Can You Measure Engagement?

The IAB, in collaboration with Radar Research, recently released the “Digital Ad Engagement: An Industry Overview and Reconceptualization,” that addresses a longstanding challenge faced by advertisers, publishers, agencies, marketers and other interactive industry participants for whom ad “engagement” is an essential device in digital advertising. 

Nearly two decades into the growth of online advertising, “engagement” is still one of the most used, yet least understood terms Even as the industry agrees there is a need for simple, universal definitions, the term remains historically rooted in metrics such as click through rate. Today “engagement” has become a catchall for a variety of interactions, and sellers have begun to use the concept as a basis for pricing.

Publishers, advertisers and agencies all cite engagement as a crucial variable in the success of ad campaigns, yet there is no industry consensus on exactly how to define engagement. Definitions tend to be ambiguous, and too often engagement is used as a catchall for multiple behaviors.

Lacking a single definition, the IAB has attempted to untangle the multiple, competing definitions of engagement. Essentially, digital advertising engagement falls into three major buckets: cognitive, physical, and emotional. Ultimately the ambiguity of the term has rendered it less useful than more concrete, descriptive definitions of types of interaction.

Currently, the term engagement actually describes three distinct phenomena:

Ad engagement: reviewing whether the creative is compelling and whether a consumer interacted with the ad in some way

  • Content engagement: gauging which content is most captivating on a site
  • Audience engagement: identifying which viewers are paying the most attention and are contributing to the conversation

And, the whitepaper outlines three major categories of engagement that can be the basis of a new paradigm for defining what interactive ad engagement is and how it works:

  • Cognitive: awareness, interest and intention
  • Physical: user-initiated interaction
  • Emotional: affective

Over six years ago, says the report, the Advertising Research Foundation began the hard work of defining engagement. In 2006, ARF revealed its definition: "Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context." ARF, as well as others, has been on a long journey to refine the definition and establish metrics for measuring it.

Radar Research conducted interviews with key stakeholders from a broad range of companies, including publishers, advertisers, agencies, ad networks, measurement vendors and rich media firms. These companies spanned the range of advertising platforms, from display to mobile to rich media, and addressed the following questions: 

  • What is the value of defining ad engagement?
  • What is the history of attempts to define engagement?
  • What is the difference between engagement and effectiveness?
  • How do social media impact engagement metrics and the ability to measure
  • engagement?
  • What kinds of tools are available to measure engagement?
  • What are the challenges to better defining engagement?

Even without a universally accepted definition of engagement, there is the widely held belief that engagement is an important component of online advertising. “Leave it out and you miss an important diagnostic tool,” says Scott McDonald, SVP of Market Research at Conde Nast. In general, most industry executives agree that engagement includes an ad’s ability to breakthrough to capture a consumer’s attention, and drive an attitudinal change. 

Digital ad sales teams, competing against traditional media, touted the accountability of online advertising as its major advantage. Often, that meant using the lowest common denominator metric of click through rate (CTR) as the arbiter of campaign success. But,“… clicks are the result of engagement,” says ComScore’s SVP, Corporate Development Kirby Winfield, while Sean Bruich, Head of Measurement Research at Facebook syas, “… clicking is a visible indication that someone saw an ad, but it’s not the only measure… “

One of the challenges in trying to define engagement is that the word is used to talk about three different phenomena. There can be engagement with the advertising, the editorial content, or the audience: 

  • Ad Engagement: Is the creative compelling? Are viewers interacting with it in some way?
  • Content Engagement: Which content is the most captivating on the site?
  • Audience Engagement: Which viewers are paying the most attention? Who contributes to the conversation?

ShareThis Vice President, Barry Grant, says “You can’t have effectiveness without engagement, but you can have engagement without effectiveness.”

One of the ironies of engagement is that while the concept is ill defined, there are innumerable interactions that can be tracked and fed into the concept of engagement. While this chart is not comprehensive, we can begin to understand how these interactions can help the industry move beyond its overreliance on click through as a salient measure.

Engagement Moves Beyond the Click


Engage Measures


Play rate, playthrough rate, completion rates, median video viewing time, share rates

Rich Media

Display times, expansions, expansion times, interaction time/rate, form responses, game play, share rates


Click to call, map retail location, interaction rates, click to download, click to play, share rates

Source: RadarResearch, January 2014

The growth of social media is deeply impacting how audiences discover news, share content, and connect to brands. There is a strong belief in the potential of social media to impact the purchase funnel, lift awareness and create stronger relationships with consumers.

Social media introduces even more metrics to the engagement concept, notes the report:

  • Consumption: reading, listening, viewing
  • Collaboration: liking, rating, voting, commenting, sharing
  • Creation: uploading, blogging, podcasting, mashups

The report concludes by saying that defining engagement faces myriad challenges:

  • Nearly two decades into the growth of digital advertising, engagement is still a prevalent buzzword without a single definition. While the industry agrees there is a need for greater clarity, there is no agreement on how or who should determine the definition
  • Measuring cross media engagement is another challenge for brands, and one that is becoming increasingly important as consumers live in a multi-screen, multi-platform world. Even within digital media platforms, differences in usage and behavior will continue to confound the industry
  • Defining a visit and dwell time may be more difficult on tablets and mobile devices as consumers shift from apps to mobile web sites. And, understanding how mouse and touch interactions differ may also affect engagement

The lack of clarity on the definition of engagement is not going to be resolved soon, concludes the report, but the lack of definition requires systematic rethinking to give meaning to “engagement” metrics. Engagement is too often a catchall term for a variety of metrics, and even as stakeholders attempt to create currencies around the idea of engagement, the concept of engagement remains nebulous. The industry needs to move beyond the ambiguous terminology of engagement, admonishes the report.

 Learn more from the RadarResearch whitepaper here, or see the press release here.



3 comments about "Can You Measure Engagement?".
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  1. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, January 29, 2014 at 8:18 a.m.

    The fact that the market is publishing research studies around a good sign.It means that marketers are paying greater attention to exactly what is happening at the intersection between content and consumer. As needs to step up and get ahead of the curve in providing assistance to marketers on how to best "engage" with their audience via the channels that are being used...Media platforms who don't step up and provide this assistance ( are you listening programmatic exchanges) will begin to lose their grip on marketing budgets...sooner than later.

  2. Beth Taylor from Catonious, January 29, 2014 at 9:12 a.m.

    Interesting thoughts; click through is obviously insufficient for most advertisers, it's good to see the IAB's efforts to advance a common currency for engagement. The report, when downloaded from Radar Research, is dated December 2012. Is the date wrong or is it a year old?

  3. Curtis Brubaker from BCAT, llc, January 29, 2014 at 11:30 a.m.

    RELEVANCY > TIMING > PRESENTATION > CONTROL = ENGAGEMENT. Exclude any one of these and you risk message failure, consumer tune-out & irritation. The effectiveness of each is measurable.

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