”

Geoff Seeley, Unilever’s global communications planning director, echoed the sentiment that “engagement”, as a way to describe marketing success, is dead, when he spoke at Media Pro on 2 November.

He warned the audience not to get “diluted” in a world of engagement.

“I think the word engagement is massively overused, overplayed and for us is just not a metric for good communications. We are trying to offer a simple value exchange rather than a metric of engagement,” he said.

It could be argued that “value exchange” is another irritating marketing concept, but the definition behind it is inherently more meaningful than the current use of the word “engagement”.

When users like or retweet a brand, their barrier to entry is low. Perhaps they were hoping to win a competition, maybe they were looking to find out more about a specific news story from that day, or they could have even unconsciously clicked on the button because they were looking to build out their own profiles.

Does this mean a consumer is “engaged” with a brand? Of course it doesn’t. Consumers aren’t altruistically becoming brand “fans”; they want something back, like an event, the chance to dance with Madonna or even just having their moment in the spotlight when they get retweeted to thousands of other followers.

Some brands do command a following without needing to offer anything in exchange, but if you’re a tampon brand or you make bleach or ulcer treatment, there needs to be some sort of reward in the real physical world when consumers choose to become your champions.

Doesn’t the fact that marketers are still struggling to get their head around how to universally measure engagement tell us something? Perhaps it’s not the thing we should be measuring at all.

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