Last week, Gene Liebel, a managing partner at Huge, wrote a terrific piece for Mediaweek that took a skeptic’s view of engagement as the ‘metric du jour’ for success in digital projects. As someone who has a turnkey presentation titled “Engagement is the New Black,” I read Gene’s article with a decidedly vested interest. What was most interesting is that he doesn’t discount the importance of engagement; he simply doesn’t believe it is an accurate indicator of the ultimate metric of in-market success. He considers engagement more of a ‘side effect’ and offers very strong cautionary arguments for anyone who would make it the end goal.
Possibly the strongest point he makes–and one that’s not surprising coming from a User Experience expert–is how optimizing an e-commerce web site to make finding products easier will actually reduce page views and time on site, both of which are key measures of engagement. At the same time, that type of optimization will increase a site’s conversion rate dramatically as visitors find what they need more quickly. So even though engagement falls, sales increase–a powerful argument against making engagement your end goal. Liebel contends consumers rarely invest time ‘engaging’ with brands anyway; when consumers visit sites, they have specific, practical needs–whether that’s information or purchasing. Staying on a site longer does not necessarily correlate to deeper engagement–it could just indicate that consumers must dig deeper to accomplish what they want–a strong negative.
What he’s really arguing for–just like so many other leaders in the field today–is a better measure of value. In a difficult economy that continues to squeeze marketing budgets, we need to arm our client partners first with programs that work and then with solid proof that those programs work. As data points continue to improve (Google claims 85% of all media will be trackable by 2012), we will need new measures of our programs’ in-market effects. More importantly, we will need multi-dimensional measures; today’s socially-networked world of mass-channel opinion requires a new measure of the combined impact of both paid and earned media, and how that drives sales.
Sales may be the ultimate metric for brands, but accountability remains the ultimate metric for agencies.