Marketers live and die by buzzwords. Engagement is one buzzword that has taken the intersecting worlds of marketing and communications by storm.

Buzzwords that define a concept or seek to package an idea, as engagement is, find acceptance for two dominant reasons. The first is to adapt the traditional or accumulated knowledge base – the generally accepted and universal understanding of how the world works – and bring it up to date with the times – the classic repackaging approach. Engagement is thus simply the evolution of a largely one-way or asynchronous communication process – the traditional advertising and PR for example – into a two-way synchronous communication, made possible by digital media. The second reason is the pervasive human need for abstraction – buzzwords help simplify the traditional knowledge and conceptual frameworks and abstract it to a level where they are more accessible to a larger audience.

The problem with (social media) engagement as preached and practiced today is that it fails to deliver on both counts. As a concept, it fails the internal consistency test with the existing brand building theory and literature. Contradicting or circumventing the academic and practitioner theory built over decades is possible only if the counterarguments are both intuitively persuasive and backed by empirical data, which ‘engagement’ does not offer. 

The well-regarded brand equity model by Professor Kevin Lane Keller places ‘engagement’ as part of the fourth and last step on the road to build brand equity. Engagement answers the last question that a consumer implicitly ask a brand, ‘what kind of association and how much of a connection would I like to have with you?’ Brand owners reach this stage after having completed the first three steps – establishing the brand identity and brand meaning in the mind of consumers and then evoking the desired brand responses. In other words, engagement is the last mile on the brand-building journey when the customer already knows who the brand is, what it stands for, and has formed appropriate feelings or judgments about the brand’s role in her life.

By elevating ‘engagement’ to the front and center of a brand’s social media strategy, brand owners are in effect jumping the gun on the first three steps of brand building and reaching for the fourth. This is at best a fundamentally flawed approach to brand building, and at worst a disservice to the existing and ongoing brand equity efforts through other ways and means.

On the second point and as an abstraction of brand building theory, engagement commits to oversimplification to a point where the essence of traditional theory base is lost. Keller defines engagement as a brand response seen when customers are willing to invest their time, money and other resources in the brand beyond actual purchase and consumption, by joining a brand’s club, or signing up to receive brand updates and exchanging notes with other brand users or directly with the brand. In other words, customers turn into brand evangelists when they demonstrate active engagement. Marketers are however warned that strong attitudinal attachment (exemplified by consumers of Apple, Harley Davidson and the movie ‘The Dark Knight’) and/or social identity (exemplified by fans of Manchester United or the Indian Cricket team) are necessary preconditions for active brand engagement to occur.

The proponents of social media engagement overlook this critical rider. In their minds, a brand can jump to the engagement stage regardless of whether it has completed all steps prior to evoking resonance. They also implicitly assume there exists strong attitudinal attachment between the brand and its customers. In other words, they assume social media can magically transform every brand into a high-involvement brand. The naivety of this assumption is exposed when we investigate how engagement is put into practice.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube presence plans are drawn up and elaborate content strategies and calendars are created. ‘Authentic storytelling’ is emphasized at first, but when realization dawns that only a handful of customers are actually willing to hear a brand’s story, the focus rapidly shifts to ‘dramatic storytelling’. When it is further found that online audiences are completely impervious to hearing the stories, efforts are then made to alter the tone, structure and style of a brand’s stories in order to actually find acceptance among the audience.

In the process, the brand is sometimes forced to assume a completely new identity especially for its online audience – divorcing it from the personality it has developed over years or decades and creating a completely different wave of confusion about the brand image in the process. In the worst of these cases, the brand’s identity is reduced to a caricature of itself. All of this continues in the name of social media engagement. Disturbingly, the likes, comments, or shares or retweets are assumed to quantify ‘active brand engagement’, which it clearly is not (a notable exception is cases when users visibly demonstrate high degree of brand evangelism by sharing all updates from a brand with their social network repeatedly and consistently).

