Engagement: The Definition Debate

It was a mistake. While presenting at the Emetrics Summit in Stockholm, the dreaded “e” word popped out of my mouth. It wasn’t intentional, but as soon as it happened I knew there’d be trouble. You know the word: “engagement.”

As sure as night follows day, a gentleman in the audience asked, “What do you mean by ‘engagement,’ and how do you measure it?” I stood there like a rabbit in the headlights, heart racing and palms sweating because this was a question I’d been seriously trying to avoid. I mumbled, then waffled, hoping inspiration would hit me, that I would have some type of “road to Damascus” experience when all would be revealed. I didn’t. In the end, I smiled sweetly and admitted the horrible truth: I don’t know.

In fact, that’s not quite true. I know what engagement is (everyone does), but I don’t know what it means or how to explain it, let alone how to measure it. In a digital marketing context, I think it’s one of those words that everyone understands but can’t define. In that respect, it’s similar to loyalty. Everyone understands the concept of loyalty but there are all sorts of ways it’s defined (attitudinal loyalty, behavioral loyalty, etc.), and there are even more ways it gets measured.

The Web analytics blogosphere is full of recent articles and comments about engagement. Consider these titles:

  • ‘Engagement’ Is Not A Metric, It’s An Excuse
  • Engagement is not an excuse, It’s a KPI
  • Is ‘Engagement’ Physical or Emotional?
  • Customer Engagement Is Measurable
  • The debate covers a range of views. There are those you might call “behavioralists” who believe engagement can be defined and encapsulated in simple site metrics or an equation to produce a complicated engagement index. Others contend engagement is a state of mind and therefore can’t be measured by using anything as blunt as clickstream data.

    After some consideration, I can tell you where I sit on this debate: firmly on the fence!

    For me (and that’s the point), engagement is a personal condition. It’s about me, not about the site or the advertiser. Engagement is all about the context I’m operating in. I can be on a site one day doing a series of activities, interacting in a certain way, and feeling engaged. Another day, I can be on the same site doing pretty much the same thing but not feeling so engaged. The difference between the two sessions is more about me, my sense of expectations, what kind of day I’ve had, and so on. It may have nothing to do with the Web site. Having said that, of course it’s useful, if not essential, to define and measure the volume of valuable behavior on your Web site and to use those measures to predict future outcomes.

    I wonder, then, whether this notion of engagement is actually very useful. If we can’t describe or define it, what can we do about it? And does it actually add to what we already know or want to know? From the behavioralist’s point of view, if we believe there are sets of valuable behavior that lead to beneficial outcomes, why dress it up and call it “engagement”? Why not just have a valuable behavior index (VBI) instead of an engagement index? At least then we’d know what it is and what it means. WebTrends’s new Score product is one way of doing just that — identifying behavior that’s considered valuable, giving it a subjective value, then tracking it.

    And from an attitudinal perspective, we already have loads of measures that help us understand visitors’ experience in their terms. Measures such as customer satisfaction, propensity to return, and propensity to recommend have been around for ages. They’re all measures of what you might call “engagement,” so do we need another one? I know what it means when someone says they’re likely to recommend the site to their friends. What does it mean, though, if someone says they were “fairly engaged” with the site?

    After reading lengthy and well-written blogs and articles on this subject, I wondered what I could add to the debate. Yet the question, “What is engagement?” is one I’d been avoiding for too long.

    I still don’t know what engagement means. But now I don’t really care. I don’t think having a definition of “engagement” then finding tortuous ways to measure it really adds anything to our understanding of how to improve the visitor experience at the moment. At a time when the online experience is still often poor, I think we already have enough tools in our toolbox to help us figure out what needs to be done.

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