The Two Meanings of Engagement

Engagement: a betrothal. An exclusive commitment to another preceding marriage

Engagement: as in an engaging conversation.  Being highly involved in an interaction with something or someone.

The theme of the Business Marketing Association conference I talked about in last week’s column was “Engage.”  At the conference, the word engagement was tossed around more freely than wine and bomboniere at an Italian wedding. Unfortunately, engagement is one those buzzwords that has ceased to hold much meaning in marketing. The Advertising Research Foundation has gone as far as to try to put engagement forward as the one metric to unite all metrics in marketing, a cross-channel Holy Grail.

But what does engagement really mean? What does it mean to be “engaged?” The problem is that engagement itself is an ambiguous term. It has multiple meanings. As I pondered this and discussed with others, I realized the problem is that marketers and customers have two very different definitions of engagement. And therein lies the problem.

The Marketer’s Definition of Engagement

Marketers, whether they want to admit it or not, look at engagement in the traditional matrimonial sense. They want customers to make an exclusive commitment to them, forgoing all others. It’s a pledge of loyalty, a repulsion of other suitors, a bond of fidelity. To marketers, engagement is just another word for ownership and control.

When marketers talk about engagement, they envision prospects enthralled with their brands, hanging on every word, eager for every commercial message. They strive for a love that is blind.  Engagement ties up the customer’s intent and “share of wallet.”  Marketers talk about getting closer to the customer, but in all too many cases, it’s to keep tabs on them. For all the talk of engagement, the benefits are largely for the marketer, not the customer.

The Customer’s Definition of Engagement

Customers, on the other hand, define engagement as giving them a reason to care. They define engagement as it would relate to a conversation. Do you give me a reason to keep listening? And are you, in turn, listening to what I have to say? Is there a compelling reason for me to continue the conversation? I will be engaged with you only as long as it suits my needs to do so.  I will give you nothing you haven’t earned.

The engagement of a conversation is directly tied to how personally relevant it is. The topic has to mean something to me. If it’s mildly interesting, my attention will soon drift. But if you’re touching something that is deeply important to me, you will have my undivided attention for as long as you need it. That is engagement from the other side of the table.

So, as we talk about engagement at a marketing conference, let’s first agree on a definition of engagement. And let’s be honest about what our expectations are. Because I suspect marketers and customers are looking at different pages of the dictionary.

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