The Problem With Engagement
The Problem With Engagement
The Problem With Engagement

Until about eight years ago the word “engage” was what snooty people said at the start of their sporting events. You engage to start a fencing match, for instance. (Or I assume so. I know nothing about fencing. I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk will condescendingly scoff at my lack of fencing intelligence, which is fine. But when I think of the word “engage,” I think of some turtle-necked dork with slicked back hair dressed in all black motioning for two awkwardly dressed in all white people with flimsy swords and colander masks to start fighting by saying, “Engage!”)

But the age of social media has brought forth calls to action from marketing wizards everywhere: “You must engage your customers!” Brian Solis even wrote a very good book with the word as its title. And brand managers, public relations hacks and social media types everywhere commenced to engage.

Foil fencing
Foil fencing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But no one really knows what the hell it means to engage. Primarily because we’ve decided to label it with such an awkward word. Shall we slash at them with Épées?

The problem, I believe, lies in the silly word itself. Marketers get caught up with a new buzzword (something had to replace “synergy” for christssake) and go through whatever motions the current best practices of performing such buzzwords are. They don’t actually think about what they’re doing. They just “engage.”

Marketers today engage by:

  • Posting stupid shit about themselves on Twitter
  • Posting lengthier stupid shit about themselves on Facebook
  • Writing stupid shit about themselves on their blog

Oh, and if they’re creative enough, they produce videos or podcasts or nifty apps that over-promote their stupid shit and post them wherever it’s appropriate.

By focusing on the buzzword of the day and not the actual definition of it, today’s marketers have juxtaposed their to-do list onto this new world so it conforms to fit their needs. They need to sell things. They need to justify a budget generally wasted because they’re stuck in meaningless meetings and can’t get real work done. They need to feel like they’ve done good by the advice of the experts of the day so they don’t give up the marketing dream and settle for selling pharmaceuticals.

I hear it’s good money, if you’re interested.

If the marketers were focused on the definition, not the word, they would actually engage. By having conversations with their customers. By asking about them, not tooting their own horn. They would take off their marketing hat and actually be humans, not pretend to act like them.

Brands everywhere — even those that are allegedly doing social media right — are just doing social, not being social. (Thank you for that clarity, Jay Baer.) They’re focused on an end result, not the actions that go into making it so.

And when I say “they,” for the most part I mean, “we.”

Borrowing a bit of an idea from Steve Denning, who was writing about profit, here’s the salient thought marketers need to really think about:

Engagement is not a goal. It’s a result.

It’s a result of actually understanding the philosophical tenets of social media espoused by the evangelists through the years. When you join the conversation, make your communications focused on the consumers and not your brand, when you build relationships not billings, engagement happens.

And when it does, your precious metrics hockey stick, your boss loves that his golf buddies are saying, “I saw what you did on Facebook,” and if you’ve built a sales focus into your social efforts, your revenue meter starts moving.

If you’re practicing social media marketing and you aren’t happy with your results, there’s a good chance you think engagement is your goal. You’re focused on the end result and not seeing the actions that go into making the result happen.

You’re faking it. And your customers can tell.

Take a step back and ask yourself if that’s why you’re not happy. I’m willing to bet it is.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
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  • Chelsea Liddy

    The fencer in me just has to correct you:
    You don’t slash with epees!! You poke!!!

    You only make the slashing motion with a sabre sword. :]

    • Ha! Figured I’d screw that up. Thanks for the poke … er slash … er whatever. Heh.

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  • “Marketers today engage by:
    Posting stupid shit about themselves on Twitter
    Posting lengthier stupid shit about themselves on Facebook
    Writing stupid shit about themselves on their blog”Brilliant.

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  • Jason,

    I red your blog fairly regularly.  But missed this one, I apologize.

    I was led to this post today, as someone posted it in a group I’m in and asked if she was the only one that was offended.  Had mind to write you a letter of her discontent.

    Smirking I am.

    You’re right on!!  Thanks for the reminder.  :)

    (Looking forward to SMSS12)


  • Ozio Media

    The point of all online advertising is to get your visitors to engage with your website. Whether it is clicking on a PPC ad, liking your status update on Facebook or leaving a long and complicated comment on your blog post, it all amounts to inducing people to engage themselves with you. Marketers that go out to engage others have their focus on the wrong end of the operation.

