The Consumer: Engaging With Complication

  • by April 17, 2006
The conversation sure seems to be heating up around the issue of measuring engagement. The Advertising Research Foundation made it the focus of its annual conference and brought in some very big wigs to talk about it, many of them citing examples of their own forays into more engaging communications. At the same time, the Newspaper National Network has been crowing about the results of a study conducted by Millward Brown that demonstrates -- surprise, surprise -- that newspapers are the most engaging medium. And an interesting study was released by Ball State University (and reported on by MediaPost) that explored the comparative engagement of different media.

But even though the industry has been mulling this topic for a good 18 months now, there are few conclusions to report thus far. Actually, that's not quite fair: The ARF has said that engagement is not going to replace frequency in the gross ratings points equation.

Now that's a damn shame. For most people who champion the idea of engagement, frequency is a worn-out and generally useless vestige of an older advertising era. Frequency suggests that you can create successful communications by simply beating people over the head with the same idea. And if frequency remains the currency in the media industry, then engagement will be nothing more than a pleasant, fluffy ideal.

Indeed, it's tough for anyone trying to make measurable sense of engagement. Hell, even the word is complicated. There aren't many words that span the emotional spectrum from a loving commitment to marriage to a hostile encounter between two armies. Engagement is a remarkably nuanced word. Likewise, engagement in the context of media and advertising is a very nuanced idea.

Joseph Plummer, the Chief Research Officer at the ARF, told The New York Times that engagement "happens inside the consumer, not inside the medium... All the measurements we have now are media metrics: ratings, readership, listenership, click-through rates. What we need is a way to determine how the targeted prospect connected with, got engaged with, the brand idea."

Now that's complicated. And the complication arises because we need to distinguish between media that are engaging in themselves and media that facilitate engaging advertising.

One point of view, for example, holds that if the consumer is engaged with a particular medium, then he or she is more likely to be engaged with the advertising that sits within it. On one level, that makes sense. It's the same logic that suggests we will like the friends of our friends. And yet in practice that often turns out not to be the case.

The counter-argument is that when we're caught up in a show or enjoying a story, we don't like being distracted from it, and in fact actively disengage from advertising. Conversely, it's when we're not paying much attention to the media we're consuming that we can enjoy an entertaining or informative advertising (I use the term broadly) interlude.

This jibes with the well-considered theory of British planner-turned-academic Robert Heath, whose book The Hidden Power of Emotive Advertising argues that to understand the effect of advertising, we need to distinguish between explicit and implicit memory. The former is the kind of memory we use when we are concentrating hard on something; the latter applies when we're not concentrating on much at all, and instead subconsciously soak up images and concepts, as we often do when we watch TV. By this logic, advertising works most effectively when we let it wash over us and our implicit memory records all kinds of brand associations without even knowing we're doing it. (Scary, isn't it?)

Now that's really complicated. But it's important. And it's worth the time to figure out how it all comes together, even if it means that at some point we just have to accept that we'll never really know how these things work. At least then we could put an end to relying on outdated ideas like frequency and begin to use our experience and intuition to determine what will work most effectively for a given campaign in support of a given brand.

Anyway, that's enough spouting for today. I have a prior engagement I need to attend to.

Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (

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