The Two Meanings Of Engagement

Engagement: a betrothal. An exclusive commitment to another preceding marriage

Engagement: as in an engaging conversation.  Being highly involved in an interaction with something or someone.

The theme of the Business Marketing Association conference I talked about in last week's column was "Engage."  At the conference, the word engagement was tossed around more freely than wine and bomboniere at an Italian wedding. Unfortunately, engagement is one those buzzwords that has ceased to hold much meaning in marketing. The Advertising Research Foundation has gone as far as to try to put engagement forward as the one metric to unite all metrics in marketing, a cross-channel Holy Grail.



But what does engagement really mean? What does it mean to be "engaged?" The problem is that engagement itself is an ambiguous term. It has multiple meanings. As I pondered this and discussed with others, I realized the problem is that marketers and customers have two very different definitions of engagement. And therein lies the problem.

The Marketer's Definition of Engagement

Marketers, whether they want to admit it or not, look at engagement in the traditional matrimonial sense. They want customers to make an exclusive commitment to them, forgoing all others. It's a pledge of loyalty, a repulsion of other suitors, a bond of fidelity. To marketers, engagement is just another word for ownership and control.

When marketers talk about engagement, they envision prospects enthralled with their brands, hanging on every word, eager for every commercial message. They strive for a love that is blind.  Engagement ties up the customer's intent and "share of wallet."  Marketers talk about getting closer to the customer, but in all too many cases, it's to keep tabs on them. For all the talk of engagement, the benefits are largely for the marketer, not the customer.

The Customer's Definition of Engagement

Customers, on the other hand, define engagement as giving them a reason to care. They define engagement as it would relate to a conversation. Do you give me a reason to keep listening? And are you, in turn, listening to what I have to say? Is there a compelling reason for me to continue the conversation? I will be engaged with you only as long as it suits my needs to do so.  I will give you nothing you haven't earned.

The engagement of a conversation is directly tied to how personally relevant it is. The topic has to mean something to me. If it's mildly interesting, my attention will soon drift. But if you're touching something that is deeply important to me, you will have my undivided attention for as long as you need it. That is engagement from the other side of the table.

So, as we talk about engagement at a marketing conference, let's first agree on a definition of engagement. And let's be honest about what our expectations are. Because I suspect marketers and customers are looking at different pages of the dictionary.

6 comments about "The Two Meanings Of Engagement".
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  1. Rick Short from INDIUM CORPORATION, June 17, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    I love your work and read you regularly. In this case, I was surprised to read this from you, especially knowing that you're a smart, experienced, insightful person.

    Please don't lump people into overly simplistic bins. While it might make for dramatic juxtapositioning (wonderful for a creative writing course), it simply doesn't reflect reality.

    I participated in BMAEngage 2010,and I am a "marketer". At the event, and throughout my general practice, I have yet to meet an experienced marketer who envisions "prospects enthralled with their brands, hanging on every word, eager for every commercial message." At least not while they are awake. My B2B Marcom colleagues are seasoned, practical, and well grounded. Instead of aspiring to grab fistfuls of territory in single swipes - to be held in perpetuity, most of us realize that we gain territory inch by inch. We also know that this precious territory is fragile and can be lost easier than it is earned.

    Successful B2B Marketers know that engagement, true emotional connection, is highly prized, fleeting, and difficult to achieve. The entry barriers are high, the competition is keen, and the target audience is overwhelmed to the point of numbness. We know that we first need to earn awareness, then attention, and then relevance, before we can even hope to be potentially engaging to our customers. If we make it that far, THEN we have a chance to truly matter to the individuals and/or organizations. Even then, we may only matter for the duration of a project or a production run.

    Ultimately, we all know that we must earn the respect and appreciation of our customers while delivering meaningful, measurable achievement (profitabilty, quality, image enhancement, etc.) over the long haul. The old analogy of being the modest, strong, slow-growing oak tree comes into play here.

    How do we know all this? The same way our customers know all this. Because WE ARE CUSTOMERS. We know the difference between a Spielberg film and a YouTube cameraphone video. We know the difference between a classic novel and a blog rant. We've truly walked the proverbial mile in a customer's shoes - by being customers ourselves.

    Marketers are not peculiar beats, staring through the cage bars at the customer. We live the process - from all angles, and very personally. We're not flashy, we're not impractical, and we're not in this gig for the moment.

    I contend that marketers and customers do NOT have two very different definitions of engagement. And therein lies my problem with your position.

    Respectfully submitted.

  2. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, June 17, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.


    Thanks for your feedback. While I agree with the dangers of oversimplification, and that there are exceptions, I do stick to my original position that this represents the majority of the attitudes I run into in talking to hundreds of marketers every year. And if we chose to ignore the symptoms because we can point to outliers that are exceptions, we ignore the problem. Marketers MUST become better at seeing the world through a prospect's eyes. Some do this well. Many do not. Happy to debate this further with you, and would love if you could prove me wrong, but that's my position, based on my view of the marketing world.

  3. Jordyn Haas from NetElixir, June 17, 2010 at 12:03 p.m.

    Provocative idea, Gordon. Would you say then that for a marketer to be more successful at engaging the customer, they must strive for the same definition of engagement?

  4. Ian Everdell from Mediative, June 17, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    My take on what Gord's trying to get at (and we talk about this all the time at Enquiro) is that marketers have to get better at understanding the people they're marketing to. Those people don't necessarily speak the same language, value the same things, or see what the marketer is selling in the same light as the marketer does (e.g., benefits vs. features).

    Certainly there are some marketers out there who get their customers, and do a very good job of addressing the needs and pains of their targets. But there are still lots of marketers out there who could do it better, and I feel that this is particularly true in the digital space.

  5. Erika Bye from Schafer Condon & Carter, June 17, 2010 at 4:26 p.m.

    Facebook switching from "Fan" to "Like" is in-line with the customer voice you speak of here.

  6. Rick Short from INDIUM CORPORATION, June 18, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.

    It sounds like you meet a much broader range (and much larger number) of Marketers than I do, so your sampling is quite different than mine. I tend to meet my peers at events like ISBM and BMA - so the population is very focused, experienced, and professional. I appreciate your insight into the broader category.

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