I spent a great deal of time over the past few years pondering what engagement meant in the advertising world. And I wasn't alone. Everyone seemed to be caught up in debating its definition, and how it should be applied to complement or overtake existing models of advertising planning and accountability. Everyone knew that traditional mass-marketing models based on reach, frequency and impressions were losing traction, and this new dimension of engagement seemed a promising evolution.
I even led in a video blog on the topic, in partnership with the Advertising Research Foundation and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the primary trade groups spearheading the engagement initiative. In a matter of weeks after launch, we ended up with several hours of exclusive video and podcast interviews with advertising-research thought leaders, including the likes of: noted advertising theorist Erwin Ephron; Joe Plummer, research chief at the ARF; Gerald Zaltman of Harvard Business School; Robert Passikoff, CEO of Brand Keys; Nigel Hollis, chief analyst at Millward Brown; and Rex Briggs, CEO of Marketing Evolution, among dozens of others. Senior industry execs even began to pitch me with requests to be interviewed, and contribute position statements.
But those days have ended, it seems. The excitement has died down. I haven't updated the blog since Jan. 5, and few have noticed, let alone pitched me for coverage or left a comment.
So what happened to engagement, that hotly-debated buzzword that took the advertising industry by storm? Does the dormancy of my engagement blog, still one of the single richest sources of publicly accessible commentary on engagement, reflect broader sentiment and enthusiasm on the topic? Or are we in a subdued period, while the ad industry begins the long journey of experimentation and validation of engagement models?
I'd say it's a little of both.
The engagement initiative, starting with its definition, has suffered from some ambiguity, an excess of biased interpretation and lack of patience. That's been incredibly taxing on its equity and durability, and even turned some people off. And for all its good intentions, the engagement debates too often were muddied by an underlying agenda of mass-media companies, especially the shrinking breeds, like network television and print. In a world where Google has demonstrated that the Internet can demonstrate clear ROI on a massive pay-for-performance scale, traditional media companies whose lifeblood is brand advertising have been in a battle to preserve legacy marketing dollars. To their benefit, there have been plenty of brand marketers who have still have faith in the old model, or simply remain in a state of inertia. Of course, that won't last forever.
On the positive side, the engagement initiative has sparked a lot of thinking and hard questions around the true value of brand advertising. There is a major role for brand advertising; our economy simply can't go round with a purely direct-response communications model. But brand advertising is way overdue to move beyond one-size-fits-all commercial bombardment, and demonstrate greater sophistication and ROI.
We now live in a post-scarcity media world, where there are endless ways to reach customers and prospects with commercial messages. Just look at all the irrelevant advertising clutter, dripping down every possible media branch in attempt to influence us. In a world where attention is now the growing scarcity, the success of media companies will lie not only in the ability to deliver eyeballs, attention and context, but an accountability framework rooted in desired business outcome.
Brand advertising will never offer the direct-response validation of Google, but measurements and accountability must move beyond awareness potential, and drill down on marketer-driven results. We're seeing this happen more often now, especially as more brand advertising moves to digital platforms. But it's also happening broadly and in more traditional media, like television. The engagement initiative has streamlined many of these efforts.
In September 2006, I asked Joe Plummer, one of the lead architects of engagement, where the advertising industry was in its adoption of the construct. He responded: "There's a certain amount of convergence on what engagement means. I don't mean everyone's bought into our definition of engagement - which is 'turning on a prospect to a brand idea, enhanced by surrounding context' - but I think we've made that idea move."
As we approach the one-year anniversary (March 21) of the ARF's first definition of engagement, let's ask ourselves: Did the idea move?