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Tech Needs TV

When Brands Claim to “Engage” Online, Do They Really Engage Consumers?

Posted by Doug Garnett August - 22 - 2011 - Monday

Through the late 1990′s, the idea of “engaging” consumers became one holy grail of advertising. What agencies were seeking were ways to communicate with consumers as they “leaned forward” as opposed to “laying back” (e.g as couch potatoes).

And then, social media arrived. And the gentle idea of better engaging consumers with our advertising transformed into a movement seeking passionate consumer love affairs – and the emergence of Social Media’s claim to enable those affairs.

Is Online Brand Engagement a Myth?

Stop and look at that title. Because I just engaged in the same flavor of hyperbole that online advocates use to sell “engagement”. Because NO, I don’t think engagement is a “myth”. But “not a myth” is quite different from “passionate daily engagement”.

And that’s my point. It’s clearly a myth that consumers want nothing more than intensive, and continuous, online “engagement” with brands.

What’s Shocking is that Interpublic Just Claimed Brand Engagement is a Key Consumer Pastime in a Study Summation. Check out a study discussed in MediaPost. (Link here.)

According to MediaPost, the study concludes “Brand consideration has become a key pastime for over half of the population — 52% of our interviewees said they enjoy searching online for a wide range of brands and products.”

Every notice how often engagement claiming communication sneaks lies right past us? Look what they really said.

52% of interviewees said they enjoy searching online for brands and products.

In other words, SOMETIMES they search for brands and products online and when they do they enjoy it.

Which, obviously, means we can make a massive leap to brand consideration becoming a “key pastime” for these consumers. I don’t know about you, but a key pastime has to be quite a bit more interesting than wading through piles of online comments.

Did Interpublic Find Anything New? The first thing research should do is look to see if the behavior is new. But, this study draws broad conclusions without comparison with the old days – like 1999 or earlier.

For decades, purchase studies have shown that “recommendation from friends” was a key influence on around 40% of major purchases. And Consumer Reports used to make a neat non-profit profit doing nothing more than publish guides to help people make brand purchase choices.

Hmmm. That sounds like what people get from online. Is it possible (gasps of horror) that the web “merely” offers a new medium that better automates an activity we’ve always done? Of course it is. That’s what technology usually does.

And that leads to my final thought:

“This is Not the Engagement You’re Looking For”. Online advocates claim passionate love affairs with brands. But what the ad biz was seeking with “engagement” was merely the shift between passive viewing of advertising and active mental engagement with what’s being said and the impact it offers to the viewer. In other words, a realistic hope to have messages engage consumers more.

So let’s think about some typical consumer “engagement” activities. And ponder where they might fit on the brand passion meter while you’re at it:

Search for consumer or professional reviews of a product.
Compare a product with its competitors.
Watch the brand equivalent of dumb cat videos.
Go to a Facebook page for updates on a recall.
Check prices across multiple sites. (i.e. “shopping”)
Look for coupons.
Read brand content (if you’re really desperate).

I’m seeing a lot of interesting value to the consumer, but not a whole lot of passion creating activity here.

In Many Ways, SoMe Advocates Sound Quite Silly. Let me suggest a new variant on the old fortune cookie game. Anytime a SoMe advocate says “brand”, let’s substitute specific products or categories for “brand”.

Here are some samples from the study:

Furniture consideration have become a key pastime for over half of the population.
The more we can get consumers to participate with our soap in paid, earned and owned media, the more the suds will grow.
52% of our interviewees said they enjoy searching online for a wide range of nuts and bolts.

Seek to Engage Consumers – with Messages That Matter. Amidst all this, what’s really critical is that most messaging doesn’t matter to consumers. When is the last time your advertising said something important?

If you really want consumer to engage with you, there’s a sure solution: say something that matters.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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