How to Avoid The Illusion Of Social Media Engagement
How To Avoid The Illusion of Social Media Engagement
How To Avoid The Illusion of Social Media Engagement

I recently attended a conference, where Claire Diaz Ortiz, who heads social innovation at Twitter, spoke about influence.  She said something surprising.  She said that two of the most engaged “brands” on Twitter had far fewer followers than the celebrities or giant brands with many millions of followers.  Those brands were both Christian Ministries:  Joel Osteen and Rick Warren.  Today, with about 725,000 followers, a Joel Osteen tweet gets far more retweets than one from Lady Gaga, who has 26 million followers.  The reason, Ortiz said, is shared values.

I imagine that many corporate social media documents list engagement as a goal.  Whether it’s an individual initiative or an overall strategy, the word “engagement” has become the ultimate prize in the world of social media. Yet, gaming the system, creates only an illusion of engagement.

Joel Osteen (Photo: My American Odyssey)

Try as you might to create massive amounts of engagement, it’s your mission—the meaning you bring to your community that determines genuine engagement. Joel Osteen has a mission—a higher calling.  But you don’t need to be a ministry to have a mission.

If your social media efforts strive to be helpful, inspiring, supportive, informative or fun and do so in a way that fits your brand and delivers value, you have a better chance of being engaged than if you goal is engagement.

Social media is the ultimate vehicle for spreading ideas and as Seth Godin says, “ideas that spread win.” Yet we see so many manipulative tactics being used to get people to like Facebook pages, to retweet updates on Twitter and to “engage” for reasons other than a desire to be part of something and spread the word. A mission to increase engagement is like a mission to make a viral video.  Other people will decide if your video or your idea is worth spreading.

How do you increase your Facebook likes or get more retweets?  If it involves giving people a secondary reason like the opportunity to win a prize or vote for a charity, the sharing is short term.  A relationship based entirely on this type of motivation is fragile at best.

Consider three types of engagement:

Organic engagement

Organic engagement happens when people choose to like, share or comment on your Facebook status, share your tweets, or comment on your blog without prompting or reward. Because of your content or your product, they are moved, on their own to talk about and to you.  They feel something  about your product or your content that drives their behavior.

Encouraged engagement

Discovery sometimes needs a little help.  People may not be aware of your Facebook presence or they may be standing on the sidelines and need some encouragement to participate. Encouraged engagement comes from promoting the fact that your content exists and making the “ask .”   And, it should be accompanied with an explanation of what to expect from your social media account.

Encouraged engagement also includes asking for the “like” or the comment. It’s a gentle reminder that you want to have a conversation.

Incentivized (or Forced) engagement

Now we are getting into murkier territory.  Almost everyone incentivizes engagement at some point. You run a contest to get people to interact on Facebook or Twitter.  You offer a reward for sharing content.  “Come by our booth and tweet about our product for a chance to win an iPad”

As a short term result, you’ll get more likes and more people talking about you on Facebook or more Tweets because you paid for it in some way.  But it’s not sustainable.  Forced engagement is not a long-term strategy.  If people don’t ultimately connect organically, you will be caught in a never ending cycle of having to offer a reward.  You don’t build trust and nobody really cares that much because as soon as a better offer comes along they will disappear.

So the next time you sit around the table hatching a plan to “increase engagement” ask three questions. 

Is this engagement sustainable?  Does it build trust? How will people feel (about you) when they are sharing? The answers to those questions will tell you whether you can expect engagement that adds value to your brand or the illusion of engagement.



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About the Author

Ilana Rabinowitz
Ilana Rabinowitz is the vice-president for marketing for Lion Brand Yarn and blogs about social media at Marketing Without A Net. Rabinowitz approaches marketing with an uncompromising focus on the customer and a grounding in psychology and neuroscience to understand what motivates people to make buying decisions.  She believes that businesses need to develop their own media as a means of creating a branded experience for customers.  She has spoken at digital marketing conferences including Web 2.0, Blogher Business and Internet Retailer. She is the author of a book about psychology, a book about mindfulness and co-author of a book about the culture of knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @ilana221.

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