Putting the Engage back in “Engagement”

Engagement has become a catch phrase within the world of social media as of late. Commun.it and other services market themselves as engagement platforms. There are many articles talking about the importance of this concept of “engagement”. The gist focuses on how to maximize the benefits of your relationships. Commun.it, for example, gives you a measure of your “high-value members” and even tells you who you should “unfollow”. In its barest form, the term engagement seems to first and foremost refer to a relationship of mutual benefit. This is quite different from its root word–

“To Engage” means: (definition thanks to the powers of Google!):
1. “Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).”
2. “Cause someone to become involved in (a conversation or discussion).”

It seems that if engagement refers to strengthening a reliable core then to engage refers to extending the fringes. This challenges traditional conceptions of outreach where the watchword is more often than not “key demographics.” Of course there is a very practical reason for this. Outreach of any type is quite an investment- both of time and money. In marketing, for example, you would quickly find yourself out on the street if you suggested advertising Gucci in a fly fishing magazine and of course vice-versa. This is also the reason why growing up in Los Angeles I saw precious few Republican Presidential campaign ads. Similarly, an organization may tend to focus its engagement efforts on its most lucrative donors.

Practically speaking this is not a sustainable strategy. Many organizations learned this first hand in the 2008 economic crisis. Universities fell far short of their fundraising goals as their reliable donors grappled with their personal financial woes. Many non-profits ended up going under because their financial backing evaporated. The most recent Presidential campaign similarly told of the flaws of a traditional engagement perspective. The GOP is now working over time to try to expand its voter base particularly to the Latino population. Moreover even when there is an engagement strategy this does not gurantee that it is actually reaching customers in the way that it is intended to. A recent study by Forbes shows that there is a fundamental disconnect between what businesses see as successful marketing engagement and what makes consumers feel engaged.

It is high time to make a return to the core of engagement– to engage. Now let me be clear: this does not mean simply hanging around the web and having conversations with random people. Rather I’m talking about using social media to strategically engage. This was one of the keys to the success of the Obama campaign. In the final weeks of their campaign they sent out messages to users of their Facebook app with messages to share with specific friends in swing states. The messages came in four types: targeted videos, donation appeals, registration reminders, or encouragement to vote. They determined which message to send based on detailed demographic data they collected about each user. The success of this strategy is undeniable- over 600,000 users of the app sent on the message to their friends.

Engaging a community will look different in each circumstance. In a recent blog post, Mark Schaefer argues that engagement must be a component of a larger overarching business strategy. The title of his article says it all: “Social Media is not an ‘engagement’ strategy.” Part of his argument is that you must have time to engage and for many businesses this is not a viable option. This echoes part of the argument I made in a prior post– Facebook and Twitter are not Magic Beans. You must have a reason and strategy for building a community and a goal in mind for them to achieve be it extending your brand to a new market or building a grassroots movement. Moreover, this will take time- lots of time because “to engage” means to converse. It is a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. But, as the Obama campaign demonstrates and, I have to add, my own experience in the reinstatement of the University of Virginia’s President this past June, strategically engaging in outreach can be an incredibly powerful and rewarding tool.

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