Brand interest not outdone by brand engagement

The term “engaged audience” is may be misleading, particularly by those focusing primarily on digital marketing. Taken at face value, the term implies that a subset of a brand’s total audience – those who buy or operate the products and the people otherwise connected to the general concerns of the brand – is in a state of mental or physical activity with the brand. They’re thinking, asking, writing, wearing, tweeting, buying, telling, right? “Engaged audience” implies subset members are paying direct attention to the brand (dare I say, catching everything on the radar screen), observing, collecting information, and reacting to the brand.

And while I have no doubt that engaged audiences occur, I think we digital marketers gloss over some important nuances in our haste to examine other marketing communications functions of which audience engagement is a part.

Things you hope your audience is doing:

  • Observation:   See the product in context in a native environment and in organic situation or intentional placement. Imagine – grocery store shelf, home kitchen use, as a paid product placement in a movie. This creates context.
  • Collecting information:   Learn of others’ experiences with the branded product. Consider current status of the brand (new packaging, improved performance claim, sale pricing, new celebrity endorsement, recent buzz/PR, external implications or policy, etc.) to form next-step thoughts. Gather mental bits about the product’s use by others, their perceptions, potentially have own perceptions reinforced or openly questioned (which could stimulate a debate).
  • Reacting:   Take an action subsequent to observing and collecting brand information within one’s own accessible sphere (recognize that proximity creates variance in opportunities for impression (frequency) as well as availability). Synthesize data learned, then decide to buy, determine a use/application, make a mental note to mention to a well-informed friend, etc.

It may sound like I’m splitting hairs. Engagement, heightened brand interest, what’s the difference, eh? Engaged audiences have more skin in the game. And there are fewer of them than your boss cares to know about. Don’t start packing up your desk yet, though. There’s a lot of potential left in those with a heightened awareness of your brand.

I think it’s important to recognize that sustainable engagement (itself a misnomer, given the cyclical nature of human favor, but speaking relatively) isn’t necessarily illustrated by, for example, the number of blogaudience engagement word-of-mouth comments a brand receives or how often its content is shared across the interwebs. Good to know, but not absolutely definitive.

There are a vast number of consumers who don’t read blogs (or other online content), disfavor putting their thoughts into written words, never learned how to type, or aren’t on Twitter (heresy, I know). These people might lean toward traditional word of mouth at Little League or share a few personal thoughts at the conclusion of their call to Customer Service (must activity be positive in order to qualify for “engaged audience” status? Idea for future post). This may be where heightened interest gets a longer look.

Furthermore, the Creators, Conversationalists, Critics and others (read: Forrester Social Technographic study) have adopted an ever-evolving pattern of online behavior. Simply put, we run the risk of giving too much weight to likes, shares and retweets because of weaknesses regarding a) intention b) social influence and c) zero barrier to entry.

Social media activity doesn’t irrefutably tell brand managers about the person’s intent, motivation, or whether their activity was prompted by a personal desire to belong or be seen (or saw the RT as a self-serving way to achieve another end). Plus, a monkey could hit the RT button (humans are, quite possibly, lazier than some species of monkeys. That’s what I heard.).

Before throwing that tomato at me, take note: I’m not suggesting that there isn’t value in some of the things we’ve been measuring. There are certainly a bevy of tools with rapidly-growing functionality and a number of smart measurement people figuring out ways to connect dots to produce more meaningful and useful pictures. Neither am I suggesting all RT’ers are monkeys (I, myself, have RT’d. And I hate monkeys).

So what am I saying?

Heightened brand interest among real-world, non-digital ladder steppers is achieveable. (Deliver remarkable products in ways that best suit the customer.). Those people matter, and their deeply entrenched values and filtering systems matter. They may demonstrate their mindset in different ways, though. Is your brand capturing that at all? If they are, is it tucked in an isolated system somewhere gathering dust? Sure, it’s difficult to find it, and even more challenging to evaluate it in context with what you may see happen online. Give it a go. Then improve on your process.

The term “engaged audiences” should be used more judiciously when referring to a digitally-inclined audience subset. You might presume too much by skipping over the “heightened awareness” holders if social media indicators are your only source of data.

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© Internet Marketing, Branding, Content Marketing, Social Media – Cedar Rapids, IA 2014 - Heather Rast, Principal