Is ‘brand engagement’ a meaningless metric?

Nearly four out of five marketers use ‘engagement’ as a metric to prove return on investment, new Marketing Week research has found, but only a minority believe senior leaders take the term seriously. So when and how should you be using it?

engagement social media marketing

When measuring the success of marketing activity, the term ‘engagement’ is often used as a metric. But what does it really mean? The word has become ubiquitous yet it represents many different things to different people depending on the circumstances and campaign objectives.

For some, brand engagement can be as simple as a mention on social media or an email being opened, while others class the act of buying a product or service as the only sign of engagement.

While some marketers rely on it as a benchmark for success, others deem it a “farce” (see ‘What marketers think engagement really means’) and suggest it is a term used only when campaigns do not deliver a concrete return on investment. Yet despite these conflicting views and its apparent ambiguity, the word ‘engagement’ is still repeatedly used by marketers.

In order to add clarity to the term and help decipher when and why its use is most appropriate, Marketing Week conducted a survey of 585 readers, which reveals 78% use brand engagement as a return on investment metric and 57% use engagement to prove the worth of marketing activity to business leaders or the board.

Marketing Week engagement survey

A large proportion (79%) also measure engagement to understand what marketing activity does and does not work, while 36% use it to steer creative work in real time and 33% to sell more products.

However, given that nearly two out of five marketers (39%) do not believe senior leaders take brand engagement metrics seriously, what value does it really offer in these contexts?

Engagement is poorly defined

The fact there is no single definition for what engagement means for all marketing professionals raises concerns. An open-ended question in our survey asking respondents to clarify the meaning of engagement reveals a varied and colourful mix of definitions showing there is no standard for describing what the widely used term means.

“We have used the word engagement for a long time without really knowing what it is,” asserts Martin Ashplant, digital director at news brand Metro UK, who nevertheless says he is happy to use engagement as a reporting metric.

“We are in a unique position here because I’m talking about an edition-based product that we want to become part of [people’s] daily routine.”

Last month, Metro replaced its existing app with a new one running natively within different mobile operating systems. Its previous app was heavily geared towards iPad users but the brand was keen to attract more readers across devices, while allowing advertisers to reach a wider audience.

Metro native app
Metro launched a new app last month which runs natively within different mobile operating systems

The new app also creates separate pages with unique URLs for readers to share content with other users whether or not they have the app. It has resulted in users spending an average of 25 minutes per visit in the app’s morning edition compared with 19 minutes for the old version.

For Ashplant, “there is no magic metric that defines engagement” but a combination of behaviours that helps determine whether consumers are responding well.

He says: “It’s much more important that you have a core user base who are genuinely engaged with what you do. [That way they will] make a conscious decision to come to you on a regular basis and spend some time consuming what you do.”

Ashplant believes there is a danger for brands that “rely too much on trying to hit a big number of users” because “you are often just trying to get more users without focusing on what it is they are doing when they get there”.

He therefore advises marketers to establish in advance what they determine as an ‘engaged user’. “It’s important to know what you think someone who is engaged should be doing,” he says, and suggests it is better to focus on these people rather than the overall number.

Turning engagement into value

If engagement is a measure of the length of time consumers spend interacting with a brand, recently launched mobile game Pokémon Go is a good example of a hyper-engaged audience. In the first few weeks, the augmented reality (AR) game racked up 21 million daily active users in the US, with the average iPhone user spending 33 minutes and 25 seconds a day playing it.

Omaid Hiwaizi, ‎president of global marketing at AR technology brand Blippar, says: “The thing about digital touchpoints generally – whether it is banner ads, AR or Pokémon Go – is that they are highly measurable in tracking every single micro-engagement, dwell time, interaction and click.” There is also a lot you can track around context, he says.

However, he highlights that brand love does not necessarily turn into behaviour change. “It’s not just [about being] measurable but creating something that is considered of value,” adds Hiwaizi. “Lots of things you can measure are interesting but don’t correlate with value – it depends on the situation or what the problem is.”

