When Brands Claim to “Engage” Online, Do They Really Engage Consumers?

Through the late 1990’s, the idea of “engaging” consumers became one holy grail of advertising. What agencies were seeking were ways to communicate with consumers as they “leaned forward” as opposed to “laying back” (e.g as couch potatoes).

And then, social media arrived. And the gentle idea of better engaging consumers with our advertising transformed into a movement seeking passionate consumer love affairs – and the emergence of Social Media’s claim to enable those affairs.

Is Online Brand Engagement a Myth?

Stop and look at that title. Because I just engaged in the same flavor of hyperbole that online advocates use to sell “engagement”. Because NO, I don’t think engagement is a “myth”. But “not a myth” is quite different from “passionate daily engagement”.

And that’s my point. It’s clearly a myth that consumers want nothing more than intensive, and continuous, online “engagement” with brands.

What’s Shocking is that Interpublic Just Claimed Brand Engagement is a Key Consumer Pastime in a Study Summation. Check out a study discussed in MediaPost. (Link here.)

According to MediaPost, the study concludes “Brand consideration has become a key pastime for over half of the population — 52% of our interviewees said they enjoy searching online for a wide range of brands and products.”

Every notice how often engagement claiming communication sneaks lies right past us? Look what they really said.

52% of interviewees said they enjoy searching online for brands and products.

In other words, SOMETIMES they search for brands and products online and when they do they enjoy it.

Which, obviously, means we can make a massive leap to brand consideration becoming a “key pastime” for these consumers. I don’t know about you, but a key pastime has to be quite a bit more interesting than wading through piles of online comments.

Did Interpublic Find Anything New? The first thing research should do is look to see if the behavior is new. But, this study draws broad conclusions without comparison with the old days – like 1999 or earlier.

For decades, purchase studies have shown that “recommendation from friends” was a key influence on around 40% of major purchases. And Consumer Reports used to make a neat non-profit profit doing nothing more than publish guides to help people make brand purchase choices.

Hmmm. That sounds like what people get from online. Is it possible (gasps of horror) that the web “merely” offers a new medium that better automates an activity we’ve always done? Of course it is. That’s what technology usually does.

And that leads to my final thought:

“This is Not the Engagement You’re Looking For”. Online advocates claim passionate love affairs with brands. But what the ad biz was seeking with “engagement” was merely the shift between passive viewing of advertising and active mental engagement with what’s being said and the impact it offers to the viewer. In other words, a realistic hope to have messages engage consumers more.

So let’s think about some typical consumer “engagement” activities. And ponder where they might fit on the brand passion meter while you’re at it:

Search for consumer or professional reviews of a product.
Compare a product with its competitors.
Watch the brand equivalent of dumb cat videos.
Go to a Facebook page for updates on a recall.
Check prices across multiple sites. (i.e. “shopping”)
Look for coupons.
Read brand content (if you’re really desperate).

I’m seeing a lot of interesting value to the consumer, but not a whole lot of passion creating activity here.

In Many Ways, SoMe Advocates Sound Quite Silly. Let me suggest a new variant on the old fortune cookie game. Anytime a SoMe advocate says “brand”, let’s substitute specific products or categories for “brand”.

Here are some samples from the study:

Furniture consideration have become a key pastime for over half of the population.
The more we can get consumers to participate with our soap in paid, earned and owned media, the more the suds will grow.
52% of our interviewees said they enjoy searching online for a wide range of nuts and bolts.

Seek to Engage Consumers – with Messages That Matter. Amidst all this, what’s really critical is that most messaging doesn’t matter to consumers. When is the last time your advertising said something important?

If you really want consumer to engage with you, there’s a sure solution: say something that matters.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

2 Responses to When Brands Claim to “Engage” Online, Do They Really Engage Consumers?

  1. I completely agree. People engage with each other, with ideas, with their tastes and preferences in the arts. They do not engage with brands in the same meaningful way. Activities such as searching for coupons, reading product reviews, visiting a Facebook page for recall info – all are actions undertaken in the self-interest of consumption. It’s no different from how most people would evaluate and choose an auto insurance provider. This is not engagement. As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to engage with my Swiffer mop the same way I do with people and ideas that drive my passions, tastes, and preferences.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Love your example of the Swiffer mop. Those who suggest all these passionate brand engagements seem to forget the fundamentally mundane reality of most of the brands we use.

      We do a lot of tool and hardware work. Look around a garage workshop: How many brand do we see? Probably 500 or so. How many of those brands offer anything inspiring enough to call an emotional connection? Maybe 3 or 4 at the most.

      Certainly suggests that “engagement marketing” isn’t going to be a reliable way for most companies to drive their businesses. 🙂

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