Defining Engagement Down

The Internet has an engagement problem. Yes, it is sold as the medium for direct consumer engagement. The problem is the conduit for that engagement — clicks on banner ads. The levels have gotten so level to be nearly statistically insignificant.

To fix that, new Web platforms are trying to change the conversation to other engagement metrics. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, speaking at the Monaco Media Forum in a conversation with Twitter investor Yuri Milner, said the goal is to right the wrongs of the past. “The challenge with traditional digital advertising has been the engagement rates are so poor,” he said. Twitter has crowed about much higher rates for its promoted trends, tweets and accounts products.

It’s a similar story with Facebook. Its director of platform partnerships Christian Hernandez, who appeared on a panel I moderated in Monaco, noted that the conversation has shifted in the past year from brands talking about click-through rates and how they’re low on Facebook. Now they’re focused on likes, although even Hernandez admits likes show only part of the picture. Facebook is encouraging them to look instead at how many people are talking about them.

The question is whether Twitter and Facebook can redefine engagement to a point where it makes sense. Brands are obsessed with piling up Facebook likes. They’ll say they aren’t, but they are. It’s a tangible number. Facebook, despite Hernandez’s comments, is in the business of hyping likes as an important engagement metric. Many of its ad campaigns are sold on this proposition. “Like us on Facebook” is the new “click here.”

The problem is this is extremely low-value engagement. The overwhelming number of a brands fans on Facebook don’t see the content they post. When push comes to shove, brands are way better off getting an email than a like. Similarly, Twitter has yet to prove that it’s new-fangled “resonance” metric means much at all for advertisers. Until they do, the platforms will face an uphill battle in really cracking big budgets.

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