The Audience Engagement Story

Engagement is a story, not a metric.

Recently some of the best thinking about engagement has been percolating in the Web analytics community. In addition to Eric Peterson's groundbreaking work in developing what I have called "The Peterson Model" as a way to capture a more fully developed idea of visitor engagement, over the past few months, Gary Angel of Semphonic has written five highly nuanced and evolving perspectives of engagement. And Young-Bean Song of Atlas has contributed, "Engagement Mapping," a white paper that shows ways that advertisers and publishers can begin to tell a more fully developed engagement story than the "Last Ad" measurement that gives 100% credit to the last place an online customer visited -- very often Google.

Which brings us to a key point about engagement: it is a story, not a single measurement -- or a few related metrics. Part of the reason that we are having a hard time defining and measuring engagement is that we know it is more complex than a measurement of duration or site visits. But we also get mixed up because we are not distinguishing between the way we engage with a brand and the way we engage with a site. Or between a visitor's engagement with site content and an audience's engagement in relation to the buying process. Let's again give Eric Peterson a round of applause for drawing these key distinctions in his dialogue with Gary Angel:



  • Brand engagement: the relationship between a customer and a brand
  • Visitor engagement: how visitors consume, interact, or create content on a site
  • Audience engagement: a function of advertising -- measuring audience targets across potential or current advertising

But audience engagement in relation to what? On this point Eric is not completely sure. "It is still not completely clear to me," he writes, "how media planners will use a measure of Audience Engagement; it is only clear that they are actively looking for such a measure." That is a fair comment. Most media planners I know are looking at engagement in the limited terms defined by comScore or Nielsen -- as an indicator of site traction and potential advertising attraction. But here I believe we can bring in two helpful models: the engagement mapping model developed by Young-Bean Song and the theory of engagement proposed by Brian Haven of Forrester in his August 2007 perspective.

For context, Brian Haven's, "Marketing's New Key Metric: Engagement" is an excellent starting point for any discussion on engagement. Haven sees the traditional sales or marketing "funnel" concept as inadequate to describe the myriad online and offline influences in the buying cycle. And we see this as abundantly evident with online. Media sources have widely fragmented, user generated content has proliferated, peer reviews everywhere, and on and on.

When Haven states that now "complexity reigns in the middle of the funnel," we know that it is true and that we are only still at the beginning of the user-controlled tidal wave. And in a new world order where users are sharing their perspectives and experiences with each other, marketers will be tasked with shifting from interruptive messaging to participative. In blogs, forums and all forms of social media, participation will involve marketer engagement -- listening and responding to real challenges, questions, and problems. It will also involve the need to identify, connect with, and win over influential advocates. As Haven says, today, "the most valuable customer isn't necessarily one who buys a lot."

Engagement Matters More than Ever: "Complexity reins in the middle of the funnel"

Aside from the rather jarring notion in this illustration that eyeballs enter a tubular maze and emerge out the other end as buyers or contributors, the graphic makes the point -- a lot happens these days to online buyers on their way to their transactions. For this reason I stand in agreement with Eric Peterson and Gary Angel that audience engagement is challenging, if not impossible, to use in a uniform, comparative way across multiple sites. That is why I say that engagement is not a metric, it is a story. A complex story, but a story that can be told and needs to be told.

One way of shedding light on the complexity of engagement in the highly fragmented world of the Web comes from Young Bean-Song of Atlas. His white paper on "Engagement Mapping"shows a way to account for that complexity by revealing sites that are connected to the buying process. Typically, now -- in the tradition of the old marketing funnel -- the last ad gets credit for a Web site transaction. All of the credit. And so if a buyer jumps to from Google and completes a transaction for a DVD player, Google gets all the credit. Even if the buyer visited, David Pogue's tech blog at the NY Times, and ePinions, and looked at 20 reviews at and other sites. The diagram below shows six different transactions, where only the final click-or keyword search-gets the glory. (Note: how often does simple navigation via Google get the credit? If a user types in the URL of in a Google Toolbar and then converts on the Circuit City site, that pure navigation entry gets all the credit!)

Source: Microsoft Advertiser and Publisher Solutions

Now what if we were able to account for a more typical Web buying experience?

Source: Microsoft Advertiser and Publisher Solutions

In the above graphic, ad-serving analytics can show a marketer how often visitors to the advertiser site have seen the ads, where they have seen them, how long they have interacted with rich media, how recently they saw the ads, and how factors like size of the ad and rich media have impacted conversions. Underlining Young-Bean Song's white paper is of course a case for Microsoft/Atlas capabilities, but the argument for a more complex engagement story is completely on target.

Publishers have much to add to the engagement story. Publishers can and need to "engagement map" their visitors in a way that allows advertisers to more wisely and effectively use their sites.

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