How to Encourage Social Engagement

In marketing we talk a lot about engagement, as in “engagement with ads, engagement with the brand, and engagement with the audience.” So, how is “engagement” redefined in the context of the social Web? To start, consider the basic activities that take place around traditional media and then map that into a social context.

For most forms of traditional media, consumption is the primary activity: we read newspapers, we watch TV, and we listen to radio and podcasts. Even in the case of “social” media, the majority limit their involvement to reading a blog post or watching a YouTube video. While this can be very helpful in terms of pure message or content spread, it does little to connect people to your brand, product, or service in the social sense. In other words, in a social context, consumption is not all that engaging.

To get beyond pure consumption – and into real connection – it’s important to get yourself and your customers into the action. The easiest way to do this? Involve your audience in social activities, preferably happening at a place where your audience spends time.

The Value of Curation

On the activity front, consider curation. Curation is the act of rating, reviewing, and otherwise passing judgment on content available in a social setting. Rating an article as “useful” (or not!) is an example of curation.

Curation is important in two respects. First, it is a reflection of the audience or community members’ value system: curation helps weed the garden, so to speak, making it easier for others to quickly find what’s valuable. In this way, curation helps create a better experience.

Curation also teaches people how to participate. If you allow for a moment that the majority of people on the social Web are consuming the content produced by a minority, then one of the big levers you have in your hand involves getting more people to create content. Curation is a great first step: the relatively simple task of rating (like clicking “4 stars”) not only elicits interaction but it also leaves an artifact of participation – the rating itself. When new members see their own ratings, for example, they see their impact, contribution, or mark left for others to see. They see themselves beginning to engage. However small this may be, these members are now looking at their own participation, and in doing so are beginning the process of real engagement at the social level.

No doubt you missed Pepsi’s Super Bowl ad this year (because there wasn’t one). As with other consumer brands, Pepsi is looking to increase social connection points with its customers to complement and extend its overall integrated campaigns. (Yes, traditional media remains very much a part of PepsiCo’s marketing mix.) Efforts like “The Juice” and other social campaigns are increasingly seen as an integration play that connects the brand into the communities where customers and potential customers are found. Curation and basic content creation occur naturally in these communities, making them ideal for your participative (aka “social”) marketing efforts.

Beyond consumption, curation, and content creation, what other types of activities might you encourage? How about getting people in your audience to work together?

Collaboration is what you’re looking for: people working together to produce a shared outcome. On the social Web, it’s your customers and constituents talking about what they find valuable with regard to your product or service, working together to make smarter choices. They create more and better information to further inform the purchase choices they have and to generally become sharper consumers. It’s this sharing and working together that defines much of what happens on the Web now.

The challenge is to connect all of this to your business or, looked at the other way around, to connect your business into this participative channel. Starbucks and Dell, using the Ideas platform, have done well for themselves by inviting collaboration. You can use Google to find plenty of analysis and commentary on both of these cases. Who else? Read on. has offered t-shirts for sale for about 10 years: people submit designs for t-shirts, which are voted on by Threadless members. Threadless produces the winning designs for sale. The customers – through collaboration with each other and with the business itself – have a direct hand in shaping the product that is offered for sale. For a business like Threadless – literally born on the Web – directly involving customers seems natural. What if the fit to your business isn’t quite so obvious?

Coke and Dell: Fish Where the Fish Are

There are lots of ways to involve your brand in participative processes. Branded microsites – a staple element of nearly any marketing program – suffer from what blogger and author Jeff Jarvis describes as “making your customers come to you.” Instead, Jeff recommends going to them, and becoming a part of the communities that they are already participating in.

Consider the approaches of Coke and Dell, both Fortune 100 companies.

Coke said it will no longer pursue branded microsites as a primary component of its online marketing. Instead, it will build its presence in networks like Facebook, where it has millions – literally – of fans collected around its business page. Coke is also investing in its YouTube channel. The rationale is simple: fish where the fish are. Respect your audience by getting involved in the activities that they enjoy. Become part of their communities.

Taking a further step, Coke created a new collaborative application for NCAA fans. Instead of building it around the brand, Coke built “Department of Fannovation” around being an NCAA fan. Dell used a similar approach when it launched its “Digital Nomads” and “Take Your Own Path” communities.

To be clear, Coke is a participant in the application, located at the Coca-Cola Zero site. But unlike the actual branded microsite, at the center of “Fannovation” is the interest of the fans rather than the brand message. This carries right into collaboration and the social engagement process by encouraging fans to create and submit their own ideas and then vote up or down (“curate”) on other ideas. The end point is more learning for Coke, learning that can be used to further improve its social presence and related activities as it moves in this new direction. Did I mention that Coke is also measuring this? They are.

So, here’s your challenge: consumption is good but curation is better. Curation leads to creation and collaboration, and collaboration translates into social engagement. As a marketer, you’ll want to be looking for the places where your customers and potential customers are already spending time. Go there, and implement collaborative activities that are built around their shared interests. You’ll strengthen your own social presence in the process.

Related reading