At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

What Does It Mean To Be Engaged?

I’m not talking about the first step towards getting married!

Online marketing buzz words include “social” and “engagement.” Let’s set “social” aside for another day.

What does it look like when a customer is “engaged” with a brand, with a web site, with Twitter or Facebook? Who are “engaged” customers and why are they important to an organization? Why might their web site visits be more valuable — in the traditional, monetary sense of the word — than less “engaged” customers?

What the heck does it mean to be engaged?

Searching Forrester’s database for the word “engagement,” I found 2373 results; 26 were published in October alone. Since 2006, the Advertising Research Foundation has an Engagement Council, which directs engagement-focused research. Here’s their definition:

Turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.

This definition is, ummm, squishy. It’s not unlike this one: beauty, qualities that give pleasure to the senses. Or even obscenity: I’ll know it when I see it.

Back Story
In 2008, two researchers – Joseph Carrabis and Eric T. Peterson – tried to quantify online “engagement” by developing a definition and mathematical measurement (pdf):

Engagement is an estimate of the degree and depth of visitor interaction on the site against a clearly defined set of goals.

Σ(Ci +Di +Ri +Li +Bi +Fi +Ii)

Visitor Engagement is a function of the number of clicks (Ci), the visit duration (Di), the rate at which the visitor returns to the site over time (Ri), their overall loyalty to the site (Li), their measured awareness of the brand (Bi), their willingness to directly contribute feedback (Fi) and the likelihood that they will engage in specific activities on the site designed to increase awareness and create a lasting impression (Ii).

Today’s Story
NiemanLab brings us the story of, which has modified the above equation in an effort to measure engagement with a news media website. Here are the characteristics — categories — that they believe shape “engagement”:

Ci — Click Index: visits must have at least 6 pageviews, not counting photo galleries

Di — Duration Index: visits must have spend a minimum of 5 minutes on the site

Ri — Recency Index: visits that return daily

Li — Loyalty Index: visits that either are registered at the site or visit it at least three times a week

Bi — Brand Index: visits that come directly to the site by either bookmark or directly typing or come through search engines with keywords like “” or “inquirer”

Ii — Interaction Index: visits that interact with the site via commenting, forums, etc.

Pi — Participation Index: visits that participate on the site via sharing, uploading pics, stories, videos, etc.

What have they learned in the two months that they have employed this analytical framework?

  • Click Index: in a recent measurement, 17.9 percent of 3.9 million total visits featured a visitor clicking through to at least six pages.
  • Loyalty Index: this engagement metric is inversely related to site page views (“new visitors are, by definition, not loyal ones”).
  • Overall engagement: In September, “sports page visits were 46.6 percent engaged, while news page visits were only 34.4 percent engaged.”
  • Referrers matter: “Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.”

What is doing is trying to understand the different types of customers visiting their site, which should help them develop navigation paths, think about story assignments and negotiate for additional advertising revenue. However, it is a long-term project, not a short-term one. And at least one online news site manager thinks it is too complicated:

While the equation might provide interesting feedback to editors, [Sonia Meisenheimer, digital marketing strategist for the St. Petersburg Times’] said she thought the results it produced were too complicated. In a competitive market, businesses want to compare different web outlets on apples-to-apples factors like total audience and local audiences. She said would measure engagement in a much simpler way, focusing on registration numbers and their brand index, or how many people come to the site through a bookmark or by searching for terms like “St. Pete Times” or “”

Internally, she said the most important number for is simply revenue per unique visitor. “My question to is: how does this help you make more money? Because I don’t see that in the equation.”

I’d argue that in a competitive market like this one, the more you know about your customers, the better.

Most of the data upon which this engagement index is based are easily available from web server logs. Whether or not you combine the data into an index or look at each metric individually, they are all critical to understanding why people visit your web site and what they do once they get there. Plus, they help you identify where you should be focusing your own marketing efforts.

At the end of the day, these  two statistical tools don’t define “engagement” although they do provide a rubric for measuring it. Because business tends to “get what it measures” choosing what to measure is equally as important as implementing a formal system of measurement. How, then, might these tools help us figure out what it means to be engaged and identify exactly what bits of that engagement are valuable?

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5 Responses to What Does It Mean To Be Engaged?

  1. Since I work at a non-profit, our engagement metrics tend to be focused rather exclusively on donations, to a fault. If a story, video or a post results in a higher number of donations, then it was successful, and we should do more things like that.
    The problem with that type of measurement is that there are any number of other types of engagement that can lead to donations, or can lead to sharing and engaging people in an extended network. For example, we have an advocacy department that essentially lobbies members of congress to prioritize the needs of the poor in their legislation. Informing and empowering constituents to tell their members of congress to support a particular bill is a measurable engagement on Convio. Calls to members of congress are harder to measure, but we can estimate.
    We’ve also learned that there are certain types of people who are more likely to engage with our organization. This demographic information is the basis for market segmentation and direct marketing.
    But really, the bottom line is that all of those mathematical formulas for measuring engagement can be useful, but should be customized for each company’s needs and KPIs. At the end of the day, the goal should be to inform the creation of web content and engagement opportunities that people WANT.

