Social Media Myth Busting: Engagement

Shattering the myth of engagement.

First, I’d like to come clean.  Guilty as charged!

I speak the word “engagement” ad nauseam.  It’s one of those words I’m required to use as a social media consultant (Rule #34 in the Social Media Bible we all get from Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook).  I’m talking about big “E” engagement – the idea of connecting on a personal level – not the small “e” engagement meaning to become involved in some activity.

This is where social media gets mucky – and sometimes a bit creepy.  There are too many people who want to elevate the social media interactions between brands and their constituent groups into something profound and special.  They are neither.

What you get on social media between brands and constituents are interactions, which can be quite valuable (more on that later).

There’s no such thing as big “E” engagement on social media channels – even between individuals.  Don’t let the Nick Biltons of the world fool you into believing otherwise (Nick is the New York Times technology writer and author of the must-read “I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works”).

Let me repeat that (in bold, for emphasis):

There is no such thing as Engagement on social networks.

At its essence, engagement is about personal connections.  Being engaged means establishing a meaningful contact or connection with another human being.  Not with a brand.  Not with a product or service.  Not through a computer network over the Internet.  And certainly engagement isn’t something that can happen in less than 140-characters.

Engagement is personal, emotional and significant.  It is what happens when two people build a consequential relationship through conversation and shared experience.

Indeed social media can be a bridge to strengthen real life relationships.  We can learn new things from each other.  Discover information and share it.  Our social networks can provide recommendations for books, movies and restaurants, products and services.  We can exchange quips and be entertained by videos.  We can share blog posts.  We can exchange ideas.  We can even buy something.  Or review it.

And no doubt we can connect with our friends and family – exchange updates and jokes, share news and photographs, arrange for meetings and even engage in chit-chat.  But if we didn’t share real life experiences with these people and occasionally reconnected with them in person would they really be our friends?  Can you truly engage with someone who you’ve never before?

Not likely.

Social media in general is hampered by the reality of its impersonal nature.  There’s no human connection because there is a computer screen running interference.  No eye contact.  No touch.  No nuance.  The pregnant pauses are erased.  As a result, social media is often reductive and trivial (I just switched quickly to my Twitter stream and the first tweet reads: “The one picture of Katniss on EW is already better than all the Twilight movies combined” and the next one: “.. Off to Costco .. Again ..”  Does it get more trivial than that?).

So big “E” engagement between people on social networks is a dicey claim at best.  Yet brands using social media have started to use the word engagement an awful lot.  It’s the buzzword du jour.  There’s no doubt that people can be loyal to a brand and even have a real affinity for it.  But a consequential relationship?  A meaningful bond?  Actual engagement?

Not likely.

You can’t be friends with a national coffee chain or a company that manufacturers soft drinks.  That’s why what happens on social media between a company and a person isn’t really engagement.  It’s data exchange.  Information sharing.  We consume content and interact with brands.

For example, when I read a Twitter link to the New York Times or the Boston Globe, I’m not having an engagement.  I’m reading a news article – online – recommended by a news source that I trust and follow.  When I get a free sample from a beverage company on Facebook, I’m showing my loyalty, but there’s no human engagement here.  And no matter how many times I like a video by my favorite clothing manufacturer nothing profoundly consequential has taken place.

That’s why these activities should not be considered engagement, but interactions:

  • Watching a YouTube video about a sock puppet
  • Retweeting a link to a coupon for a snack cake
  • Liking a recipe on a Facebook page
  • Leaving a comment behind on a blog about security software
  • Sharing a photograph of your summer vacation
  • Quipping about your friend’s sunburn in her vacation photo
  • Liking a pair of shoes on Facebook

And why these activities really are engagement:

  • Visiting your parents
  • Having dinner with your spouse at a local restaurant
  • Meeting a group of friends for a drink (or two)
  • Playing a weekly poker game with your friends
  • Going shopping with your sister
  • Taking your daughters to the playground
  • Playing on your company softball team

Do you agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to interact with me by leaving a comment behind…


Nick Bilton’s “I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works”

4 Responses to “Social Media Myth Busting: Engagement”

  1. Thanks for a great article.

    Dead link to Nick Bilton’s article though.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. Link fixed.

  3. Excellent exigesis of how social media has appropriated a term and then wrung the meaning pretty much out of it! Even getting someone to “like” a post (to use one operational definition for engagement) is not so easy, and remember, you (or your org or brand) already supposedly has a relationship with the person! Reminds me that the term “impression” used to mean something before media metrics got a hold of it.

    So you’re painfully right. I think that if one uses more honest jargon that is more common-sense, I think that its likely to set expectations right… Great post BTW. Got me to engage!

  4. Thanks, Stu. Stop by any time and “engage” all you want!

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