Does this mean a storytelling-only approach to social media engagement is a bad idea? Unfortunately, the answer is yes for most brands, except an honorable handful. A few empirical studies give credence to the argument that the content strategies and status updates are just not working for brands’ audiences, and the latter respond by ‘hiding’ stories from their timelines or newsfeeds.

Despite its universally-acknowledged power and appeal, storytelling fails to work on a consistent basis because it is an inherently ‘inside out’ approach to a message structure that focuses unreasonable attention on the brand itself. As a brand indulges itself in telling its stories, it can put off a large number of consumers in many contexts and situations if not done right.

The test of how far a brand can succeed with a storytelling-only approach is to place it on a continuum of the social identity and attitudinal attachment its consumers feel about it. On one end of this continuum lie truly iconic brands, frequently with over a century of rich legacy, or young challenger brands that are attracting a legion of supporters, who can rightfully adopt storytelling as their primary approach. On the other extreme, many brands of low-involvement categories or those with high cognition demands from their consumers –such as confectionary, shampoo, enterprise storage – will find their audiences are in no mood to hear their ‘stories’. Other brands lie somewhere in between, but for a large majority, storytelling is useful only if administered in really small doses.

Ultimately, the limitations of storytelling are apparent the moment we recognize it as just one of the many ways to structure or execute a message appeal available to a marketer. Indeed, if the end-goal is to influence the consumer decision-making process, a constant reliance on telling a brand’s own story is intuitively a weaker option compared to other powerful appeals or execution styles that can show a brand’s distinct superiority over competitive brands, highlight user benefits, or demonstrating the role a brand can play for its customers. In the context of brand building, an overwhelming reliance on storytelling is akin to assembling an automobile with just a screwdriver in hand.

Of course, the risks of badly planned and executed social media engagement programs go well beyond those explicitly identified with storytelling. It can be shown that an excessive focus on building social media engagement can actually erode the existing brand equity, instead of adding to it.

From a brand’s perspective, the simple and universal test to judge any communication is to ask whether it contributes to creating or strengthening the brand awareness or its image. Social engagement as frequently practiced on Facebook and Twitter is ostensibly about raising the brand awareness, but the way the activities are carried out ends up eroding many of the favourable associations consumers hold about the brand, while simultaneously building some negative associations.

Far too many Twitter promotions or campaigns end up portraying the brands or their customers as opportunistic. Poorly conceived sales promotions have always been considered as one of the most potent ways to vaporize your brand’s equity – and nowhere is this maxim more clearly visible than in the Facebook or Twitter promotions that brands run in the name of engagement. By making engagement the front and center of a brand’s communications strategy with its online audiences, marketers end up doing a great disservice to their own brands.

The moot question therefore is whether social media engagement is equally a bad idea for brands? The answer this time is an emphatic no, provided we limit the scope of engagement strictly to a two-way interaction between a brand and its consumers. A brand’s presence on popular social platforms is a unique and highly valuable communications channel that must be used strategically to interact with its consumers – existing and potential. Simplistic and templatized engagement approaches can disregard the genuine information needs of existing and potential customers and damage the fragile relationship between a brand and its consumers, or worse, take this relationship in a direction away from where the brand wants it to go.

Regardless of their place on the attitudinal attachment/social identity continuum, a large number of brands can and must use social as a powerful synchronous channel of communications with their customers and meet their various information needs. A presence on Twitter or Facebook can therefore be useful to answer queries about product or service availability, usage instructions, ideal usage scenarios, service issues and finally the disposal of an EOL product – of both existing and potential consumers. It is important to note that here the focus has shifted from brand building to actually providing a ‘service’. Social media engagement now extends beyond ‘Promotion’ and overlaps with the ‘Product’ and the ‘Place’ of the marketing mix.

In conclusion, social media is an extremely potent tool in the hand of brand marketers. It has use that extends far beyond brand building, it can be integrated firmly within the marketing mix and can therefore help brand marketer enhance the overall effectiveness of marketing. However, in order to draw optimal benefits from social media and to use it effectively and efficiently, brand owners must know the depths of its weaknesses, while simultaneously avoiding getting unduly overawed by its strengths.

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