The Engagement Story As Epiphany

In "Dubliners," James Joyce developed a sequence of short stories that redefined the genre. One feature common to each story is an "epiphany" (a secular allusion to the Three Kings moment of discovery of the infant Jesus) at the end, a moment of deeper awareness. At the end of the tour de force, "The Dead," the central character, Gabriel, looks into the falling snow and suddenly sees his relationship to his wife in perspective, powerfully moved by how disconnected he has been from her, how little he has known about her heart, devastated by the awareness that another man, long dead, was the great love of her life.

I'd love to go on and quote the final paragraph of that story, which is about the most beautiful prose ever written, but I am reminded of Joyce and the epiphany in our discussion of engagement. We've said in the previous two articles in this series that engagement is a story, not a metric, and that the engagement story needs to be mapped against the sales and marketing funnel. For publishers, all of this needs to lead to marketing insight. Otherwise, we may end up like Gabriel, looking out our windows and wondering about the disconnect between our sales efforts and how our advertiser partners are spending their money.



Where can an engagement story make a difference? According to media industry intelligence firm Advertiser Perceptions, advertisers and agencies look at three priorities in determining who gets on an online media plan: reach, composition and engagement. Cross-site measurement firms, such as comScore, Nielsen and newcomer Quantcast, can validate the first two effectively for large sites. As I have argued previously, the panel-based methods for comScore and Nielsen become less reliable in measuring reach and composition on smaller sites -- the Long Tail. Quantcast, with its claimed capacity to "normalize" publisher data against its own panel of users, has generated much attention. Large Web publishers who believe that their data is underrepresented by traditional panel-only measurement methods and Long Tail sites who do not appear on the comScore and Nielsen radar screens have been paying close attention to Quantcast's rising status. (Full disclosure: Quantcast became a client of mine in May).

When we look at how cross-site measurement firms analyze engagement, we run into problems. None of these firms can help us tell an engagement story. Nielsen focuses on "duration" as a single engagement metric. ComScore looks at a cluster of engagement metrics under the heading of "visits." Quantcast proposes an index of low, medium and high engagement based on number of visits per month. All of these are helpful slants on helping an advertiser know how people interact with a site, but aren't these all, in the end, just a variation of reach? In other words, they offer media planners a way to determine whether a site is attractive to the size and composition of the audience they are targeting. Or to put it another way: such data can help determine whether a site gets on the advertising buy.

But when it comes to helping an advertiser understand how they should advertise on the site, where is the epiphany?

Whether they are among the top 50 sites or way down the Long Tail, publishers can tell an engagement story that offers actionable insight to media buyers and advertisers. Their story though, needs to be "engagement mapped," to use the wonderful phrase from Young-Bean Song of Atlas. That is, they need to map their audience to the marketing funnel. For this, publishers can use Web analytics combined with their own deep understanding of their site and how their audience uses it.

Let's look at the New York Times' New Cars section, which I found via the keyword "Honda" on Google:

screengrab 1

This page offers many resources to an "engaged" user -- that is, someone who is likely to be foraging sites for ways to do research, evaluate, and do convergent analysis. From this screen, a user can click on content, activate slide shows, and subscribe to auto-related newsletters. And each path points to a deeper level of engagement. If the user, for example, activates the "New Car Search" for a Honda Odyssey, the engagement has clearly intensified:

screengrab 2

On this new page, there are very valuable resources for a prospective Honda buyer: reviews from the Times and other credible sources, specs, J.D. Power ratings, a "showroom" with various views of the car, comparisons, a guide to customization, and a price quoting service. Finally, the user can subscribe to the auto newsletter.

So what is the engagement story here? We would need to hear it from the New York Times. It is not a story that you can tell with comScore, Nielsen or Quantcast alone. Now for all I know, the Times may indeed be taking an engagement mapping sales story out to advertisers. But for argument's sake I will invent a story with a happy ending -- an epiphany -- that can make a difference for advertisers who have already decided, based on comScore, et al, that the Times is on their media plan.

In this story, the media planners have asked the Times for their help in how to best advertise. The sales rep, let's call him Gabriel, comes to the fictional agency -- let's call it Dedalus & Partners. Gabriel turns away from looking out the window, where the snow is falling gently on the city streets. He shows D&P information about how the car advertiser can use the New Cars section. Based on a combination of Web site analytics and qualitative research, the Times knows that when users come to the New Car section from a Google search, they typically have typed in a brand name. Here are our findings, Gabriel says:

  • An astounding 61% of those visitors buy a car within 6 months
  • Of those who type in a specific car name and model, 38% buy a different model
  • Once they get to the specific car model page (such as the above illustration), 72% buy a car within 3 months
  • But only 42% of the buyers buy that specific model

Gabriel makes a case for rich-media interactive units that enable the advertiser to offer a wealth of car buying guide and brand model ads.

Then, Gabriel recommends custom resource center integration for the advertiser based on the following audience engagement story:

"We have developed a highly engaged user profile that looks at user who do three or more of the following: subscribe to the newsletter, create a 'Comparisons' table, complete a 'Build Your Car' tool profile, spend a minimum of 5 minutes in the 'Showroom,' and download a J.D. Powers ratings report. We have created a profile of those who are likely to buy a car within the next 3-5 months, and we know that this segment has a click-through rate of 6-9%, which is of course astronomically higher than industry averages."

The media team at D&P has an epiphany: here is an engagement story, they say, we can buy, which in this case is a combination of banner ads, rich-media interactive units, and a tool for customizing car features and doing price comparison.

Is this a fantasy? In a few weeks I will return with ways to use "Voice of the Visitor" data as a complement to Web analytics to "engagement map" your audience.

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