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  • Thanks Jason for posting
    such a thoughtful article. I love the idea of how “engagement is not a goal;
    it’s a result.” If you don’t have any conversations with your customers or
    followers (on social media) there will be no engagement. A lot of companies have
    participated in many social media platforms to “engage” with their customers or
    to know what their customers want out of their products and services. But, I
    think these establishments are not enough. They do keep their customers up to
    date, but these companies don’t necessarily communicate with them. With lots of social media platforms today, especially Twitter, it is easy for customers to
    express their thoughts or concerns on a certain product or experience. And, not
    many companies have responded to these concerns. Sometimes, they just have to
    let it go. So, where is the engagement? There are no clear conversations to
    begin with. Conversation is a two-way communication. With no conversations,
    there will be no relationship and thus, create no engagement. 

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  • Engaging an audience is to involve them, not merely getting/grabbing their attention. When you become involved with someone, you develop a relationship. In a way, it’s just like dating. No one wants to date someone who incessantly talks about themselves. You date someone because that someone makes you feel good and the dating experience is mutually beneficial to you both. As marketer if you want to “engage” your audience, woo them while keeping it real at the same time.

  • rosolymos

    Great Post!Thanks For sharing with us tips for social media

  • very impressive!

  • Good call. Posting is not engaging.

  • Sgregory57

    Jason Falls, I love the irreverance!  (“posting stupid shit . . .  posting lengthier SS . . .  writing SS . . . hahahahahaha). You just crack me up and I need a laugh now & then.  Oh yeah, I wanted to know if there are any trekkies out there?  Because wasn’t it Jean Luc Picard that first suggested (ordered) that we  “engage”? 

    • davergallant

      Hey now, don’t be “dissing”, Jean – Luc now. I watch The Next Generation everyday so I’m an “engaged” fan ;)

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  • If an audience is engaged, does that mean they’re a captive audience? If so, does that mean they’re responsive to cue to buy or other calls to action when prompted? Those should probably be considered indications of quality engagement too. 

    • I agree. I threw out this definition of engagement on Twitter today: “Communicating well enough they pay attention.” They can be engaged and just watching. And that’s where you can persuade them to take action. The problem, as I see it, is that most brands (and I’ve looked and tested … more to come on that) are just posting “click my junk” and “buy my crap” posts and calling that engagement because they’ve checked off their 15 tweets a day or 10 Facebook posts off their list. It’s not engagement because you spit out content. You have to consider the intent and the audience and so on. Fair?

  • Good post, but I think we’ve reached a point where
    engagement defined as conversation isn’t sufficient to be defined as a result.  You mention in the post that marketers “need
    to sell things,” but of course they do, that’s why it’s called marketing.  Social media marketing, just like any
    marketing, should be driving action beyond just conversation, and typically the
    best result is an increase in sales, or recommendations, which are also forms
    of engagement.

    We’re constantly challenged by our clients to show something
    a little bit more dynamic than conversations, and we’re getting pretty
    good.  During a recent campaign for a
    consumer client, we were able to measure sales in a specific retailer (13 %),
    increase in likes (I don’t care what anyone says, a “like” is the first point
    of engagement with a brand), sign-ups to the newsletter, number of shares,
    number of people talking about the brand, and a host of other brand building
    metrics that convinced our client to do it again.  I think when social media marketers try to
    define engagement as simply conversation, it’s because they’re afraid they can’t
    demonstrate the really tangible things.

    Rachel Kay


    PR Hack

    • Fair Rachel. And thanks for that. I don’t define engagement as conversation. And, as others have pointed out here, I didn’t really define it at all in the post. But I think it’s communicating so the audience pays attention. That can be enough for them to “Like” you, subscribe, respond, share, buy and so on. 

      But I still contend that most brands are going through the motions and checking off the to-do list rather than really considering what they’re posting and whether it’s going to serve the audience. No, not all posts need to. Some need to serve the brand. It’s ideal when they serve both. But I’m looking at post after post from the brands that are supposed to “get” social and I’m seeing a whole lot of me-me-me-me-me-me. 

      It makes me think they’re just posting their advertorial on Twitter and Facebook and counting likes and followers and calling it a day. We can do better. And if we do, the metrics will follow.