  2. Marina Ferrer says:

    I agree about engagement is something very difficult to measure and monetize it. However, we are still thinking in our traditional way of making profits. Nowadays you need to think in terms of engagement and conversation because it is affecting to your business and it is going to affect your business in terms of revenue in a long term if you do not take care of that.
    I see the correlation of this topic with the discussion around Branding and Brand image years ago. In the 80´- 90´when we had so many similar products resolving the same problems, companies started to develop images, values and experiences around brands. Brands started to become something intangible rather that the own products´ physical benefits. At that time, people were arguing about how to measure branding and brand value. How much did those values matter to the customer? How did you make profit of that? And did it really give you some revenue? Agencies as Interbrand or Millward Brown started to make rankings and construct methods to measure the benefits of having a strong brand. At that time I am sure that there were a lot of different methodologies, some good ones and some bad ones. But at the end the best methods becomes the standard to measure branding influence. Nowadays nobody argue the importance of the branding as a key variable of making revenues and even though when you want to float in the stock market.
    When we are looking at engagement and online optimization and how to measure them to make revenues we are going back to the same situation. Right now there are a lot of tools to measure awareness, engagement, buzz and so on. We have a variety of tools from the free ones as Google Realtime, TweetReach, Yahoo Pipes, Yacktrack, Social Mention to the paid ones as Radian6, Visible Technologies or Sysomos. I agree with this article in the sense of we do not have a good method or a single tool to measure all the engagement and buzz content right now. And there is still the question about how to make profits of that. But I am sure that more sooner than later we will have the ability to monetize this content. Today nobody question that branding is essential to any business (in my opinion, brand value is the only thing that makes Facebook continue growing). I really believe that in 5 years, engagement or buzz content will be one variable more (and an important one) when we look at the Top 10 most value brands.

  3. Ko Yun Tsai (Coco) says:

    I am always interested in “engagement” issue. Both interested in marriage and online marketing buzz world meaning. :)

    In this digital media age, it is important to have different social media tools to reach your audience, but meanwhile it is also hard to engage them deeply. There are too many distractions make people loose their focus. Hence I agree that we should have some measurement method to examine how our users engage with the websites or products then we could take the data as a direction to adjust our strategy.

    When I was a website producer, I usually look at data of pageviews, unique users and time spent of our users. These are three important data analysis for me to understand how users engage with my website. But nowadays, I believe we need more parameters to value the engagement just like the formula listed in the article. Because there will be more and more new patterns and ideas show up in the future, the formula should be adjusted accordingly by time. In my opinion, I don’t think the formula is too complicated, on the contrary, it may be what we need to fulfill today’s needs.

  4. Thor Tolo says:

    It wasn’t so long ago that about the only thing I knew about “indexes” in the context of Kathy’s engagement article was how to spell it. But after reading through the piece – twice – I actually am getting it.

    Per Rachael’s post above about her non-profit, which I believe is World Vision, hers is one of dozens of organizations for whom I did donation drives on a Seattle radio station between 2004 and 2008. She is spot on about managers’ misguided perception that the only content worth posting is that which is proven to raise the most financial support.

    Just as a sponsor pays millions to, say, CBS for a Super Bowl ad, it is the consumer who ultimately creates profit for the advertiser. The beauty of generating buzz (or as Marina puts it, “engagement and conversation”) is that you can use these presumably passionate folks to do the word-of-mouth work for you without your having to go broke on CBS.

    Likewise, while trying to raise on-air pledges for the likes of World Vision, I had to move mountains just to get suits to grasp the idea of appearing at a school or church and tying in child sponsorships with their receiving studio tours or being interviewed on air for a few minutes.

    Maybe the principal or teacher wouldn’t donate a dime, but by using them for access to many times more eyes and ears (read: parents), a radio pledge campaign running in the “red” could reverse this in a hurry.

    So when Kathy observes “…the more you know about your customers, the better”, it is akin to knowing who won’t be inclined to part with resources, but who definitely is in position to engage those who might.

    To twist a time-tested phrase, “It’s not who you know, but who knows you.” One of the best ways to create such awareness is the engagement described above.

  5. Erika Takeuchi says:

    Thanks for this post, Kathy : ) This is a topic I think about a lot within the marketing context, what engaging the customer means and how you can measure it. Despite the voluminous data the web can provide, measuring customer engagement with a campaign, brand or business has not seem to have gotten any easier. With marketing content, it’s tough to know at the end of the day if you really moved the needle or not. I agree that it is definitely important to know as much detail as you can about your customers, so that you know if you are reaching your target audience with the right message at the right time. I think there are a few different levels you can look at such as interaction with the content (click-through rates, video completion rates, ratings, comments, time on site), brand preference (survey data), viral nature (sharing, embedding, blogosphere and press), loyalty (rate of return, repeat buyer) and completion of key end actions (download, subscribe, purchase), but at the end of the day, I don’t think there really is a perfect formula.

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