Engagement or Just another ROI? By Manfred Mareck, Research Marketing Ltd, London
I recently spent some time on a presentation tour in California. Talking with some senior media planners I expected the current buzzword – ENGAGEMENT – to be high on the agenda. It wasn’t – what was on peoples’ minds were topics such as how to reach decision makers and consumers in the future markets of China and India and the expected impact of new TV measurements. The latter may sound strange but in the world’s biggest TV advertising market Nielsen only recently announced (and then postponed) the introduction of minute-by-minute commercial ratings. Even today most TV campaigns are planned and bought by using programme ratings, some of which are still based on diaries.
Major TV channels are probably in for a shock. At a time when many programme ratings have been falling they are likely to find commercial ratings to be even lower and it is not rocket science to figure out that ‘engagement’ ratings will be lower still. This may also cause a little embarrassment for agencies, which for decades have pushed more and more of their clients’ money into TV. Desperate times call for desperate housewives, as new marketing guru Joseph Jaffe puts it.
But the real reason why nobody in sunny California talked about engagement was that all the engagement junkies had gathered in New York, for a major engagement party (sorry: conference) to keep up the momentum generated by the ARF, the AAAA and the ANA at the end of 2005. They clearly mean business but having looked through some of the major blogs that covered the event the jury is still out on the future of this topic.
First and foremost there is the proposed working definition of ‘engagement’: “turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by surrounding context”. Personally I am always amused by the euphemisms our profession invents to avoid saying what advertising is really all about. Billions of dollars, Euros and Yens are invested to influence people’s perception of a brand, to persuade them to buy a particular product, to make them spend their money with one brand and not a competitor’s alternative offer. But it seems we feel uncomfortable with such words. I remember in my first job as a media planner back in late 1970s the official phrase was ‘to educate consumers about our clients’ brands’; a few years ago a senior marketing executive of a major advertisers talked about ‘delighting consumers with our message’, and today all we want is to ‘engage’ and ‘turn on a prospective buyer’.
Clearly the New York meetings produced some interesting and valuable thoughts. It’s a good indicator that things are getting tricky when commercial researchers call in an academic. On this occasion it was the turn of Gerald Zaltman, Professor at the Harvard Business School who pointed out that engagement is not really a new concept as advertising has always been concerned with engagement, or at least good advertising has been. Clearly we need an academic to tell us this. What is new is progress made especially in the field of cognitive psychology and the understanding on how the mind works but Zaltman observed in interviews conducted with senior marketing professionals a distinct tendency of ‘depth avoidance’, a reluctance to think differently, a pronounced lack of consumer insight.
This has less to do with a lack of intellect on the part of marketing professionals but, so Zaltman, more with a lack of time to overcome the depth deficit (academics are not just sharp, they are also very polite). He seems to have a point: whatever lip service corporations pay to concepts such as long term and strategic planning, most managers are pressured to deliver short-term results, advertising messages degenerate into meaningless sound bits and media buyers press for basic metrics to simplify the complex concept of ‘engagement’.
Where Zaltman pleads for more time to think, Greg Anderson, who is head of engagement planning at one of the most creative agencies, BBH sees the step forward in better and more imaginative creative executions. Too many advertising strategies have been based on interruptive TV commercials. Real engagement can only happen if consumers themselves want to learn about products and brands – it’s pull rather than push
The big question of course is whether any of this will lead to anything new. Not everyone seems to think so. Some of the American bloggers, notably Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 suspects that ‘engagement metrics are simply another euphemism for measuring ROI of mainly TV brand advertising’. And that opens the whole debate whether ROI, which is first of all a financial metric, can be applied as a marketing metric, especially against long-term brand and awareness building. But that’s another issue altogether.
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