      • Jason, my interpretation that you were defining engagement as conversation came from this line:

        If the marketers were
        focused on the definition, not the word, they would actually engage.
        By having conversations with their customers. By asking about them, not tooting
        their own horn.
        I’m sorry if I took some liberties – I know that you don’t shy away from
        true, quantifiable metrics. I’m so disenchanted with the word
        engagement and SM marketers trying to sell it as the only important
        thing, I’m sensitive. :) But, if you define engagement as shares, buys, referrals etc… then I agree that it can be a result. If it’s dialogue, it’s not. It’s a lead. 

        • Agreed @twitter-14578519:disqus  With all of the advanced metrics and site-activity measuring technologies out there, there’s no reason that conversions cannot be linked to social marketing. Once businesses figure out what their key call-to-actions are, driving users to take action through engaging them is where engagement gets exciting. 

  • I was thinking you might have a follow-up book – No Bullshit Engagement – but the title itself would be an oxymoron!
    I have to confess that I’m guilty as charged in many respects – I started out with pure intentions but shifted to more of a goal orientation because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the numbers – fans, likes, followers, Klout score etc. It’s easy to fall into this trap and not step away on a consistent basis to evaluate.Thanks for holding up the virtual mirror and cutting straight to the issue!

    • Glad to be helpful, Rich. And thanks for being willing to step back and assess. Most people just tell me to blow off. Heh.

  • Cristina Gavrila

    Allow me to notice that just like the rest of people who use the word, you don’t clearly define engagement nor relationships and you over use the word “stupid” & “shit” making the quality of your article questionable.

    • Ah, there’s far more reason to question me than my use of certain words. As with any other avenue in social media, if you disapprove of my verbiage, you don’t have to read, subscribe or follow. I’ll let the quality of my work and reputation stand on its own and probably be just fine. But thanks for the critique.

  • I like this way of thinking, Jason. I “engage” on behalf of my company, but I don’t think I went into saying that my goal was to “engage.” When I started doing what I do my plan was to be available for our customers where and when they needed it. We decided to share information not just about ourselves, but stuff that our audience will just generally find interesting. We do social to create a relationship however and whenever we can. If that means that our result is true “engagement” than I guess our plan worked out even better than we hoped.
    Our plan was to be there to create and support our relationships. If that’s what people mean by we engage, than I guess that’s what we do, but we didn’t say “What’s our plan? To engage? Sounds good.”

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • Thanks for chiming in Sheldon. There are a core group of folks out there, you included, who clearly get engagement. Good on ya for that. But it always come back to the methodology of turning that understanding into measurable value for the business that is challenging. I know you’ve been able to do that at Sysomos, but it’s a big drop off for non-tech/social businesses. I wish more of them could get past that first step of understanding what engagement really means rather than just checking off the list. Maybe then they could focus on that next step of defining its value. Here’s hoping.

  • Erin McMahon

    Many genuine lols from this post. :)

  • This was one of those posts that I had to rush to comment on.  Thank you for calling out what many of us know.  I remember when I first started realizing the value of social biz a couple years ago.  I have a very operational, process driven background, and did not understand all this listening, building trust and engaging talk.  A bit of a stickler on if you aren’t measuring it, you aren’t managing it theory, all this talk sounded like such fluff.  If I heard someone say you have to listen and you have to engage one more time, I thought I was going to puke.  As I spent more time in the space, I came to the realization that they can be measured, however it may be different for each company.  When I looked at my company’s core goals, they centered around Customer LifeTime Value (CLTV).  By breaking down CLTV, into its key components (Acquisition, Retention, ARPU, & Profitability) I was now able to relate customers social impact on each of these factors within our business.  Its not a perfect formula by any means, but I felt it worked well.  We developed some initial ways to measure trust and listening, but I have since left the org. 
    Again, great post, thanks for making me think and stirring up the passion.

    • Thanks Michael. I’m glad you pointed out that it’s different for every business, and that it’s not always perfect. But with some focus and patience, you can measure engagement and show how it provides value and return to the business. Good on ya for sticking with it!

  • Oh Jason in your ever charming manner you bring attention to what some of us have said for a while “out there.”

    It has been difficult for me because I do get what it means to engage and frankly would slap my head when others would ask “What do you mean engage?”

    Looking at my own assumptions to discover the disconnect, has allowed me to find bridges and have “dag gum” conversations. 

    Finally a reason to go deeper, ( from the gal who is annoyed with surface sh*t) being able to go beyond the word and BE what needs to be expressed.

    • Amen to that Michele. But we’ve got to also bring that true engagement around to show the value, too. Happy little trees aren’t worth a damn if the painting doesn’t sell, right? ;-)


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