Engagement: Should We Care?
Published: January 7, 2008
These days, the idea of customer engagement is almost as hot as Web 2.0—and almost as controversial. As busy UX professionals, should we invest our time and energy in caring about engagement, or is it just another buzzword? I think we do need to understand customer engagement, so that, at a minimum, we can respond intelligently to questions about it from marketers or executives. We might even glean some useful insights from thinking about engagement. This column aims to cut through the hype and reveal the potential value of engagement.
Part of the controversy about engagement is that different people define and think about it in different ways. I’ll explain engagement from two perspectives, and you may encounter others.
A Working Definition
As far as official definitions go, here is the Advertising Research Foundation’s working definition of engagement:
“Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.”
What does that mean, exactly? In her article “Cracking the Engagement Code,” Mollie Spillman interprets it as an “indicator of the propensity of a brand message to resonate and connect with a prospect and ultimately drive some kind of meaningful action.”  The focus is less on how many people experience the message and more on what the message means to people—especially considering whether the appreciation of meaning leads to an action such as a purchase or a click. In the interactive world, a simple example of designing for engagement is placing an ad in a context where it is likely to have meaning. For instance, a BP ad about the company’s environmental efforts appears on CNN.com beside an article about the environment, shown in Figure 1. Because this BP ad relates to the article’s topic, I was interested in getting more information and clicked the ad to expand it.
Figure 1—A BP ad and an article on CNN.com with an environmental focus
Engagement—Is It Something We Should Measure?
Much of engagement’s controversy arises when people try to define it strictly as a marketing measurement. Some people say that engagement cannot be measured, so we should stick with traditional metrics such as reach—how many people experience a message—and frequency—how often people experience a message.
Other people say measures of engagement turn traditional measurement on its head. For example, Spillman views engagement as a collection of measurements, including reach, frequency, and the following considerations:
- interactivity—Any form of voluntary or permission-based involvement—such as clicking an ad or clicking a link for more information—implies an element of engagement. If someone acknowledges a brand message in some way and expresses interest through interaction, engagement is beginning to occur. 
- duration—This is the unifying component of engagement. The more time someone spends interacting with an advertisement, the greater the chances that person will absorb and act on the ad’s message. 
One way of evaluating engagement—especially across different channels and marketing programs—uses a point system that is similar to a traditional media rating system. Hunter Hastings, CEO of EMM Group, has proposed such a system, in which consumers would report which contacts were most important to their ultimate purchase decision and evaluators would assign engagement points accordingly.  Figure 2 shows Hastings’s example of channels and customer touchpoints for which we can measure engagement. His organization also conducted a study that showed a strong correlation between a brand’s share of customer engagement and its share of the market.
Figure 2—Hastings’s channels and customer touchpoints
How Is Engagement Valuable to User Experience?
I have heard some UX professionals say that engagement is just a justification for poor usability. They want visitors to convert to customers quickly, not spend a lot of time—the duration measurement of engagement—on a Web site without acting. While I can see how companies might distort the idea of engagement in that way, I think the concept is useful in several ways.
Emphasizing More Than Usability
The concept of engagement can remind us that we are creating user experiences, which involve much more than mere usability. For example, it is critical for a user to be able to find products on an ecommerce Web site. However, once the user finds the products, it is equally important that the Web site offer compelling information, imagery, and more to support product research and influence product purchases.
I like the way engagement recognizes the importance of context. In a previous column, I noted the importance of context to persuasive communication and user experience. Whether placing an ad on a social networking site or placing a promotion on an ecommerce site, UX professionals can help leverage context, so the message has meaning to customers.
Broadening Our Interpretation of Metrics
I think of engagement as a quality of a user experience, not a measurement in itself. However, the concept of engagement can help us better interpret existing metrics and account for the full user experience. For instance, when considering the metrics for an ecommerce site’s product detail pages, like the one shown in Figure 3, if a high proportion of customers spend long durations on the pages without adding any products to their carts, does that mean the pages are failing? Or does it mean the pages are effectively engaging users in product research that later contributes to a purchase on the Web, in a store, or through another channel?
Figure 3—A product information page on Amazon.com
Encouraging an Integrated, Cross-Channel View
Hastings’s concept of a point system for rating all of a brand’s touchpoints with consumers, based on their influence on the consumers’ purchasing decisions, is a valuable one. I think it is a significant step toward understanding and evaluating the relationship of the Web to other channels, which can help us improve the synergy between the channels and, ultimately, the user experience across all of the channels. (I have discussed the importance of considering user experience across channels in a previous column.) Implementing such a comprehensive measurement system, however, will likely be challenging. Also, if ratings rely primarily on consumer memory, they may not be completely reliable. Even so, I think the value of the concept makes addressing such details worthwhile.
Despite engagement’s being a popular buzz word right now, it is a concept worth taking seriously. As the capabilities of the Web evolve and more people use the Web in new and different ways, we must consider all aspects of user experience. We also need to figure out what a successful and meaningful user experience means in different contexts and for different channels and how to measure success. Engagement might not provide all of the answers, but it offers useful ways of thinking about and addressing these issues. Furthermore, if UX professionals contribute to the conversation about engagement and help develop the concept into one that works, this can help us overcome the organizational barriers between marketing, user experience, and related functions. Consequently, UX professionals have an opportunity to contribute significantly to a brand’s other channels beyond the Web. Now, I find that pretty engaging!
 Spillman, Molly. “Cracking the Engagement Code.” iMedia Connection. Retrieved December 20, 2007.
 Anderson, Justin. “How Marketing Can Save Itself.” iMedia Connection. Retrieved December 21, 2007.