This is often true for beer brands, he says. An ad might be very entertaining so people watch it, share it and talk about it, but that does not necessarily translate into more beer being sold.

Blippar visual search
Blippar’s visual search enables users to scan objects for related content

Blippar recently launched visual search, which allows users to scan any object or brand for related content. If a brand has incorporated AR into its packaging, that content will be displayed, for example, while for every day objects content from the ‘Blipparsphere’ will appear telling users about what it is.

Engagement for visual search is based on measuring the steps that people take while in the app, including whether it leads to a sale. But Hiwaizi says: “If the commerce happens offline, we have to be smarter to find ways of correlating the digital interaction with an offline purchase.”

Key indicators of engagement


For 84% of marketers responding to Marketing Week’s survey, a consumer mentioning a brand on social media in a positive way is an indicator of brand engagement. Likewise, 82% consider retweets, shares or likes as a marker of engagement, suggests the survey.

Perhaps more surprisingly, more than half (55%) count negative social media mentions as an indicator of engagement.

Scott Brownlee, general manager of PR and social media for car brands Toyota and Lexus, says: “Social media is the biggest channel for engagement – even for negative comment. In some respects we go and court it.”

He explains that “petrolheads tend to hate” the eco-friendly Toyota Prius and therefore the brand often gets people posting negative comments when it communicates on social media. However, Toyota’s community managers are empowered to interact with these people.

Brownlee says: “The objective is to take someone and move them in a positive direction, so if we take someone who is an out-and-out hater and turn their view from negative to even just neutral, it improves the tonality.”

With regard to digital advertising, most marketers (58%) agree that a consumer clicking on an ad is more an indicator of engagement than if an ad is simply classed as viewable (14%). Meanwhile, 52% consider the act of opening an email a sign of engagement. However, three out of five (60%) believe a consumer buying a product or service is the best sign of engagement.

Peter Boucher, chief commercial officer at Addison Lee, says: “If [engagement is] connected to something significant, you can [count it], but if it’s just a puff of smoke, like ‘yesterday I got mentioned in this little tweet’, who cares?”

He adds: “[True engagement] either goes into brand and ongoing reputational management or it’s driving business outcomes. Often with marketers they focus on those little puffs of smoke and lightning bolts, but that’s not what builds businesses.”

Marketers believe social is the ‘most engaging’ channel

More than half (56%) of respondents agree social media is the best channel at driving brand engagement, followed in a distant second by TV (22%). Email is next with 7%, then mobile (5%), outdoor (3%) and online display (3%), with print advertising at the bottom of the channel list with just under 3% of marketers selecting it.


This perhaps suggests marketers are most focused on creating engagement in channels where they can see immediate, obvious evidence of it.

For car brand Lexus, creating a video for YouTube was integral to driving interest in its new LC 500 model ahead of its launch next year. The short film was released in June on Lexus’s UK YouTube channel, together with a supporting feature on how the film was made.

The brand used projection mapping, working with DMS Media on the development and delivery, so the car is depicted in motion against a ‘moving’ backdrop which is created using images projected in real time against a mountainside.

It shows the car shatter the rock face to reveal pistons and spinning gears. In another scene, a face in the mountainside turns to watch the car speed by.

The brand set engagement rates at 10% for this campaign, and does so for its social campaigns generally. At the end of June, the brand reached 1.7 million people via its social sites and 10% to 12% came from the LC 500 campaign.

To measure this, Toyota’s Brownlee has several key performance indicators set against activity. “The key one is reach and engagement,” he says. “The reason I tie them together is that you can get great reach but if nobody is engaging with it, is it worth anything? Equally, you can get massive engagement rates but if only two people have looked at it, is it really great? The trick is always to try to move both quite high.”

