Branding, Search and the Definition of Engagement

First published April 13, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Currently, the Advertising Research Foundation has an initiative called MI4. Its task is to create a cross-channel measurement of advertising effectiveness that can foster more accountability and facilitate multichannel marketing measurement. They have decided on the concept of engagement. It is a noble endeavor, and one that is much needed in our new, highly fragmented marketing world. But I fear there may be a fundamental chasm that one metric will be unable to bridge.

Joe Plummer, ARF’s Chief Research Officer, offered the group’s first draft of a working definition, “Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.”

The Two Sides of Engagement

The problem, from a search perspective, is that there are two very different forms of engagement seen with consumers, and brand plays a very different role in each.

In most marketing, brand engagement is essential. You have to form a relationship between a brand and the latent or expressed needs and desires that lie with the consumer. Engagement is essential, because you have to form an emotional bond that can rise to the surface and express itself as top-of-mind awareness when consumers are ready to actively consider their options. In this instance, engagement is emotional, intuitive and often subconscious. It is this level of engagement that I think ARF is trying to define by somehow quantifying this emotional bond, referred to in market speak as being “turned on.”

But there is another type of engagement: engagement with the actual act of purchasing. Here, the consumer is engaged with a product, but not necessarily a particular brand. This is the typical point when a consumer will interact with a search engine. And with ARF’s working definition of engagement, I don’t think search will do particularly well in a multichannel comparison.

Branding and Search

One of the issues with search has been its value as a brand-building channel. The prevailing wisdom is that search is not a particularly effective brand-building marketing medium. I believe this to be true, but it’s because we’re trying to apply the first definition of engagement, the idea of engaging with a brand, not a product.

Consider a typical brand engagement measurement. If I did a brand lift study with a typical page of search results, where I showed a consumer the page, some results with brand messaging included, and determined if brand lift occurred, the results would probably be less than stellar. First of all, the act of searching is done with the left brain. It is a rational, logical interaction, not an emotional one. That’s why text-based advertising does well, and graphic or rich media doesn’t. We’re intellectually engaged in a task, and we’re looking for information that will help us succeed in accomplishing that task. We’re not looking to be influenced by an emotionally charged message. In fact, we block anything that smacks of overt commercialism or looks like advertising out of our consideration. We “thin slice” it out of the way. We are not emotionally connected. We are not looking to be “turned on.” We are evaluating our alternatives with a rational view.

When a consumer is interacting with a search engine, the time for brand engagement is already long past. That job had better be done already. Here is how branding does work in search.

Engagement with Buying, Not Branding

When I use a search engine for consumer research, I’m thinking in terms of the specific thing I’m looking for, not a specific brand. Generally, when I start, I will not use a branded search term. I am building a consideration set. Yes, I likely have brands I have an affinity for, but I won’t explicitly include them in my query. I’m looking for the search engine to provide me some alternatives to consider. Typically, searchers will look at four to five results before making their selection. These are usually the top sponsored, and the top two or three organic, results. This represents the prime and very limited “shelf space” of the search results page. If a brand appears that the consumer has an existing affinity for, the chances are good that the site will capture a click-through. If the brand doesn’t appear, the company has likely lost the opportunity to connect with a consumer that will soon be ready to buy.

Search: The Consummation of a Consumer Relationship

So, for brand marketers, the question is not, “does search actively engage the consumer in my brand messaging” but rather, “am I prepared not to have my brand present when my target consumer is looking to buy (or at least, research to buy)?” To me, it’s as elemental as not stocking the store shelf with your product. The consumer is not looking at building a relationship with a brand, he’s looking to consummate that relationship. Wouldn’t you want to be around for that rather important event?

So, to go back to ARF’s working definition of engagement, I don’t think it works for search. That definition of engagement is about building a relationship with the brand for “some day,” implanting a brand message for the time when the prospect turns into a shopper. When the shopper turns to search, that brand message is already planted. But if the brand isn’t present on the search results page “store shelf,” the message will be forgotten as the consumer clicks on the link of the next alternative.

I applaud ARF’s effort to define one all-encompassing metric, but when you have real people interacting with products and messaging in two very different ways, I’m not sure engagement, at least the way it’s currently defined, will be able to bridge the gap and do the job.

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