Commentary

Engagement Matters. Emotion Sells. Data Fuels.

A while back I was chatting with the CMO of a major consumer brand.  The discussion got around to the question of the role of brand engagement within connected experience design.  In particular, the topic turned to social media, and he told me how he had just had a chat with some social media gurus who were adamant that engagement didn’t matter.  It was all about reach.  And thus, he saw no reason to focus on consumer engagement… 

Well, if that’s the case, then I might as well be out of a job! 

Let’s try a thought experiment.  Imagine a world where reach is all that matters—engagement does not.  And you are the new CMO of a large global consumer brand tasked with maximizing reach alone.  You won’t need a creative agency to help craft your brand messaging.  Just have your intern slap a logo on all of your brand communications and let 'em rip in whatever media buys you have at your disposal.  Fire your creative agency entirely.  In a world that is all about reach, there is no need for creativity. 

Clearly this is not reality.  And I’m here to defend creativity.  Engagement does matter.  In particular, emotional engagement matters.  

Emotions drive human decision-making and action.  At this point it’s a scientifically proven fact.  Just ask Daniel Kahneman or Antonio Damasio (see Dad, my psychology degree actually is useful!).  In fact, I would hazard to guess that emotional engagement trumps GRP’s. 

1.  Unique Experiences capture Attention. 

2.  Attention leads to Emotional Engagement (if the creative performs as it should). 

3.  Emotional Engagement builds Memories. 

4.  Memories influence Buying Decisions. 

So, if we effectively, emotionally, engage consumers, we can impact purchasing habits.  But, how do we know if what we think is engaging content is actually working? 

The problem comes with trying to measure engagement.  The traditional digital measures of engagement that have been manufactured, in an attempt to understand the ever-elusive ROI, are flawed.  Likes, comments, retweets, favorites, thumbs-up… the list of industry-built measures of “engagement” goes on and on.  Why would we expect any of these measures to actually demonstrate emotional engagement, or even be leading indicators of business impact?  They simply measure an individual’s propensity to click. 

The plain reality is that we don’t yet have a perfect way to behaviorally measure engagement.  

We should pay the closest mind to measures that indicate attention—in particular, measures of attention within the context of permission-based advertising content (i.e., when the consumer has to choose to continue to watch an ad, versus being forced to watch an ad).  For example, at Energy BBDO, in the first 24 hours of launching the story of "Sarah and Juan" for Extra Gum we closely tracked viewership retention on a second-by-second basis of the film.  

Out of the gate, we had confidence we had a piece of emotionally engaging content, but with the real-time data we discovered things we could do to heighten emotional resonance and thus retention.  In this case, we hit the jackpot—the film took off. 

The true power of behavioral metrics (vs. surveys) is that they measure what people do, not just what they say they do, and they tend to be available in real-time to inform insights and drive nimble content optimization decisions.  For instance, what happens to our viewership retention if we move that vocal track up a few seconds? What if we try a different opener for the first two seconds and A/B test to understand which performs better on a viewership basis?  The quick feedback of data allows for a more fluid production process.  Instead of relying on pre-testing, live content can evolve through experimentation.  Content + Data + Framework for Actioning = Agility. 

Diving deeper, with partners like Oracle and Nielsen, we are now able to understand the offline sales impact of digital creative.  It’s not a perfect science, nor is the data available in real-time (more like months instead of weeks), but it’s doable.  To date the primary focus on this type of measurement has been on media (reach + frequency) as opposed to creative.  This presents an enormous creative opportunity to those who grab it.  Which creative territory works better to deliver business impact?  Do behavioral attention metrics prove to be leading indicators of sales?  How does content sequencing, at service of story, drive business impact (think multi-touch attribution but in a world where you deterministically measure offline transactions)?  

A few years down the road, perhaps we’ll be able to crack the emotional engagement measurement challenge—with things like biometric data fed through smart watches, brain implants, and the like—to not only understand which creative drives emotion, but also which creative results in cross-channel sales impact.  Until we hit that true Minority Report-like moment of real-time biometric data, at scale, as predictor of business impact, it’s useful to think about what else we can do to push the ball forward with the scalable tools of today. 

So where to begin?  The opportunity of data-fueled creativity starts with access.  Oftentimes, as a creative industry, we don’t even ask for it.  Or if we do ask for it, we encounter issues with inter-agency territorialism.  The reality is that the client owns their data, not any one agency, and the client should want their creative partners to have ready access to it to inform and optimize creative ideas.  As a creative industry, let’s make sure we are getting access to the data that matters right out of the gate, iterating our understanding of how best to measure engagement to predict business impact, and ultimately delivering experiences to consumers that emotionally connect to build brand memories and sell product. 

Does engagement matter?  Yes.  Today, in many ways it’s the only thing that does.

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