Again, marketers believe social media trumps other channels in driving the best repeat brand engagement, with 47% of respondents to our survey selecting this option. This is followed by TV (17%) and email (16%). Online display (8%) does better than mobile (6%), while print (3%) and outdoor (3%) trail behind.

Create an emotional reaction

Social media has enabled brands to put a human face and voice to a brand, leading to an influx of communications that aim to evoke an emotional reaction or behaviour from audiences.

It will, therefore, come as no surprise that two-thirds (65%) of marketers believe emotive advertising, rather than rational, is better at building brand engagement.

But Hiwaizi at Blippar argues: “If you’re looking at it from a behaviour point of view, people reach out at moments when the brand is relevant – what is important then is that the brand says or does something suitable in that moment.”

If a consumer is confused about a product they are planning to buy or are perhaps nervous about spending money on a service, they might look to reviews for reassurance. He says: “In that instance, it’s rational content [and] there is no reason that content needs to be presented in an emotive branded way to be part of the brand story.”

At Australian sportswear brand Skins, however, it is the job of CMO Christian Gut to bring positive sentiment to the brand, which relies heavily on emotional marketing.

Emoji olympic games esportanto sport skins
Skins has launched an unofficial language using emojis for the Olympic games called Esportanto

The brand made a stand following the allegations of cheating and corruption in sport, such as the scandal surrounding FIFA, and it also encouraged sports people and teams to wear rainbow laces to highlight issues around homophobia, in a similar move to Stonewall and Paddy Power in the UK.

Its latest ambition is to unite fans from every country and background by launching an unofficial language for the Olympic games called Esportanto, which uses emojis.

“As a marketer, I try to bring back a positive sentiment to the brand. This fits the tone of voice because it’s cheeky and funny, and [because of] the brand value of inclusivity,” says Gut. “Advertising and social media should be all about emotion. In the higher level of the funnel for brand engagement, the emotion is key and information is less relevant.”

However, he adds: “Once you come to the website and to a product, it’s all about information.”

It is clear that brands’ views of the term ‘engagement’ and its value as a metric vary greatly. But although it might be difficult to come up with a universal definition, to give it any credibility as a measure of marketing effectiveness brands need to at least define internally what value it offers and how it ties in with overall objectives. Otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously by senior leaders.

How would you define brand engagement?

Negative responses:

“A con trick played on marketers by social media shysters.”

“Brand engagement is a farce. It’s about ringing the cash register and nothing else matters.”

“A term that marketers use when their campaigns don’t deliver on ROI. It’s a typical fluffy marketing metric that is meaningless.”

“It’s a meaningless buzzword used because you haven’t defined what you are actually trying to influence or affect.”

“Blah blah.”

Positive responses:

“A way to better understand how consumers view the brand and to understand their needs, pain points and emotions.”

“The process of building affinity and strengthening relationship between customer and brand.”

“A consumer or potential consumer interacting with the brand with the potential to return and become a customer or brand advocate.”

“Leveraging personal or cultural insight to encourage brand target audiences to interact with the brand through their daily lives.”

“A mutually beneficial relationship between brand and consumer built on trust and perceived value.”


Knowledge Bank


There are 3 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Jonathan Cahill 15 Aug 2016

    Hardly surprising when there is not even a decent definition of marketing, although there are many descriptions.

  2. Steve Jex 15 Aug 2016

    If someone hovers over a Google lightbox ad for 2 seconds then Google classes that as an engagement. Would you give the same value to that engagement as you would, for example, to someone actually clicking on an ad, retweeting a tweet or clicking on a link in an email? I wouldn’t.

  3. Madge Bright 15 Aug 2016

    Just goes to show what marketers who completed this survey know (hint: not a whole lot), when they rate social media interaction at 83.7% and 81.9% higher than a real life, actual purchase at just 60.1%. Call me old fashioned, but surely to goodness the pinnacle of brand engagement is purchase!! I talk a whole lot of rubbish about brands online and it doesn’t mean a hill of beans!

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