Search In The Age of Engagement

Every online advertising conference this year has focused on engagement, including OMMA East and West, VNU's Digital Marketing Expo, Ad:Tech San Francisco and Chicago, and MIXX. Engagement is such a hot buzzword that I've taken to using it to justify my own marketing spending. If you say your plan is designed to increase engagement, far be it from a higher-up to argue with you.

I've wanted to write this column for months. The buzzword became trendy earlier this year, but it also overstayed its welcome so quickly that I intentionally avoided it. During this time I've also wondered about the role of search engine marketing; search, after all, seems like the antithesis of engagement.

Then, after Advertising Week last month, another question started eating at me. What comes after engagement? If we're obsessed with engagement now, what will we be obsessed with next? There's got to be something, right?

Today, we'll tackle the first issue, looking at how search fits into the Age of Engagement. Then, next week, we'll find out what comes next. It's time to stop looking at search engine marketing as a stand-alone line item. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has gotten a bit of flack from commentators who noted that with the IAB only measuring media spending (as opposed to total interactive marketing spending, including development of Web sites and landing pages), then the real marketing dollar figures are underreported by a wide margin.



Now look at search. Web development is included in search engine optimization costs, but it often gets overlooked when it comes to paid search. Part of it also depends on who's doing the site work. For instance, if you're paying a search engine marketing agency to do it, you'll tend to include it as part of your costs, but if you're doing it in-house, you may not factor that into the equation at all. Regardless of how you pay the bills, you need to include Web sites and landing pages in your budgeting so that you can accurately determine the return on investment.

Once you have your campaign set up, including the search content (whether it's the paid search media or the descriptions for natural search links) and the landing pages, it's time to go fishing for consumers. You dangle the hook with the listing. If the message resonates with the consumer who's searching with a relevant query, then the consumer will nibble at the bait and click the link. Then it's up to your Web site to really hook the consumer and reel him in.

So at what point do you actually engage the consumer? It's like asking at what point you hooked the fish. Alas, when it comes to search, we're still struggling to find the definition of engagement, just as everyone else is.

Does engagement occur when someone first reads the paid or natural listing in the search engine? That's the start of the process. How about when the consumer clicks to the site--does that mean you've engaged him? Now say the consumer spends 15 minutes on the site, downloads a brochure, comes back a second time within a week, requests driving directions, signs up for an e-mail newsletter, bookmarks your blog, visits product-level pages, or fills out a "contact us" form. Have you then engaged the consumer?


Or perhaps engagement doesn't actually happen until a transaction is completed. That's engagement, right? If consumers spend money, they're engaged. Yet this all sounds so shallow. If they spend time, they're engaged, too, by classic definitions of the word, such as this from "engage" means to "carry out or participate in an activity; be involved in." There's nothing about paying in there.

All this leads to another one of those "tree falls in the woods" type of questions: if you engage the consumer, but the consumer never adds to your bottom line, then does engagement really matter?

As often happens here, we've unearthed many questions and fewer answers. But next week, I'll have more answers for you. I also welcome you to write in with your take, if you've been so engaged that you've read this far. What comes after engagement?

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