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The Problem With Engagement: Social Marketing’s New Controversy

unnamedThere’s a debate brewing in the social marketing world right now.

Earlier this week, Nate Elliott, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, published a controversial report titled Stop Measuring Engagement. The report outlines why Forrester thinks marketers should stop spending so much time on engagement metrics, and start focusing on metrics that indicate business value, like sales and customer loyalty.

Elliott and the folks at Forrester are right; engagement isn’t enough.

The basis for Forrester’s argument is sound. Measuring social is a big challenge, and one that marketers are still struggling to grasp. Focusing exclusively on Likes, replies, and basic engagement metrics won’t tell the whole story.

This report will raise a controversy, considering the advice contradicts Forrester’s own 2007 report Marketing’s New Key Metric: Engagement, which defined engagement as “a new metric consisting of influence, interaction, intimacy, and involvement.” Forrester posited that the engagement metric would fundamentally “fix” the marketing funnel.

The thing to focus on, however, is that experts like Forrester are working to help marketers find an answer to this issue. In tandem, social analytics companies like Simply Measured are helping make that answer a reality.

Why the Controversy?

In nearly every survey of social marketers over the past five years, analytics is called out as a top challenge. Our industry continues to question which metrics matter and how to define the social analytics discipline. This is the perfect backdrop for a debate about what defines success on social media.

The highlight of Forrester’s argument is that marketers should stop measuring social engagement exclusively as a proxy for success. Essentially, Likes, comments, and replies are not enough to show the success of a social campaign or program. I’m in firm agreement with this point. Engagement alone cannot be a sole measure of success and measuring real business outcomes is critical.

However, while Elliott is being controversial by calling engagement metrics “meaningless,” I’d caution marketers against taking this advice at face value. The important takeaway is that engagement is not a standalone success metric, and absolutely can’t be treated as such. That said, it is a signal that gives us quantitative data about our social strategy, marketing performance, and earned media. Engagement data can help optimize content and social marketing tactics.

Forrester’s Solution: Loyalty and Lifetime Value

If most marketers are too focused on engagement in their social analytics strategy, what else should they measure?

Forrester’s answer is to focus on customer lifetime value and customer loyalty, exclusively measuring the business results of your social audience.

This approach will make sense for some brands, but doesn’t go far enough in defining social analytics. Customer lifetime value and loyalty are just one set of business objectives that brands can drive and measure with social media. Social impacts all parts of the funnel, not just loyalty. Serious marketers need a complete understanding of the brand activities and audience engagement that precede sales, loyalty, or brand lift.

Social Analytics Should Be About More Than Engagement

Serious social analytics requires data, analysis, and insights to both measure your social tactics and plan your social strategy. This means measurement needs to quantify a brand’s activity, audience engagement, and the associated business objectives.

In addition to the business results like loyalty and lifetime value, social analytics also provides inputs about audiences, conversations, and competitors to help marketers plan programs, campaigns, and strategies. When done well, social analytics is critical for setting your strategy, understanding your results, and optimizing your tactics. After all, the point of data is to inform action.

This more sophisticated approach is at the heart of the Forrester report, and should be at the heart of your social analytics practice as well.

Adam Schoenfeld

Adam is the Co-Founder and VP of Strategy at Simply Measured. In 2010 (aka the dark ages of social marketing), Adam joined Damon Cortesi and Aviel Ginzburg to found "Untitled Startup, Inc" with the goal of helping marketers and analysts use social data to do their best work. The company quickly evolved to become Simply Measured and the trusted leader in social analytics. Outside of Simply Measured, Adam is a golfer, breakfast enthusiast, and long-time data geek.

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