Engagement Planning: Much Ado About Something

After a year of disagreement, leading media researchers and pundits seemed to reach consensus on the next steps the industry should take to put engagement into practice. At Media magazine's Forecast 2007 Conference, panelists agreed that engagement is not a metric, but a theoretical construct. In time, it should lead to an operational model for effective communications planning.

Yet in a feisty opening statement, Erwin Ephron attacked researchers and media execs for bandying about a word with no real meaning. Ephron took special issue with the working definition presented by Joe Plummer, head of research for the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF): "Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context."

"Where's the measurement in this?" Ephron asked. He claimed that researchers were abandoning serviceable metrics in favor of a concept that can't be measured.

Researchers are doing no such thing, countered Bob DeSena, director of active engagement for Mediaedge:cia. "I'm not aware that we're throwing away anything." DeSena noted that MI4, an industry consortium that includes the ARF and the 4As, is studying engagement and "has been reasonably consistent in framing this as a much broader term," rather than a new metric.

DeSena observed that the only important measurement is already known. "The metric is sales, folks." Implying that Ephron was being obstructive, DeSena added: "You can't create a false premise at the beginning of the debate and then argue with it. ... It doesn't serve the industry's disciplines or approach to parse words at the beginning."

For his part, Plummer noted that media researchers are already conducting a variety of proprietary quantitative studies to flesh out engagement. They are examining consumer response to specific ads with "physiological measurement, symbolic or attitudinal [impact] and overall persuasiveness" in different media settings. Plummer characterized the attempt to construct a model of engagement as retrospective: "We need to look back and systematically analyze how the data connects."

Ephron was more amenable to this description, saying he found value in a trial-and-error approach that aimed to "show how individual pieces fit together and work in a system." He added: "It's encouraging to know there is movement toward a model showing the operational links [between media], but we've got to look at combinations of elements." DeSena readily agreed, lamenting the fact that media research is conducted in silos, by particular media pursuing their own parochial interests.

"In the end, it all comes back to communications planning," DeSena said, calling for researchers and media execs to set aside turf wars and embrace cooperation as the best way to serve clients.

Ephron agreed. "We've had communications channel planning for three years, and that's certainly an entree to engagement." Plummer concluded by saying the proof of engagement would have to come through communications channel planning: "That's the concept, and it works very well. It's an important validation of engagement."

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